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California Wineries, Collectors Lose Wines in Warehouse Blaze

Massive fire damages Vallejo facility where Whitehall Lane, Saintsbury, Justin and many others stored new releases and library wines

Tim Fish
Posted: October 13, 2005

Updated Oct. 14, 2005
Millions of dollars of wine were lost in a spectacular blaze at a Northern California wine-storage facility on Wednesday. Wines Central warehouse in Vallejo, just southeast of Napa, stored wine in barrels and case lots for clients that included collectors, big-name wineries and boutique producers still getting established.

Officials at Wines Central could not be reached for comment, but published reports have put the estimated losses of wines and food items at up to $100 million. The facility reportedly stored wine for nearly 100 wineries in Northern California and some 40 private collectors. About 6 million bottles were reportedly inside at the time of the fire.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has locked down the site and is sending 30 agents to investigate the cause of the blaze. As customers are not yet allowed access to the facility, estimating losses is difficult. On Thursday and Friday, many vintners milled on the outskirts of the site, anxious to learn more about their wine.

Many prominent names in California wine kept wine at the facility. Tom Leonardini Sr., owner of Whitehall Lane, said about 5,000 cases of his 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon were stored in the warehouse. "That has a wholesale value of $2.5 million," Leonardini said. "We're insured, but we're crossing our fingers it wasn't all lost, because that was the last of the 2002. We were saving it for the holidays."

Justin Vineyards in Paso Robles had 10,000 cases of wine in the warehouse, including a significant portion of its 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2003 Isosceles, its flagship red blend. "I don't know the extent of the damage," owner Justin Baldwin said. "I assume it's all gone. I have wine stored at another warehouse so we will have an '03 release."

Some wineries may not be so lucky. Von Strasser Winery in Napa Valley had all of its 2003 vintage wines in the facility, and about 90 percent of its 2002s. "I haven't had a chance to go in there or taste the wines," Rudy von Strasser said. "But you have to plan for the worst."

Sherwin Family Vineyards in Napa had 1,600 cases of wine in storage, including all of its 2003 estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the remainder of its stock of 2002. "We have a few large-format bottles from 2003, but otherwise it's gone," Linda Sherwin said. "It's just so bizarre. We had just brought the wine down there Oct. 1."

Juan Mercado of Realm Cellars believes the winery has lost all of its 2003 production of Cabernet Sauvignon and its remaining reserves of 2002. Realm's winemaker, Michael Hirby, also had wines from his own label, Relic, stored there. The entire stock of 2003 wines, about 300 cases, and half of his 2004s, about 250 cases, may be lost. "We had just bottled those 2004s in September and took them in," Hirby's partner, Schatzi Throckmorton, said. "We were really excited about the '04s, so it's a hard loss."

Brice Jones, the founder of Sonoma-Cutrer Winery, believes he has lost the entire debut vintage of his new project, Goldridge. About 1,200 cases of the Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2004 were stored at Wines Central. "Our insurance company is saying it's all lost," Jones said.

Saintsbury, in Carneros, lost little in the way of new-release wines, but its entire wine library--about 2,000 cases dating back to the winery's earliest years--is being written off. "The wines were stored on the mezzanine, which had wood floors, so we're very sanguine about retrieving any of it," said Saintsbury cofounder Richard Ward. The library included many large-format bottles and vertical collections used for tastings. "It's hard to put a value on a lot of those wines. They can't be replaced. The worst part is losing all that history."

The fire started at 3:37 p.m. on Oct. 12 and raged out of control for nearly seven hours despite the efforts of more than 80 firefighters from around the area.

Ironically, the warehouse's unique selling point as a wine-storage facility hampered firefighters. Built in the 1940s, the facility was a former bunker at the decommissioned Mare Island Naval Base; it was once used to store torpedoes and bombs. Its walls and roof are 3-foot-thick reinforced concrete, which offered perfect insulation for wine storage but also limited access to the fire inside.

"All the heat and the flames were contained by the building. It was a very intense and drawn-out process in containing the fire," said Bill Tweedy, public information officer for the Vallejo Fire Department.

The facility was reopened for wine storage in 2002, and the company's Web site reported that the warehouse had a "state-of-the-art" fire-monitoring system. The structure, according to fire officials, sustained about $10 million in damage, but there was no official estimate for the loss of wine. "We're not wine evaluators," Tweedy said. "Most of the 240,000-square-foot building did suffer some sort of damage."

No employees of Wines Central were hurt, and only two firefighters suffered minor injuries, Tweedy said.

While rumors are rampant in the Northern California wine community that the fire was arson, Tweedy cautioned against speculation. "Currently this fire is under investigation due to the fact that it's suspicious in nature, and that's how we treat all fires until we prove otherwise," he said.

This is not the first time that Napa, Sonoma and other North Coast wineries have lost wine in a fire. In 2000, a blaze in a warehouse at Frank-Rombauer Cellars, where many small producers stored their wines, damaged more than 84,000 cases, worth at least $36 million, from 20 wineries. Some of the wines were later picked up by a salvage company and sold with their original labels, prompting lawsuits from angry vintners who didn't want damaged product on the market.

Tweedy said officials should know more about the Vallejo blaze by Sunday or Monday, but it's uncertain when wineries and collectors will have access to their wines.

While most vintners say their wines are insured, their policies vary, and some may take a financial hit. The loss goes beyond money. Producers wonder, for example, what their salespeople will do for a year or two while there is little or no wine to sell. They also worry about losing hard-won placement on retail shelves and restaurant wine lists. "My concern is not financial," Baldwin said. "It's keeping my visibility and my continuity in the marketplace."

For now, vintners say they are crossing their fingers but preparing for bad news. Throckmorton summed it up when she said many vintners are taking solace in the ongoing harvest and the wines that lie in the future. "I think it's important under these circumstance to remain optimistic," she said. "But right now we're in the middle of harvest, and we're just going to focus on getting through that."

--Additional reporting by MaryAnn Worobiec Bovio

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