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Napa quake is a ‘wake up call’ for wineries

A powerful earthquake that rocked winery buildings and threw barrels across cellars near Napa in California should act as a warning to producers, some winemakers believe.

Damage to component wines for blending at Silver Oak Cellars. Image Credit: David Duncan

Many winery workers have been forced to juggle 2014 harvest commitments with clean-up operations following the 6.1 magnitude earthquake that struck in the early hours of Sunday morning and left close to 200 people in hospital, three with serious injuries.

Wineries were still assessing the damage by Wednesday morning. Initial reports varied from those who suffered ruptured tanks and saw barrels and bottles strewn across cellar floors to those who had very little damage at all.

But, there was emerging hope that, despite individual misfortune, not as much wine has been lost as was first feared.

‘Some affected wineries may experience loss of inventory, [but] the earthquake will not have an impact on the overall supply of California wines,’ said California’s Wine Institute.

At Trefethen winery, where ‘barrels were upended and debris from bottles, equipment and furnishings was spewn about property-wide’, most of the 2012 and 2013 vintage wine survived unscathed.

‘While there is no good time for an earthquake to hit, Mother Nature was kind to us in her timing nonetheless,’ said Trefethen winery president Jon Ruel. ‘This week is the small window when we are post-bottling and pre-crush.’

He added, ‘While the large stainless tanks sustained some damage, some being sheared from their mounts, the wine was able to be moved to other tanks without loss.’

Ruel also attributed the relative lack of damage to the wines to investment in modern storage facilities in recent years – even though Trefethen’s original winery building, dating back to 1886, suffered significant structural damage.

Given that geologists expect the general San Francisco area to suffer a much larger quake at some point, based on historical precedent, some believe investment will be key in protecting wineries across nearby Napa and Sonoma as much as possible.

‘This is a wake-up call for the Napa and Sonoma community,’ said David Duncan, chief executive at Silver Oak Cellars in Oakville, where only three barrels fell.

He said Silver Oak’s winery benefited from a complete rebuild following a fire in 2006. Barrels were stacked on pallets in blocks of four.

‘Every picture of damage that I’ve seen shows two-barrel pallets. Four-barrel pallets have a better centre of gravity,’ he said.

However, Duncan did lose ‘irreplaceable’ component wines spanning the 2008 to 2013 vintages that were to be used for a special, non-commercial blend. ‘It’s a bit of a bummer to lose those,’ he said.

Duncan described how his first thought on being woken by crashing crockery and glass at around 4am on Sunday morning was to go ‘straight to the winery’.

‘People here are resourceful. They will figure out what to do,’ he said of the mood in the region.

Written by Chris Mercer

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