Wine Caves

Move over Bats, Here Comes the Vino

We had a root cellar in my home as a child; it kept all the fruits and vegetables cool throughout the humid summers and kept apples fresh all snowy winter long.  Not many of us have these miniature caves in our homes today but the modern day wine cellar grew out of cave storage history.

Many wineries in California have caves, but it is only in recent years that they have become as much a part of the tasting tour as a visit to the barrel room or a tour of the vineyard.  I have been in a few caves for lavish evening dinners and receptions; the atmosphere and design is unique to every venue, but with echoing voices and vaulted labyrinths lit by candles the experience of cave dwelling for an evening can be somewhat primordial.

The stable cool temperature, high humidity, low levels of light found in underground facilities naturally provide ideal conditions for aging wine. And caves rarely cost more to construct than a comparable above-ground structure.

The average temperature of a wine cave is around 55° F. to 60° F.  Cool temperatures allow for prolonged aging of delicate wines.  Wine caves maintain a constant 90% humidity which prevents wine evaporation during aging.  In hot dry aging environments like parts of California limiting wine evaporation while it is aging improved the quality and the taste of the wine.

The history of caves as wine storage dates back 7000 years.  An archeologist was excavating a site in Iran and found wine residue in bottles stored in the earthen structure.  In Rome wine was supposedly stored in the catacombs.  There are over 250 chalk pits all over France that were dug by the Romans 1800 years ago that still house some of the finest wine and champagne from that country.

In California the volcanic rock base, which is the most common geology, needs to be drilled out.  In Napa and Sonoma many of the Chinese immigrant laborers who build the railways also build the early wine caves, and they don’t look much different than a gold mine you might see in the Sierras.  In places with softer soil, like Oregon, the earth is excavated, then as concrete holding room is built in the hole and covered back up with the removed earth.

So are you thinking you might like to have a cave in your own back yard?  You do need a hill to start with and it must be surveyed to make sure it can support a cave.  The first tunnel is excavated and then covered with a layer of sprayed concrete called Shotcrete; it hardens into a stippled shell.  To form the other tunnels a machine called a roadheader cuts a circular path through earth or rock.  Structural support is imperative so the work is slow and precise.  A few feet of earth is dug out at a time and then the area is sprayed with the concrete. There are companies that will design and build wine caves for the home owner.  Hosting a dinner party in your own personal wine cave is certainly different than having a backyard BBQ!


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