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Napa's Wine Community Unbowed After Massive Earthquake

Valley residents and vintners assess the damage and clean up as grape harvest looms

Tim Fish
Posted: August 26, 2014

Napa vintners have spent the past few days sorting through debris and assessing damage after a violent earthquake rocked the valley in the predawn hours of Sunday, Aug. 24.

The 6.1-magnitude quake was the Bay Area’s strongest in 25 years, injuring at least 208 people and inflicting significant damage on many homes, wineries and other businesses in southern Napa Valley. Two patients remained in area hospitals—a Napa teen injured by falling fireplace bricks that broke his pelvis and an adult with a fractured hip.

About 600 of the city’s 20,000 properties remained without water late Aug. 25 as a result of water leaks, Jack Larochelle, Napa’s public works director, told local media. Building inspectors are visiting properties and in some cases "red-tagging" them, meaning they cannot be occupied until their structural integrity is checked. As residents cleaned up on the morning of Aug. 26, three aftershocks struck, one reaching a magnitude of 3.9.

Wineries were among the hardest hit by the initial quake, with floors littered by shattered wine bottles, oak barrels scattered like bowling pins and stainless steel tanks leaking their contents. Amid the chaos came stories of vintners helping neighbors with clean up and opening up tank space in their wineries to store homeless wine.

The shaking started at 3:20 a.m. Pacific Time on Sunday, with the epicenter about six miles southwest of the city of Napa, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Wineries in nearby growing regions such as Carneros, Mt. Veeder, Oakville and Yountville reported the most critical damage.

The historic McIntyre building at Trefethen Vineyards in Yountville, built in 1886, has been visibly sagging since the quake. Janet Trefethen said walls on the second and third floors are now three to four feet to the west of the ground floor. “It kind of looks like you are in a funhouse,” she said of the former winery, which now serves as a visitors center. “Thank God it’s a wooden building. If it was stone and mortar it would have collapsed.”

Trefethen is optimistic that the building can be repaired and is setting up a temporary tasting room to accommodate visitors. In the meantime, she said, “It has just touched my heart the number of friends all over the world who have reached out to us.”

When staff at Saintsbury arrived at the Carneros winery on Sunday, they found nearly 500 barrels, nearly half their stock, strewn around the cellar room. About 50 were damaged beyond repair, although no wine was lost. “We had bottled two weeks ago so we didn’t have any barrels full of wine,” said winemaker Chris Kajani.

Photo Courtesy Hess Collection

Barrels tumbled from their racks at Hess Collection in Mt. Veeder.

Saintsbury did have some wine stored in tanks, and although the tanks shifted as much as a foot, no wine was lost. An outside storage container jumped from its foundation and dumped 4,000 gallons of water into a vineyard. The greatest loss was the winery’s library of old vintages dating back to the 1980s. “It was knee-deep in glass and just a disaster,” Kajani said.

Some wineries just a few miles away, such as Domaine Carneros and Donum Estate, reported no problems. Domaine Carneros winemaker Eileen Crane said the toll was felt nonetheless. “We have two employees who are now homeless,” said Crane.

At The Hess Collection on Mt. Veeder, two 10,000-gallon tanks ruptured and leaked almost 15,000 cases worth of 2013 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon into the surrounding meadow and courtyard, dying the grass purple. Barrels and cases of bottled wine also suffered damage.

At nearby Lagier-Meredith there was little damage at the winery, but its entire stock of 2013 wine was stored at Napa Barrel Care's warehouse, just south of Napa. Dozens of wineries keep barrels there and winemaker Carole Meredith said they were still sifting through the scattered barrels to see what’s what. “It may not be as bad as it looks,” she said. “It doesn’t take much to make a mess.”

Napa Barrel Care was hardly the exception, as winemakers reported widespread problems at other large custom crush and storage facilities. At Napa Wine Company in Oakville, consulting winemaker Aaron Pott reported that some of the 2013 Merlot from his client Blackbird was lost. “The barrels start to jump on those racks,” Potts said. “I think all the barrel houses had problems because they stack the barrels so high.”

Photo Courtesy Hess Collection

A 10,000-gallon stainless steel tank crumpled at Hess Collection, spilling its contents.

Initial reports said that Sonoma winery B.R. Cohn lost thousands of gallons of wine at a Napa winemaking facility, but CEO Dan Cohn said, “It was not as bad as originally anticipated.”

Sean Capiaux, winemaker of O’Shaughnessy Winery and Capiaux Cellars, said one of his grape sources on Mt. Veeder, “has a massive fissure that goes right through the vineyard.” He estimated that the crack was 6 to 8 inches wide with some edges that were elevated 6 inches off the ground. No vines were damaged. While his winery in Angwin was untouched, he described the contents of his Yountville home as “completely tossed.”

The USGS has estimated that damage and economic losses from the quake could top $1 billion, but it will take months to truly gauge the loss. Many wineries don't carry earthquake insurance—policies are expensive. And it may take even longer for frayed nerves to recover. “I’ve lived in California for 55 years and this is the most violent shock I’ve ever felt,” Meredith said.

Crane agreed. “The quake itself was unbelievable. It was a terrifying event. The city of Napa is in real shock.”

The Napa Valley Vintners trade group announced Aug. 27 that it will donate $10 million to create a Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund to help meet the immediate needs of local residents and local businesses impacted by the earthquake. It encourages other organizations and individuals to contribute.

A more immediate issue is harvest 2014, which is about to go into high gear. The grapes are quickly ripening on the vines. Tank and barrel space was already at a premium in 2012 and 2013, and this year’s crop is estimated to be similar in size. Some Napa winemakers will be scrambling to find a home for their wine.

With additional reporting by Augustus Weed.

Photo Courtesy Hess Collection

The Garden at Hess, now died purple with almost 15,000 cases worth of Cabernet.

Jeffrey D Travis
Sarasota, FL —  August 30, 2014 10:51am ET
Is there any harm done to the long term quality of wine stored in barrels from the 2012 & 2013 vintages, if those barrels fell, or were shaken but not damaged quite enough for wine to spill out?
Peter Neilson
Windsor, Ontario, Canada —  August 31, 2014 7:46am ET
We are coming to San Francisco to visit our son and his fiancé in October. They have booked two nights for us in Napa along with a Wine Train dinner/tour, and a number of winery tours. We visit Napa and Sonoma every year while out there, but this will be the first time staying in Napa. Hope others will do the same to help keep your lovely community thriving. Hopefully we can open up a little wine storage space while there. 8-)

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