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Fallen Wine Barrels
Fallen Wine Barrels
Photo Courtesy of Jill Matthiasson

Napa Valley residents were jolted from sleep at 3:20 a.m. yesterday by a 6.0 magnitude earthquake centered six miles south of the acclaimed wine region. The quake, which was the strongest to hit Northern California since the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, injured more than 200 people, and caused massive damage to buildings and wineries in the region.

Hardest hit were the towns of American Canyon and Napa itself, as well as wineries in the southern part of the valley and the Carneros region. René Schlatter, the CEO and president of Merryvale Vineyards and Starmont Wines, says, “We got a pretty good shake, to say the least. In our barrel rooms at Starmont, which is in Carneros, 80 to 90 percent of the barrels fell off the racks and are just piled up—we have a total of about 8,000 barrels between the three rooms. And we can’t really do anything until a structural engineer comes in, because we don’t know if it’s safe. Some barrels were full, and some were empty; we know we lost some wine, but we don’t know the extent yet.”

Farther up the valley, though, damage was less significant. At Silver Oak Cellars in Oakville, president and CEO David Duncan says, “It was kind of wild, but other than all the bottles that fell, everything was OK. We had three barrels full of wine fall, but we were able to salvage almost everything that was in them.” When he rebuilt the winery after a major fire in 2006, Duncan says, “Everything was about earthquake protection. And that seems to have really paid off. We were definitely slapping each other on the back about that last night.”

Shannon Staglin, president of Staglin Family Vineyard farther north in Rutherford, had a similar experience to many in the valley. “It was about 3:30 in the morning, so I was startled out of bed. The quake lasted about 16 seconds—and that’s a really long 16 seconds, especially when you’re half asleep and aren’t sure what’s going on. But everything is fine here. We had a few broken bottles, but the winery and our library of older vintages is intact.”

Schlatter’s Starmont winery and Staglin are only about 17 miles apart, but that’s a substantial distance in earthquake-damage terms. And even farther up the valley in Calistoga, Larkmead winemaker Dan Petroski says, “In Calistoga life is pretty normal; we walked away more or less untouched. We were lucky.”

Similarly, Chris Carpenter of Jackson Family Wines, who makes wine for Cardinale, La Jota and Lokoya, saw little damage at his properties. “Things got moved around a little, but there were no structural problems. Most of the upper part of the valley and the mountains didn’t get hit nearly as hard as Carneros did. I did lose my chimneys on my rental house in downtown Napa—that’s going to be a fun little project for the next couple of months—but other than that we’re doing OK.”

The New York Times estimates the total damage caused by the earthquake may reach $1 billion. But everyone I spoke to also agrees that the situation—particularly in terms of casualties and potential loss of life—would have been much worse had the quake hit during daylight hours. And most vintners, even those in the southern part of the valley, were optimistic that harvest would proceed more or less as usual. As René Schlatter comments, “We have some options we’re working on, and the community is really coming together over this, which is a great help. Luckily we are all safe and sound, which is the most important thing.”

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