September 15, 2014
The Earth Moved Under Their Feet
“It could have been a lot worse,” Kelly Kehoe, Business Manager for Robert Foley Vineyards, reported when I asked her how they were faring after the August 24th’s 6.1 earthquake that rocked Napa residents out of bed at 3:20 am. The timing to this quake, the largest to strike the Bay Area in 25 years, was key. If it had happened in the middle of the business day, far more serious injuries than the four reported would have been sustained. During work hours, falling wine barrels (900 pounds!) and crumbling buildings would have been a disaster of epic proportions.
As it is, the damage is mostly to wine inventory and winery buildings for those near the epicenter. Trefethen was hit hard, and their 19th-century Eschrol building, which had survived the 1906 and 1989 quakes, was badly fractured. According to the LA Times, Matthiasson Wines lost nearly a thousand barrels. But many were lucky, especially those in the northern part of the Valley and those with newer buildings, who were protected by updated building codes. Robert Foley’s location on the summit of Howell Mountain, 35 to 40 miles from the epicenter, was far enough away to keep them safe. Kelly said it was loud and violent, and that she could tell it was a strong one since they typically don’t feel much at all on the mountain at all. Paradigm Winery was also relatively unscathed. Owner Ren Harris reported a loss of two bottles and three glasses, total.
Richie Allen, winemaker for Rombauer Vineyards, ran immediately to check on his 16 month old, who slept through the whole thing. It was the first night his wife had spent away from the baby since she was born, and it left Richie shaking in his boots (it was also this Australian”s first earthquake. “I s@#t my pants almost!”). Luckily Rombauer was well prepared. Their system of OXOline racks kept all but five barrels in place. Rombauer’s good fortune allowed them to help out others in the community, by loaning their forklift for clean up at Napa Barrel Care. “It’s amazing how quickly the community pulled together. That was the best part,” Richie said. One such community effort has been made by winemaker Steve Matthiason, who has already released a “Quake Cuvee,” a Napa red negociant blend whose profits support the Community Disaster Relief Fund.
Though earthquakes are a scary fact of life in California, they are also an integral part of Napa’s history. The Napa River Watershed has been slowly created by seismic activity over the last 2 million years. It is an active tectonic zone, framed by two major strands of the infamous San Andreas Fault: Green Valley Fault and Healdsburg-Rogers Fault. If you look back even further, 150 million years ago, Napa was entirely submerged ocean floor. Seismic activity has mixed up a “soup” of bedrock material, exposing and eroding layers of earth that make for one of the most diverse, complex soil systems on the planet. Thanks to earthquakes, 50 percent of the world’s soil orders—at least three dozen different soil types—can be found in the Napa appellation. This composition helps the Napa Valley grow many different varietals, and to grow them well. It’s part of the secret of Napa’s success.
In addition to the impact on soil, there is perhaps a silver lining to the earthquake on August 24th. It has been reported that the earthquake has shaken loose groundwater, which is now flowing in several creeks that are normally dry at this time of year. This water must help bring some relief to the drought-plagued California.
Many wineries were certainly hit hard, but the area’s winemakers would like to underscore that the armageddon reported by many media outlets is a bit…much. Richie mentioned a newscast that reported the earthquake had literally shaken the grapes off their vines, only to show a tidy pile of grapes that had been left after a winemaker’s intentional crop thinning. Napa will no doubt be picking up the pieces for awhile, but the region has proven nothing over the years if not its innovation and unparalleled gumption to succeed.
Cream sends its best wishes to our friends in Napa. #drinknapa