Give a farmer a plot of land and he will scrape and scratch and, if he’s lucky, raise crops sufficient to feed himself and his family and the people of his town.
Give a oenophile a plot of land and he will scrape and scratch and burrow until he has a cave suitable for his 1900 Ch. Lafite-Rothschild — and humidifiers, and lighting, and maybe even a tasting room.
“It really is a luxury item,” El Cerrito landscape designer Steve Rudy said of the current trend toward the ultimate “Man Cave on Steroids” ego room — a residential wine cave. “There’s a lot of engineering that goes into it.”
No kidding. With well-heeled homeowners looking for a cool, out-of-the-way hideout in which to store their precious vintages at a constant 52 degrees, local designers and architects are increasingly being tasked to come up with Old World grottoes and caverns for wine fanciers used to the very best, and willing to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars to carve into rocky slopes and hillsides to get it.
“I have seen non-permitted caves built for $20,000… $25,000,” Rudy, who runs Rare Earth Landscaping with his Lafayette-based partner Rick Gallo. “Others need to be carved out of solid rock and can go much, much higher. We’re working on one now in Marin County that should be well above $100,000 by the time it is finished.”
Others we contacted for this story can top even that number, it seems. Costs are driven by the requirements of a prospective caver’s Planning Department, Rudy said, with many city officials demanding extensive — and expensive — permits proving that the homeowner’s underground lair is viable, can withstand fire and won’t come down on the resident’s head while he or she is down there sampling the Beausejour-Duffau-Lagarrosse. Also driving up the price are the “gotta haves” many wine cave aficionados apparently can’t live without: refrigerators, sound systems, televisions – bathrooms – and temperature-controlled side rooms to lay down expensive rounds of imported French cheese. The list is only limited by the depth of the homeowner’s wallet — and the caver’s imagination.
“I put a hidden room in mine,” said Danville resident David Chavez, who admitted to building his 190 square-foot “mini-cave” to get some rare time away from his wife and kids. “I put in my best bottles and a TV and the only way in is through a hidden panel in the wall. I love it.”
On the other end of the wine cave spectrum is Orinda architect Rick Kattenburg, who is currently overseeing construction of a 600 square-foot cavern for Lafayette’s Reliez Valley Vineyards after client David Rey came to him looking for the perfect place to store his wine barrels. Kattenburg is still on the project, he says, visiting the site the day this story was written and embracing the architectural challenges that pop up with an underground project of its scope.
“Projects of this type bring those of us who are fortunate enough to be interested in wine or wineries together,” Kattenburg said. “The work is not without its challenges, but it is also very rewarding.”
Kattenburg had to come up with a way to drill through rock harder than a preliminary site inspection anticipated, insulate the cave’s concrete walls, reinforce them, provide the owner with an escape hatch should things go south while he’s underground as well as methods to keep the air below ground fresh and clean, the cavern illuminated and free of gasses, and the underground structure free of unwanted underground water — perilous to sensitive wine barrels containing the vintner’s best efforts.
“There are a many, many things to consider when you’re building something like this but at the top of the list for me, yes, is that it takes the right sort of client to bring it off,” Kattenburg said.
With construction of the area’s latest wine cave on track and at budget (“Hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to project watchers), it appears the idea has taken hold as talk in local planning and design circles is that a fellow Lafayette resident was so enamored with Rey’s project that he’s getting ready to do one, too.
“Let’s do it,” Kattenburg laughed. “They’re a lot of work, but they’re also a lot of fun. Maybe I’ll get a chance to help build this one, too.”