The (Rutherford) Dust Settles After The Napa Earthquake.
When natural disaster strikes we find ourselves ogling the harsh images on TV. Whether it’s the collapsed façade of a stately building in downtown Napa or the half-submerged skeleton of a landmark rollercoaster at the Jersey shore, these images become the icons of our tenuous hold on life. They remind us of what is truly important – the people we share our lives with.
A week has passed since the earthquake rumbled through Napa and as the dust settles we’re getting a better picture of its effect on the people and wineries of the valley.
I took a quick poll of some winemaker friends and discovered that many fared better than originally thought. Aaron Pott, Food & Wine Magazine’s “2012 Winemaker of the Year” voiced a popular sentiment heard around the valley when he stated, “We are shaken, not stirred”.
Pott – whose current winemaking duties include Pott Wine, Bello Family, Blackbird, Fisher, Jericho Canyon, Perliss, V22, Quixote, Seven Stones and St. Helena Estate – went on to report, “All Pott’s and Pott Wine is well! Our hearts go out to many that didn’t share our luck.” He then added, “We are busy preparing for harvest.”
This was the first earthquake for New Jersey native Bob Van Dyk of Van Dyk Family Wines. “I always heard about California and their earthquakes, but until you’ve actually experienced it, words can’t describe what a 6.0 feels like – shaking your whole house and bed – it’s like being caught in a tiny row boat on a rough sea!!”
Van Dyk anxiously waited until Wednesday to learn his barrels of 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon were safe, but that was far from his mind early Sunday morning. “Once the initial shock waves of the earthquake passed and we finally went back to bed there was the eeriness of lying there while ambulance and fire truck sirens whistled and helicopters buzzed through the remainder of the night and into the following day. I haven’t experienced anything more surreal in my life.”
Just a few weeks ago my wife and I ran into Stephen and Sue Parry of Parry Cellars while dining in Archetype (fka French Blue) in St. Helena. Little did any of us suspect how drastically their lives were about to change. In my last blog I reported that the Parrys were anxiously awaiting word about their entire inventory in the American Canyon warehouse located precariously close to the quake’s epicenter.
“We are so grateful to report that we did not sustain any damage to our wine inventory,” wrote Stephen on Tuesday. “However, we all may not be out of the woods yet as there continue to be aftershocks, one registering 3.9 this morning in the exact location of our warehouse! We are thankful no lives were lost and very few people were seriously injured. We are looking forward to harvest in a couple of weeks and your being able to enjoy more of our Parry Cellars cabernet!”
The most severe damage occurred in the southern regions of Napa Valley, with American Canyon, Carneros, Oak Knoll and the town of Napa taking the brunt of the upheaval. Jamieson Ranch is the southernmost winery in Napa Valley and in June I met assistant winemaker Noël Schaff at the Napa Valley Auction barrel tasting. When I got through to Noël he happily reported, “We were VERY fortunate not to have any significant damage, even though we were one of the closest wineries to the epicenter. Not a single barrel fell; just a couple bottles took a tumble. I think our location up on a hill was very strategic.”
Many wineries attribute their good fortune to their position on firm rocky hills and mountains or their location further north in the valley. The word from winemaker Anna Monticelli is, “We were really lucky and didn’t get any damage to the house or wineries from the earthquake,”
Monticelli earned her stripes at Château Cheval Blanc, Seavey Vineyard, and Bryant Family Vineyard before becoming Winemaker at Piña, Ilaria, Esca and Stackhouse. “It seems like the people and wineries most affected were down in Carneros and on the west side of Napa.” Piña is located on the Silverado Trail on the eastern edge of Rutherford.
“We suffered zero damage. Well, technically not ZERO. We had a picture of Bob fall off a bookshelf at the winery and the glass shattered,” laughed Eric Reichenbach of Robert Foley Vineyards. “We are at 2000′ elevation and it’s mostly solid rock here. The badly hit areas were where it’s the (soft) alluvial soil. I visited our (RFV) wine storage facility down in American Canyon. Some stacks were leaning, but that’s fixable.”
The welcome news that many Napa wineries escaped serious harm was usually tempered by a story of the less fortunate. Reichenbach recounted a visit to a neighboring 20,000-barrel storage facility in Napa. “THAT experience was devastating. I was tearing up looking at the MESS; just piles of barrel, some still full, some cracked, some leaking, and some destroyed. All the time, effort, hard work, and yes, the money that was put into making all those wines – GONE!”
The “red-tagged” homes in Lee Nordlund’s neighborhood (see my last blog) stand as a constant reminder of the hardships many “Napkins” are enduring. Fortunately Napa wineries have a remarkable history of giving back to their community. The 2014 Napa Valley auction raised a record $18.7 million for charitable organizations and just three days after the earthquake, the Napa Valley Vintner’s Association announced the creation of a $10 million community relief fund.
WinesAndVines.com reported, “funding will be available for one-time immediate needs as well as short term assistance for things like temporary housing; basic needs (food, water, etc.); medical care and counseling, and repairs for immediate safety concerns such as replacement windows, debris removal or fallen chimneys.”
Van Dyk Family Wines is the newest member of the Napa Valley Vintner’s Association and epitomizes Napa’s generous spirit (all VDFW profits are donated to Alzheimer’s research and various senior care organizations). “The thing that struck me most was how everyone joins together to help each other. People knocking on the doors of elderly neighbors yelling, “Ethel are you OK, can you hear me?” … The sense of community and unity was awesome!” said Van Dyk.
As news of the earthquake reached the east coast it wasn’t the thought of spilt wine that was upsetting, it was the possibility of spilt blood that had me reaching out to my friends in Napa. I was certainly sad to see Silver Oak’s irreplaceable wine library destroyed but I was buoyed by the image of David Duncan standing there unharmed and able to tell his story.
In the end it’s the compassion and resilient nature of these farmers and winemakers that will be remembered about the earthquake of 2014. To the people of Napa Valley renewal and rebirth is a way of life. As they prepare for another harvest – one that promises to be exceptional as well as bountiful – let’s raise a glass to this unique community and its enduring human spirit.
As you share wine with your loved ones tonight, think less about what you’re drinking and more about the people you’re drinking it with, because what is truly important is the people we share our lives with.