Cave Drill at Neibaum/Coppola

The History of Wine Caves: From Humble to Humongous

It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the cool, damp environment found underground is a great place for storing and aging wine; archaeologists have unearthed jugs with wine residue from under buildings which are several thousand years old. And the Romans found a secondary purpose for their catacombs: wine storage.

In the late 1800's, European immigrants brought their wine making expertise as well as their wine cave construction experience to the Napa Valley region. Jacob Schram, a German immigrant who founded Schramsberg Vineyards in 1862, hired Chinese laborers who had built the transcontinental railroad to dig his wine caves. Their pick-and-shovel skills and knowledge of tunneling techniques were ideally suited to the task. During this period of time, Beringer Vineyards also used Chinese labor to tunnel through the volcanic rock constructing at least 12 wine storage caves beneath their vineyards near St. Helena.

However, however due to Prohibition, there was no wine cave construction in California in the 20th century until 1981. The completion of Niente Winery wine caves that year "triggered a wave of digging as winery owners learned that modern technologies had made it cheaper to tunnel a cave than to erect a climate-controlled warehouse," as Wine Spectator magazine reported. And once collectors saw how wine caves efficiently preserved their valuable wines and created unique spaces for hosting tastings or events, they also added to the demand for wine cave construction.

Recently, many of the wine caves that have been built incorporate such sophisticated designs and are so large, up to 100,000 square feet, that calling these over-the-top spaces "caves" seems like a misnomer. Wine News reports that "a growing number of wineries are constructing entire winemaking facilities underground, not just for aging barrels and bottles, but as office, tasting rooms, banqueting halls, laboratories, and bottling lines. 'Wine cave envy' may be surpassing Wine Spectator ratings."

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