Pala Casino Spa & Resort
CAVE, a newly-renovated wine bar in the Pala Casino Spa & Resort, opened on May 23.

Friends in Low Places: Underground Wine CAVE Offers 480 Wines

Lynn Armitage

Pala Casino Spa & Resort has raised the hospitality bar for gaming venues by lowering the wine bar. On May 23, the Southern California casino resort, owned and operated by the Pala Band of Mission Indians, opened the CAVE, a new $5.7 million renovation that includes a restaurant, lounge and 2,400-square-foot underground wine cave, complete with a stage for jazz and R & B performers.

“It is the only underground entertainment venue of its kind in San Diego county,” said Pala’s CEO Bill Bembenek. “Our clientele is more mature. We needed to create something unique for that segment.”

The CAVE’s subterranean wine bar will offer over 480 wines from around the world, including the best selections from France, Italy, South Africa, Australia and the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. The CAVE’s wine selection does not include labels from Native vintners. Wine enthusiasts can enjoy vintages by the glass or purchase entire bottles, ranging in price from $20 to $1,200.

This new underground concept is catching on, according to Bembenek. “We heard that other tribes and casinos are planning on building wine caves, too,” but he wouldn’t name names. “It will probably come out relatively soon.”

Bembenek said the tribe has a reputation as a trendsetter. He said the Pala Band of Mission Indians was the first local tribe to build a brick and mortar gaming facility, as well as a full-service spa. “It’s a very forward-thinking tribe and they are very interested in making sure they don’t rest on their laurels and continue to move forward -- not only for tribal members benefitting from the business today, but also for future generations.”

The new 4,300-square-foot CAVE restaurant and lounge, upstairs above the wine bar, replaces Mama’s Cucina Italiana, which had been a popular family restaurant. It serves up a lighter fare of modern Mediterranean cuisine, so more fish and fresh vegetables. To staff the underground wine bar, restaurant and lounge, Pala has added 40 new team members to the payroll, all food and beverage positions.

The CAVE took six months to design and six months to build. And with the projected influx of new customers to Pala, Bembenek said he is confident that even with the most conservative estimates, they will see a return on their $5.7 million investment within a year.

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He said the tribe has been very supportive of the CAVE project. “They see the vision that we see and believe this venue dovetails nicely into what has already been built here,” said Pala’s CEO. “It’s really their vision to make this a resort destination property, rather than just a gaming facility.”

Contributing Business Writer Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. She now wishes she lived in Southern California instead of Northern. 

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