Quake Cleanup Continues in Napa

Most wineries in valley avoided major damage from earthquake

by Andrew Adams
This building at Trefethen Family Vineyards was damaged during the Aug. 23 earthquake near Napa, Calif. An engineering company has been tasked with securing this structure, built in 1886.

Napa, Calif.—Winery staff continued to restack barrels, assess damage and make plans for the pending harvest a day after a major earthquake rippled through the Napa Valley on Aug. 24.

While some wineries and barrel warehouses remain hard pressed to get everything back in order, several winemakers expressed a sense of relief. Had the earthquake hit just 12 hours later or in early November, when most wine tanks in Napa are completely full, a disruptive and dangerous incident for the industry could have proven deadly and catastrophic.

Severe damage at Trefethen
As he sat near the scale at Trefethen Family Vineyards, winery president Jon Ruel reflected that Aug. 23 had been fairly typical of the first weeks of harvest. The winery had pressed a small lot of Chardonnay grapes and entertained visitors in the historic building that houses its tasting room and barrel storage.

Just two days later that building was ringed with yellow caution tape and white work trucks belonging to the engineering firm tasked with figuring out to stabilize the structure and then save it. The upper floor of the building, originally built as a winery in 1886, had shifted several feet to the west. No one is now allowed inside or near the structure because a strong aftershock could likely trigger a complete collapse.

Ruel described his reaction to seeing the building for the first time Sunday with just one word: “Heartbreaking.”

“That’s a special building to me, to the family and to everyone here,” Ruel said.

Yet the first priority after the earthquake was to make sure everyone associated with the winery had survived and was safe. Ruel said the focus then shifted to making an inventory of the winery’s wine and how to repair and clean up the facility. He said the quake came at a relatively good time, because the 2014 vintage is still in the vineyard, and most of the wine that had been in the winery has been bottled. While some of the winery’s tanks were crumpled and a few barrel stacks crumbled, much of the wine remained safe

On the Radio

Wines & Vines associate editor Andrew Adams discussed the earthquake live on the radio for a broadcast of Airtalk with Larry Mantle on 89.3 KPCC in Southern California. Click here to listen.

“There wasn’t a sea of wine on the floor,” Ruel said. “It was just a mess that needed to be picked up.”

Cellar workers transferred wine from damaged tanks to those untouched by the earthquake, and filled barrels on the floor were either racked to other vessels or used to top up barrels that had lost some wine. The damaged structure had been home to a minimal amount of wine at the time of the quake. “We can’t get in there to rescue it, so we’re lucky it’s only 10 barrels,” Ruel said.

Another huge bit of good luck is that the crush pad was left untouched. “The crush pad is fine, which from our operations standpoint is ideal,” Ruel said. That means harvest has only been delayed by a few days.

Looking at the episode in a philosophical light, Ruel said the Trefethen family has always run their winery as an estate operation subject to the whims of nature—and in this case, geology. “Farmers are constantly humbled by Mother Nature,” Ruel said. “You can’t undo the earthquake.”

But the Trefethens can undo the damage, and Ruel said they’ve pledged to rehabilitate the building. In fact, it will be the second time they’ve done so since buying the estate in 1968.

One other positive aspect of the earthquake, Ruel mentioned, has been the intense outpouring of support from neighboring wineries, Napa County residents and wine lovers all over the world. “We’ve taken advantage of the emotional support. It’s helped us keep our heads up and keep moving,” he said.

Tumbling barrels in Carneros
David Graves, co-founder and president of Saintsbury winery in the Carneros AVA said he and his staff had pretty much brought everything back to normal by late Monday afternoon. He said that luckily the barrels that had tumbled from their racks during the earthquake—and then appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper—were all empty, and it wasn’t that difficult to clean up. About 50 of the winery’s 1,000 barrels need to be repaired.

Graves said he arrived at the winery at dawn to find the water well system leaking and wine flowing out of the winery’s library. Including staff overtime, Graves put the total damage at around $50,000.

After dealing with the cleanup, Graves said he’s thinking about what could be done to barrel stacks to minimize tumbling. He said he’s not sure if that means different types of racks, like the four-barrel-type developed in Australia, or some other method. Contemplating that question, however, will come after the 2014 harvest, which Graves said he’s relieved is once again at the fore of his focus.

Minimal damage elsewhere
At Clos Du Val winery in the Stag’s Leap District, winemaker Kristy Melton said she was relieved to report not a single barrel fell out of place. She said cellar workers would have to restack a few barrel racks that had slipped a bit and were leaning, but aside from that the winery made it through the earthquake unscathed. “If it shook for five more seconds we would have lost it all,” she said of the several barrel stacks standing six racks high in the winery’s barrel room. “I could not have asked for better luck.”

Melton added the entire valley was lucky that the quake struck at 3:30 a.m. and not 12 hours later on a workday, when crews would have been busy racking or moving barrels in preparation for harvest, and more people could have suffered serious injuries or death by falling barrels.

With no damage, Monday was a typical day early in the harvest season at Clos Du Val, with a truck dropping off 10 tons of Sauvignon Blanc. Melton said she was expecting 20 more tons later in the day, but she doesn’t expect the winery to get very busy for another week or so.

At Corley Family Napa Valley winery and Monticello Vineyards in the Oak Knoll AVA, founder Jay Corley was standing at the entrance to the winery along with his son and winegrower Kevin Corley and vineyard manager Angel Avina. The trio was inspecting the winery sign, which had snapped off its posts during the earthquake. Jay Corley said the sign had stood for the past 30 years, since the winery opened.

Fortunately for the Corleys, the sign was nearly the extent of the damage. Kevin Corley said the winery lost two barrels of wine; one tank had been dented, and a vineyard water tank suffered some damage. The Corleys also own a nearby winery leased to Lewis Cellars, and Kevin Corley said he believed that facility also only suffered minor damage. “You may find in four days there’s cracks you didn’t know about,” he said.

One big question, however, was how the Corleys’ barrels fared at storage facilities near American Canyon, Calif., and south Napa. Photos posted to social media networks and unconfirmed reports indicated that several warehouses were dealing with significant messes that could take weeks to clean.

The Corleys did put off the start of their harvest by one day. They had scheduled to pick 6 tons of Pinot Noir from their estate vineyard Monday but pushed that until Tuesday. Kevin Corley said he expected to harvest a total of 40 tons this week. Undaunted by the earthquake, Jay Corley reflected on another coming harvest. “I can tell you after 40 to 50 years of doing this, this is the best time of the year.”

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