Underground Caves Catching on in Napa

The Associated Press
Saturday, October 7, 2006; 8:32 PM

ANGWIN, Calif. -- Jim Curry kneels on a Napa Valley hillside and uses a work-roughened finger to draw a line in the mocha-colored dirt. This, he says, is where the caves of the new CADE Winery will begin. And that _ roughing in a few more slashing strokes _ is what they'll look like when his crew is done.

Behind him, a space-monster of a machine is turning Curry's dusty blueprint into reality, eating a hole in the side of the hill with the single-minded focus of a feeding shark.

Nature didn't provide the Napa Valley with the dark, atmospheric caves of the Old World, where fine wines have traditionally aged in the damp, cool darkness.

Not a problem. Teams of cave men like Curry and his crew stand ready to unearth a solution.

"It's fun," says Curry, "because every one is different. So every one of them is a different challenge."

Design is the challenge of the CADE Winery, the latest project from the PlumpJack venture _ which includes bars, restaurants, a winery, resorts and clothing stores _ founded by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. The caves have been designed to mimic the shape of PlumpJack's shield motif, a graceful design but one that means drilling on a curve which is a tricky business since you can't see through dirt.

To deal with this problem, Curry's team uses lasers to survey the edges of the tunnel. The digging is done by a "roadheader," an English mining machine that uses a big, drill-like head to bite into the ground.

Dirt at the CADE winery is mostly volcanic ash, and digging was relatively smooth one recent sunny morning, except for a few shrieks when the roadheader hit a lump of something hard. After the digging, shotcrete, a process in which pressurized concrete is shot onto a surface, is used to form the walls.

Like PlumpJack _ adapted from the name Queen Elizabeth gave Shakespeare's portly Falstaff _ CADE is another chip off the old Bard, coming from a Shakespearian term for barrel or cask. The winery is scheduled to be complete by summer 2008, with the caves finished by next spring. Its first release, the 2006 sauvignon blanc, comes out next spring.

New wineries have sparked environmental and other opposition in wine country as of late. CADE's planners have aimed to reduce the environmental impact of their project. Caves fit into that philosophy, says CADE partner John Conover.

There's no need for heating or cooling since caves maintain a constant temperature of about 60 degrees and they're humid, so wine doesn't evaporate out of the barrels. Beyond that, they save valuable vineyard space.

"Having caves really fits into minimizing the footprint on the property and utilizing what Mother Nature has given us on this hillside," Conover says. "It's the right thing to do."

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