There’s something eerily familiar with the big earthquake that hit Napa Valley last Sunday morning and this week in New Orleans, the ninth anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, also in the morning of August 29, 2005.
While earthquakes and hurricanes have very few similarities, the aftermath of both events follow a similar path. The event occurs, humans are forced to take refuge, then the event passes, and humans emerge to unfamiliar landscapes. There are no redeeming values about experiencing an event when measured in hours or days after the occurrence. Things are just screwed up and how the mind deals with the situation is to always be on the verge of a complete shut-down, or at the minimum, ready to make some really bad decisions on a moment’s notice.
We need to remove from the equation for our discussion the loss of human life and the suffering from injury, particularly horrible in the case of Katrina. The Napa earthquake, over 6 on the Richter scale, caused more than 200 injuries, mostly contusions and broken limbs. No deaths, a real blessing considering that people were in buildings in their beds at 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning. The fact that most buildings held together through a rolling temblor is a credit to the strict construction codes in northern California.
However, the main product made in the Napa Valley, fine red and white wine, was all over the place, thanks to tumbling barrels, falling bottles, and busted shelves. Besides the main blessing, the absence of loss of human life, the fact that harvest had not yet hit its stride. The large vats were mostly empty and the amount of spilled wine, while great, was not nearly what it could have been.
Let’s add a side note here – the earthquake did not affect the vines, currently on the verge of being harvested after an almost perfect growing season. The challenge for a few winemakers will likely be finding tank space since many of the tanks in the area were damaged. No doubt portable tanks are on their way right now to Napa. We shall see how the industry juggles its capacity.
For those of you that have been to Napa, and I suspect that includes a lot of you reading this column, you know that the large wine barrels are stacked high up in the air. Sometimes they are not on metal racks but barrels are just stacked on top of another on their sides. Either way, when the ground moves so do the barrels and being on their side is not their strongest position. Barrels hold 225 liters, or about 60 gallons, of wine and are stronger standing on end but they are not easily manageable in that way, so on their side they go.
We need to keep a few thoughts in mind. Wineries only get one chance each year to make wine. A grapevine only sprouts fruit for one harvest. Then that’s it until next year. So when wine is lost, so is a lot of time and investment. And that’s the second thought: Napa does not operate on the cheap side of the market. It is one of the prime wine grape growing areas on the planet. The wine that comes from Napa is, for the most part, full and excellent quality and it is expensive. Depending on the winery, the loss of a barrel can be a significant loss of money, maybe even approaching $20,000 per barrel.
Also consider that wines in the barrels are from previous vintages (harvests). The product had been coddled in the vineyard all year, handled with great care at harvest, vinified under strict conditions, and then placed into bottles or barrels for aging. It is irreplaceable at any cost when lost.
The strongest part of the quake occurred in the southern part of Napa, American Canyon. While there are no great wineries in that area, American Canyon has a large number of fulfillment houses which accept wine from the wineries and then distribute the cases to every part of the globe. Many of those houses are still assessing the damage to the inventory in their control.
A few scattered reports:
Shafer – no damage
B.R.Cohn – possibly lost as much as 50% of current wines in storage
Dahl Vineyards – still assessing but one barrel worth $16,000 is lost
Capp Heritage Vineyards – in their Napa tasting room, at least 12 cases worth $500 each are lost
Silver Oak – hundreds of irreplaceable bottles broken
Robert Biale Vineyards – ten barrels collapsed and broke open
Mt. Veeder Vineyards – two large tanks and 15,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon lost
And, as I noted earlier, this is all reminiscent of Katrina having her way with New Orleans’ wine stocks, mostly “cooking” the wine in the high temperatures following the storm in a no-electricity environment. Every bottle of wine in restaurants in this town was picked up by insurance companies who hauled the stash away and resold the wines in the secondary market at ridiculously low prices. I even know of a few restaurants that offered to buy their wine back but the insurance companies would not do that.
Katrina’s affected wines were then put into sales websites and on-line auctions, sold to unsuspecting consumers who had no idea of the provenance of the wines but who should have known better because the prices were so low.
Private collectors fared a little better in that insurance companies did not insist on removing the wines after they reimbursed the homeowner under the terms of the insurance policy. But most collectors did not receive a fair compensation based on the real and then current value of the wines they were collecting.
Importantly here while the difference between the Napa earthquake of 6.1 and Katrina’s fury of 140+ miles an hour winds are not apples and apples, the impact to those people who lived through the event is no less hurtful. Time has assisted in the healing of New Orleans, but it is not a finished process and may never be.
We wish our dear friends in Napa a speedy recovery to put the place, their homes and their businesses back together.
We will do for you what made a big difference for us: we will come and spend time and money in your area. Ain’t no quake going to scare us off.