Marvelous, magical underground wine wonderland — Jarvis Winery
You simply won’t believe what’s just 45 minutes west of Winters, California — the eastern entrance to the Napa Valley: An entire winery inside a mountain, complete with an underground stream running through it. Finding it is easy: get on Highway 128, head west, turn left at Highway 121.
That’s just what me and my wine adventure companions, fellow iPinion writers Jesse Loren and Spring Warren, did one recent sunny morning. We had a 10 a.m. tour appointment at Jarvis Winery, so we couldn’t linger over a leisurely breakfast. We topped the tank at Pisani’s Service Station, grabbed some muffins and coffee at Lester Farms Bakery, and hit the road. And what a road — wild turkeys and deer grazing on the roadsides, and wooded green hills lined in valley oak trees draped with Spanish moss.
Or, you could sit stop-and-go style and stare at the red taillights on Jamieson Canyon Road and Highway 29. Your choice. Me, I’d rather be tasting wine than parked on Jamieson Canyon Road in the midst of the ongoing road repair hell.
We pulled up to the big iron gate at Jarvis, and they buzzed us through, instructing us to park in the meadow — an expanse of green hills, ponds, and native trees and bushes. The walk up the path to the hill brings you upon a massive door that leads right inside a mountain — the entire winery, from front office to bottling line, is literally underground. You can feel the difference as soon as you step inside. The quiet, still comfort of Mother Earth cushions and calms everything, and a sign says “Welcome into the Earth.”
Our tour guide, Curtis John, greeted us and provided background on Jarvis Winery came to be. Engineer William Jarvis decided to retire and sold his Silicon Valley business, and purchased the 1,300 acre Napa Valley property to relocate there with his wife Leticia. Although he had no background in making wine, he nonetheless wanted to build a winery, but couldn’t bring himself to clutter up the gorgeous property with industrial buildings. Instead of putting the winery on top of the land, he decided to put it underneath.
In 1991, the digging of the tunnel began, ultimately creating a 45,000 square foot cave, complete with fermentation tanks, a lab, a bottling line, offices, a tasting room and a grand ballroom. Besides preserving the land, the underground facility was a constant 61 degrees, year round — perfect for wine.
“Wine likes it cold, dark and humid,” says John.
The winery was finished in 1995, and tours were offered the following year. John notes that it was the first completely underground winery built in the United States, with a mile of underground caves. With the winery finished, William Jarvis decided to take a few viticulture classes at UC Davis, where he met renowned winemaker Dimitri Tchelistcheff, who offered some guidance when Jarvis made his first bottle of wine in 1989.
But that’s enough about history — let’s go spelunking!
As John pulled open the door to the heart of the winery, the magic began with the sound of rushing waterfalls tumbling into streams that wind throughout the entire facility. The underground stream was discovered while digging out the cave, and John says that rather than fighting to contain or reroute it, the engineers decided to work with it, and incorporated it right into the design. In embracing nature rather than resisting it, the rushing, babbling water not only creates an unparalleled ambiance, but also helps maintain a constant, perfect humidity level for wine.
As we strolled along past fermenting tanks and stacks of oak barrels, still a bit awestruck, John explained that Jarvis tours aren’t “Wine 101 tours.”
“It’s not a tour to learn how wine is made,” he said. “It’s a tour about how we make wine.”
We learned how a bottling line works and how wine corks are made — did you know it comes from trees and there’s a technique for harvesting the cork while at the same time protecting the tree? — the effects of oak vs. steel barrels on wine, and even learned a new word: “cuve,” which is a large tank where wine rests after coming out of the barrels before bottling. Jarvis has a hallway lined with towering cuves.
And then, another massive door. We discovered that whenever you come upon a huge door at Jarvis Winery, be prepared to gasp at whatever’s on the other side. John swung it open, and we stepped into the Crystal Chamber — a huge gathering room with high ceilings, adorned with massive crystals and amethyst geodes, some as high as your head. The room is used for corporate retreats and private parties for wine club members, and the only way to see it is on a tour.
Inside the Crystal Chamber is yet another huge door, and behind it is a ballroom — a cave within a cave — with a 45-foot high ceiling, adorned with colorful flags and wine kegs. Wine club members enjoy a private masquerade ball there each year. Jesse, Spring and I were wondering how we could finagle a date.
Still a bit dazzled by all we’d seen, John led us next to a tiny stream that we crossed by stepping stone, and into a bright, beautiful tasting room — oh yes! Tasting! We were enjoying the tour so much, we almost forgot about the wine!
An array of glasses was arranged for each of us at a table, where we were joined by a couple from Oklahoma City, Jennifer and Drew Dugan, who’d flown in for their annual week of wine tasting and golf. Both agreed that the Jarvis’ tour is “one of the best.”
“We love to hear about the harvest from seed to glass,” said Drew, and adds humbly, “We’re not experts, but we can hold our own.”
Jennifer commented that she’d grown tired of the traditional Highway 29 tourist mill at the big-name wineries, infested with “experts.”
“Been there, done that,” said Jennifer. “We meet a lot of posers.”
Bear in mind that a membership at Jarvis Wines costs $1,300 annually, so the Dugans could easily joined scores of other wine clubs in the Napa Valley for far less, but yet, felt that Jarvis was the best value for their money. Jennifer feels, however, that the cost of the membership shouldn’t discourage people from joining.
“You don’t have to be a high roller, you just have to care.”
As for the tasting by appointment rather than just wandering randomly into wineries and taking your chances, Jennifer says, “Appointments are the only way to go.”
As we chat, John joins in and perfectly paces each taste, telling us about each varietal and asking us what we notice — is that vanilla in the Chardonnay? Baked apple, maybe? I turn it about, and ask him what HE tastes in the Cabernet.
“Yum,” he replies with a smile.
Yum – the perfect word for these perfect wines. And, given that the average price of a bottle of Jarvis wine is about $100, taking a tour and having a sit-down tasting provides an opportunity to sample some really exquisite wines that an average person might be hesitant to purchase. A tasting tour brings these higher priced wines into the reach of most anyone, and offers a chance to truly sample and savor them — and thereby expand and develop one’s palate.
As we taste little sips of heaven, John smoothly facilitates the conversation, rather than stepping on it without any awareness that a conversation is taking place — something that tends to happen at wineries staffed with semi-bored college students. It’s so much more enjoyable and rich to have someone there who is seasoned, knowledgeable and engaged in the conversation.
When asked how he maintains such warmth and enthusiasm for his tours after 16 years in the wine industry, John’s answer is simple: “I enjoy it.” He adds that he tailors each tour to his group, and for returning guests, likes to point out details they might not have noticed during prior trips. It’s not a cookie-cutter tour.
“I don’t fall into the ‘there’s only one way to do it’ trap,” says John.
Following a sampling of amazing Chardonnay, Merlot (that you’d never guess was Merlot), Cabernet Sauvignon and even a varietal called Will Jarvis’ Science Project 2008 (Jarvis’ son, Will, actually created the varietal as a child while attending boarding school), we were bumping up against the end of our tour, and wandered back through the cave to the front office, where we got a special surprise: William Jarvis himself was there to greet us, and spent some time chatting with us. A more gentle, soft-spoken sweetheart of a man you could not hope to find. What a treat to meet the person who envisioned, and created, an underground wine wonderland.
Tours at Jarvis wines are done by appointment only, last about two hours, are limited to 12 people, and cost $60 per person. To experience wine tasting inside a mountain, call (800) 255-5280.
Jarvis Winery, 2970 Monticello Road, Napa, CA, 94558; (707) 255-5280, (800) 255-5280; email@example.com; www.jarviswines.com
(Next time: Our trip along the Sage Canyon Trail continues with more underground explorations and a relaxing afternoon in a sun-soaked cabana. Come on along down the Winters Wine Trail: Highway 128 — the eastern entrance to the Napa Valley.)