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Earthquake Strikes California's Central Coast Wine Regions

Wineries such as Justin and Turley lost numerous barrels of wine, but damage was minimal at most producers.

Lynn Alley
Posted: December 23, 2003

Wineries in California's Central Coast were rocked by a strong earthquake on Monday morning. The quake, which struck at 11:16 a.m., registered a magnitude of 6.5 on the Richter scale and was reportedly felt as far away as San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"It was like standing on a boat deck," said Paso Robles vintner Mat Garretson of Garretson Wine Co., who had just finished moving and securing a 2,000-gallon tank in his winery when the quake hit. "The press was jumping up and down like an old washing machine."

According to reports, the most damage occurred in Paso Robles, a community of more than 26,000 residents that has become one of California's hottest winemaking areas in recent years. The historic clock tower building in downtown Paso Robles collapsed during the quake, killing two people and crushing cars.

Damage to many of the area's wineries appears to be minimal, though some have lost wine in barrels, bottles in tasting rooms were smashed, and at least one worker was injured by a falling barrel.

"We got shaken up and lost a few bottles of wine, but nobody got hurt," said Cheryl Colbert, a bookkeeper at Adelaida Cellars in Paso Robles, one of the few wineries that was reachable on Monday as power and phone connections were out in much of the area.

As service was being restored, the overall picture of the damage became clearer on Tuesday. Typical were wineries such as Eberle and Peachy Canyon, which reported losing small amounts of wine and breakable items in their tasting rooms.

But other wineries were harder hit, particularly those located on Paso Robles' west side (the region west of Highway 101) and in the Templeton gap, south of town. Among them is Justin Vineyards & Winery, at the far western end of Paso Robles. "We're probably closer to the quake's epicenter than anybody else," said Ron Rawlinson, who is in charge of retail and Internet sales for the winery. "It was about 10 miles from here."

Winery owner Justin Baldwin broke his nose when he slipped coming out of his house, which sustained structural damage. "In the winery itself, any barrels that were stacked over two barrels high came down," said Rawlinson. "We've lost at least hundreds of gallons of wines, including the 2002 Isosceles."

Justin also lost hundreds of bottles in the tasting room, and the wine soaked into the carpets. "Right now," Rawlinson said, "I'm in our tasting room, cleaning up the damage and hoping to reopen on Friday. We've called all of our dining-room and B-and-B guests and canceled at least through the weekend. We had to cancel two big weddings this weekend too."

Turley Wine Cellars, not far from Highway 101, also sustained substantial losses when stacks of barrels fell down. Winemaker Ehren Jordan flew back from the East Coast after hearing the news yesterday afternoon. "The winery looks like a Dr. Seuss book, with fanciful sculptures all over the place," he said. "It's like a house of cards."

Jordan estimates that Turley lost 60 to 100 barrels of wine from the 2002 and 2003 vintages. "It's sad to see all that wine on the ground. … The 2002 was extraordinary. We're salvaging some of it, but it's just a question of how many barrels exploded when they hit the ground. The guys said it was like a river of wine coming out of the barrel room yesterday."

At Wild Horse Winery in nearby Templeton, winemaker Ken Volk said one employee broke a rib when a barrel fell on her. He said the winery has no apparent structural damage. "I have a feeling we've sustained somewhere between a 3 percent and 5 percent barrel loss and modest case goods losses. A lot of the barrels are in precarious positions right now."

Volk added, "I've seen a lot of earthquakes, but this is the first time I've ever seen the ground ripple."

Small wineries may have the toughest time recovering. Tiny Dover Canyon Winery, also on Paso's west side, lost most of its 2003 Syrah when its barrels were damaged. "At one point, wine was flowing out from underneath the French doors onto the pebble driveway," said co-owner Mary Baker, who was busy cleaning up. "Right in the middle of it all, an SUV pulled up and wanted to know if we were tasting today."

Baker said they lost some of their 1- and 2-year-old French oak barrels. "We've got 7 tons of old-vine Zinfandel in stainless-steel tanks right now, waiting to be barreled down. We don't have any barrels left and we desperately need about 10 barrels."

Other area vintners have been pitching in to help those less fortunate. Aside from cleaning up broken glass in his tasting room, Garretson said, "Mostly, I've been reaching out to other wineries who have called asking to borrow equipment. I've sent my crew over to other wineries to help clean up."

But cleanup in the wineries is difficult because of the continuing aftershocks. "With barrels precariously perched on top of one another, that's very unstable," Rawlinson said.

Outside of Paso Robles, the effects of the quake were less severe. In the Santa Ynez Valley, about 75 miles south of Paso Robles, Kim Nunez was working at Sanford Winery when the quake hit. "We ran out of the building when the quake hit," she said. "We felt one of the aftershocks, but nothing here was damaged." Power was knocked out at Sanford's production facility.

Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande likewise suffered little damage, said owner Brian Talley. "We lost two cases of wine in the tasting room that fell off the shelves, and the top part of our fountain fell down. But nothing else appeared to be damaged or broken."

This quake apparently struck within the Nacimiento-Hosgri fault zone, about 7 miles northeast of the coastal town of San Simeon, although the exact fault has not been determined. "[The zone] runs parallel to the coast and maybe 10 miles inland," said Robert Dollar, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey office in Pasadena, Calif. "This area is riddled with faults."

At least some vintners were able to maintain a sense of humor about the situation. Eric Ogorsolka, owner of Zenaida Winery in west Paso Robles, , lost about six barrels of wine and a 2,500-gallon stainless-steel tank sprung a leak. He quipped, "We're gonna put a damaged lot on Ebay and call it the 'Survivor Lot.'"

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