Napa Valley's Vines Prove Resilient to Torrential Rains

Times Staff Writer

In a warehouse at the Sutter Home winery here, workers picked through a pile of soggy cardboard last week, fishing out muddy bottles for cleaning and repacking.

Only a week earlier, the warehouse had contained 20,000 neatly piled cases of Zinfandel. Then the raging Napa River toppled most of them during torrential rains.

"It was bad news," winery spokesman Walter Hampe said the other day. "The river just cut a swath right through the winery. Some of our equipment was swept downstream."

Outside, scraps of paper--the company's records for the last 15 years--lay drying on what remained of a concrete driveway. Over by the employee housing complex, a worker carefully hung the soggy remnants of his prized comic book collection on a clothesline.

Although Napa County, the heart of California's wine country, suffered an estimated $56 million in damage to homes, roads and businesses, the vines that sustain its economy with Zinfandels and Cabernets demonstrated a surprising resilience.

About 12,000 acres of vines--a little more than one third of the valley's total--were submerged, some under five feet of water, but they sustained only minimal damage. In fact, fewer than 150 of the more than 1 million vine plants in the valley were destroyed, officials estimated.

"We don't anticipate any effect on the quality or quantity of our wines," Hampe said.

The growers and vintners will have to spend about $15 million, however, to repair broken levees, pumping stations and trellises and to prune and to clean up the vineyards, the Napa Valley Agriculture Commission estimates.

There is a sense of urgency about the cleanup because the vines must be pruned before they bud during the next six weeks. Heaters and pumps must be repaired before the April frosts that can damage young buds.

Napa Valley Vineyard Co., which manages 2,000 acres of vines, estimates it will cost at least $200 per acre to prune vines and remove debris. Some of the worst damage to the company's property was at the Silverado Winery and Vineyards, where a levee broke, cutting off access by road to 50 to 60 acres of vines. Until the road is repaired, pruning crews must sludge through foot-deep mud to get to the back acres.

It will be several months before the privately owned levee is rebuilt, at a cost of $200,000, but a temporary road will be constructed this week, said Drew Aspergen, the management company's engineer.

Some winery and vineyard owners were reluctant to discuss their damages last week. They said they feared that the flow of tourists--a significant source of income to many wine-country businesses--would slow if people believe the area is devastated.

But by all accounts, the disastrous flood did comparatively little damage to the area's major industry, which accounts for 85% of the agriculture in Napa County and brought in $75 million in gross sales last year.

"It's the focal part of our economy," said Lowell Smith, mayor of St. Helena, in an interview last week.

Situated in the center of the Napa Valley, St. Helena is surrounded by the valley's highest concentration of wineries and vineyards. Businesses and restaurants on Main Street cater to refined tastes. The local coffee shop sports an impressive wine list, and the bookstore displays gourmet wine and cooking books. Garbage cans made from old wine casks line a two-mile stretch of highway.

"Everything is drying out here very fast," Smith said. "Last week we had currents running through town carrying all kinds of debris, and this week spring is here."

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