OAKVILLE, Calif. — The thought of an underground wine cellar in the floor of the Napa Valley amused Jim Allen, but the thought of tearing out an acre of prime Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon gave him indigestion.
Allen, co-owner with his brother, Steve, of the Sequoia Grove Winery, needed a winery building as well as a barrel-aging cellar. The winery site was selected adjacent to Jim's home, which is adjacent to the winery. But the only available land for the cellar was already planted with Cabernet. And tearing vines out would be costly, he knew. But digging down to build an underground cellar was uninviting.
"The water table is so high here," he said, his hand sweeping in an arc toward his Cabernet plants, "that we thought it was impossible."
He also didn't want to rip out any of his 21 precious acres of Cabernet Sauvignon adjacent to the winery. It is land that is considered superior for the variety, being within a mile of the Robert Mondavi Winery, just up the road from Cakebread Cellars and not far from famed Beaulieu Vineyard.
"It's pretty obvious that we couldn't afford to use any vineyard land for the barrel-aging cellar," said Steve Allen, the viticulturist. Real estate brokers said an acre of such land today would cost $30,000 or more.
"But we needed the cellar," said Steve, so he and his brother figured that if an underground cellar could be built, they could "save" $30,000, not to mention gaining the ambiance of an underground cave a la French wine makers, who have long used subterranean caverns in which to keep barrels of wine.
The Allens knew such earthen structures are barriers to changing temperatures that can destroy a wine's harmonies before it ever reaches the bottle. Moreover, underground cellars are very humid and reduce the amount of wine that evaporates from barrels, another money saving.
This wouldn't be the Napa Valley's first underground cellar, but one of the more complex, said Bruce Logan, the general contractor.
For one thing, the water table was only 8 feet below the surface, and "we planned to put the floor (of the cellar) 12 feet, 4 inches below the surface." Sequoia Grove is just a few hundred yards away from the Napa River.
Logan said that when construction workers hit water, "it was a mess. We had to use drag lines to pull the mud out, and (the workers) were there for six to eight weeks doing just that."
Then Logan's firm, Logan Industries, buried sheet piling to three feet below the floor of the cellar and continued excavation. Drain pipes were installed to permit seepage water to drain, "then we poured the floor and then used 'shotcrete' (concrete that is blown on) for the walls."
When shrinkage cracks appeared, they were sealed, and at a final cost of $206,000, or $54 per square foot, a 48x80-foot cellar was completed. Logan said that included a concrete lid (which would form the floor of the winery building above), stairs and access holes so wine can be pumped to and from the cellar.
Above ground, such a cellar would have cost only about $120,000, but Sequoia Grove will immediately begin saving money over a traditional above-ground facility. The Allens and Logan estimate the following savings, in addition to not having to tear out an acre of Cabernet grapes:
--About $3,500 a year in lower utility bills, from not having to air-condition the cellar. (The temperature remains almost constant underground, at a near-perfect 55 degrees.)
--About $27,000 in construction costs of the winery above because no new foundation or floor was needed for it.
--With evaporation of wine cut, the winery will save about 300 gallons a year, at least 125 cases of wine annually. (Jim Allen said he once heard a tour guide at the Robert Mondavi Winery say Mondavi lost more wine through evaporation from casks than some wineries produce in a whole year.)
Stu Smith, co-owner of Smith-Madrone Winery atop Spring Mountain, dug an underground cellar in 1974 and swears that it's cost-effective.
"During the winter the temperature is about 54 degrees, which is actually warmer than the winery up above," said Smith. "And in summer, it gets all the way up to maybe 58 or 59.
"But the wonderful thing is the humidity. We use half the topping wine in the cellar (to keep barrels full, so they won't oxidize) that we do in the main floor of the winery, which is a savings of at least 2 1/2% a year.
"The big drawback is that mold grows all over the place. We have to be constantly cleaning barrels."
Smith was asked if he had problems with the water table. He laughed and said, "Where we're located, the water table is about 1,800 feet below the winery."
Another valley floor winery with a below-ground cellar is Louis Martini, south of St. Helena.
"My grandfather put it in because he wanted a true cellar," said Carolyn Martini, who said it was dug when the winery was under construction in 1932. It hasn't leaked, she said, "because there's fantastic drainage over there.
"We have some American oak ovals (upright casks) down there that are more than 100 years old, and some French oak barrels and the wine library." The V. Sattui Winery, in St. Helena, also has a cellar that is underground, but which has access from a lower recessed courtyard.
"The French have had underground cellars," said Jim Allen, "and we liked the one at Chateau Margaux. Theirs is just as wet as ours, but it helps to make better wine."
The Allens now have 200 barrels in the cellar. Maximum capacity is 300 barrels.