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Wine caves vault to popularity as cool hangouts

Posted: Sunday, August 24, 2003

CALISTOGA, Calif. In a chill, dark hollow of rough-hewn rock, flickering candles cast shadows over the old cave walls and across the faces of the dozen or so people standing in silence.

A drifting poltergeist would feel right at home here, but the only traces of the spirit world are the fermented kind. These are the magnificent caverns of the Schramsberg vineyards, a popular stop on the trendy cave-crawling circuit.

Things are happening beneath the surface of wine country as caves catch on, a hot spot for storage and a cool place to hang out.

''Wine caves are sexy,'' says Scott W. Lewis, an engineering geologist who has worked on several of the scores of caves carved under California wineries over the past decade.

Or as one Schramsberg visitor, Laura Zaccaria, put it with a mischievous grin, ''It's the gentleman's spelunking.''

The Schramsberg caves were begun in the late 19th century under the direction of Napa Valley pioneer Jacob Schram, dug by Chinese laborers who used picks to chip away at the rock.

Things go a bit faster in the 21st century. A machine known as a ''roadheader'' slices through rock with forceful efficiency.

Building a cave is expensive estimates start at around $1 million but going underground allows wineries to expand without using up potential vineyard land, and caves are suited to the hilly terrain common to premium vineyards.

Winemakers like caves because they provide cool storage without air conditioning and with a natural humidity that reduces evaporation. For red wine, the difference is about one gallon a barrel lost per year vs. three gallons, says Lewis, who works with Northern California-based Condor Earth Technologies Inc. Storage is only half the story; today's caves go well beyond wine warehouses, incorporating everything from streams to streamlined kitchens.

At Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, a Foucault pendulum is suspended over a quartzite floor. Powered by an electromagnet and the movement of the Earth, the pendulum appears to move as the planet rotates. ''In a cave, the way we tell time on the outside is not available,'' explains owner Warren Winiarski. ''That gives us our metaphor for time.''

Winiarski, maker of the cabernet sauvignon that beat some noble French vintages at a famous Paris taste test in 1976, says the winery went to caves for a simple reason: ''We ran out of room on the ground.''

At the Benziger Winery in Sonoma County, family members were about to put up a new building to ease their growing pains when they hit on the idea of a cave, says Joe Benziger.

''It's a perfect place to settle our wine,'' he says. Then there's the tourist bonus: ''You take them into the cave. If they don't leave with a bottle of wine, we're doing something wrong.''

On a hot day at Benziger's Sonoma County winery, it's easy to see the appeal of wine country's underground movement. Step through the portal and the temperature plummets from somewhere around 100 degrees to a balmy 60, courtesy of nature.

Over at Schramsberg, the cellars begun as a modest storage room now run almost two miles long, storing up to 2 million bottles at a time.

Through the rocky passageways, the bottles gleam greenly, their round bottoms looking like a very superior kind of wall tile.

Swags of lichen hanging from the ceiling add a gothic touch.

''It's magical,'' says Jamie Davies, whose family took over Schramsberg in the 1960s. ''You're really in a cave and it's eerie and you see all these bottles lined up and they glitter in that low light.''

To Davies, the caves ''clue you in to something bigger than yourself. It tells us that we can do things very simply and well.''

On the Net:

http://www.schramsberg.com

http://www.condorearth.com/wine(underscore)cave.html

http://www.cask23.com/index-flash.htm

http://www.benziger.com



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