Notes From the Underground
Underneath vineyard-covered hillsides, wine caves provide pristine conditions for making—and tasting—wine. Today, more and more vino lovers are heading underground to stroll, swirl, and sip.
Top to Bottom: Buena Vista Winery; Adrian Gregorutti; Far Niente; Jarvis Estate; Palmaz Vineyards; Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves; Benziger Family Winery; Scott Chebegi; Timm Eubanks
Covert Estate, Napa
Under a hillside dotted with century-old oak trees, the Covert wine cave blends into its surroundings, with floor-to-ceiling glass doors allowing natural light into the subterranean digs. It’s just a short walk past fermentation tanks and barrels to reach the cave’s private tasting room, where you’ll sip four to six wines from four labels: Azur, Empreinte, Nicholson Jones, and Covert.
Drink: The 2014 Covert Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville. Produced with grapes that grow outside the cave, it’s like tasting a piece of the property.
The classic tasting is $35 per person, and the Covert tasting is $75 per person. Private tours and tastings are by appointment only. 15 Chateau Ln., Napa, (707) 224-1959, covertestate.com.
Far Niente, Oakville
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Far Niente was founded in 1885 and flourished until it was abandoned during Prohibition. Restored in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Far Niente offers a guided tour and tasting—the only way to explore the tri-level winery and its caves. The tour and seated tasting include a flight of four wines served with artisanal cheeses.
Drink: Anything your host pours from the Cave Collection. Finding a bottle outside of the winery’s gates is a rarity.
$75 per person. Tours are limited to eight guests, and reservations are required. 1350 Acacia Dr., Oakville, (707) 944-2861, farniente.com.
Jarvis Estate, Napa
The floor plan at Jarvis Estate—the country’s first winery built entirely underground—is somewhat like a large wheel, providing room for storage, production, and bottling. As the cave goes further into the Vaca Mountains, the chambers become bigger: The last chamber could comfortably hold two basketball courts. A spring discovered during the cave’s construction is a tranquil delight. (Plus, it provides an ideal humidity level for barrel-aging wines.) Enjoy a seated tasting of six Jarvis Estate and Reserve Collection wines and a small cheese plate.
Drink: The 2008 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Only made select years, this is often considered Jarvis Estate’s best wine.
$80 per person. 2970 Monticello Rd., Napa, (707) 255-5280, jarviswines.com.
Palmaz Vineyards, Napa
Technology takes the spotlight at Palmaz Vineyards. After years of meticulous soil sampling and planning, construction began in 2001 on the massive 110,000-square-foot, gravity-flow, subterranean winery that extends 18 stories into the side of Mount George. Light-colored walls give the cave a bright appearance; you might even forget you are underground, especially when introduced to FILCS (Fermentation Intelligence Logic Control System), pronounced “Felix.” FILCS is a computer-controlled system that enables winemakers to work more efficiently, displaying data that’s reminiscent of a planetarium show. Tastings are held in private cave rooms called salons and include five wines paired with bites prepared by the winery’s full-time chef.
Drink: The 2013 Palmaz Vineyards Gaston. It isn’t made every year, so enjoy it when you can.
$100 per person for small groups; $120 per person for groups of 12 or more. All tours and tastings by appointment only. 4029 Hagen Rd., Napa, (707) 226-5587,
Schramsberg Vineyards, Calistoga
In the late 1800s, skilled Chinese laborers began digging the first hillside caves in Napa for wine aging and storage at Schramsberg Vineyards. Today, the tunnels are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and stretch for a mile, holding around three million bottles. Guests explore the caves while learning about the winery’s rich history. Schramsberg is best known for its sparkling wine—its Blanc de Blancs was used for President Nixon’s 1972 Toast to Peace in Beijing, China. Schramsberg’s sparkling wines have been served at official functions by every U.S. presidential administration since.
Drink: The 2008 Schramsberg Reserve is the winery’s top Pinot Noir–based sparkling wine. It also pairs well with a traditional turkey or goose holiday dinner.
$70 per person. Tours are limited to 12 guests. 1400 Schramsberg Rd., Calistoga, (800) 877-3623, schramsberg.com.
Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves, Healdsburg
The caves at this family-owned vineyard are some of the easiest to see in Sonoma County, with walk-in tastings daily. It costs only $15 to sample the winery’s small-lot Zinfandel and Rhône varietals, but the best way to see the inner workings of the caves is to reserve a spot on the Unleash the Beast tour. Tastings typically include seven pours, finishing with a chocolate peanut butter cup paired with a late-harvest Zinfandel.
Drink: The 2014 Lily Hill Zinfandel is made with grapes from vines first planted in 1915.
Unleash the Beast tours cost $35 per person and are limited to eight people. 9711 West Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg, (707) 473-9171, bellawinery.com.
Benziger Family Winery, Glen Ellen
All tours at Benziger visit the caves, but the Estate Wine Cave seated tasting takes part almost entirely underground. During the cave walkabout, discover Benziger family history and its approach to organic farming. You’ll be treated to a show-and-tell of photos featuring the estate’s cow and sheep pastures, as well as Mason jars filled with soil samples. Seated tastings are held in an alcove that’s kept warm, so you may not need that sweater here. As staff pour wine, they highlight where the wine’s grapes were grown with maps. The Estate Wine Cave seated tasting typically includes six pours.
Drink: The 2014 Tribute. Made entirely from estate-grown grapes, this Bordeaux blend of predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon was the first Demeter-certified Biodynamic wine from Sonoma County and one of the first from North America.
Tours are $40 per person and are limited to eight people. 1883 London Ranch Rd., Glen Ellen, (707) 935-3000, benziger.com.
Buena Vista Winery, Sonoma
Founded in 1857 by Agoston Haraszthy, Buena Vista Winery dug the first wine caves in the state. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Buena Vista Winery is open for walk-in tastings daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but you must be on a tour to visit the Champagne Cellars. The Historic Wine Museum tour and tasting includes the cellars, but to get the most out of your journey underground, reserve a spot on the Barrel Tour and Tasting. Empty wine glasses are refilled frequently as you make your way through the recently renovated caves to the Press Room.
Drink: Sheriff of Buena Vista. This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Petit Verdot, Syrah, and Merlot is a must-try. (For every bottle sold, a portion of the proceeds is donated to the National Sheriffs’ Association Educational Foundation.)
Historic tours cost $25 per person; Barrel tastings cost $40 per person. Both are typically limited to 15 people. 18000 Old Winery Rd., Sonoma, (800) 926-1266, buenavistawinery.com.
Kunde Family Winery, Kenwood
Passageways in the aging caves at Kunde Family Winery extend half a mile through ancient volcanic lava flows 175 feet below Syrah vineyards. Free guided tours run throughout the day, but the Mountain Top Tasting takes you to spots like the VIP room, where a section of five-million-year-old volcanic rock can be seen. Guests enjoy wines on a scenic mountaintop next to a vineyard with vines planted in 1882, then return to a private area for a chocolate and wine pairing.
Drink: The 2014 Reserve Century Vines Zinfandel. You’ve seen the vines; now taste the final result.
Complimentary cave tours are available daily, without appointment, for a group of 10 or less. The Mountain Top Tasting costs $50 per person; contact the winery for a group of 10 or more. 9825 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood, (707) 282-1531, kunde.com.
Schug Carneros Estate, Sonoma
A short drive from the intersection of Highways 116 and 121, the German-style post-and-beam building at Schug Carneros Estate may not fit the typical winery mold, but its hillside caves impress. With a focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varietals, the caves can be explored on private tours. Better yet, the experience is fully customizable; caves tours are available with or without tastings.
Drink: Schug 2014 Carneros Pinot Noir, Estate Grown. It is grown, aged, and bottled on-site.
A private tour and tasting is $55 per person; private tasting only is $35; private cave tour only is $20. Schug recommends tours be booked 24 hours in advance. 602 Bonneau Rd., Sonoma, (800) 966-9365, schugwinery.com.
- Be sure to bring a sweater—temperatures in wine caves typically hover in the high 50s and the low 60s.
- Book your reservations for cave tours as early as you can—they fill up quickly.