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."

California wine caves go back to the 1870s, when Chinese laborers dug the caves for the Schramsberg winery, creating long, chiseled passages that draw thousands of visitors each year.

The modern caving era began in the early 1970s when Alf Burtleson, pioneer of modern wine caves in California, began rehabbing another set of old caves at the Beringer winery. In the early 1980s, Burtleson dug the first new wine cave in the valley, for the Far Niente Winery, and before long the underground movement caught on.

Cave construction is overseen by the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health Mining and Tunneling Unit, starting with an onsite safety review before the job starts and permits are issued. Over the past five years, 81 cave permits have been issued, said Dean Fryer, Cal-OSHA spokesman.

Regulations require that all ground above tunnels be supported. Inspectors _ as well as geotechnical experts hired by tunneling contractors _ look at the strength of the ground being tunneled into as well as the shape of the tunnel and the thickness of the shotcrete lining to determine if the structure is sound, a key concern in earthquake country.

The round, or arched, tunnel design used at CADE, and most wine caves, is very strong because it distributes the weight around the cave, rather than putting all the pressure on the ceiling, Fryer said.

These days, caves can be simple storage spots or vast underground caverns, such as the five-level cave _ equal to an 18-story building _ under construction at Palmaz Vineyards in Napa. The six-year project, expected to be completed next year, will house the winery plus a water treatment plant and features a 55-foot tall and 75-foot wide dome.

How'd they decide to build a cave that big?

"It was not planned," says winery owner Amalia Palmaz with a laugh. "It happened this way. We were thinking of building a small winery. We wanted it to be underground."

One thing led to another, resulting in "an amazing project," says Glen Ragsdale, the cave builder on the Palmaz project.

Big caves are one trend. Another is small, personal caves, the kind of thing a well-to-do wine connoisseur can tuck into a spacious backyard.

Curry is working on an 1,100-square-foot cave for a pinot noir fan who is hiring a cave lighting specialist _ yes, there are cave lighting specialists _ to help give his space a finished look.

Then, jokes Curry, "he's going to invite his friends over, lock the door and they're going to get drunk and smoke cigars."

Curry, who with his wife, Lois, bought the Alf Burtleson Construction company in 2002, has 33 years experience digging tunnels, including some for the New York and Atlanta subway systems.

Building wine caves poses the same type of engineering and design problems.

But they don't hold a lot of champagne receptions in subway stations.

"We are essentially tunneling contractors," Curry says. "We have all the equipment, all the know-how to build tunnels. At the end of the day, they turn into wine caves."


On the Net: http://www.plumpjack.com


© 2006 The Associated Press