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That's what you can do

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Written by Nikitas Magel   

vinroc_winery_small NM:  So you were in the process of learning viticulture while you were growing vines.

MP:  Yes, because in Napa, it takes a year and a half to get the permit.  Any land that's not totally flat requires permitting because of hillside erosion issues, along with concerns about environmental impact and the like.  And then you have to set up everything even before you put in the vineyard.  In 2000, we put up the trellising, really everything except the vines, and then in 2001 planted the vines.  And even after you do that, it takes three years before your first real crop — four years up in the hillsides.  So there was plenty of time to be studying and learning during that whole process.  But with some of it we still had to make some educated guesses and get other people's opinions, since we weren't sure how to apply some of the information we learned to the hillsides.  Of course, since then a lot has been done regarding hillside [vineyard] development, but I had a hard time finding information at that time.

NM:  It wasn't until well into your second vintages before you actually had a winery to press and ferment your grapes.  Had you initially planned, or at least considered as a possibility, to build an actual winery, or was it a step you decided upon later?

MP:  Well, it wasn't like we sat down in 1999 and had this all planned out.  It just evolved.  I did have it in the back of my mind to put in the vineyard, but not much about building the winery.  That evolved first from the fact that we had plenty of land so we had the room, and secondly from what we realized during the custom crush of the first vintage.  I saw that to make more than the few barrels that we did the first year, to do it the way we wanted to would require us having our own winery.  I didn't know it was practical and what was involved with permits, so I got involved with the process of finding out just out of curiosity.  And the research I did told me that, given our location along with a few other factors, that the cave was a great way to go.  So, then I applied to have it permitted and found that the application process was [ironically] faster and easier than it was for putting in the vineyard; it was pretty straightforward.  And in some ways, digging the cave was probably easier than building a structure.

NM:  One huge advantage to having chosen this location for your property, up on Atlas Peak, is that the natural topography allowed you the option of digging a cave!

MP:  You're absolutely right.  We joke that the property is 35 acres horizontally, but 70 acres vertically since it's so hilly.  Digging the cave made a lot of sense.  It was a lot easier to do than to find a wide area to clear, level, and grade for the winery.  Plus, as we learned, the cooling costs for a cave are nominal.  So, everything just kept coming together; as we got further into it, things made sense for us to go to the next step and the step after that.  And as I mentioned, we got the permit pretty quickly.  [At that point], I said, "Wow, we got the permit, I guess we better build a cave!"  But I didn't really have anything but just drawings and some ideas from working with a few people on what I wanted to do, so then we hired somebody to build the cave.

NM:  What's entailed in all that?  Because your wine cave is really beautifully designed: the lighting, the curvature, the texture, the layout, the nooks, and all these features.  It looks like an old cave but has such ambiance!

"Digging the cave made a lot of sense. It was a lot easier to do than to find a wide area to clear, level, and grade for the winery. Plus, as we learned, the cooling costs for a cave are nominal."

MP:  The technology is basically from the construction of tunnels; that's the equipment they use.  We hired a company to come in, who specializes in caves, and they use what they call a roadheader — a big ball with teeth on it at the end of an arm, and it just goes through and grinds out the rock.  But [once the major excavation was completed] my wife did all the lighting, the sconces, and all these ideas for the finishing touches.  And with all the things she did of that sort, during the construction, the contractor kept saying wouldn't work.  But they did!  And when the guys were pouring the floor, she had guys bring in large rocks to use as design elements to make it all look more like a cave than just a tunnel.  And then the contractors were like, "What, is she crazy?  We just spent all this time moving all this rock out of here, and she's wanting to bring rocks back in?"  {laughing}  So, [using her architectural talents] she's been very creative and thinking in terms of design and aesthetics, though the contractors never thought of these things nor had they ever done them before!  And the funny part is, afterwards, the contractor went around taking pictures of all that, posted them on their website, and said, "These are things that we can do" — the same very things my wife had suggested which he said we couldn't or shouldn't do!



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