Recovery ongoing for wineries and workers

Reporters heard two resounding sentiments in the two weeks following the sobering 6.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Napa in the early hours of Aug 24. While national news media painted a picture of widespread disaster, locals pointed out that the situation could have been a lot worse. And instead of helplessly waiting for government aid to arrive, the community swiftly rose to the challenge of recovery.

Suffering an estimated $50 million in damages, many businesses were severely impacted by the earthquake, particularly those centered in and near the city of Napa. However, in preparation for the influx of new grapes, many wines had been bottled before the earthquake struck; therefore, many barrels and tanks were empty at the time of the quake, minimizing wine losses. Much of the wine in barrel-stack collapses was recoverable.

The majority of the wine lost was from the 2012 and 2013 vintages, California’s two largest-ever harvests. While some individual wineries will experience shortages because of the earthquake, it is not expected to have a significant impact on Napa Valley’s overall wine inventory.

Recovery from the earthquake has been a delicate process of salvaging whatever possible.

“It’s going to take folks weeks and months to dig out and see what the real damage is. They move one barrel and a bung falls out, and out comes the wine. It’s not good,” said Rebecca Hopkins, vice president of communications for Michael Mondavi Wine Estates. Hundreds of wine barrels were damaged at the winery’s former production facility in Carneros, sold to Kieu Hoang Winery Napa Valley in June.

Still, the situation could have been much worse. 200 mostly minor injuries in the region could have been dozens of fatalities had the quake come at a different time of day. The fact that it occurred at 3:20 a.m. meant that most people in the region were safe in bed rather than working near the 600-pound wine-filled barrels and mammoth tanks that gave way. “Oh my god… especially in those cellars,” Hopkins said. “You get people working in those barrel rooms, that stuff comes down… you’re done!”

Rising to the Challenge

Also remarkable has been the way in which the community has responded to the challenge of recovery. Days after the earthquake, the Napa Valley Vintners donated $10 million to create a fund to assist local families and businesses.

“Hundreds of homes and businesses in the local community were damaged by this disaster,” said Russ Weis, chairman of the NVV Board of Directors and general manager of Silverado Vineyards. “Those in the heart of the city of Napa, as well as south of the city – including American Canyon and surrounding neighborhoods – were especially impacted. The Napa Valley Vintners’ Community Disaster Relief Fund will provide resources and assistance to support the community as it rebuilds.”

In California, earthquake insurance is expensive, isn’t federally subsidized and includes high deductibles; therefore, most people don’t buy it. Serious structural damage can mean daunting expenses for homeowners with little equity.

“Funds will provide residents with short-term assistance covering temporary housing, food, health care and counseling,” Weis said. “Contributions also will cover home repairs for immediate safety concerns, including replacement windows, debris removal and toppled chimneys.”

Constellation Brands contributed $100,000 to the NVV fund on Aug. 29 in support of the effort. “I have seen the devastation first hand,” said Greg Fowler, senior vice president of operations for Constellation’s wine and spirits division, “But this is a resilient and collaborative community… the area will soon be thriving once again.”

Government Aid

On Sept. 2, Governor Jerry Brown petitioned the federal government to declare affected counties part of a federal disaster, which may result in additional relief funds. The following day, the Napa County Board of Supervisors requested federal disaster aid for damage estimated at $362 million in building, infrastructure and revenue loss due to business closures or lost inventory. The request must be approved by the Obama administration before federal aid can arrive in Napa.

For wineries, refunds of excise taxes paid for lost product may be part of that relief. Brown declared a state of emergency shortly on Aug. 24, shortly after the temblor hit.

In the meantime, NVV’s disaster relief fund is offering short-term assistance as locals await state and federal funding. Local businesses can also draw on the fund to help them reopen sooner, and nonprofit charities and agencies in the county can seek money to resume operations and apply for grants to better support quake victims.

“Government can only do one part,” observed Napa County Supervisor Mark Luce. “It’s people like the Vintners who can really help.”

Helping Winery Employees

Some of the people hardest-hit by the disaster were winery employees, many of them residents of the city of Napa, where violent shaking caused major damage to homes. Winery workers are facing major clean-ups, property losses and structural home damage, just as they’re entering the stressful harvest season.

Some wineries are stepping up to the plate to support their employees at a time when workers are expected to give their all to the company.

One example is The Hess Collection, which suffered significant damage to the winery’s Mount Veeder facility. “A pair of 10,000 gallon tanks filled with cabernet burst and sent 15,000 cases of 2013 cabernet into the garden in the front of our visitor center,” said winery spokesperson Jim Caudill. “Barrels bounced off racks and into windows in the gift shop. In the warehouse, about 1,500 barrels tumbled, along with cased goods. Later, we would discover damage to rock walls and other structural issues, but the winery actually came through pretty well.”

Despite “millions” in damage, the winery created a fund to help employees replace and repair necessary resources such as hot water heaters and structures. “We’re hopeful of providing meaningful assistance, coordinated with the variety of other programs that are beginning to emerge,” Caudill said. “We’re also doing common sense things like providing time off for people to deal with issues (rather than deducting from their vacation time.)”

One Hess Collection employee likely to benefit from the fund is Tamara Kolbert, who heads the company’s wine club. Kolbert’s home suffered serious damage and was “yellow tagged,” meaning it can only be occupied for certain purposes. Her chimney separated from the house, her water heater flooded her garage, and numerous walls sustained cracks.

“I feel so fortunate and grateful to work for a company that would extend their hand to help us when the winery is dealing with so much devastation,” Kolbert said. “We have all pulled together to help each other during this trying time.”

For updates on Napa’s earthquake recovery efforts, or to donate to the relief effort, visit http://napavintners.com/earthquake/.

To access the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s list of frequently asked questions for wineries affected by the earthquake, see www.ttb.gov/announcements/announcement-napa-earthquake-faqs.pdf.