Earthquake Rattles Bottles and Nerves in Northern California Wine Country


The earthquake that struck Northern California on Oct. 17 could have been a tragedy for California wineries, especially to those in the Santa Cruz Mountains just west of the epicenter in Hollister, but no injuries were reported and there was only a minimal amount of wine lost.

However, the quake left many wineries in a shambles, with a long clean-up process ahead. Coming, as it did, after a difficult harvest, complete with damaging rains, the quake created more sleepless nights and untold hours of work for crews that had looked forward to a rest.

But there were bright spots: "Thank God for the World Series or we might have been killed," said Val Ahlgren, co-owner with her husband, Dex, of the small Ahlgren Winery in Boulder Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

"We had been working in the cellar, but we quit early to watch the Series game," said Val. The quake struck at 5:04 p.m., just as the pregame show for World Series Game Three was starting. When the quake hit, it tossed barrels about in the cellar and anyone standing in the small work area would have been crushed, she said. Instead, Val and Dex were in their home, above the winery, and were uninjured.

Bob Roudon at Roudon-Smith Winery in Santa Cruz said he and his crew had just quit work at 5 p.m. "We were in the parking lot when it hit," he said. Barrels tumbled off barrel stacks, scattering here and there and spraying wine all around the winery.

"Lots of barrels were smashed, and we lost some of the bungs," he said, adding that most of the loss was in expensive Chardonnay. The winery, which he and partner Jim Smith designed, suffered no structural damage, however. "We designed it to flex quite well," Roudon said.

"We haven't been able to assess what we've lost yet, but it looks like it'll be about 30% of the (1989) crush," he said.

"Our big mistake is how we stacked the barrels, barrel on barrel, and when the quake hit, they just squirted off the stacks. We're just grateful no one was hurt."

Barrel Racks Split

At Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, barrels were on racks, but half of the barrel racks split apart, "and barrels just tumbled everywhere," said Jeff Emery, wine maker. "But I have yet to see a broken barrel, and most of the bungs stayed in."

The wine library, including bottles of every wine the winery had made as well as old and rare French wines, was hard hit. Emery estimated that owner Ken Burnap lost about a third of his collection, including a bottle of 1945 La Mission Haut-Brion and a range of older Bordeaux and Burgundies.

Moreover, the pile of barrels that remains "is very unstable so it's dangerous to move them." Immediately after the quake, he began pumping wine into the seven empty barrels he had.

Longer Maceration

Moreover, a tank of Cabernet Sauvignon "should be pressed off today, but it'll have to wait." The wine has macerated on the skins for seven days. "What the hell, in the old days we used to leave the wine on the skins 21 days, so I guess we'll make this one like those.

"I was going on vacation in two weeks, but that ain't happening now," Emery said.

A number of wineries that ferment their wines at cold temperatures and need refrigeration to maintain low temperatures said the loss of power for two days may have hurt the quality of the wine. But most said they couldn't say yet what the effect will be.

Some wineries were luckier than others. At Bonny Doon Vineyard , no wine was lost, either from barrel or tank, and no bottles were broken, said Patrice Boyle, assistant to owner Randall Grahm, who was cleaning up the cellar when the winery was called.

"A couple of barrels fell onto the rack below, but nothing broke," said Boyle.

Losses Reported

Losses were reported at David Bruce Winery, Bargetto and Devlin in the Santa Cruz Mountains, as well as J. Lohr Winery in San Jose. Hallcrest and Ridge reported no serious losses.

A number of cases of wine stored at California Wine Transport in San Jose were lost when stacks of boxes of wine fell over. But even there the losses were minimal. Marcia Ljubojevic, vice president of finance at Ridge, said about 3,000 cases tipped over, but that only eight cases of wine were lost.

Val Ahlgren said her wine cellar was "so full (of barrels) that they all came together like popcorn in a bowl. The wine library is a mess, but when the barrels came down, none of them broke, and we don't see a bung out." The cellar is "very precarious, so we'll wait until after the worst aftershocks before we move in there and try to organize stuff we can move. It's like giant pickup sticks."

Things were so tossed about in their house that they initially cleared a path to the bathroom, to the sink and the telephone, and then slept outside on a porch.

"And we look up at the stars and the moon and they're all still in the right place," she said.

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