When the Wine Barrels Tumbled

County estimates Napa wine industry faces $48 million economic cost

by Andrew Adams
Napa Barrel Care
Napa Barrel Care employees use a crane to remove barrels from a large pile and sort them into wine lots.

Napa, Calif.—The large barrel warehouse of Napa Barrel Care is still a complete mess, but the company’s employees are working hard at the tedious and laborious task of re-stacking barrels and then organizing them into the correct wine lots.

This morning, dozens of damaged barrels stood outside the warehouse’s three main rooms while employees used a mobile crane to gingerly remove the toppled barrels one by one from a large pile. The warehouse has been a chaotic scene since the 6.0 earthquake struck Aug. 24.

Cleaning up
Napa Barrel Care owner Mike Blom said the facility had 18,000 barrels owned by 43 different clients at the time of the earthquake, and half of them hit the floor. The cleanup was particularly challenging in the facility’s smaller, 10,000-square-foot room, where almost every barrel rack toppled. Those barrels belonged to smaller winery clients and got completely mixed up.

While the mess may be more impressive in the larger rooms, Blom said at least those barrels belonged to larger clients and will be easier to sort out when the barrels are finally racked. Still, Blom estimates he’ll have to sink $250,000 into cleaning up the mess.

He is also changing how he stores the barrels. “Oh we’re strapping everything. Absolutely.”

Blom said he plans to strap down the top racks of barrels so they act as a stabilizing weight at the top of the column. One of Blom’s clients also is willing to pay the same rate for stacking six high to ensure his barrels are stacked no more than three high. “I’m more devastated by clients losing wine than by anything else,” Blom said.

Assessing damage
When the earthquake hit around 3:30 a.m., it caused hundreds of injuries and severe damage to buildings in downtown Napa. The city of Napa and Napa County are seeking state and federal assistance as nearly 150 structures have been marked with “red tags,” meaning they are too dangerous to enter. The initial damage estimate released by the county stands at $362.4 million in building, infrastructure and economic losses. Based on a survey of 120 wine industry-related companies, the county estimates that the industry sustained damages of $48 million. Estimates could change, however, as more detailed information becomes available.

Several wineries in the Carneros district reported damage and toppled barrels, but the Carneros Wine Alliance announced most of its member wineries and tasting rooms are back to normal. “We’re very happy to report we’ve weathered the storm and are back in business,” said Carla Bosco, director of communications for Bouchaine Vineyards The winery lost about 2,000 gallons of barreled wine due to the earthquake, but its inventory of bottled wine was undamaged.

Winery buildings suffered very little in the earthquake, said Josh Marrow, principal with the San Francisco, Calif.-based firm Partner Engineering and Science Inc. Marrow is an expert in structural and earthquake engineering who has consulted wineries and studied how earthquakes affect them. Marrow told Wines & Vines that he’s made several trips to Napa Valley this week to assess both the extent and effects of the earthquake.

He said Trefethen Family Vineyards appears to be at the northern limit of earthquake damage, which also seemed to be focused in the eastern half of Carneros off Highway 12. He said Napa Barrel Care “got really blasted” because it’s located on the soft soil of the historic alluvial plain of the Napa River.

In Carneros, Marrow said he saw the difference between four-barrel racks and two-barrel racks. One winery that had switched to four-barrel racks, which have twice as broad a base as two-barrel racks, had minimal damage, while a neighboring winery with two-barrel racks had nearly every rack tumble. “The four-barrel racks performed miraculously,” he said.

Marrow said it was interesting because in one room of a winery that suffered damage, the barrels were oriented north and south and all the stacks collapsed. In another room, the barrels were oriented east-west and suffered minimal damage. He said that’s the type of information he and his colleagues will be analyzing to try and find patterns to better understand the dynamics of earthquakes and how that affects structures. “We’re going to be doing a lot of follow up studies,” he said. “That’s the stuff we’ll be doing over the coming months.”

The standard barrel racks have no independent support or braces. The floor level of barrels rests on racks, then other levels are created by stacking more racks on top of those barrels and so on up to six or more levels high. The two-rack system has a considerable weakness in that racks for levels two and above only need to slide a few inches before they slip off the barrels below them. It takes only one rack to slip off one barrel to trigger the domino effect on barrel stacks.

Marrow said strapping the top sets of barrels works quite well with four-barrel racks, but it’s not as effective with two-barrel racks because it doesn’t solve the issue of racks “walking” or sliding off the ends of barrels.

The engineer said he knows of one barrel rack provider that will take two-barrel racks back from their clients and convert them into four-barrel racks. Marrow has been researching devices to prevent racks from sliding. He said his original focus had been to patent something, but at this point he’d just like to see a practical tool get developed to keep workers safe. One of the challenges is that there are so many different barrel shapes, sizes and features.

The recent earthquake could help spur a cooperative effort to develop something. “Maybe we’ll get a little bit more collaboration,” he said. “I want to see a solution come about, and I’m less worried about the proprietary aspect of it.”

Marrow said he’d also like to see winery “shark cages,” or heavy-duty steel cages placed in easily accessible parts of the barrel room. If an earthquake hits a winery, or a forklift accident triggers a stack collapse, workers could run to the cage and be protected from falling barrels. “If anything goes wrong, at least they have a fighting chance to get into the cage,” he said. “They may be stuck there for a while, but at least they’ll be alive.”

Marrow also advised that winemakers, cellamasters and owners take a moment to review their facilities and identify potential weak spots, how their infrastructure could be damaged and if their employees know the quickest way out of buildings if there is a problem. “Every winery needs to take this as a lesson and take a step back and review the facility as a whole,” he said. “That’s a proactive response to this, rather than say: ‘Don’t use the racks.’”

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