Written by Harrison Reilly, Associate Editor
Growing up in Northern California, earthquakes are a way of life. In my lifetime, I hadn’t experienced a significant earthquake. My parents, however, lived through one of the most infamous earthquakes in United States history, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which caused catastrophic damage across the Bay Area and infamously interrupted the 1989 World Series. That earthquake was a 6.9 on the richter scale and was the biggest since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
On the morning of August 24th at 3:20 a.m., I felt the biggest earthquake of my life in St. Helena, California, the heart of the Napa Valley. The quake rattled seemingly forever, like a train had just plowed through our home. And because earthquakes are relatively rare in Napa Valley, I instinctively thought the epicenter was in San Francisco, where possibly a much bigger jolt occurred. It turned out the epicenter was only twenty minutes from my home, in South Napa.
The earthquake registered a 6.0 on the richter scale, which was the biggest earthquake in the Bay Area since the Loma Prieta earthquake.The earthquake occurred on a fault that was thought to be dormant for 1.6 million years.
Official numbers for earthquake damage are yet to be officially reported, but it’s estimated that the earthquake resulted in $300 million in damage, if not more. Governor Jerry Brown and President Barack Obama declared a State of Emergency for the Napa area. Damage was widespread and impacted agriculture all throughout the Napa Valley, including many wineries. Some wineries, however, felt the damage more than others.
Trefethen Family Vineyards, a winery in North Napa, had their Eschol Winery building buckle to a 20 degree slant. The building was built in the 1880s and is listed on the National Register for Historical Places. It is still unclear if the building can be saved.
Downtown Napa was given most of the media coverage, with newspapers front pages featuring pictures of stone and concrete falling off the faces of buildings. More than a few businesses were shut down because it was too dangerous to operate in their buildings.
As for wine loss, it varies across the board. The wineries in Napa Valley range from very small to huge production facilities. The smaller wineries have felt a bigger impact because their production of the wine is already limited. But for the bigger wineries in Napa Valley, the earthquake was only a small dent in their inventory.
One of the defining images of the earthquake were piles of wine barrels fallen off from their racks. The earthquake is sure to overhaul how wineries stack their wine barrels, store their wine bottles and make their fermentation tanks seismically fit. Wineries will now have to build their barrel rooms with large earthquakes in mind.
Even though Napa Valley accounts for only 4% of wine grapes in California, the Napa Valley wine industry makes $13 billion per year. According to the Napa Valley Vintners, a ton of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon grapes generally cost four times as much as the statewide average for cabernet sauvignon grapes. The prestige of Napa Valley wines is unparalleled in the United States.
Napa Valley is also the gold standard for agritourism in California. 2.94 million people visited Napa Valley in 2012, spending more that $1.4 billion.
The earthquake has only added to the problems of wineries due to the harsh drought that’s taking a toll on the entirety of California farmland. While Napa Valley hasn’t felt the effects of the drought as badly as somewhere like Paso Robles, cleaning up earthquake damage while conducting harvest and managing the drought is only compounding costs for wineries.
Despite the struggles, Napa has a very optimistic attitude and the community has become stronger as a result. This past week, the organizers of the Bottlerock music festival, held at the Napa Fairgrounds in May, hosted their Napa Valley Rocks event, donating all proceeds to the earthquake relief fund. Businesses are encouraging tourists to come to Napa Valley, insisting the Napa Valley experience has not been tarnished.
As for me, my town St. Helena didn’t feel the damage nearly as much as Napa. The jolt certainly felt big, my parents initially thought the shake felt worse than the Loma Prieta earthquake. But St. Helena is thought to be on soil that isn’t as susceptible to earthquakes, making the area relatively safer than somewhere like Napa. My home gained back power the morning after the earthquake.
My second oldest sister, Mackenzie, however, lives in Downtown Napa and felt the brunt of the earthquake. There was a house on fire at the end of her street and power was out for a couple days. A week after the earthquake, I visited her home. The neighboring streets were lined with yellow tagged and red tagged houses. There is much work to be done in Napa in restoring homes and retrofitting them for future earthquakes. If nothing else, the earthquake is a warning to the rest of the Bay Area that a bigger one is on the way and there’s no such thing as too much preparation for one of the most destructive phenomenons in nature.