Drink Up

Cleaning Up From Napa's Winepocalypse

The repercussions of the Napa earthquake may go beyond toppled barrel rooms and a disrupted tourist season. It may also affect the style and taste of the smaller winemakers' product.

After nearly a week of grieving and cleanup, Napa is still reeling from the earthquake that struck the county last Sunday, hitting downtown Napa and its surrounding areas particularly hard. Barrels of wine, weighing 900 pounds each, are still toppled on one another. Winery owners are scrambling to restore their facilities. While the Valley’s residents are showing impressive resilience in the face of the unexpected catastrophe, the quake occurred at a particularly inconvenient time for the wine industry – in the midst of 2014 harvest.

It’s too early to make a complete assessment of the long-term damage, but both bleak and hopeful pictures are starting to take form. In short, the small producers will suffer the most, both in their production quantity and potentially in the style of their wines. It’s still unclear how much wine is lost, but the 2013 vintage is certainly the biggest victim.

Luckily, the 2013 vintage produced a generous crop, so even with the lost wine, consumers will have a significant amount of 2013 Napa Valley wines to drink. The actual loss, in both spilled tanks and barrels, cannot be tallied yet. But a few figures are starting to emerge. Hess Collection, for example, lost 20,000 gallons of their not-yet-bottled 2013 vintage (a quantity that amounts to approximately eight percent of their total production that year). Despite the loss, they still have more 2013 wine ready for market than they produced with their entire 2011 vintage (a notoriously small crop).

Sunday’s earthquake came as a particular shock because it occurred on a fault line, the West Napa Fault, that has been dormant over 1.6 million years. “In effect, the West Napa Fault is a capillary to the main artery to the San Andreas,” Master Sommelier Paul Roberts, COO for Colgin Cellars, explained. But because it had not erupted in recorded history, it missed the proverbial geological radar screen. In addition to its million-and-a-half year dormant stretch, the fault line is nearly impossible to see from above. Engineering geologist Chris Willis at the California Geological Survey explained that sediment deposited from flooding over the past two million years “obscured the surface evidence [of the fault].” In effect, no one saw this coming.

The harvest season is Napa’s busiest time of year for both wine production and tourism, but one silver lining is that wineries had bottled much of the previous vintage wines in order to make room for the 2014 crop. And bottled wine proved safer than wine still in barrels or tanks.

From a production standpoint, most of Napa has been lucky and irrepressible in the aftermath. Roberts estimated that close to 95 percent of all wineries have returned to harvest production. That is good news indeed. But the hardest hit wineries are the smaller ones that can’t afford to devote resources to both cleanup and production. Many are still sorting through overturned barrels and rebuilding their production facilities. Wineries that store wine in communal production facilities are at the mercy of the facility owners have less control over when and how the cleanup happens.

Susanne Snowden, a proprietor of Snowden Vineyards in Saint Helena, fears that this delay may change the taste and style of these vineyards’ product. The smaller wineries still cleaning up from the quake are not yet equipped to process fruit. “Picking date is one of the most important stylistic decisions a winery makes,” she explained. “Producers unable to harvest on their preferred date will need to wait until they’re able to harvest. This will lead to wines much higher in alcohol and much different in style than they’d like.”

Elaine Brown of the Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews is well connected to the wine scene in Napa and offered two particularly devastating stories of small wineries that suffered hard blows from the quake.

Cornerstone Cellars barrels are lost within a collapsed barrel maze,” she shared. “They don't know how much was lost at this point but the wines within the mess are both 2013 whites and red.” While the lost wine is from the 2013 vintage alone, “the team at Cornerstone has been working since 2007 to transform the brand, and shift the winemaking to the style they have wanted, while getting to know the quality of fruit sources at the same time. The wines in barrel were what they saw as the most expressive of the style they'd been working those six years to achieve.”

Another winery, Lagier-Meredith, suffered a similarly devastating fate. The winery “has their barrels lost within a barrel mountain right now,” though the estate’s co-owner Stephen Lagier has been on hand helping to right the barrels throughout the warehouse since the earthquake happened.” Cleaning the winery, the team has located a mix of “completely smashed barrels, open bung barrels, and intact barrels.” Brown reported happily that Lagier and his team located their five barrels of 2013 Tribildrag Zinfandel after four days of clean up work. “Each of the five barrels are intact, so they still have that wine. They don't yet know the state of their other 2013 reds.”

Another significant loss is that of personal wine cellars, Christina Turley, of Turley Wine Cellars, noted. “A lot of people lost their cellars. So many old, rare, vintage benchmark bottles will never resurface.”

Turley, Snowden, Brown, Roberts and other friends in the area have all given me the same answer when I’ve asked what the rest of the country can do to help. Their reply is a resounding “Drink Napa” (#drinknapa), and visit the region to support local businesses. The wine-focused mobile phone app, Delectable, is also offering one-cent shipping on any Napa Valley wines purchased, and they are donating $1 of the proceeds to the cleanup efforts. Labor Day is always a day that blends celebration with reverence. This weekend, please embrace both sentiments and drink some Napa Valley wine.