From cool, quiet underground hideaways to beguiling tunnels filled with hidden treasure, caves have long captured our collective imagination. Wine caves are no different.
For many wine drinkers, just the idea of being surrounded by that much wine — barrels stretching as far as the eye can see — is captivating. In others, the caves evoke a secret lair you’d see in a Batman comic book or James Bond movie.
For winemakers, the appeal is much more practical. Caves are the most natural, efficient way to keep wine at the perfect temperature for gentle aging, about 55 degrees Fahreinheit, and have been used for thousands of years.
By avoiding artificial cooling, you also avoid drying out the air, which dries out the barrels and leads to unwanted evaporation of wine.
The “angel’s share” — unavoidable evaporation from the barrel — is one thing; there’s no need to lose precious juice to AC, too.
The wine caves of California’s Central Coast offer plenty of underground adventures. Happy spelunking.
Best free tour
Get a grape’s eye view of the winemaking process at Halter Ranch Vineyard in Paso Robles, named 2019 Winery of the Year at the Central Coast Wine Competition.
A one-hour tour lets you follow grapes’ journey from vineyard to barrel, as well as a stroll through the area’s largest wine caves.
You’ll start in front of the tasting room for a surprisingly fascinating overview of the ranch’s storied history and owner Hansjörg Wyss’ $1 billion commitment to conservation worldwide.
Then you’ll truck from the vineyard up to the crush pad, just like the grapes do, and learn how they make their way down through the cutting-edge gravity-flow winery.
From there, it’s a gradual descent into 20,000 square feet of crisscrossing tunnels housing more than a thousand barrels of wine — though it can hold up to 2,200. At the deepest point, you’ll be standing 65 feet beneath the estate’s original cabernet sauvignon vines.
The best part? You exit the caves onto the sunny patio just off the tasting room, so you can belly right up to the bar for some samples. (A $20 tasting fee, waived with a two-bottle purchase, is not included.)
Want to do your tasting in the cave? For $55, enjoy a reserve flight in the cave’s library room with a dedicated wine educator. Or check out the entire property with the excellent Excursion Tour, also $55.
Wine tasting at appointment-only L’Aventure Winery in Paso Robles is already something of a special treat, especially with the opening of a swank new tasting room a couple years ago.
So why not plunk down a few extra bucks for a private, 90-minute tour of the place, culminating in a customized tasting in owner Stephen Asseo’s personal library in the caves?
You’ll get the chance to see exactly what lies beneath the vines. An exposed limestone wall 50 feet under a block of mourvedre reveals a timeline of thousands of years of rising and falling sea levels.
A Frenchman who wanted to blend the best of Bordeaux and Rhône-style wines in ways that were forbidden there, Asseo came to Paso Robles in 1996 in search of creative freedom to make the big, tannic and highly ageable wines he favors.
The echoing caves, added six years ago, are just 8,000 square feet. But they appear to go on without end, curving just enough to seem infinite.
Chalk doodles such as Xs and smiley faces on barrels record notes from Asseo and his winery staff about the juice inside.
Step inside the small library to wrap things up with a personalized tasting of the resulting wines, which may include current releases, sampling several consecutive vintages of the Estate Cuvee or experimental bottlings such as the 2016 co-fermented syrah and grenache Chloe.
Best for a magical experience
If you find yourself in Paso Robles looking for a spur-of-the-moment cave tour, get thee to Eberle Winery, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Free, 30-minute guided walks set off every hour, capped off with complimentary tasting.
But what makes these caves really stand out is the myriad of special events they host.
Discover the ethereal quality the underground acoustics lend to music during one of the frequent Concerts in the Caves. With genres ranging from rock and country to blues and folk, there’s something for every musical taste.
While you’ll regularly find owner and founder Gary Eberle grilling tri-tip on the patio, hit up one of the several winemaker dinners held throughout the year for a real culinary treat. Eberle taps his extensive connections to bring in top-tier chefs from as far as Europe for elegant candlelight dinners in an unforgettable setting.
Best for claustrophobes
Does the thought of being 60 feet below the surface, surrounded by dirt on all sides, leave you with heart palpitations? We get it — venturing underground is not for everyone.
But there’s no need to worry at Robert Hall Winery in Paso Robles.
At Robert Hall, it’s just a short trip down a set of stairs off the tasting room to the 16,000-square-foot cavern. You don’t even need to venture inside to take a peek and snap a pic.
The cavern was created by excavating a large pit, building the structure and packing earth around it, rather than boring underground. It was the first thing winery founder Robert Hall built, before the winery or tasting room, and now lies under an amphitheater.
Barrels — up to 3,000 of them — are stacked four high under the high walls, which are painted to look like stone. Huge oak fermenters stand beneath the light fixtures designed by Hall’s wife, Margaret, and built by local high school students.
Call ahead if you want a 30-minute walk through the cavern and up to the production area. Even without reservations, you may be able to squeeze in a look if the tasting room isn’t too busy.
Best for foodies
Feeling peckish? Book the Coastline Tour at Presqu’ile Winery in Santa Maria and eat your way through this striking winery.
Presqu’ile’s cave is on the smaller side, but it’s the most 007-esque. The entrance is beyond huge glass doors off the tasting room.
The cave cuts underneath a massive sand dune, requiring quite a feat of engineering, and ends at an elevator that whisks you up to the production area above. The juice is piped from there straight down into the cave, where barrels can be filled in 90 seconds flat.
During the 90-minute tour, you’ll make your way through the vineyard-view terrace, the high-tech winery, beaker-filled lab and lily pond-covered lake, stopping for seasonal bites paired with Presqu’ile’s elegant wines along the way.
Hit the elevator button for “Cave” — who besides Batman has that? — and channel your inner caped crusader as you stride back to the modern dining room for your final pairing: a trio of dishes to go along with tasting of recent vintages of the estate’s specialty, pinot noir.