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.”