A Firsthand Account From Chile

Derek Mossman Knapp of Garage Wne Co. recounts the first days following the recent earthquake
Mar 2, 2010

Derek Mossman Knapp, a native of Canada, has lived in Chile for the past 20 years. During his last 10 years in Chile, Mossman Knapp, 45, has made wine, working as founder and head of Garage Wine Co. and as a member of Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes (MOVI) a small group of independent wine growers that include Viña La Reserva de Caliboro, Flaherty, Agricola La Viña and others. Here is his firsthand account of his experience following the earthquake that struck southern Chile on Saturday morning.

(Note: this account has also been posted at Mr. Mossman Knapp's site, www.garagewineco.cl. For continuing updates on the status of wineries in Chile, please refer to the comments on my previous blog post.)

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Wine is not a very earthquake-proof business. It's liquid, and however it is stored, it's messy when the earth shakes at 8.8 [on the Richter scale]. Legs on stainless steel tanks buckle, barrels stacked on racks in barrel rooms teeter and crash and literally bounce. Glass bottles make a big bloody mess. The deep crimson color all over the floor makes everything all the more surreal.

Day 1: Saturday - 3:30 a.m., Santiago

The windows rattled, the earth moaned, then Santiago shook, hard. We grabbed the kids and rushed out of the house crashing against the walls, unable to stand up during the quake. We spent the better part of two real minutes holding on to the doorframe and the kids. Then the electricity was gone.

My wife's Chilean earthquake reflexes soon kicked in and we swiftly filled the tub with water (now brown) found the torches/flashlights, turned off the gas and cleaned up the broken glass. Afterward, I sat outside in the car listening to the radio and realized Santiago hadn't received the worst of it; Maule had. The epicenter was close to Cauquenes. We make an old-vine Carignane from there and have many friends in the business with old adobe cellars and homes. Then the hillside of San Cristobal behind our house slid and a dust cloud hung over the neighborhood.

Power was restored the next morning. Highway overpasses and cloverleaves down all around Santiago were the first images on the TV. Internet came back mid-morning and Twitter connected me to others. The phones were useless.

A seven on the Richter scale is a big shake, but Santiago for the most part fast became a bubble of normality. On Saturday authorities asked people who were OK to stay at home. Having watched the first images of the roads on the news it was clear it wasn't a good idea to go out in the car and be the first to discover the heaved pavement and/or a fallen overpass.

So we swam with the children in the neighbor's pool. The pool was substantially emptied by the quake. My three-year-old's toes didn't touch the surface as he tried to dip his feet. Freezers had thawed in the night without power so the menu was "Angus beef before it spoils."

All the while we knew friends were having a brutal time of it. Our little lunch party next to the pool was odd and distorted. I guess we were trying to be normal for the children. The earth continued to shake in aftershocks. Our minds were in the Maule valley and the city of Concepción, where we have many friends. No word from anyone down there. Authorities asked all to refrain from using the telephone unless absolutely necessary. We managed to e-mail dozens of friends and spoke to a few who'd heard from others.

At nightfall, doors were left open (so as not to jam in the event of ...). The kids didn't want to sleep.

Day 2: Sunday in Pirque and Alto Maipo

Sunday I worked with the staff of William Fevre Chile in the Alto Maipo (where my small company makes its wines), saving barrels one by one. If Saturday was odd, Sunday was surreal. The fumes of the propane forklift in the confined cellar made my head spin. There was no power to run the ventilation fans, just more aftershocks—threes and fours now.

On route south there was little traffic and lots of big cracks in the roads. Gas stations had lines for gas of 50 to 60 cars and people were lined up everywhere to buy bread on the roadside. In Pirque approaching the bodega a corn silo leaned over like that tower in Pisa. Driving in, one could smell the first waft of winery hundreds of meters from the cellar door. Most of the William Fevre staff had already spent Saturday cleaning up.

The first hand had arrived at dawn, passing by the cellar on his bicycle when he heard what he thought was water running. Two tanks were damaged (he would find another later) so he performed a modified Australian emptying from the leaking tank into an empty one with hose and gravity. When the two tanks evened out, half and half, he then changed the hoses again and saved half of the remaining half into yet another tank. Effectively he saved three quarters of not one but two tanks of Grand Cuvee 2008 before the sun had come up and without power. He's 21 and his name is Cristian. The rest of Saturday was spent cleaning up broken tanks, moving the contents of the stainless steel tanks with buckled legs and mopping up two more.

Sunday, it was time for the barrel room. Dozens of barrels had toppled down onto others, breaking barrelheads and joints, bungs popping all over. With the help of two very skilled forklift drivers and a dozen dedicated winery hands we started bringing the teetering barrels down to the ground and organizing them by lot in the main reception area. Work went on and on for hours. We were making a dent and saving dozens of barrels. We were all on an adrenaline rush. At some point the air quality got worse but no one noticed. At one point I was so dizzy I walked outside into the breeze to see the managing director Gonzalo Pino storming up in his pickup with drinks and bread. Then we all sat around enjoying Bilz (an awful Chilean cream soda) from the stemware from the tasting room. In this communion, dead tired, we found our way to smiles and then humor. Odd, yet cathartic.

Day 3: Monday in San Juan and Alto Maipo

Today, I managed to get gas and am heading back out to Pirque. There is a lot more work to be done. An irrigation canal has been seriously damaged by a slide. We'll be walking along the banks of the Maipo River, inspecting and clearing rocks out before it can be reopened.

On route, news arrives from Viña Rukumilla, one of our partners in MOVI, of the passing of José Pizarro, their winery's first hand and maestro extraordinaire since the building of the cellar. Suddenly I must slow for a rather big bump between two sections of pavement on the Ruto 5 Sur.

What we lived through in Chile over the weekend was a very big bump. It cannot be measured in lost liters. Nor by insurance adjusters or even by Mr. Richter himself. Hundreds of people living earnest and vibrant lives just days ago, preparing for harvest, vacationing on the seacoast and doing so many other things, are no longer with us tonight. My humblest thoughts and prayers are with their families. I can only begin to imagine what all of them have been through but tomorrow, early, many will be hard at work rebuilding one of the most naturally spectacular countries on earth. A seismic country of quakes and volcanoes with crazy geography that most only know for its fruits and wines.

Chile will rebuild what Mother Nature broke this past Saturday. We'll do it whilst we change governments and whilst Chilean soldiers continue to head up the mission in Haiti. We shall rebuild, where and what is necessary, industry by industry, town by town, roof by roof and barrel by barrel.

You can help us because Chile is a country of traders. They say we have more free trade agreements than any other nation on earth. Let's see. Chilean products travel all over the world and most likely they are on the shelf just down the street from where you are now. What we need most right now is your business, so we can rebuild and, yes, bounce back.

More Chile Earthquake

See More

Chile's Wine Industry Estimates $250 Million Loss

Mar 3, 2010

Powerful Earthquake Rocks Chilean Wine Industry

Mar 1, 2010

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