Amador Roots for Wine Caves

Helwig and BellaGrace caves raise region's awareness, interest

by Jon Tourney
Helwig winery barrel storage cave
The cave at Amador County's Helwig Winery is home to a barrel storage tunnel.
Plymouth, Calif.—Wine caves are focal points for two new Amador County wineries in the Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area. Helwig Vineyards & Winery, which opened last year in Shenandoah Valley, now features a wine cave tour and tasting. A new wine cave at nearby BellaGrace Vineyards is expected to be completed this spring to serve as the barrel aging facility.

Glen Ragsdale Underground Associates of Angwin, Calif., which in recent years has designed and excavated more than 50 wine caves in California and built some of Napa Valley’s major wine caves, was the contactor for both projects.

Given the Sierra Foothills’ long history of mining and grapegrowing, along with its diverse topography and geology, it’s somewhat surprising that there are so few wine caves in the region today. The first major wine cave project in the Sierra Foothills was at Ironstone Vineyards in Calaveras County in the early 1990s. Dobra Zemlja opened its Amador County winery in 1997 with a small wine cave for barrel storage and a tasting room built into the hillside behind its crush pad. Toogood Estate Winery in Fairplay, El Dorado County, completed a wine cave in 2002.

Graham Wozencroft of Glen Ragsdale Associates was project engineer for the two new Amador caves and believes the area has potential for more wine cave projects in the future.

Helwig wine cave
David and Nancy Helwig bought the first of their three vineyard properties in the Shenandoah Valley in 2006. Construction of Helwig Winery began in 2010 on a 44-acre property; the wine cave was built first, and the remainder of the facility was built above and surrounding the cave. Helwig general manager Joe Shebl said, “A major focus of our facility is as an entertainment center. The cave is available for winemaker dinners, company and private events, and tours. In addition, we have rooms at our facility for corporate meetings and training, and we host weddings and music events.”

The 5,000-square-foot wine cave has four entrances—one on each end of the main tunnel, and one on each end of a shorter tunnel that intersects the main tunnel. The main visitor entrance is down a flight of stairs near the tasting room. The opposite entrance is from a small amphitheater, where the winery hosts outdoor concerts for as many as 500 people. 

Ragsdale also provided excavation for the amphitheater, including two small tunnels for restrooms, one on each side of the cave entrance.  Another entrance is from the winery production cellar, and the fourth was specially built to meet American Disability Act (ADA) standards for cave access. Wozencroft said, “This is probably one of the best small caves we’ve been involved with.”

Helwig currently has 10 grape varieties planted on 17 acres at the winery property. Wines include Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Barbera, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Zinfandel. The Helwigs’ son, Scott Helwig, is winemaker. Annual production is 3,800 cases, but that will increase gradually based on supply and demand.

The cave will be used primarily to age Barbera, Zinfandel and red wines, with 2,700 square feet of space dedicated to barrel storage and a capacity of about 300 barrels. The cave has 1,265 square feet of dining and event space with meal seating for 42 people.  Helwig offers cave tours with wine tasting three times per day from Friday through Sunday for $15 per person.

BellaGrace Vineyards
BellaGrace Vineyards Charlie Havill
BellaGrace Vineyards owner Charlie Havill stands at the entrance to his new wine cave, which is under construction in Amador County.
The BellaGrace wine cave is on a 50-acre property purchased by Charlie and Michael Havill in 2006, when 20 acres of vineyards already were in production. The wine cave is dug into an oak-covered hillside with overhead earth cover of 25 to 30 feet above the tunnel, expected to be sufficient to maintain temperatures at 55° to 60°F, with a relative humidity of 65% to 75%. The Havill residence and wine production area are on top of the hill above the wine cave.

Charlie Havill had wanted a wine cave since beginning wine production in 2006, in order to gain the environmental and economic benefits of underground barrel storage by eliminating cooling and humidification, required with an above ground barrel building.

The cave will provide 2,000 square feet of space with a tunnel 12-feet wide by 12-feet high, excavated in a horseshoe layout with two side-by-side openings. Havill plans to store up to 220 barrels stacked two-high, and hold occasional special events and tastings. Havill said, “This tunnel fits naturally on this property and allowed us to retain the native oak trees that cover the hillside, with minimal disturbance.”

Wozencroft commented, “This is a perfect layout for a small cave. With a loop tunnel you’re never too far away from the barrels, and it’s one of the most economical ways to build a tunnel.” Wozencroft noted that some unexpected geologic features were encountered—a few areas of metamorphic schist that required blasting. Tunnel walls and ceilings were lined with an additional layer of mesh reinforcement and a thicker layer of shotcrete for support. Installation of electrical and plumbing utilities, concrete floors and drainage are now under way. Havill expects completion this spring.

The vineyard and winery produce Grenache, Mourvèdre, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Barbera, Primitivo and Zinfandel for reds, and Grenache Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Vermentino and Viognier for whites. BellaGrace hosts tasting by appointment near the production area on the hilltop, and it may eventually develop an event center at this location. However, in October 2011 BellaGrace opened a separate tasting room and sales facility in nearby Sutter Creek that is open five days per week. Havill said the winery currently produces about 3,500 cases per year, with plans for maximum capacity of 5,000 cases per year.

Shebl, who has worked at Amador wineries since 1999 and serves as vice president of the Amador Vintners Association, believes the new caves and wineries will attract more interest in Amador’s wine country. “These new facilities, and the growing number of wine producers in our region, are helping to elevate the level of awareness about the quality of Amador wines, and about how beautiful the area is to visit,” Shebl said.

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