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Wine Cave History - An Introduction

Wine caves have a long history, extending back to the days of the Roman Empire - and perhaps even longer..  We do know the Romans would store their wine in the conveniently located catacombs..  The catacombs, being underground and protected from the harsh environment, preserved the wine and let it age gently..  The first wine caves in France were the abandoned crayeres which were limestone excavation sites for building blocks left behind by the Romans.  From these early discoveries it was only a short step to dig caves for the specific purpose of storing and aging wines.  Caves were dug throughout Europe.  Once such cave, located in Hungry, now serves as a restaurant.  In fact, wine caves are found all over the world including the Napa Valley and Sonoma County.  Caves are also now found in Central California and Oregon.  Napa Valley's first wine caves are located at Schrambergs and Beringer Vineyards.  These caves were constructed in the late 1800's using Chinese workers who had just come off the job of constructing the famous transcontinental railroad.  They were dug by pick and shovel.  The loose dirt was carried out in woven baskets.  You can find many abandoned wine caves throughout the hills of the Napa Valley.  With prohibition, wine cave and winery construction came to a halt in the Napa Valley.  It wasn't until 1980 that another wine cave was constructed in Napa Valley built by the Far Niente Winery.  Innovative construction methods came into play, making the work somewhat easier than digging a tunnel with pick and axe.  Using an English mining machine called a roadheader, cave engineers could construct larger and longer tunnels in shorter periods of time.  Tunnel walls were coated with shotcrete and other substances making the tunnels water tight.  In addition, concrete floors with drainage pipes made the caves almost livable.  The first wine caves were merely tunnels dug into the earth - dusty tunnels with exposed bare rock - not much different from a gold mine tunnel.  However, inventiveness and artistic endeavor created the desire for a wine cave that had class as well as function.  Aesthetics became an important part of wine caves.  Soon the sides of the tunnels were coated with shotcrete and floors paved with concrete.  Fancy rooms and galleries were designed and built including underground libraries and dining rooms.  Perhaps, it won't be long before someone decides to build a home in a wine cave.

With prohibition, winery construction in the United States came to a halt, wine caves included.  It wasn't until the mid-1960's that a new winery in Napa Valley was constructed - The Robert Mondavi Winery near Oakville.  Wine cave construction resumed in the 1970's with the renovation of the Beringer Winery caves.  The first new wine cave construction in California for over 100 years was the 60-foot tunnel at Far Niente  Since then wine cave construction has increased, with caves being constructed in many of California's winemaking regions as well as in other states.