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  • Aric Crabb / Bay Area News Group

    Workers move fallen wine barrels at Saintsbury Winery following a 6.0 earthquake in Napa on Sunday. Local vintners are tallying their losses, estimated at $100 million or more.

  • Eric Risberg / The Associated Press

    Broken bottles from the library wines of Saintsbury winery fill a grape bin following an earthquake Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014, in Napa, Calif. Winemakers in Californias storied Napa Valley woke up to thousands of broken bottles, barrels and gallons of ruined wine as a result of Sundays earthquake.

Napa Valley vintners tally their losses

Published: Monday, Aug. 25, 2014 - 7:22 pm
Last Modified: Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014 - 8:43 am

Some lost thousands of cases, some only a few bottles. As cleanup continues in the aftermath of Sunday’s 6.0 earthquake in Napa Valley, local vintners are mopping up and tallying their losses, estimated at $100 million and rising.

“We’re picking up, hosing down and mopping up. Napa Valley won’t be itself for more than a few days,” says Paul Wagner, a seasoned wine-marketing consultant whose own Napa home was damaged extensively.

Amid scattered – but temporary – winery closures, he and other members of the valley’s winemaking community are concerned that news of Napa’s quake damage will scare away winery visitors, many of whom travel to the area specifically for the harvest just now getting underway.

“Napa Valley lives on tourism, so people are worried about the impact,” he said.

Nevertheless, Wagner and others are confident that the region will rebound quickly. Although initial estimates of the losses to Napa Valley’s wine industry start at roughly $100 million, damages still are being assessed, said Russ Weis, chair of Napa Valley Vintners, the area’s trade group.

Mark Luce, chairman of the Napa County Board of Supervisors, said he expected an estimate of total property damage from the earthquake to be available Tuesday. Although much of the damage occurred in the city of Napa, reports about damage to wineries, particularly in the Carneros area, near the epicenter of the quake, were still coming in Monday evening, he said.

Some vintners found damages in unusual places.

“The sandstone walkways in the courtyard out front look pretty good, a kind of wine red (color) that I find appealing,” says Jim Caudill, surveying the outcome of gallons of spilled wine at The Hess Collection on Mount Veeder just outside Napa.

The courtyard’s sandstone got stained when tanks and barrels toppled, releasing the equivalent of 14,500 cases of cabernet sauvignon with a street value of about $500,000, says Caudill, the winery’s director of public relations and hospitality.

Most of the quake’s damage to Napa wineries was concentrated south of Yountville, the middle of the Napa Valley, with little damage to wineries to the north. Weis, who lives in the Stag’s Leap district along the east side of the valley, said he lost one glass that was left in a sink and a few bottles in his home’s new wine cellar.

“It finally smells like a wine cellar,” says Weis, quoting his wife.

With the Napa Valley grape harvest underway, the Napa Valley Vintners’ 500 members are being asked to complete a form on the organization’s website if they need fermentation tanks, equipment or warehouse space to process grapes. So far, only a few requests have trickled in, said Weis.

In some ways, the quake’s timing was fortunate. It happened around 3 a.m. on a Sunday, when few if any winery employees were working in the cellars or warehouses where tanks and barrels collapsed. Also, most tanks were empty as they await juice from this year’s picking.

Although the quake occurred just as the anticipated hefty harvest of 2014 is starting, winemakers aren’t as frantic as they would be if recent cool weather had not slowed the maturing of grapes.

“There’s no great rush yet, so there’s a little time to adjust,” said Weis, noting that some vintners may have to scramble to replace or borrow damaged equipment.

Napa Valley accounts for just 4 percent of the nation’s wine production, so the impact for consumers isn’t likely to be profound aside from a gap in the availability of a favored brand or two, particularly from the 2013 vintage, whose red wines often are still in barrel.

Wines from the 2012 vintage still pending release are expected to be largely unaffected because they have been bottled and stacked securely and appear not to have sustained extensive damage, even though many are stored in American Canyon, epicenter of the quake.

“Case boxes may have done much better than barrels,” says Carole Meredith, who with her husband Steve Lagier makes wine on Mount Veeder under the Lagier Meredith label.

She is fretting that wines they have in barrels in American Canyon could have been lost, though she is confident that bottled wines wrapped in boxes fared better. “It may be a couple of weeks before we really know,” Meredith says.

In 2003, a similarly severe 6.5 earthquake rattled Paso Robles and its surrounding wine community.

There, two people were killed and the loss to wineries was estimated in the millions of dollars. That 6.5 quake, however, was in December, well past harvest.

That timing was a blessing, says Paso Robles winemaker Gary Eberle. “Going into crush, I can’t imagine the logistics those people are going through,” he says of his Napa Valley brethren. “I think I’d throw my hands in the air and open a gas station.”

Jason Haas, partner and general manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, says the 2003 quake prompted the winery to change its method of stacking barrels after losing 20 barrels and one cask containing wine valued at $250,000. Instead of stacking barrels five high, a customary practice in many wineries, Tablas Creek now stacks barrels three high.

That same sort of re-examination is likely to take place in Napa Valley this winter, says Meredith. Humidification and refrigeration of barrels is expensive, so to best manage energy costs, they often are stacked six high in Napa Valley. “We need to have a conversation within the industry about how to better stack barrels,” Meredith says.

By and large, however, winery tasting rooms remain open. Even The Hess Collection, known for its art museum as well as its wines, is expected to reopen Wednesday, says Jim Caudill. “Some of the sculptures toppled over, but major pieces on the wall are fine.”

At Trefethen Family Vineyards, Janet Trefethen said the winery hopes to erect a circus tent on the grounds by Friday so visitors can resume tasting. The winery’s visitor center is housed in a three-story, 1886 redwood building, a national historic landmark. It’s now off limits because of extensive damage sustained during the quake. Structural engineers are determining whether it can be salvaged.

“I think that redwood will save us. If stone and mortar had been used, the building probably would be all over the place,” Trefethen said. She said the winery lost about about half the contents of wine stored in 10 barrels inside the visitors center.

Given scattered winery closures, Napa Valley Vintners association suggests that visitors coming to Napa Valley should call ahead to their destinations to make sure cleanup has been completed and doors are open.

Beyond that, winemaking in Napa Valley is expected to be back on schedule soon. “We know how to make wine, and we’ll make some more,” Weis says.

Bee staff writer Cathy Locke contributed to this report.

Read more articles by Mike Dunne

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