Napa earthquake tosses wine barrels and bottles into piles
In the heart of wine country, the rare bottles and quarter-ton oak barrels began tumbling shortly after a magnitude 6.0 earthquake rattled the region Sunday morning.
David Duncan, president and chief executive of Silver Oak Wine, rushed to his winery in the pre-dawn hours to discover hundreds of shattered bottles strewn across a cellar floor.
“They were very special,” Duncan said from his headquarters in Oakville, Calif., 12 miles north of Napa. “They’re all blends we make from quite a few vineyards that we keep separate.”
Across Napa Valley, winemakers were grappling with the aftermath of the strongest temblor felt in the area in decades. Although there was little damage to facilities and equipment, there were vast stores of wine in barrels and bottles that were jolted, and in some cases destroyed.
The quake could not have come at a more critical time for an industry that generates $13.3 billion annually for Napa County’s economy. Growers are in the midst of a major harvest, brought on several weeks earlier than usual because of drought.
Adam Fox, managing director of Canard Vineyard in Calistoga, said his winemaker raced to the company’s barrel storage facility in Napa to survey the damage.
“It’s particularly disconcerting this time of year because we’re getting close to harvest and crush,” Fox said. “You can’t afford damage to your fermentation tank or water lines. If all your barrels came crashing, where are you going to get new ones in time?”
Viticulturist Steve Matthiasson found all the barrels toppled into a huge pile at one facility he rents to store wine. At another on the southern end of Napa, just west of California 29, at least 1,000 barrels were knocked over.
“It’s going to be incredibly difficult and dangerous to disentangle those barrels. They weigh 900 pounds each,” Matthiasson said.
He has even more problems to deal with: His 110-year-old farmhouse came off its foundation, and its chimney crumbled.
Matthiasson tweeted a picture of toppled wood barrels at the facilities and wrote: “All of our 2013 red barrels are on the ground; don’t know how much wine is lost.”
Winemakers often stack wine barrels on metal racks with wheels to maximize space. Some are piled 30 feet high, which makes it particularly dangerous if they fall.
“Everyone is checking their wineries now,” said Sean Maher, principal of Maher Advisors, a wine industry consultant in St. Helena. “The big question is the barrels.”
Duncan of Silver Oak said his main storage room, where hundreds of barrels are kept, was largely unharmed. He was able to salvage three barrels that fell to the ground and leaked.
“We had a fire in 2006, so we rebuilt things to withstand an earthquake,” Duncan said. “It worked very well.”
Andre Brooks wasn’t so lucky. The associate winemaker for Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa discovered one barrel room of red wine in disarray.
“Messy,” he said. “It looks like a collapsed Jenga pile.”
Luckily, many of the barrels were empty.
“The barrels bounce better than you think, and they can always be repaired,” Brooks said.
Barrels in use today probably would be storing the region’s 2013 wines for aging and some of the early 2014 harvest. The industry’s 2012 vintage would have already been bottled and wrapped in cases that would make them less susceptible to earthquake damage.
“They’d be on palettes that wouldn’t move,” Maher said.
T.J. Evans, winemaker at Domaine Carneros in Napa, said a 3,000- and 6,000-gallon tank filled with sparking wine showed signs of minor damage after swaying from their concrete moorings.
Power was out briefly, leaving no way for coolant to calm the hot fermentation of the wine. The winery’s barrels, however, were undisturbed.
“We’re extraordinarily lucky,” Evans said. “We have a little survivor’s guilt.”
The temblor comes as the wine industry in Napa is harvesting mostly pinot noir and a variety of white wine grapes. The heavier reds such as merlot and cabernet won’t be harvested for a few weeks.
Duncan of Silver Oak said the quake would do little to damage the 2014 vintage.
“For the wine industry, this earthquake won’t be that disruptive,” Duncan said.
The wine industry has high hopes for this year’s 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,” Matthiasson said. “Instead of rain or hail, we had an earthquake to screw it up.”
Times staff writer S. Irene Virbila contributed to this report.
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