Chow Town

California’s recent earthquake continues to impact wine harvest

Earthquake-damaged wine barrels sit outside Napa Barrel Care after they were removed during cleanup in Napa, Calif.
Earthquake-damaged wine barrels sit outside Napa Barrel Care after they were removed during cleanup in Napa, Calif. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The magnitude-6.0 earthquake that tossed around the people and wineries of Napa Valley threw chaos into the area’s harvest preparations.

Even 10 days later, many winemakers were still trying to sort out which barrels were busted and have spilt their precious contents and which were salvageable. John Skupny of Lang & Reed Winery was only able to sort out his barrel storage facility five days after the quake.

His fears were palpable: more than 200 barrels lay in a giant heap, jumbled like a pile of corks. He got lucky: only six full barrels were lost.

But that’s a bit more than 2,000 bottles. With Lang & Reed wines selling for $18 to $50, that’s a significant loss for any business, much less a small enterprise that produces fewer than 5,000 cases annually.

And seldom have wineries in wine country purchased earthquake insurance; it’s prohibitively expensive. Even though few knew there was a fault line in southern Napa, the insurance companies appear to have known better.

There had been no previously recorded quake from this fault, but everyone is keenly aware of it now. Looking at a map to see the homes that have been damaged, the destruction appears random, but the worst hit have been those on sandier, looser soils — soils derived from the movement of the river or from debris eroded down from the mountains.

It’s reflective of Napa’s crazy quilt of soil types, the result of at least three major tectonic plates — the Pacific, North American and Farallon plates — slipping, sliding and banging into each other, along with occasional splashes of lava.

Napa wine producers have managed to massage this jumble into 14 different AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas), each of which is intended to reflect a differing micro-climate, soil set and style of wine. But in truth each AVA itself is filled with a hodgepodge of soils and sites. Each region is as different within as without.

That’s no weakness. It’s one of the strengths of northern Californian viticulture. There are so many differences that a smart vine grower and winemaker has an opportunity for remarkable diversity and creativity.

But the weather is still in charge of the vintage, and this year’s weather has been hot and famously dry. Wineries were gearing up for a very early harvest and the earthquake has tossed their best-laid plans aside, just like those barrels.

Crumpled tanks and smashed barrels mean not just spilt wine, but a lack of space for fermentation and blending. This harvest is going to be a nightmare for some. As is traditional, the valley’s residents are helping each other, offering to share tank and storage space with those who lost theirs.

So Napa’s wine industry — and those in neighboring Sonoma as well — will likely come through the earthquake with some deep financial wounds but in overall health.

Skupny of Lang & Reed admits that, “In spite of the continued quake clean up, harvest proceeds unabated on an early pace.”

In fact, this is the earliest harvest ever for him: it started on Sept. 4, weeks before many vintages he has seen in his 30 years in Napa. He’s no California native. In fact, Skupny was once the sommelier at Kansas City’s Plaza III. Full disclosure: he was the first person ever to invite me to a wine tasting and to teach me how to taste wine, so I may be partial to his wines. I think they’re pretty great.

I hope everything goes well for him and his family this harvest. I’d be loath to miss out on a vintage from Lang & Reed. To me, their Cabernet Francs are among the best in North America. The “214” bottling, named for their favorite Cabernet Franc clone, is my benchmark wine for the variety’s expression in the U.S.

That’s no small praise with more than 1,000 commercially available Cabernet Francs in the marketplace. But for now wine producers like Skupny will have to go into overdrive to clean up and make room for a flood of grapes from the new harvest, as unstoppable as any other force of nature.

Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant who for decades has happily educated the public about all things drink. He is one of only three people in the world to have earned the coveted titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column to The Star’s Food section.