Harvest Timing Likely Saved Lives, Property During 2014 Napa Earthquake
Harvest happens- and so do earthquakes.
An historically early 2015 harvest is what is rocking the winemaking world in Napa right now. A year ago, however, the early morning rumblings weren’t the sound of grape trucks heading from the field to the winery.
At 3:20 in the morning, after 15 seconds of shaking at 6.0 magnitude, most of Napa County was without power. Barrels toppled from metal racks, bottles launched off shelves and even stainless steel tanks full of wine lurched from their concrete pedestals. Heavy stonework showered down onto cellar floors, old stonework facades unpeeled onto crush pads and wineglasses mingled with reagent bottles and measuring cylinders in slippery shards on laboratory floors.
Luckily, most wineries quickly cleaned up the mess and got on with the business of prepping for the Harvest to come. Most lucky indeed was the fact that most of us- winemakers,lab staff, cellar hands and vineyard crew-were largely home in bed when the quake hit.
“It could’ve been so much worse” is always tiresome to hear. Tell that to my neighbors down the street who were red tagged, or the owners of Sala Salon, Vintner’s Collective or Napkins restaurant, who had their businesses (among many others) badly impacted by the quake. The semi-morbid reality is however, had Harvest 2014 been as early as this year, many more of us would’ve been in harm’s way.
In late August 2014 only a handful of wineries were in such full Harvest swing as to be working a night shift. The sparkling wine harvest typically starts at least two-three weeks earlier than other wineries because they seek grapes at lower sugars and higher acids for their Champagne-like fizzy wines. I knew that my buddies at Mumm and Domaine Chandon had been picking for about a week or so but most of us who do Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Carneros or Sauvignon Blanc from Napa (typically the earliest grapes to get going) hadn’t scheduled our picks yet. We were still prepping tanks, cleaning barrels and letting our crews get some precious sleep before the 12 hour days and the midnight pumpover shifts started.
It was chilling, in the early morning hours of August 24, 2014, to drive around to the local wineries where I make my wine (one practically over the epicenter) and to realize how lucky we were that the quake happened in the dead of night and that Harvest 2014 wasn’t earlier than it was. All of our wineries had been shut up tight, and amazingly, the damage report was only three broken barrels, broken bottles in the store room and some random drops of wine which had slopped over a full tank top onto the cellar floor. Later that day I dropped by a friend’s winery in Carneros and was distressed to witness both his shellshocked face and the terrible state of his barrel room. Had Harvest 2014 started earlier, there would’ve been much more new wine in barrel and the possibility of much higher property loss.
This is not to say that we “got off easy” from the Quake, nor that it was a complete disaster. The damage was very uneven, varying from winery to winery and neighborhood to neighborhood. My old Victorian house in downtown Napa, one of the hardest-hit areas, got off lightly with cracked plaster and broken wine glasses while three houses in our neighborhood came off their foundations and practically came down.
I was relieved when I heard later in the day that the night crew up at Mumm (still a small number because of how early Harvest started) all got out safely when the shaking hit. Facebook feeds, text messages and emails helped keep us in touch as the days wore into weeks as we cleaned up, took stock and moved forward towards recovery.
According to what I’ve heard and read lately, it’s been quite a recovery. The #NapaStrong Comeback video, created six days after the quake by Evan Kilkus, told the Bay Area and the world that we were open for business while local vintner’s groups and wineries communicated the same “Come Visit Napa” message they do every harvest. A recovering national economy has no doubt helped, but from what I understand most businesses are back on their feet and wineries welcomed record numbers of guests in the last year.
One of the best things to come out of the earthquake was the amazing sense of community, togetherness and sharing we felt then and still feel today. Neighbors dropped everything to help neighbors, benefit concerts and dinners were hastily arranged, and the Napa Valley Vintners started a community assistance fund with $10 Million in seed money. On Monday, August 24 2015, Napa is planning an anniversary event of remembrance and togetherness-“Napa Strong 6.0/365”- at Veterans Park from 3:20 PM-6:00 PM. Music, speakers and disaster preparedness booths and presentations will be featured, all in view of many of the damaged buildings on Main Street still swathed in scaffolding.
Those of us in the full swing of the early 2015 Harvest will read about it in the paper on Tuesday and continue to be glad we weren’t crushing-yet- a year ago.
Comeback Video by Evan Kilkus, produced 6 days after the quake.
Appreciation of History and Heritage”