January 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines

Subterranean Wineries: advantages of going underground

by Paul Franson
Subterranean Wineries: advantages of going underground
The owners of Jarvis did not want their new winery to disturb the sylvan beauty of its setting in Napa's Vaca Mountains. There's an interior waterfall, as well.
Caves have long been recognized as the ideal environments for aging and storing wine, but until William Jarvis built his whole winery underground, few vintners considered the advantages of constructing their winemaking facilities in caves, too.

The cool year-round temperature underground is the major appeal for aging, but can also bring benefits during the initial processing of grapes. A major justification for putting a winery underground may be to hide it from view, too, but both observers and owners agree that a subterranean winery generates intense interest among visitors--and potential customers.

Jarvis: Underground Pioneer

Of all the sights in Napa Valley, few can compare with the underground winery built by William and Leticia Jarvis in the Vaca Mountains east of Napa. Though it admits few visitors, it awes everyone who tours the out-of-the-way property.

Contemplating a new winery in 1990, the former Silicon Valley engineer needed a place to ferment as well as age his wines. He recognized that having fermentation tanks out in the open--often in the sunshine itself--was neither ideal for maintaining the proper temperature during fermentation nor economical for cooling.

In addition, Jarvis' property lies in largely unspoiled countryside, and he and his wife didn't want to spoil the natural beauty of the area with large stainless steel tanks.

He admits, however, "I wanted to have it all underground, and I was willing to pay what it took."

Putting tanks underground required chambers much larger than the typical 12-foot by 12-foot tunnels that had been previously excavated for barrel aging. Fortunately, the timing was good, for geotechnical engineers at the University of California had just made great progress in computer calculations for large underground caves, work initiated for large underground spaces for testing nuclear bombs.

The calculations were required for safety and structural considerations, since the cave must support the whole mountain above it without fear of collapse, and all cross-sections are parabolic, which better support weight than half circles. The necessary computer modeling itself had also just become practical due to higher speed computers. As it was, it took more than two months of all-night calculations by UC Berkeley's most powerful computer to model the largest underground chambers and prove that they could be tunneled safely.

The site is ancient ash from an extinct volcano in Sonoma County; the 400 ft. of ash has been compressed so that it is almost like limestone, the perfect medium for drilling a cave. There's also some magma and lava, which slowed the drills. A few surprises occurred during drilling. The cave was initially planned to turn left from the entrance, but when the drillers encountered a large pocket of sand, unsuitable for tunneling, they turned right instead.

Subterranean Wineries: advantages of going underground
William and Leticia Jarvis were more than willing to pay the price for their 45,000-square-foot underground winery, which is tunneled into compressed volcanic ash.
The primary tunnel is arranged in a circle with other caves emanating from and through it. Altogether, the underground space is 45,000 square feet. The fermentation gallery is 18 ft. high and 26 ft. wide, and each tank has an exhaust duct for removing carbon dioxide during fermentation, though the cave also slopes toward an exit, since C02 is heavier than air, and settles downhill.

The largest chamber in the underground complex seems as big as a basketball court, with an arching ceiling almost 40 ft. high and unsupported by columns. It is used for storage and rare wine club functions, as is another large room containing numerous giant geodes.

Gregg Korbin led the engineering geotechnical team at UC that performed the calculation, with the help of Tor Brekke, and the geotechnic engineering included work by Jon Kaneshiro of Palo Alto. Many others contributed to the project. Architect S. Scott Smith of Sasaki Associates in San Francisco developed the concept of the circular tunnels. The civil engineers included Dick Dokken of Dokken Engineering in Rancho Cordova, and Bill Phillips of Summit Engineering in Santa Rosa, and cave excavation was by Bill Ley of Ley construction of Lakeport and Alf Burtleson of Burtleson Construction in Angwin. Scott Lewis of Condor in Sonora was the geologist.

Jarvis also acknowledges the artisans who created the cast bronze doors; the electrical engineers who planned the interior communications network; mechanical engineers and others. He even needed a hydraulic engineer to plan the utilization of the little underground stream discovered during the tunneling to serve as a source of humidity in the cave, something very desirable for barrel aging wine. The stream is cycled through an artificial but attractive small waterfall to serve this purpose.

The low and controlled lighting eliminates ultraviolet rays, which Jarvis believes deteriorate wines. Now, with 10 years experience in underground winemaking, Jarvis says that the single best feature of the cave is still the constant temperature and high humidity. He claims that it is more and more apparent that these factors have led to a higher quality wine than he could have made above ground.

The fact that the contractors used excavation equipment that could tunnel in a circle helped ensure that no part of the cave is more than 200 feet from winemaker Dimitri Tschelistcheff, his laboratory and office. This has led to improved attention, quality control and error-free production that Jarvis believes couldn't have been achieved otherwise. Of course, having a cool environment without air conditioning is a real cost-saving and ecological benefit. Ironically, however, he additionally chills one underground area for controlling the temperature of Chardonnay being fermented in barrels.

Staglins' Cave Placated Neighbors

Unlike Jarvis, Shari and Garen Staglin hid their whole winery, Staglin Family Vineyards, in a cave to satisfy concerns from neighbors about the impact of their proposed winery.

It was expensive for the Staglins to build the winery underground, particularly as their plans changed midstream, but it did pay more dividends than the savings in the costs of utilities--especially in its uniqueness.

The Staglins bought their Rutherford Bench vineyards in 1985, then added the adjoining hillside in 1987. In 1993, they moved to the site and like many vineyard owners, started making wines. They had the fruit processed at four different custom crush facilities, but dreamed of building their own winery on the 62-acre property.

Subterranean Wineries: advantages of going underground
Staglin Family Vineyards was installed underground in Napa Valley's Rutherford in response to neighbors' objections to a planned conventional winery.
Photo: Paul Franson
In 1989, they applied for a permit to construct a winery building and aging caves, and it was turned down. A major reason for the denial was objections from neighbors, who felt a winery was too obtrusive.

In 1992, however, as they were pondering their next step, legendary winemaker André Tschelistcheff, who had formerly used grapes from the property, suggested, "Why not build the winery in a cave?" After consulting experts, they went ahead, and eventually received approval for the project.

Construction of the cave began before final plans for the winery were made, however. Originally, they were going to crush and ferment in a cut-and-cover facility adjoining the front of the caves. "Putting the tanks inside the actual cave, under the hill, was really an afterthought," Shari Staglin admits.

That raised new issues. Most caves in Napa Valley have 13-ft. bores, though passages of 16 ft. like those in the main tubes at Staglin aren't uncommon. To put a whole winery underground, however, space was needed for a destemmer/crusher, press, fermenting tanks for red wines and storage and blending tanks as well. They needed a room 30 feet high, 33 feet wide and 100 feet long, and as it was, had to order special rectangular tanks to be more space efficient.

The cave contractor, Magorian Mine Services of Foresthill, hadn't dug such a space, so the Staglins hired a geotechnical engineer, Scott Lewis of Condor Earth Technologies, Inc. in Sonora, to determine that the site was safe, especially after a critic asserted that is was on an earthquake fault. It wasn't, and the cave sustained no shifting in the 5.2 magnitude earthquake of November 2000.

Modifications to create the big room certainly increased the cost. Shari Staglin says the initial estimate was $45 per lineal foot of space, and "it was much more" is all she will reveal. She adds, however, that it would have cost more to construct a surface building to their high standards.

The cave now totals a little more than 24,000 square feet. The configuration is five tunnels crossed by three used for the aging of wine in barrels, with some space also provided for marketing functions and the winery's library of older wines dating back to 1986.

In building the space, the winery had to add ventilation to ensure removal of carbon dioxide and other gasses during tank and barrel fermentation, and the Staglins ensured a much higher level of lighting than found in some caves, since all operations occur underground. That lighting uses high efficiency halogen and mercury vapor lamps.

The cave maintains a constant temperature around 61° and 80% humidity, but some years, Chardonnay is kept at 55° in a refrigerated, separate area of the caves to allow longer barrel aging.

The Staglins also decided to incorporate the winemaker's office inside the cave. The front part of the cave where papers are filed and case goods are stored is kept drier by dehumidifiers. Soundproofing like that found on ships reduces noise from the fans, and a berm of cave tailings further reduces noise, as well as making the winery doors almost invisible.

Subterranean Wineries: advantages of going underground
This cool photo evokes the natural climate control within Palmaz' five-story underground fermentation dome, where grapes enter at the top and reach the bottom by gravity flow.
Palmaz--18 Stories Underground

The Staglins' underground winery is functional and attractive, but relatively modest at 24,000 square feet, while Jarvis is awe-inspiring and twice as big. Nothing, however, can prepare the visitor for Palmaz Vineyards' 100,000 sq.-ft. underground winery, the largest in Napa Valley.

It stretches the equivalent of 18 stories from top to bottom underground, though that figure is a bit misleading. It's fundamentally four levels, each with separate entrances, but one "level" is a five-story high dome. The components are offset and two are separated by seven equivalent floors, but that can't detract from the scale.

The winery is cut into a hillside east of Napa and just under Mount George, which separates Napa Valley from the Central Valley. It's on 600 acres owned by Dr. Julio Palmaz and his wife Amalia. A native of Argentina, Palmaz is an interventional radiologist and researcher who studied at UC Davis, where he heightened his interest in wine. Palmaz developed the heart stent used to open arteries clogged by cholesterol, and his innovation and attention to sanitation are apparent throughout the facility.

In 1978, the Palmazes came to Napa Valley, and in 1996, they bought the forgotten Cedar Knoll winery founded in 1881 by one of Napa Valley's pioneer winemakers, Henry Hagen. During that era, Cedar Knoll was one of Napa's premier wineries and its wines were renowned, but while the vineyards survived the phylloxera infestation in the 1890s, Prohibition was fatal. The winery fell into disrepair and the vineyards were abandoned for nearly 80 years.

The Palmazes restored the old mansion and the stone winery while planning the new vineyards and winery. Construction began in It turned into quite a project, Amalia Palmaz recalls. "It wasn't our intention to make it this large. It just evolved," she says. The winery is still not finished. It should open to the public on a very limited scale next year. The cave is being built by Angwin-based Glen Ragsdale Underground Associates.

Though dug in favorable soil, the scope of the cave made construction imposing, especially that of the giant underground fermentation dome. The dome is the world's largest underground reinforced structure.

"The challenge for this project was that it is a very large span in weak rock with shallow cover," says Sarah C. Holtz, a senior engineer with Jacobs Associates, the San Francisco-based firm overseeing the project. The cave dome is 54 ft. high by 72 ft. wide in soft lahar flow rock. It consists of fresh andesite boulders in a matrix of highly weathered rhyolite. The dome is supported by 16-ft.-long, 1-in. diameter thread steel rods and a shotcrete lining reinforced with welded wire fabric. The dome ceiling was finished with hand trowels to permit movies to be projected on it and epoxy coated so it can be pressure cleaned.

The floors are tile, and ubiquitous drains allow cleaning. All water is recycled in an underground water-treatment plant to comply with strict conservation guidelines.

The winery maintains a total gravity flow. Grapes arrive on the top level in small bins, then pass from the destemmer through a long sorting table manned by six people, then drop to one of 23 fermentation tanks on a rotating carousel 18 ft. above the floor. Below them are the press and blending and storage tanks on the bottom floor of the dome, with tunnels used for first-year barrel storage radiating like spokes to an outer circular tunnel.

A large industrial elevator that can contain a squat portable tank can be used to move wine as well as other loads to a lower level where the wine is aged a second year. All barrels are stored one-high on stainless racks; the only wood in the winery is the barrels, as a precaution against TCA.

The caves are designed with a slight slope for evacuating carbon dioxide, but the cave also contains an automatic back-up system, which hasn't triggered after three vintages.

There's also a separate arm of the cave with refrigeration to ferment Chardonnay in barrels.

The top floor includes offices with windows drilled through the rock, a tasting room, lab and offices, and the facility also includes a bottling line, passenger and freight elevators. The winery has a permit for 14,000 cases (35,000 gallons) of wine per year.

These three vintners chose to build their wineries in caves for both practical and esthetic reasons. Their success--albeit at a cost--is likely to encourage others to follow.
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