Cave Drill at Neibaum/Coppola

Blending Wine Storage and Hospitality Presents Unique Challenges

Everyone agrees that wines love the dark, damp, cool, and still air of a cave. People, however, aren't as fond of shadowy, chilly, unventilated rooms.

But now that wineries and private collectors host tastings, concerts and even weddings in wine caves, designers, engineers and builders are faced with the challenge of creating an environment that is hospitable to both wines and people.

"When you add people to a wine cave," says Jeff Burgeson of TEP Engineering, "you increase the attention you need to pay to ventilation, drainage, fire safety, lighting, and many details, such as what type of grate is installed in the floor."

Burgeson says that the first thing to look at in a wine cave is how easily it drains any waste that is produced. Ideally, caves are built into a hillside with a two percent slope so that any waste that is produced drains toward the front of the cave.

"People will notice the grade of the floor but it is not significant. The alternative is having a flat floor and an angled trench but this adds to the cost," says Sash Williams of Williams Associates Engineering.

Fermentation creates heat and carbon dioxide which needs to be exhausted to maintain a cool temperature for the wines and also for the ambiance of the caves; an overwhelming musty smell can be off-putting to guests. The solution is to install fans at the portal and have sensors throughout the cave monitor and regulate the ventilation.

For example, Nordby Wine Caves integrated a sophisticated computer system at Porter Family Vineyards so that "in the event of dangerous levels of carbon dioxide being detected, four large variable-speed ventilation fans would be brought to full speed, replacing 100 percent of the air in less than 10 minutes," according to Into the Earth.

The evolution of wine caves from solely for wine storage to hospitality centers has raised concerns about fire safety; groups of people are in spaces with limited exits and ignition sources such as candles and cooking equipment are often present. In response, the California State Fire Marshal's office worked with the wine industry to develop minimum fire protection and safety standards for three categories of wine caves: (1) barrel storage only, (2) guided tours and tastings for a limited number of occupants and (3) hosted events for larger occupant loads.

Cheryl L. Domnitch, a fire protection engineer, reported in Wine Business Monthly that "Many California winery owners are voluntarily choosing to install fire protection systems to allow for future increase in flexibility of cave functions, even if initial plans are for barrel storage only."

Wine caves naturally have a certain air of mystery that can only come from being underground, however, people feel more comfortable when a little light is shed on the subject. As the Wall Street Journal stated in an article on wine caves, one winery "has invested heavily in lighting systems…to eliminate the dark, creepy look only a bat would love."

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