Mother Nature handed extraordinary challenges to Napa Valley this year. Winegrowers were humbled first by a drought and then a major earthquake; they never missed a beat when it came time to harvest 2014 grapes.
The images of broken bottles and overturned barrels in Napa, California, on Aug. 24 were disconcerting to wine lovers worldwide.
The Napa Valley in California — often called “America’s Eden” — was shaken awake at 3:20a.m. (PDT) by an earthquake registering 6.0 on the Richter scale. No lives were lost, but the damage seemed extensive. Many wondered if we’d ever drink Napa Valley cabernet or chardonnay again.
The morning’s first light revealed a gigantic mess, not only at wineries in the southern end of Napa County but also in downtown Napa. Damage estimates in the community exceeded $400 million and losses to the wine industry were reported at $80 to $100 million, according to Patsy McGaughy, communications director for the Napa Valley Vintners, a nonprofit trade association representing 500 wineries.
“Damage ran the gamut from broken bottles and overturned barrels to major structural damage,” McGaughy said. “Cleanup at the wineries has gone incredibly well. They had to press on as grapes were ripening and the 2014 harvest was ready.”
One of the hardest-hit wineries was Trefethen Family Vineyards; the historic 1886 building used as the tasting room sustained structural damage. Engineers are working to save what is considered one of Napa Valley’s most iconic buildings.
In the meantime, Trefethen has opened a temporary visitors center and has had an incredibly successful 2014 harvest.
“While there is no good time for an earthquake, Mother Nature was kind to us in her timing,” said Trefethen president John Ruel. “That week was a small window when wineries were post-bottling and pre-crush.”
“Most everything had already been bottled and taken off property for storage to make room for the 2014 grape harvest,” marketing director Mimi Gatens explained.
She added that most of Trefethen’s barrels were filled with water, not wine, to be clean for the new grapes. In fact, she said the winery was up and running within a day after the earthquake and ready for harvest.
Saintsbury Winery, a leading producer of pinot noir, also considered itself lucky. The 2013 vintage was bottled the week before and had been moved into a secure wine storage facility. Saintsbury marketing director Heidi Solzinger said the winery did not lose any barrels, but did lose a collection that dated to 1981.
“Our permanent loss was 400 bottles from our personal library that contained a bottle of each vintage since Saintsbury was founded,” Solzinger said. “Those bottles can’t be replaced.”
The vintners association’s McGaughy said the earthquake wasn’t the most devastating event Napa Valley vintners have experienced. In 2005, a fire at a wine warehouse destroyed 4.5 million bottles of wine owned by 92 Napa Valley wineries and 43 collectors.
“Some of our wineries were more impacted by that fire than the earthquake,” she said.
The earthquake did affect mostly 2012 and 2013 vintages, but McGaughy said those were record-breaking years. There are still plenty of those bottlings available.
“Consumers may feel an effect if they have a favorite winery that was hit,” she said, “but we are not expecting widespread price increases or shortages. In addition, the 2014 harvest is almost done and it looks to be terrific.”
Living with the threat of an earthquake is a way of life for Californians and especially for vintners.
“It’s part of being farmers and working with Mother Nature … she is always dealing us challenges and we learn to handle them,” said Gatens of the Trefethen Family Vineyard. “We will probably look at stacking the barrels differently, but overall the safety mechanisms for protecting the wines were there, and they did what they were supposed to do.
“Tell the folks in Central Florida they don’t have to worry,” Gatens added. “They will have Napa Valley wine.”
Local wine merchants talk Napa Valley
Nancy Lackey, owner of Wine Cellars of Mount Dora and Wine Cellars Uncorked in Eustis:
“Only the southern Napa Valley was affected by the earthquake and they still have to be competitive with other regions. First estimates coming out of Napa Valley look good. I don’t think we’ll see any big price increases.”
2009 Trinchero Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Chicken Ranch Vineyard, $42.99
2011 Franciscan Magnificant Meritage, $50.99
Heather Hitson, wine consultant for ABC Fine Wine & Spirits in Lady Lake
“Nothing has changed for our stores. We’re not seeing much of an effect from the earthquake. If the harvest had been destroyed, that would be a different story.”
2011 Stepping Stone (Cornerstone Winery) Cabernet Franc. $44.99
2010 Milliken Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, $22.49