Premier Napa wineries shaken by harvest season quake

Glenn Chapman
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Barrels are strewn about inside the storage room of Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa, California after an earthquake struck the area, August 24, 2014

Barrels are strewn about inside the storage room of Bouchaine Vineyards in Napa, California after an earthquake struck the area, August 24, 2014 (AFP Photo/Josh Edelson)

Napa (United States) (AFP) - Tom Wheelan gazed at the oak barrels that tumbled from racks at Hagafen Cellars in Napa Valley and thanked his lucky stars -- they were emptied before a major earthquake hit California's famous wine country.

Bottles in the tasting room didn't fare as well.

Ten cases or so of fine wine smashed to the floor in the powerful 6.0-magnitude quake early Sunday. Some bottles knocked chips from a concrete countertop as they plummeted.

"We had a sea of wine," Kit Cassidy of Hagafen said of the scene when she and others arrived to find a blend of precious purple drink pouring from under the tasting room door.

To worsen matters, electric power was out until late in the morning. Whelan had to shoo away aspiring tasters intent on sampling vintages.

Along the Silverado Trail winding through vineyards from the quake-slammed city of Napa to the comparatively unscathed town of Calistoga, ornate gates to prestigious wineries were locked and many bore signs saying they were closed for the day.

Missing was the usual weekend bustle of limousines, tour buses, and private cars packed with people eager to sample wines on the famous Napa Valley trail.

Winery workers were mopping floors, putting barrels back in racks, and checking what the powerful shaking may have done to buildings or equipment.

"We closed to assess the damage, and let workers take care of what they need to tend to at home," Black Stallion Winery president Chris Indelicato said as he and a couple of helpers stabilized a rack of barrels knocked in a precarious position by the quake.

"We were blessed. Only one barrel fell, and it didn't break."

- Wineries shaken but standing -

At renowned Silver Oak, several hundred bottles of "control wine" along with a few barrels were broken, according to winery spokesman Ian Leggat.

Precious vintages stored in the Silver Oak wine library, however, were in racks designed specially to tip bottles back and keep them safe.

David Duncan, president and chief executive of family owned Silver Oak, roused his teenage son from bed and hustled to the winery within 20 minutes of the quake rumbling the area at 3:20 am California time.

Duncan arrived to find the quake had littered a floor with "control wine" and broken some bottles in cases, along with knocking over barrels.

Photos fired off by Duncan on one-to-many message sharing service Twitter were "retweeted" thousands of times through the day. He and his son had the placed cleaned up by the time work crews showed up, according to Leggat.

Control wines are samplings of various grape types from different vineyards and are kept so vintners can track how flavor changes as they age.

"There is valuable information in those wines, but they were not wines that are for sale," Leggat told AFP.

Silver Oak suffered no structural damage. The tasting room opened on time Sunday morning.

"I think our wine tastes better after being shaken, not stirred," quipped Chip Sellarole of Silver Oak tasting room.

Harvest recently began in Napa Valley, with white wine grapes being the first to be picked. Clusters of dark fruit hung from rows of vines lining Silverado Trail.

Reports of damage have come in from wineries and production facilities in the Napa area. But the extent could take days to determine, according to the Napa Valley Vintners Association.

"You can do everything right and still expect to see some damage in an earthquake of this magnitude," Leggat said. "It is going to be case-by-case."

For example, if a small winery lost a large portion of a vintage it could be devastating, according to Judd's Hill winery tasting room manager Mitchael Mitchell.

"It wasn't terrible for us," Mitchell said of the effect of the quake on Judd's Hill.

"Most wineries can take hits," Mitchell said. "But if they are small and have only one vintage; if they lost it, it is gone for good."