An accident at Williams Selyem Winery, in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, may have caused the death of 20-year-old winery worker Taylor James Atkins on Friday, Jan. 8. Atkins was found inside a 1,500-gallon tank and apparently died from asphyxiation.
"We're still trying to figure out exactly what happened," said winery president Jean Arnold. "He was a wonderful person, a fabulous worker and a personal friend of all of us."
The incident underscores the dangers that exist in some commonly performed winery activities -- in this case, the act of moving wine from tank to bottle. During this process, many wineries use nitrogen to protect wine from oxidation. As wine is drained from a tank, it is replaced by inert nitrogen. The gas can quickly overwhelm an unsuspecting individual who enters the empty tank while nitrogen is still present. In November 1997 at nearby Geyser Peak Winery, a 20-year winery veteran died under similar circumstances.
No one at Williams Selyem could explain why Taylor went inside the tank. "That tank was only to be cleaned with a high-pressure washer from the outside," Arnold said. "We had been through all the appropriate [safety] training. He was only missing for a moment."
Taylor had been a full-time employee at Williams Selyem since June. A memorial fund has been set up at WestAmerica Bank in Forestville, Calif. for his family.
To learn more about Williams Selyem Winery:
California Winemakers on the Move
Jean Arnold Takes the Reins at Williams Selyem
New York Vintner to Buy California's Williams Selyem Winery