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Clayton Korte Crafts a Stunning Wine Cave on a Hill Country Ranch

How the architect designed an underground cave to hold 4,000 wine bottles and entertain guests

Brian Korte likens a secluded, private Hill Country wine cave project to creating a ship in a bottle.

The principal behind architectural design firm Clayton Korte was tasked with designing a wine storage and entertainment space, within an existing man-made cave, on the side of a hill on a 3,000-acre ranch spanning across the Blanco River. And the result is nothing short of stunning — and award winning. The design boasts several accolades (including the Architizer A+ Award, Gray Award, Architecture MasterPrize Award, Residential Architect Design Award, Luxe Red Awards — National and Regional, Residential Design Architecture Award, AIA San Antonio People + Places Merit Award and Architect’s Newspaper Best of Design Award) — just to name a few.

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When Korte was brought on board the build, the owner and his team had already excavated a cave for the purpose of storing wine. They had originally hoped to unearth a real cave, which isn’t unusual in the area, but when that didn’t happen after digging roughly 75 feet, they decided to transform the empty tube within the hill into a wine cave. Korte, who has worked with several Central Coast area wineries in California to design their vino storage facilities, was called upon to turn the open area into a place the owner could not only store their 4,000 (and growing) wine collection by leveraging the cool subterranean temperature but also entertain friends and family in a fun getaway from the ranch’s main home.

“It’s kind of romantic, in a way, to store your wine underground, kind of like a hobbit,” Korte laughs.

Given its underground nature, the space was not water tight, nor temperature controlled, proving it a difficult place to actually store the bottles of wine, which need to be at a constant 55 to 58 degrees. So, Korte and his team crafted essentially a wooden box insert (the aforementioned “ship in a bottle”) that would slide into the cave. However, they faced challenges in preserving the cave, while also working within the confines of the cave’s mouth to provide a predictable surface to wed the wooden insert, which not only restrains any loose limestone but can also be completely removed and unassembled should that ever be desired.

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“By carefully manipulating the solids and voids of a wooden-box insert, the cave could be concealed and revealed to the occupant, leveraging the good qualities of subterranean construction while protecting from unwanted moisture and darkness,” Korte explains.

The result is nothing short of spectacular. Not only is there enough room for the 4,000 wine bottles in the back but also a wooden bar and comfortable lounge at the front of the cave, as well as a small restroom, so that anyone who indulges would not need to make the five-minute trek back to the main house. The space, while being literally underground, is both modern and sophisticated but also warm and inviting. Because it is built into the side of a hill and blends so seamlessly with its landscape, the wine cave is almost imperceptible until you are in front of its north-facing entrance.

“When you approach the cave, you don’t necessarily see the whole thing right away because of the elevation you’re at and the floor elevation of the cave is several feet lower. So you descend into this little courtyard space, and then things kind of become revealed as you move into it,” Korte says. “It’s quite unexpected. There’s a bit of mystery there.”

Simple, yet rich, domestic materials were chosen for practicality, availability within 500 miles of the project site (mostly from San Antonio or Austin) and for minimal maintenance. Almost all of the wood finishes, vertical grain Douglas fir and white oak, were sourced by Alamo Hardwoods in San Antonio. Salvaged cedar live-edge planks were used for the island top and vanity and were sourced from local sawmill Dupont Cabinetry & Design located in Maxwell. The cedar originated from felled trees in the area as a result of a major 200-year river flood that decimated some incredible cedar and cypress trees, and this project gave those slabs a new life. Dropped wooden ceilings act as a warm contrast to the rugged concrete and stone that surrounds the interior.

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Sleek, muted palettes of gray, black and beige from the custom furniture, steel and leather seats, oak table and chairs, and cowhide rug allow the real star of the space — the wine — to be the focal point, along with the complex construction and preservation of the cave itself. Given that there is literally no exterior, as the cave is built into the side of the hill, the space is all interiors with the exception of its entry to connect to the landscape and bring in the light.

“This project is an instrument; a tool or museum that not only provides the utility of proper preservation of wine but also provides a privileged perspective to the occupant. This sense of prospect and refuge as you approach and eventually enter into the cave is a central tenet of the design. It maintains one’s sense of subterranean occupation without the overwhelming environmental conditions that would make one seek to leave. In this way, the cave can be appreciated from the safety of the interior space in the same way the stars can be appreciated from the relative safety of Earth,” Korte says.