By Peter Fimrite
NAPA — The wine is flowing, grapes are being picked and Napa Valley vineyards are open for business, but it could take most of this week before the real victims of last week’s earthquake — small specialty wineries — finish tallying their damage.
The crowds of carousing tourists in the valley are masking a troubling reality — that individual winemakers are still suffering from significant and, in some cases catastrophic, losses.
Although tasting rooms up and down the valley are open, tens of thousands of cracked and broken wine barrels are still being plucked from winery rubble a week after the earthquake. Damage has topped $48 million and is growing, with some smaller, boutique wineries losing most, if not all, of their 2013 vintages. That’s tens of thousands of gallons of top-quality pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.
“There are a lot of small wineries that are in real bad shape,” said Aaron Pott, a local vintner who makes his own wine and consults with several other small wineries. “I think there are some people that lost their entire production. That will probably put some wineries out of business.”
The smaller wineries were the primary victims because most of them rent out warehouse space at places like the Laird Family Estate, a winery and custom crush facility just north of Napa. Laird leases space to 40 or more small vineyards so they can make, store and age their wine.
When the earthquake hit, thousands of barrels, which were stacked in stainless steel racks almost to the rafters, came crashing to the ground in a cascade of splintering oak, popping corks and spurting liquid. Crane operators at Laird spent the whole week gingerly removing at least 2,000 barrels from a massive heap. It’s a tricky process because each 500-pound barrel plucked from the pile can upset the delicate balance and cause a collapse, like a massive high-stakes game of Jenga. This is why the cleanup is still underway.
”In the main barrel storage area, basically everything collapsed,” said Craig Camp, the managing partner of Cornerstone Cellars in Yountville, which stores its wine at Laird. “It’s a huge pile of barrels that’s being taken apart barrel by barrel like a giant jigsaw puzzle.”
The tumbling barrels, which hold the equivalent of 25 cases and cost as much as $1,500 apiece, sent thousands of gallons of fine wine down the drains and crushed processing equipment. Several historic winery buildings also were damaged.
At least 120 of the valley’s 500 vineyards, wineries and production facilities have reported some quake damage to their wine or structures, most of it caused by the tumbling wine barrels.
”We are worried, to say the least,” said Camp, who believes he lost as many as 300 cases of wine that sells for between $60 and $200 a bottle, about 30 percent of his inventory. “Nobody has earthquake insurance. It’s just cost-prohibitive.”
Cuvaison Estate Winery and Starmont Winery are among the places in the Carneros region still sifting through wreckage. Carneros, the winemaking area nearest the quake epicenter, Yountville and the western hills were hit the hardest, said Russ Weis, chairman of the Napa Valley Vintners Association and general manager of Silverado Vineyards.
The damage included hoses, pumps, barrel lifts, washers, valve shutoffs, tank fixtures, portable cooling units, forklifts and other processing equipment smashed by flying barrels, he said. Workers at Starmont winery and vineyard were still clearing the remainder of 8,000 oak barrels worth at least $2 million that collapsed in a heap during the quake.
“I’d say about 3,000 of the barrels were full,” said René Schlatter, proprietor of Merryvale Vineyards and Starmont, as he stood in a puddle of spilled Chardonnay and Pinot Noir amid the toppled barrels. “We lost the cooling system and had to bring in a portable cooling system, which has been going since Tuesday.”
Despite the damage, experts doubt the spilled vino will have any long-term impact on the industry, which generates $13 billion a year for the regional economy.
That’s because many wineries had finished bottling the 2013 vintage in preparation for this year’s harvest, which is just beginning. That meant the wine had been bottled, shrink-wrapped and was safely stored far away from the major shaking.
As a result, said Jon Ruel, the president of Trefethen Family Vineyards in the Oak Knoll district, four of the company’s five 5,000-gallon tanks that are normally filled with wine were empty when the quake hit. He said the full tank shifted on its platform and the valve got precariously close to snapping off and spilling $100,000 worth of Cabernet Sauvignon, but he got lucky.
Trefethen lost as much as 5,000 gallons of wine in barrels and the winery’s nationally registered historic 1886 building was severely damaged, but Ruel said it could have been much worse. Helping matters have been the huge harvests and an abundance of quality grapes over the past couple of years. Another lucky break was the timing. Had the earthquake hit during the day, the 500-pound barrels would have rained down on top of work crews.
“By no means is this a small deal. There’s a lot of work to be done, but in the big picture I don’t see a reduction in inventory,” Ruel said. “Certainly it shakes you emotionally, but we are cleaning up and moving on. We have to get those grapes off the vine and that gives you a sense of normalcy and a show-must-go-on mentality.”
As the cleanup work continues, a distinctive sense of optimism has begun flowing like a playful Pinot through the Napa Valley. The small vintners are being buoyed by the big ones, and virtually every winery worker and vineyard owner has been chipping in to help.
“You are talking about a bunch of people who at their heart are farmers, so dealing with Mother Nature is nothing new,” said Curtis Strohl, the marketing manager for Elizabeth Spencer Winery in Rutherford, which also lost wine at the Laird facility. “Having things go in an unpredictable way is not new to us. We are the type of people who take what we are given and make something beautiful out of it.”