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Wineries Cope With Warehouse Fire's Aftermath

California producers try creative ways to recover from last fall's massive storage-facility blaze

Posted: February 24, 2006

Ted Hall of Long Meadow Ranch lost every bottle the winery owned last October in the fire at the Wines Central warehouse in Vallejo, Calif. So did Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores and dozens of other California vintners. While Hall and Johnson aren't making lemonade, they have resolved not to take life's lemons sitting down.

Johnson salvaged bottles from the storage facility and blended the wine into a new product: Fire-Roasted Zinfandel Barbecue Sauce. "It feels great to have the wine end up as something," Johnson said. "Especially when that something turns out to be pretty tasty with flank steak."

Hall decided to add a new product, too-his first grappa, from the 2005 harvest. "The only approach to these situations is to turn them into opportunities," he said.

An estimated $100 million in wine was lost in the Oct. 12 blaze, which investigators say was deliberately set, though they have yet to name a suspect. Nearly 100 wineries and some 40 private collectors stored about 6 million bottles of wine in the massive concrete bunker.

Vintners are still struggling with the aftermath. Many whose bottles were spared the direct heat of the blaze have yet to decide if those wines are damaged. For many others, negotiating with insurance companies has become a nightmare. Vintners who lost library wines are facing particular frustration; insurers typically pay replacement cost and it's challenging to agree on the value of a 10- or 20-year-old wine.

Saintsbury, Livingston-Moffett and Frazier are among the producers who lost all of their older vintages. When the news got out, Saintsbury's regular customers began donating old wines from their collections. "We won't be able to replace the library," Saintsbury cofounder Richard Ward said. "But we'll have a retrospective tasting in the future just to celebrate our history."

Wineries that lost current or soon-to-be-released wines face the biggest difficulties. "In this business, we live from one harvest to the next," said Delia Viader of Viader Vineyards. In a move typical for many of the vintners, she is releasing her 2004 Viader this fall, four to six months earlier than usual.

Selling futures is another way to keep the money coming in. Von Strasser Winery lost 13,000 cases, including half of its 2002 wines and all of its 2003s. Owner Rudy von Strasser has launched a new program in which customers can take intimate tours of the winery, taste wines from barrels and buy them as futures at a discounted price.

Cash flow isn't the only problem. Vintners with no wine to sell lose their place on restaurant lists and retail shelves. "You work really hard to get the real estate on those wine lists," Hall said. He is keeping the Long Meadow Ranch label in the public eye by releasing a wine that might otherwise have remained an experiment: the winery's first white, a 2005 Sauvignon Blanc from Rutherford.

Creative solutions aside, many vintners are simply crossing their fingers that the insurance money will help them survive the months ahead. Most are trying to keep a healthy perspective, while some, like Kim Frazier of Frazier Winery in Napa, have even maintained a sense of humor. Though the winery lost nearly 3,000 cases of its 2002 wines, Frazier quipped with a laugh, "We tossed around the idea of making vinegar out of it."

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