Winter is the perfect time to visit the wineries of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys—summer's intense heat has passed, and many would-be winetasters are crowding the ski slopes. Dozens of wineries offer an additional perk: wine cave tours.
A large number of wineries are digging caves, which are ideal for aging wine because they provide high humidity (which means less wine evaporates as it ages) as well as constant cool temperatures.
The practice is ancient—Romans used abandoned quarries and catacombs as aging caves—but the wine country's modern grottos are not mere holes in the ground. See for yourself with this tasting of wineries that open their cave doors to visitors. If there is a fee for the tour, a tasting is included. A free tour means you'll have to stop at the tasting room on your own to savor a sip.
BENZIGER FAMILY WINERY Sip fumé blanc or estate cabernet sauvignon while you tour a 27,000 square-foot cave that's decked out with Italian frosted Scavo glass chandeliers and Belgian carpets under arching terra cotta colored walls. Tours are offered daily and cost $10 per person. 1883 London Ranch Rd., Glen Ellen. (888) 490-2739, www.benziger.com.
BERINGER In 1873, the Beringer brothers hired 100 Chinese laborers to dig three 1,200-foot long tunnels with pick axes and shovels. Working by candlelight, the workers spent nearly six years to complete the caves. Tours are offered daily and cost from $10 to $35. 2000 Main St., St. Helena. (707) 963-8989, www.beringer.com.
CLOS PEGASE Carved in a rock knoll in the center of the estate, a 20,000 square-foot cave features the Cave Theater, which seats up to 350 people and is used for private wine club events, like the Napa Valley Symphony performance at the Harvest Bacchanal. On January 7 and 8, 2006, the Cave Theater will be open to the public for Carols in the Caves, an improvised performance that uses unusual instruments such as dulcimers, psalteries, and concertinas. 1060 Dunaweal Ln., Calistoga. (707) 942-4981, www.clospegase.com.
CUVAISON Torch-like sconces, hurricane lamps, and candles illuminate 3,000 barrels of aging wine, exposed rock walls, and a dining room that seats 120 and is used for events like Club Cuvaison's wine education dinners. Tours are by appointment and offered Monday through Saturday. $15 per person. 4550 Silverado Trail North, Calistoga. (707) 942-6266, www.cuvaison.com.
DEL DOTTO VINEYARDS Located beneath the historic Hedgeside Distillery Building, this man-made grotto is one of the original six hand-dug caves in Napa Valley. Taste wines from each of the winery's different types of aging barrels, such as Missouri oak, Virginia oak, Troncais French oak, and Nevers French oak. Tours are offered daily and cost $40 per person. 1055 Atlas Peak Rd., Napa. (707) 256-3332, www.deldottovineyards.com.
FAR NIENTE The first aging caves in North America were built in the 1800s, but when prohibition stemmed the flow of wine, tunneling was left to the gophers. In 1980, Gil Nickel bought Far Niente Winery, dug a small underground room, and sparked a trend and a new industry in the wine country. Taste chardonnay, cabernet, and more from 2,500 French oak barrels now stored in the cave. Tours are by appointment and cost $40 per person. 1350 Acacia Dr., Oakville. (707) 944-2861, www.farniente.com.
KUNDE ESTATE WINERY & VINEYARDS Wander through tunnels carved into 5 million year-old volcanic rock and see the Cave Club VIP dining room that sits 175 feet below the Kinneybrook Chardonnay vineyard. Free tours are offered every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. 10155 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood. (707) 833-5501, www.kunde.com.
PINE RIDGE WINERY Head 100 feet underground and sample future releases directly from more than 4,400 French oak barrels of Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District Cabernet, and others. Or just sit at the cave entrance and sip everything from barrel samples to current release, bottle-aged reserve wines. Tours are offered by appointment and cost $30 per person. 5901 Silverado Trail, Napa. (800) 575-9777, www.pineridgewinery.com.
PRIDE MOUNTAIN VINEYARDS This family-owned winery sits on land that first produced grapes in 1869. The slate-gray tunnels wind through the clay hill behind the winery and are home to 2,400 barrels of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and chardonnay. Tours are by appointment. 9155 St. Helena Rd., Santa Rosa. (707) 963-4949, www.pridewines.com.
RUTHERFORD HILL WINERY This mile-long, hillside cave system houses 8,000 French and American oak barrels in which all of the winery's vintages are matured, including their zinfandel port, merlot, and sangiovese. Tours are offered daily and cost $10 per person. 200 Rutherford Hill Rd., Rutherford. (707) 963-1871, www.rutherfordhill.com.
For information about other wineries that offer cave tours, contact the Napa Valley Conference & Visitors Bureau at (707) 226-7459 or check out www.napavalley.com. For wineries in the Sonoma Valley call (707) 996-1090 or check out www.sonomavalley.com.
Photography courtesy Pine Ridge Winery
This article was first published in November 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.