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Barrel Room Disaster

By Charles Olken

Back in 1989, when the Loma Prieta earthquake, centered in the Santa Cruz Mountains, made kindling of wine barrels at several wineries in that neck of the woods, it was clear that a barrel room is no place to be in an earthquake. Pictures of barrel stacks that looked like a giant had gone mad and thrown the contents about in a fit of pique made clear that it was only by the grace of god that the industry avoided getting someone killed in that quake.

Now, it has happened again. Sure, it is 25 years later and in a different place, and once again, not a pinky was put out of place by a flying wine barrel. But, we are once again treated to pictures of barrels that have gone walkabout in a most violent and dangerous manner. And once again, the industry is lucky beyond words.

On Tuesday, Steve Eliot and I attended a tasting of older Cabernets up in Napa at the Grgich Hills winery. It was a long-scheduled event, and because most of the wineries up-valley (read that as north of Yountville) escaped more or less unscathed and because 99% of the infrastructure in the Valley survived intact, the tasting went on as scheduled.

Grgich lost eight barrels that fell off their racking system. Another couple of thousand barrels remained upright even though we could see, and were shown, that the stacks had moved during the quake. At Corison, even further up the Valley, their barrels stacks had no problems at first inspection. But, again, one could see evidence of movement. Things move in earthquakes. The stacks of items on our closet shelves all moved an inch or so away from the wall and one container looked to be ready to come down and might have if the quake had gone on.

But, a container of fancy dress shirts I no longer wear is nothing by comparison to a wine barrel. A filled wine barrel weighs almost 500 pounds, and if one of them gets loose, it is no longer an object of admiration for its beauty and its contents. It is a potential killer. It is an unsurvivable, out of control beast that will destroy everything it can—including the people who get in the way.

It is time for the wine industry to do what it can to prevent the next earthquake from reeking absolute havoc in wine country. Everyone is rightfully grateful that this earthquake killed no one. But, in all honesty, the wine industry ought to count itself as incredibly lucky that this earthquake killed no one.

I call on the California Wine Institute to fund a study into methods of making barrel stacks and barrel rooms safe for the people who work there. It is as simple as that. Universities have what are called “shaking tables” to test how to build safer buildings. It would not take a lot of money to study how to make wineries safer places.

Call me a sob sister, a softie if you will, but if even one of those eight barrels at Grgich had made contact with a cellar worker, it would not be a small footnote soon to be forgotten. This is one place in which the industry can and should do better. And it is time. The next earthly regurgitation from Mother Nature might not happen in the middle of the night.


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No Subject
by gabe
Posted on:8/28/2014 11:04:49 AM

Well said.  it is not uncommon for cellar workers to be climbing on barrels to pull samples or top during a regular work day.  Looking at all of those pictures, I just kept thinking of how horrible it would have been to be topping during a quake.  I'm sure that every cellar worker in California will be thinking of that next time they are climbing barrels.  Even if there is a limit to what we can accomplish when wer are in the crosshairs of mother nature, I feel like the wine industry owes it to it's employees to make the effort.

No Subject
by Jeffrey
Posted on:8/28/2014 12:21:56 PM

Outstanding article, Chalie.  Given the absurd pricing for much of what comes out of Napa and Sonoma, there is absolutely no argument to be made that there is not a little bit of cushion in cost margins that can be devoted to protecting those who do the hard work of making that wine from being killed or maimed in the cellar.

No Subject
by Dan Fishman
Posted on:8/28/2014 3:03:39 PM

As someone who does a fair bit of barrel climbing myself, those pictures are definitely scary.  BUT the cost of earthquake proof racks is quite simply far to high to justify, given the rarity of these events.  You can't protect against everything, and money needs to be allocated wisely.  I'm sure that far more wine workers have been killed driving to and from work than in the cellar... that money could be used to make the roads safer!

No Subject
by Jeffrey
Posted on:8/29/2014 9:31:08 AM

You're absolutely right, Dan.  What was I thinking?  Money must be allocated wisely, and when you're selling wine for fifty, eighty a hundred eighty dollars a bottle, there's just simply not much to go around.  New Range Rovers need to be purchased.  Junkets to Aspen Food & Wine and South Beach Wine Festival need to be attended.  Fabulous dinners with rare ingredients need to be held.  And new wineries themed after Persian palaces, Medievil castles and "dwarf-themed" fantasy lands need to be built.

Sorry, cellar rat.  There's just not enough money in the budget to worry about your safety!

No Subject
by Doug Wilder
Posted on:8/29/2014 3:40:02 PM

Charlie, Cal Poly has already demonstrated a system (2003). More here Jeffrey must read Robb Report and Food & Wine, Pretty magazines but far removed from the reality of farming and winemaking on a small to medium scale.

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