The bumper sticker on Napa vintner and viticulturist Steve Matthiasson's truck reads, "Mother nature always bats last." That she did this morning at 3:20 a.m. when a 6.0 earthquake hit the famed valley.
From his house on the outskirts of the town of Napa, Matthiasson could see the flames of burning houses. Though his 110-year-old farmhouse came off its foundations and its chimney crumbled, he didn't realize the epicenter was just south of Napa. He assumed the quake center had been San Francisco -- and if it was, he couldn't imagine what was happening there.
Matthiasson, one of Napa's top viticulturists and the San Francisco Chronicle's Winemaker of the Year, keeps wines he makes for his small family winery in three facilities. Right after the quake, he drove right over to the nearest one, and found every single barrel there had been tossed down into a huge pile.
Some of his other wines, including Chardonnay, are stored at Napa Barrel Care at the southern end of Napa, just west of Highway 29. There, he says, at least a thousand barrels were knocked over. It's standard at wine storage facilities for barrels to be stacked six high. Fortunately, most of them seem to be holding their wine.
That's the good thing. But, as Matthiasson says, "It's going to be incredibly difficult and dangerous to disentangle those barrels. They weigh 900 pounds each."
Fortunately, the earthquake happened in the middle of the night. Can you imagine working in one of those facilities when those 900-pound barrels started flying?
Wineries up and down the valley have the same problem: All the barrels tumbled down into the middle of the cellars. The question is how do you salvage the barrels and the wine? Right now, most wineries have just cordoned off the area. It's too dangerous and unstable to enter.
But something has to be figured out -- and soon. The harvest is starting and everyone will need room for the new wine. They're just trying to figure out what to do at this point.
Matthiasson hasn't even listened to the news. He's spent the day cleaning up the mess of broken things in his house. The good news is that his contractor has put him on the list for a house raiser.
"It's so weird because it's such a beautiful day and the grapes are tasting delicious," says Matthiasson. Come Monday, "I guess we'll get right back to harvesting. I have fruit scheduled to come in every day this week, if we can figure out where to put the wine."
He admits that he's at a step removed because he rents the space for his barrel storage. "I can't do anything. I'm powerless."
Meanwhile, "the fruit is coming in for a record harvest. The weather is fantastic so far. The quality is fantastic so far. It's almost as if this year was too good to be true. Instead of rain or hail, we had an earthquake to screw it up."