Summer has arrived with a bang in California, and wine lovers everywhere are planning their first tours of the season. Let’s take a guess – when you imagine tasting your favorite Chard under the West Coast sun, you’re seeing gingham blankets on green lawns, outdoor cafes on bustling market streets, and sunhats on breezy vineyard balconies. Are we close?

Don’t get us wrong: that all sounds delightful. But know that when the sun shines just a little too hot, or night falls just a little too cold, Napa’s many wine caves form a network of underground wonders carved into the valley’s verdant hills. 

What is a wine cave?

Temperature, light, and humidity are all important factors in viticultural aging, and bottles that need a minute between fermentation and corkage benefit from some time spent in a dark, cool place. This can be achieved with modern refrigeration, but a cheaper, easier, and more time-tested solution is to place the bottles in vaults underground. 

These vaults, known as wine caves, have been in use in Napa and surrounding counties since the late 1800s, giving winemakers an easy storage solution that kept delicate vintages well away from the California sun. As viticultural tourism in the area grew, wine caves evolved from simple – albeit beautiful – storage spaces, to venues and event halls wherein wineries would host tasting parties, dinners, and other experiences right there among the bottles.

Now, wine caves are both practical solutions to the process of wine making as well as popular destination spots for viticultural enthusiasts.

Etiquette for visiting a wine cave

If you’ve never been to a wine cave before, here are a few tips to follow that may help you to elevate your experience, and the experience of those around you.

  • Avoid wearing scents. As a general rule, skipping your scented products for a day of wine tasting can help you to appreciate the flavors of your beverage even more. But especially in an enclosed, windless space like a wine cave, not wearing perfume, cologne, or other products means that you’re also sparing the noses of the other tasters.
  • Turn off your ringer. Just like at the movies, turning your ringer off helps to avoid causing annoying disruptions, like in the middle of a guided tasting. And, just like natural caves, wine caves are extremely echoey, meaning your ringer will sound even louder if it goes off.
  • Ask before you touch. Do not pick up or even touch any of the bottles of wine you see on the racks without explicit permission from your guide. The aging process can be a delicate one, so when in doubt, let the horizontal bottles rest where they are, and instead simply enjoy the wines that are being poured for you. To this point as well – no flash photography unless the guide says it’s okay.

Of course, specific events held in wine caves may have a particular dress code or set of rules they want you to abide by, so remember to read the whole invitation before you leave the house. And have fun!

What to bring with you to a wine cave

Most wine caves provide a well-tended and well-catered experience, so the only thing you really need to bring is yourself, and your love of wine. That said, here are a couple things you may want to have on-hand.

  • A sweater or extra layer. Yes, we know it’s hot outside, but wine caves are kept between 55 and 65 degrees at all times, so a sweater or jacket can help you to keep warm and comfortable during a long tasting session.
  • A reusable water bottle. Keeping hydrated is an important thing during an in-depth tasting session. Most wine caves will have water for you to drink somewhere on the premises, but it never hurts to have your own hydration station.

And again, refer to the website or event page of your chosen wine cave to see if they recommend bringing anything specific.

3 must-see wine caves in the Napa Valley

Ranging from a classical aesthetic to something straight out of a science fiction novel, Napa Valley’s wine caves are required viewing for anyone who loves viticulture. Here are 3 of our favorites that offer a little taste of everything.

The caves at White Rock are only 35 years old. But stepping into them, you might expect to see a herd of running bison painted onto the rough, white-stone walls. Named for the stone into which it was dug, the White Rock Winery’s caves have an ancient feel to them, where patrons can go to taste their very contemporary small-batch bottles.

The wines they serve are mostly grown from 20-year-old vines, planted in the rich soils at the base of the Stag’s Leap estate. Michael Vandendreissche, winegrower at White Rock, says he strives for balance in each bottle produced. This low-yield vineyard nevertheless offers an array or varietals, with Chardonnay being their most popular to taste.

Visitors to White Rock will need to reach out to schedule a customized visit of the vineyards and caves.

It’s got the feel of a medieval villa on the outside. But on the inside, it’s as if they plucked the International Space Station from the sky, buried it in the Napa hills, and filled it with wine. 

Failing to get the permits they needed to build a towering winery optimized for gravity-flow process, Amalia and Julio Palmaz instead dug 18 stories down into the soils of Mt. George to create the sci-fi cave system they needed to avoid the use of pumps, and give their iconic Cabernet Sauvignon a velvety mouthfeel – all for your pleasure.

Eschewing the more traditional look of Etruscan tile work, the main fermentation dome within the caves sports a projection of data being gathered from the wine-filled tanks in real time, allowing winemakers to keep a very close eye on the conditions within, further protecting and ensuring the quality of their product at the other end.

Visitors can take a tour of these futuristic caves, taste their wines, and book a delicious culinary pairing experience via the Palmaz website.

We’re back on earth after our visit to space, and lounging in Brasswood’s wine cave that feels more like a Bond villain’s dining room than a stony cavern (although that’s just as likely to exist in a cave.. There’s no dress code from what we can tell, but somehow it feels wrong to enter in anything less than white tie, ideally with a white cat tucked under one arm.

Named the Cave Library, this special space – nestled within the length of Brasswood’s 17,000 square feet of caves – is furnished with a gorgeous feast-length redwood table and racks that house some of the winery’s oldest vintages. Visitors to the space can stretch out and enjoy a flight of the vineyard’s top wines, paired with a selection of artisanal cheeses.

How to find the right wine cave experience for you

Napa has more medieval, more modern, more space-age wine caves than you can shake a goblet at. So whatever suits your fancy, chances are there’s a wine cave with the right vibe. Or, if you’re not sure, you can let Old Vine design the perfect wine cave tour for you, and take you on a journey through time and space with a trip to all of these extraordinary spaces. Just remember to bring a sweater!

Book your next Napa Valley wine adventure with Old Vine today.