The Slatest

What’s a Wine Cave, Anyway?

Pete Buttigieg speaks at a podium at the Democratic debate on Dec. 19 in Los Angeles.
He’ll have the red, please.
Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

So, as everyone who watched Thursday night’s Democratic debate now knows, Pete Buttigieg hosted a fundraiser at an opulent Napa Valley “wine cave” earlier this month. His competitors have—justifiably—been making fun of him for it ever since. (I mean, the guy is literally bringing new meaning to the phrase “wine-track Democrat.”) The Sanders campaign bought the domain peteswinecave.com, which now redirects to its own donation site. And at the debate, Elizabeth Warren used the incident to paint Mayor Pete as a tool of moneyed special interests. “The mayor recently just had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900 a bottle wine. Think about who comes to that,” she said. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”

I tend to agree! But setting aside the vital issue of money in politics, this whole brouhaha is raising another important question: What is a wine cave?

Really, it’s just a cellar, dug deep underground or into a hillside. In general, wine needs to be kept in a cool, dark environment with decent humidity, or it risks spoiling. (Light and heat are wine’s natural enemies. If you have a wine rack anywhere near your kitchen stove, move it to the closet right now). That makes subterranean cellars ideal, since they’ll naturally maintain a lowish, stable temperature and moisture level, with minimal energy use.

Some of the world’s older wine caves do resemble something like an actual cavern. France’s champagne region, for instance, is famous for its crayères, a vast network of catacombs that were first dug into the chalk quarries. We’re talking tunnels that were first hand-dug during the middle-ages that open up into caves where some of the oldest champagne makers store their bubbly.

In the U.S., some wineries store wine in modern caves partly because it’s environmentally friendly, but also because it’s good for tourism. There are even companies that specialize in boring fresh tunnels into hills or under vineyards and handling underground construction. But the word “cave” is sometimes thrown around as marketing to describe fancy brick-lined cellars that are distinctly un-cavernlike. You can even find tips for building your own “wine cave” at home. Unless your last name is Wayne, though, you’re just building a cellar.

Pete’s fundraiser appears to have taken place at the the Hall Winery in Napa Valley, which apparently boasts 14,000 square feet worth of caves, including the very luxe dining room where the mayor hosted his event. The website describes it thusly: “Rutherford Chandelier Room is brought to life by Donald Lipski’s magnificent ‘Chilean Red’ chandelier, which is adorned with 1,500 Swarovski crystals. The cherry wood table below features illuminated onyx and reflects the chandelier’s beauty.” Here are the now-famous pics snapped by Recode reporter Teddy Schleifer.

It’s not France, but I guess it will do.*

Correction, Dec. 20, 2019: This post originally misstated that Buttigieg’s fundraiser took place in a wine cellar. It was in a legitimate wine cave.