Wineries Complete Shared Cave Project

Four wineries operate the Caves at Soda Canyon, an entirely underground operation

by Paul Franson
Four wineries crushed grapes this fall at the new Caves at Soda Canyon, a shared winery facility.
Napa Valley, Calif.—It’s taken 8.5 years, but the wineries in the Caves at Soda Canyon crushed their first wine grapes this year.

The four wine companies that inhabit the unusual shared-cave winery crushed 195.4 tons of fruit Sept. 3, the day they finished construction. They still don’t have power from Pacific Gas and Electric, so the wineries are operating from a generator. Much of the cave project remains unfinished, but they hope to get power in not too long, and to complete the rest of the tunnels in a year or so.

Ryan and Crystal Waugh of Waugh Cellars founded the Caves at Soda Canyon in 2005, and they applied for a permit to construct the winery overlooking the Stags Leap District in August 2006.

Unfortunately, the recession delayed progress. “Three partners have come and gone,” said Ryan Waugh, the managing partner and owner of one of the four wineries using the cave (three as alternating proprietors). He’s also had two management teams.

Fully underground winery
The operation is one of very few fully underground wineries in Napa Valley and even California. It lies on 41 acres of rugged hillside accessed by driving 3.5 miles up winding Soda Canyon Road toward Atlas Peak.

Three portals into the caves will face east (one isn’t open yet), into the Vaca Range and Atlas Peak, with a fourth supplying a breathtaking panorama of Napa Valley—even San Francisco, 62 miles away, on a clear day.

About 9,200 square feet of the 22,000-square-foot project is complete, with entrances to the planned extension capped at present.

The part completed includes a large chamber where grapes are sorted, destemmed and pressed, plus tunnels, barrel storage and offices.

The floors are banked toward the center, eliminating the usual floor drains under barrels and keeping the operation simple and easy to clean. The barrel racks are stainless, so there’s no wood in the facility except the barrels.

Building plan
The caves yet to be dug will include a large tasting room, commercial kitchen and event space; even though the site is well off the beaten path, the winery partners are focusing on direct sales to consumers, and their spectacular site plays into that strategy.

Outside the portal overlooking the valley are a patio now used for wine tasting, a pavilion for events above the winery and on the top of the ridge, and an area being developed for additional event space.

The winery can host 30 visitors per day by appointment and also has permission to host various events. Unlike many proposed wineries in Napa Valley, it really has no neighbors, so no one objected to its development in 2006. The project took only about 2.2 acres of the 41 acres; the rest of the site is undisturbed.

The land is too hilly for vineyards, but even if it weren’t, the area is composed almost solely of rocks with precious little soil for planting. There is also scarce vegetation around the winery, a comfort when fires ranged just over a ridge a few weeks ago. “A fire could destroy our (wooden) pavilion, but there’s not much else it could burn,” Waugh said. “A bigger concern is the smoke, though that wasn’t a problem.”

The winery developed some terraced areas from cave tailings for the leach field that is intended for winery wastewater disposal, though it isn’t in use yet. The small vineyards are as much for show as production since the winery partners have their own vineyards and grape sources elsewhere.

The facility could handle 35,000 gallons; this year, the partners crushed enough wine to fill about 14,000 cases (about 33,300 gallons).

The site is blessed with a productive, 50-gallons-per-minute well, too, and is installing a wastewater system that eventually will use the leach field. For now, they haul away winery wastewater.

Off the grid
Another issue raised by the isolated location is lack of Internet service and even cell phone coverage, but the partners were able to install microwave service from Kelton Consulting that provides both, including cellular repeaters inside the cave. This allows them to use Blend and point-of-sale software applications, for example.

The four families who call the Caves at Soda Canyon home are first- generation winemakers who have bounced around other wineries in the area. “This gives us a home,” Waugh said. “We’ve been at so many custom-crush wineries.”

The wineries sharing the facility are:

Buoncristiani Family Winery
Buoncristiani Family Winery is a collaboration of four brothers who worked with their father in the small vineyards he tended, learning how to tend the vineyard and craft wine for family and friends to share. In 1999 the brothers founded Buoncristiani Family Winery and have been producing Napa Valley wines ever since. Jay Buoncristiani is one of the brothers and a winemaker for several other Napa Valley wineries including Patland Estate Vineyards, which is also located in the caves. Details: buonwine.com.

Wulff Vineyards and Lobo wines
Randy and Krys Wulff bought their first home in Napa Valley and planted their first Chardonnay about 15 years ago. After that fruit produced excellent wine, they acquired a much larger vineyard close by and grew exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir and more Chardonnay.

In 2007, they found their dream property: 42 acres on Atlas Peak at 1,350 feet with rocky volcanic soil and southwestern sun exposure. They planted Cabernet Sauvignon as well as some Petit Verdot and Merlot for blending.

The Wulffs sell the majority of their fruit to wineries like Lewis Cellars, Pine Ridge and Mumm, but keep back select fruit for their Lobo label. “Lobo” is Spanish for “wolf.”

Victoria Coleman, a rising star in Napa after a stint at Chateau Mouton Rothschild, makes red wine for the label. The Chardonnay is made by Randy Lewis. Details: lobowines.com.

Patland Estate Vineyards
When Henry and Olga Patland first came to Napa as a young couple 25 years ago, they couldn’t resist its lure. The Patlands decided to create distinctive red wines to enjoy themselves.

They began with fruit found on their Tuscan-style estate called Terra del Cuore—or Land of the Heart. Their first wine was a red blend of Merlot, Sangiovese and Syrah. In 2007 they converted the vines to Malbec—first to be used for blending with other Stagecoach fruit, and later to be made into a pure Malbec varietal wine. Today, the Patland Estate Vineyards wine portfolio ranges from crisp summertime whites to robust and complex reds. Their three sons help, and Buoncristiani is the winemaker.

Waugh Family Wines
Ryan Waugh was the founder and manages the Caves at Soda Canyon, which owns the property and equipment used in winemaking by the four companies, though each has its own winemaker.

Waugh was born and raised in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, then graduated from Santa Clara University with a degree in biology and minors in marketing and environmental studies. While at Santa Clara, a friend’s father shared a special bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, which sparked Waugh’s passion for wine and inspired the idea to start his own winery.

He found a job at Savannah Chanelle Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains to learn winemaking and later met Jay Buoncristianti at Silverado Trail Wine Studio. In 2001 he founded Waugh Cellars, which produces 3,500 cases of wine annually. His current wines include Russian River Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Zinfandel, Santa Barbara Riesling and a Meritage

The Waughs launched a second wine brand, Six Degrees, in 2008.

Waugh manages 42 acres in seven vineyards from Santa Barbara to Sonoma and Napa. His operation takes the winery’s allocation of out-of-county fruit, presently capped at 25%, though his production is lower.

Ryan and his wife Crystal run the Caves at Soda Canyon as well as their own brands. Details: waughfamilywines.com.

How it works
The whole operation runs more like a cooperative or partnership than a conventional custom-crush facility, and the wineries generally hold events and promote their wines together. They don’t directly compete; even when they make the same varieties, their styles are very different.

Waugh sells about 95% of his wine direct to consumers, and most of the other partner wineries sell the majority of their wine direct, too. Waugh also is working to expand their direct-to-trade business, acting in effect like a distributor for the four brands, which is allowed in California.

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