14 Oct Cave Tour and Wine Tasting at Luna Rossa
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect–we were going in blind. We purchased a Groupon for a cave tour and wine tasting in Stillwater, which is about a 30-minute drive from Minneapolis. Stillwater is an adorable town right along the St. Croix River—even though I haven’t spent much time in the town, it is one of my favorite spots to soak up fall. An array of multicolored trees lining the river and rocky bluffs sandwich the main street that runs through town, and it creates a scenery like no other when browsing the shops and restaurants on a crisp, sunny fall day.
In the five or so times that I have ventured to Stillwater, I had never thought that the rocky bluffs contained mysterious caves with a rich and interesting history. They are natural sandstone caves that were eventually carved out further by people looking to utilize them for business, and over the course of the caves’ history, they have been home to many different establishments. Little did I know, these were the caves that we were about to explore: the Joseph Wolf Caves.
The restaurant, Luna Rossa, owns the caves that are attached to the restaurant, and just this past spring they decided to open up the caves for tours. The cave’s entrance is located in the back of the restaurant, and as we walked through the cave, we were handed a glass of white wine and were guided through the various rooms to learn more about the caves and how they turned into what they are now.
Because there was a natural spring inside of the cave, Martin Wolf decided the cave would be a perfect spot to open a brewery in the late 1800’s. After a couple of ownership transitions and a fire, the brewery finally settled into the hands of Joseph Wolf and his sons in 1896. They ran a successful operation all the way to the Prohibition—1919 was their most successful year, but their success didn’t last much longer due to the Prohibition starting in 1920. Even though his sons tried to convince him to continue brewing beer in the depths of the cave, Joseph Wolf was an honest man, and he decided that he would create soda pop until the ban was lifted. Unfortunately, he died before Prohibition ended and the brewery ended up closing.
After the closure of the brewery/soda shop, the caves were rented out to other businesses, and at one point, they were even home to a bomb shelter in the 1950’s. One owner decided to flood the caves and started to offer underground boat tours, which turned out to be a big success. At some point, a window was cut out of the cave wall so that restaurant goers could see into the “lake” and watch the boaters float by. The tables near the window would book up months in advance, as it was such a romantic spot for a date.
Eventually, the restaurant went down hill and the river was drained. The current owners took over in 2002—they turned the place around, and now it is a successful Italian restaurant that I would love to try one day. Once we learned the history of the caves and heard some great stories about what went on inside, we made our way back to the long table in one of the rooms of the cave. The table was set up and waiting for us with an assortment of snacks and a fill of red wine.
Tours through the cave last 30 minutes and can be added to a wine tasting or a meal. Be sure to dress in layers as the caves got a bit chilly after standing around for almost an hour. The only thing I didn’t like about the tour was the size of our group—there were around 30 people on the tour and it made it a bit hard to hear and focus on what our guide was saying. Also, as it was a wine tasting, I thought we would be sampling a variety of wines rather than just being offered two glasses. But, thankfully, these two concerns weren’t big enough to make the entire tour a bust. Even though the tour wasn’t exactly what I had imagined, it was definitely a fun time and I really enjoyed learning about the history of the caves. My only regret is that I wasn’t around to take a boat ride through the cave when it was still flooded with water!