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5 places to tour wine caves while tasting in Wine Country

Some wineries have full production facilities in their underground caves.

With Earth Day 2022 coming up on April 22, against the backdrop of climate change and our hot, dry summers, perhaps you’re already looking for a cool, eco-friendly way to explore wineries in our area.

Some local wineries have the rare distinction of housing their entire production facilities underground. Two of them — Geyserville’s Robert Young Estate Winery and Rutherford’s Inglenook — are in the process of joining this underground pack with the goal of saving energy, preserving water, protecting production from fires and making better wine.

“The climate is changing, and we’re doing everything we can to face this new reality,” said Chris Phelps, associate winemaker of Inglenook. Phelps said that although most wine caves are used purely for aging wine, he predicts more wineries will be built in caves in the near future.

Robert Young winery’s first cave bored through the hillside slope of the Mayacamas Mountain ridge in 2000 and was designed to age wine. Today the winery is finalizing plans to expand the cave for production, with the start of excavation in the fall.

High prices for raw materials due to supply-chain problems made it as expensive, maybe even more expensive, to add an extension to a winery building versus adding an extension to the caves, said Karen Maley, general manager at Robert Young Estate Winery. That wasn’t the only factor.

“We also considered the long-term costs and environmental benefit of naturally cooler temperatures in the caves versus having to air condition barrels in a winery building,” Maley said. They also considered the risks of fires: Caves can better protect the wines compared to above-ground buildings if there is a fire.

Meanwhile, Inglenook’s new 22,000-square foot wine cave is in a hillside vineyard near the estate’s chateau. It’s expected to be up and running by harvest time.

“I see the genesis of choosing to go underground as threefold,” Phelps said. “First, there’s the conservation of energy since the interior of the winery doesn’t require heating or cooling as does an above-ground winery. Then there’s the advantage of minimal impact on the view at Inglenook. ... Last, there’s a significant financial incentive. Simply put, the square-foot cost of construction of a cave is far less than that of a conventional building.”

Carving into rock to create full production facilities, Robert Young and Inglenook are joining the ranks of Healdsburg’s Simoncini Vineyards, Geyserville’s Fritz Underground Winery and Napa’s Jarvis Estate.

Will Jarvis, president of Napa’s Jarvis Estate, said his winery was the first in the nation to have every aspect of winemaking occur in its underground cave.

“Being eco-friendly has always been a priority for us,” he said. “One of the reasons for the cave, aside from the winemaking benefits, was to minimize the footprint that would have been required to build the equivalent above-ground 45,000-square foot winery.”

The expense of the sizable cave was considered an investment in conservation and quality, Javis said.

“As for cost, founder William E. Jarvis liked to joke that he stopped counting after $20 million,” he said. “But he and wife Leticia’s goal was to make the best wines in the world, and having the entire production facility underground supported that vision. Once the fruit is harvested and brought into the production facility, it never sees the outside world again until it has been bottled, aged and sold.”

Toiling in a cave has its advantages said Dan Cuzzi, winemaker of Simoncini Vineyards.

“Temperature control is huge,” he said. “It’s every winemaker’s dream to have temperature control. I worked in a warehouse facility where we were spending a boat load of money on air conditioning. An underground facility is also more conservative with humidity, and it preserves water,” which is and will remain a valuable commmodity, he added.

The winemaker explained how the drain, a narrow strip that spans the length of the cave, collects run-off water which is later transported to the irrigation system.

Meanwhile at Fritz Underground Winery, the natural springs on the property and a gravity-flow design enable it to conserve water and energy. In a three-tiered subterranean system, hoses transport grapes from the crush pad into the cave’s fermenting tanks and then into barrels below.

The energy crisis of the 1970s inspired the late Arthur Fritz to be pragmatic about shortages.

“There was a realization that you had to be forward thinking if you wanted generational results,” said vintner Clay Fritz. “Energy mattered. Functionality mattered.”

New Fritz wine club members Jim and wife Suzanne Simpson of Long Beach took a tour of the cave and said they were impressed.

“God only knows how much it costs to bore into a mountain,” Jim said. “But there are definitely advantages. In Europe, so many are using caves. This is getting you back to Old-World methods.

Simpson said he likes the eco-friendly aspect of underground winemaking.

“You feel like you’re not hurting the Earth by doing something you like — wine tasting.”

Here are a handful of eco-friendly caves to check out.

Robert Young Estate Winery

Tours of the cave will be offered once the construction is completed in 2023. The Young family has been farming its ranch, passed down through six generations, for almost 165 years. The ranch includes a 648-panel solar installation that provides enough energy to power the entire 448-acre property. The winery, which produces roughly 6,000 cases a year, is best known for its flagship chardonnays, as well as its cabernet sauvignons and Bordeaux red blends. 5102 Red Winery Road, Geyserville. 707-431-4811, ryew.com

Fritz Underground Winery

A tour of the subterranean winery, at $40 per person, offers a glimpse of Fritz’s winemaking process 200 feet into the hillside in the Dry Creek Valley. By harnessing gravity to move its juice from the crush pad down to the tanks and barrels, the winery is saving energy by forgoing pumps, as well as protecting its wine quality from the detrimental effects of excessive pulsation and buffeting. The winery produces half a dozen varietals, with zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon garnering the most attention. 24691 Dutcher Creek Road, Cloverdale. 707-894-3389, fritzwinery.com

Simoncini Vineyards

The winery has two cave tour options: a wine tasting and cave tour for $45 per person or a five-course food and wine pairing ($125 per person) either in the cave or on its picnic grounds. With excavation beginning in 2006, it took Simoncini Vineyards six years to complete its cave. Today it has radiant heating built into the flooring, air monitors to keep a constant check on carbon dioxide levels and a picture window to showcase the rock wall, a blend of shale obsidian and quartz. Vintner Ken Simoncini said, “this is as green as it gets. No air conditioning, no motors going on, natural humidity. We practically put the winery in with a shoehorn. We were careful not to even take a tree out.”

The upscale cave has a lab, bottling line and a conference room with chandeliers throughout and Frank Sinatra jazz often playing in the background. The boutique winery produces roughly 2,100 cases a year and the winery is open by appointment only. 2303 W. Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg. 707-433-8811, simoncinivineyards.com

Inglenook

Cave tours will be offered once the cave is completed in the fall. Initially planted by Finnish sea captain Gustave Niebaum in 1879, Inglenook is a 1,700-acre estate with 235 planted acres. The new cave facility, will feature 120 remote-controlled fermentation tanks aligned with each organically farmed vineyard block. The complex design also includes 30 miles of wire, 6 miles of conduit, 1,000 cubic yards of low-carbon dioxide concrete and a separate room for white wine fermentation. In addition to Rubicon, its proprietary blend of red Bordeaux varieties, Inglenook is known for its cabernet sauvignon. Other wines produced are Blancaneaux, a blend of white Rhône varieties, sauvignon blanc and RC Reserve Syrah. Total annual production averages 25,000 to 30,000 9-liter cases. 1991 St Helena Highway, Rutherford. 707-968-1179, inglenook.com

Jarvis Estate

The cave tour, at $130 per person and by appointment only, features a walk through the winery’s subterranean production facility followed by a tasting of Jarvis wines. Founded in 1990, the winery tunneled into the Vaca Mountains and the facility features a waterfall from a natural spring. The last chamber of the cave is big enough to contain two full basketball courts, allowing large fermentation tanks to be fully concealed. Jarvis is best known for its cabernet sauvignon and its chardonnay. 2970 Monticello Road, Napa. 707-255-5280, jarviswines.com

You can reach wine writer Peg Melnik at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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