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Challenging Harvest Gets Harder after Accident at McLaren Vale Winery

A platform holding several large wine tanks suddenly collapsed, spilling thousands of liters of wine and seriously injuring one cellar worker

Tyson Stelzer
Posted: March 7, 2008

Hundreds of thousands of liters of wine were lost and a man was seriously injured when a fermenting tower collapsed at a winery Thursday in McLaren Vale, Australia. A platform supporting 10 fermenting tanks, which each held 45,000 liters, gave way at Wirra Wirra, spilling much of the wine and trapping a 25-year-old cellar hand. The man was rushed to Flinders Medical Centre, where he remains in serious but stable condition, with positive progress reported today.

"We're grateful that more people weren't injured," said Wirra Wirra chief executive Andrew Kay. "The damage that was done was incredible, and it occurred in the middle of a busy vintage day." Initial reports of a loss of 1 million liters of wine were wildly exaggerated, Kay said. "We estimate that there was about 300,000 liters in the tanks," he reported.

Four men were working at large crushing and fermenting equipment underneath the platform, but were able to escape in time to avoid injury. The winery was immediately shut down and investigation of the cause of the collapse in the concrete slab supporting the framework commenced. It is unknown whether the recent construction of catwalks around the fermentors may have contributed to the accident.

"We will be able to put an exact figure on the losses when safety assessors grant us access to the site again," Kay said. "We are still a little way off that point."

The tanks contained both white and red wine. "Some of the wine in the tanks may still be salvageable," Kay said. "And if not, the white is replaceable, although the red will be a little tougher."

The accident could hardly have come at a worse time for Wirra Wirra. It occurred early in what is projected to be a very short vintage. "We're in the middle of a heat wave, and everyone is screaming to get their fruit off the vines," said neighboring winemaker Drew Noon, owner of Noon winery.

The McLaren Vale wine community quickly rallied to support Wirra Wirra. "We've been overwhelmed by the generous offers of assistance that we've received," Kay said. Offers of fruit from growers and of processing facilities from wineries have come in thick and fast. The harvest will go ahead for Wirra Wirra, Kay added, and processing will take place at both the damaged winery and a number of other sites. McLaren Vale winery Coriole was already processing a batch of Wirra Wirra Shiraz just a day after the incident.

"We have been extremely touched by the support and generosity of the community," Kay said, "but I can't say that we've been surprised. There's a strong bond that holds this place together."

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