This story was updated Jan. 28.
It was a crimson tide last week in California's Sonoma County, as a 100,000-gallon blending tank at Rodney Strong Winery in Healdsburg spilled thousands of gallons of Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon into the nearby Russian River, coloring the riverbanks red. Winery officials indicated that cleanup efforts are ongoing, and that they are investigating what appears to have been a mechanical failure.
"One positive note is that there still have been zero affects recorded on the wildlife and ecosystem around the Russian River," said Christopher O'Gorman, communications director for Rodney Strong, noting that the Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation group for the river, and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) had over 50 volunteers monitoring the river throughout the weekend. "We were relieved to hear that," said O'Gorman, citing the winery's commitment to environmental stewardship.
"We can't say there was no impact," said Russian Riverkeeper executive director Don McEnhill. "But in the context of spills, wine is a lot less bad than raw sewage. The worst case scenario is we have dead fish, but luckily that did not occur."
McEnhill says the nonprofit group will continue to monitor the river. "The next step is examining the lower level of the food chain. We know there was some impact and what our team is doing now is determining the extent. One way we assess the health of stream is measuring macro organisms (things that live in sediment that are food for fish). It can take several weeks to determine the concentration of pollutants and if there was a potential loss of nutrition."
The winery, founded in 1959 by Sonoma County wine pioneer Rodney Strong, is one of the largest operations in the county. It has been a model for sustainable and environmental practices for over two decades, including being the first carbon-neutral certified winery in the county.
O'Gorman stated that they have ruled out human error in the spill and that the door to the tank unexpectedly popped open. He said his team promptly notified the California Office of Emergency Response, Healdsburg Fire department and CDFW, and worked urgently to control the flow of wine.
The wine spilled into the drainage on the cellar floor and flowed through underground pipes that empty into wastewater ponds on the property. The flow of wine was too fast, and the drainpipes quickly became overwhelmed, leaking back out of the winery and traveling about 25 yards to a nearby creek that feeds into the river.
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O'Gorman believes that they were able to divert approximately 50 percent of the wine from the waterways, captured by pumps, drainpipes and vineyard ponds, and supplemental pumping out of the nearby creek. They retained some wine in the tank, but O'Gorman said they winery could not estimate the value of the wine lost—at least 46,000 gallons went into the creek, and potentially more.
"The efforts that Rodney Strong and the emergency crews did were commendable," said McEnhill. "They called it in right away. Moving forward there should be some opportunities to look back and introduce other mitigation tools, all in an effort to make sure if another spill occurs, the outcome will be better."
A similar incident occurred at Napa's Charles Krug Winery in 1979, when a wine waste spill flowed into the Napa River, killing thousands of fish. In that incident, the fish died due to reduced oxygen levels in the water. Generally, wine isn't too harmful, as it's approximately 85 percent water. However, in addition to alcohol, there are trace amounts of acids, such as tartaric and malic, which, in large amounts, can be detrimental to an ecosystem. In the winery's favor, recent rain had raised river levels, reducing the impact of the wine.
Officials from the Sonoma County Water Control Board and CDFW are continuing to investigate effects on the river and whether the winery violated any water quality rules.