The History of California Wine Caves
Once the Union Pacific Transcontinental Railroad tunnels and grades over the Sierra Nevada Mountains were completed, California had an unemployed workforce of skilled Chinese laborers. Jacob Schram of Schramsberg Vineyards, near Canistoga, and then Beringer Vineyards near St. Helena, saw the potential of using highly trained tunnel diggers to create man-made caves for their wine storage underneath their vineyards.
Why Underground Caves?
Caves built under the vineyards in California can protect wines with naturally occurring humidity of 70-90 percent, this is the typical cave environment. Caves also have a constant optimal temperature for wine’s best storage of 58 degrees F. Plus the conditions in underground caves are cost efficient because they reduce the amount of wine barrel evaporation by about 1 gallon per barrel per year.
Wine country prioritizes their expensive land for vineyard crops of grapes. Storage warehouses located above ground take up valuable crop land, plus storage facilities need energy to regulated heat, cold, humidity, and other constant environment controls, which is an additional expense that isn’t needed with caves built beneath the vineyards.
Vineyard Caves with Multiple Purposes
Constructed wine caves can range in size, smaller in weak rock, but some, like the ones found in Sonoma, CA. They are 85 feet wide and 50 feet high, to accommodate rows upon rows, and stacks of wine barrels on pallets.
Cave interiors can be simple, or complex with labyrinth type floor plans, depending on excavation conditions. In addition to aging and storage of wine casks, vineyard owners often use part of their caves for elegant tasting rooms, gift shops and even for elaborate private dining venues attended by talented chefs, wine pairings and white glove service.
Alf Burtleson, an engineering expert based in St. Helena, began major tunnel excavation and construction under private wineries in 2000. There are 700 feet of tunnel running beneath the vineyards, the family home and tennis courts at Rutherford’s private estates.
On Howell Mountain, just above Napa Valley, Randy and Lori Dunn have created an enchanting space within their underground vineyard caves where they hold dinners for 20 guests, at a long table lit in splendor by candle-light.
Napa Valley is often called Vineyard country and guests can tour many of the wonders of the local vineyard faire with wine and cheese tastings, and private dining invitations. Many Napa Wineries use local produce and simple foods. Their menus are delicious and memorable, from grilled Caesar salads, roasted tomato soup, and herb-marinated chicken. Berries are grown everywhere in Napa Valley so be prepared for sumptuous desserts like their Lemon Blueberry Bundt Cake.