In the traditional wine countries underground cellars formed part of the production complexes for various reasons. In addition to the practical motivations, they contribute greatly to the mystique of wine.

As a result, all wine countries ended up having underground wine cellars, even though other methods were available to create conditions similar to those in underground cellars. Consequently underground cellars have increasingly become more than simply being a part of the production process; they contribute to the promotion and marketing process of wine and brandy.

As a result of the fact that in the past, the underground cellars served mainly to store barrels, fire prevention in such cellars was never a priority as far as the owners were concerned. Underground cellars are currently being used for visitor routes, wine tastings, banquets and music concerts. In addition to production personnel, hundreds of members of the general public visit such cellars and apart from the barrels, ornamental decorations, lighting and even candles may form part of the cellar furniture. It therefore became necessary to pay professional attention to the fire hazard in underground wine cellars.

Local authorities were initially reluctant to draw up specific and appropriate guidelines for such cellars and the California Fire Code (CFC) was only developed in California in 1998. In terms thereof underground wine cellars fall into one of the following categories:

  • Cellars that are used to store barrels only.
  • Cellars that are used for tastings and guided tours involving a limited number of visitors and
  • Cellars that are used for a large number of visitors.
  • The fire protection and life safety standards obviously increase in line with the potential threats. Although specific prevention prescriptions do not apply to underground wine cellars, Californian cellars took the initiative to assume responsibility and initiated specific actions. The three most important aspects requiring attention are the means of escape, fire detection and alarm systems and fire suppression systems.

One of the core principles of ensuring a safe escape route should a fire occur in an underground cellar, is to provide two exits regardless of the size of the cellar, so as to ensure that an alternative exists should one exit be blocked by a fire. Exit signs are essential, as are illuminated emergency exit signs.

The fire detection and alarm systems in cellars serve various purposes. The primary goal is the timeous detection of a fire and conveying this eventuality to the people inside the cellar so that the necessary evacuation may take place. A smoke detection system will most probably allow more time for the evacuation of the cellar. Fire alarm systems can also be linked to internal responsible persons or departments or even to the local fire authority in order to ensure that the fire fighting action is initiated as quickly as possible.

The installation of automatic sprinkler systems should be considered in the case of other equipment apart from barrels, for example furniture and lighting, being found in cellars. The activation of the sprinkler systems may also serve as an immediate notification to initiate fire fighting actions (Domnitsch, 2006).

In South Africa fire prevention in cellars is regulated by the Occupational Health and Safety Act, number 85 of 1993. In terms thereof specific prescriptions apply concerning regulations that must be adhered to so that the evacuation of a building in the event of a fire may be facilitated, for example the type of doors used for emergency exits, the physical characteristics of stairs and the requirement of at least two exits per building. The prescriptions for fire prevention equipment and relevant actions are determined by the local authorities (Occupational Health and Safety Act & Regulations, 2001).

References:

Domnitsch, Cheryl, L. 2006. Fire Safety in Wine Caves. Wine Business Monthly August 2006: 68 – 71.
Occupational Health and Safety Act & Regulations. Act 85 of 1993. JUTA Law. Lansdowne. Updated 2001. www.winebusiness.com, search “Cave”.

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