Winding deep into the cold earth, caves are nature’s refrigerators. In California, natural cellars store wine (and prosciutto, and just about anything else) at a consistent temperature, usually somewhere right around 58 degrees. Safe from the heat of the summer sun, the caves provide the perfect environment for wine to age. They’ve done so for literally hundreds of years.
Wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties have their fair share of wine caves these days, and many of the underground spaces are accessible on certain tastings and tours. Here, then, in no particular order, are eight caves worth visiting the next time you’re out and about. Our advice: Be sure to pick a hot day to go.
The 17,000-square-foot cave system at Cairdean, on the north edge of St. Helena, is one of the newest in the Napa Valley—the underground cellar space was dug in 2015 and opened in 2016. The attraction features three separate tunnels, each of which can be isolated to provide a separate temperature for fermentation. Site tours wander through parts of one of the caves; to see the rest you’ve got to become a wine club member.
Hall is known for its artwork, and the 14,000-square-foot caves at the winery’s Rutherford location are no exception. The main attraction down below: A reception area with a Swarovski crystal chandelier designed by Donald Lipski and Jonquil LeMaster. The walls of the caves also feature handmade Austrian brick recovered from sites in and around Vienna. The caves are accessible during reservation-only tours; these 90-minute affairs also include a peek at the renowned Sacrashe Vineyard.
Jarvis winery is unique because the entire winery exists underground in a cave. It was the first in the nation to be built that way. Think of the place like Aglarond from the “Lord of the Rings” books: a glittering cave into which visitors must pass to achieve the ultimate experience. The 45,000-square-foot cave system includes an underground waterfall and a “gallery” of a dozen oak fermentation tanks; all tours also include a seated tasting in an underground (naturally) salon.
Buena Vista Winery
Most tours of the caves at Buena Vista Winery are led by Count Agoston Haraszthy— or, at least, a character actor dressed up like him. Haraszthy (the real one) founded the place in 1857 and used the caves as quarries to build the stone winery building. On tours today, George Webber, who portrays Haraszthy, emphasizes the engineering accomplishment. “It took laborers three months to carve each cave out of stone,” he notes. “When you think about it, that’s pretty incredible.”
Far Niente Winery
This winery built the first new caves after Prohibition, and today it boasts one of the most extensive cave systems in the county. All told, Far Niente has 40,000 square feet of cave space, which comprises cellars and a wine library. Standard tours take visitors down through the caves; to access the underground labyrinth, you must descend a narrow wooden staircase in the circa-1885 winery building that has been renovated and repurposed as a tasting center.
The historic Schramsberg caves date back nearly 150 years. They were the first caves in the Napa Valley dug for the purpose of storing wine. Chinese laborers chiseled the caves by hand—if you look closely you can still see pick marks in the walls of volcanic rock. Guests can visit these caves today on guided tours. “At any given time there could be more than 2.7 million wine bottles quietly aging within the caves,” says vintner Hugh Davies. That stat alone is, well, intoxicating.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
The main attraction in the cave at Stag’s Leap, in Napa, isn’t the wine but the Foucault pendulum that is constantly in motion. The pendulum—one of only about 50 in the world—swings in an underground room dubbed the Round Room; tour guides tell groups it “marks the passing of time and the aging of wine.” The cave opens up to a glorious patio designed for tasting with sweeping views of the palisades. Drinking wine while looking down on the vineyards is unforgettable.
The caves at this family-owned vineyard in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley are a popular spot. The winery’s subterranean tasting room was built in 2002, and the caves provide a way to beat the heat on scorching summer days. Families also like picnicking on the grassy area right out front. New for this year, Bella also offers a guided tour that includes a brief walkabout of the caves and winery facility, followed by a wine-blending class.