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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
26 Aug 2014

In the early hours of Sunday morning, northern California experienced its strongest earthquake since 1989 and the epicentre was frighteningly close to the city of Napa at the southern end of the Napa Valley, one of the world's greatest concentrations of fine-wine production. True to the famous spirit of co-operation and pragmatism that pervades the Napa Valley wine community, there were immediate Valley-wide responses and offers of help.

All yesterday, a holiday in England, reports trickled in. Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac in Burgundy told me that they had heard from the sister of his winemaker wife Diana Snowden in Napa Valley that she had 'woken up to find everything in her house on the floor, most of it broken, a front door that could not be opened and a house that may no longer be structurally sound. Makes our chilly, overcast weather seem like nothing to complain about. Americans can be damn competitive.'

San Francisco-based barrel broker Mel Knox, a frequent poster on our Members' forum, was distracted from his campaign to re-upholster the image of oaked California Chardonnay to report, 'More worried about the earthquake now; one of my staff lost her home. The house can probably be restored with $150,000 of work. They can now see the earthquake fault line running through their property. Her husband is the winemaker at Hess, where they lost 30,000 gallons of Cabernet.

'The epicenter was in Carneros, about two miles from Saintsbury and about one mile from Bouchaine, where we make our Uvaggio wine. The walls at Trefethen have buckled. So many wineries have texted us pictures of hundreds of barrels on the ground.'

Trefethen, whose historic winery is one of the most valued old buildings of the southern Napa Valley in Oak Knoll district, sent this report, and the image shown here: 'After a magnitude 6.0 earthquake hit the Napa region at 3:20 am Sunday morning, the damage to one of Napa Valley’s most iconic wineries, Trefethen Family Vineyards, is coming more fully to light. The original three-story wooden winery, built in 1886 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places sustained a major hit in the quake.

'Barrels were upended and debris from bottles, equipment and furnishings was spewn about property-wide, but fortunately no employees were at the winery when the quake occurred. The modern facilities, while up-ended, are sound and will be quickly back in operation as harvest at the estate begins in the coming weeks. Predictions of an extremely early harvest start have eased in recent weeks as daytime temperatures have been cool, allowing the grapes to ripen more slowly – all good news for cellar crews scrambling to get equipment and tanks back on line in time.

'Cleanup at the production buildings will continue this week and crush will begin soon, but the re-opening of the historic winery building is still to be determined. Historic preservation specialists have been on-site to access the damage and determine a course of action. Visitor services will be closed for just a few days as plans are being formulated on how to best open for wine tasting in a temporary tented location at the winery while restoration work progresses. The family looks forward to welcoming guests as they come to enjoy the fine wines while watching the 2014 grape harvest come in and see the progress in restoring the historic winery. Trefethen is one of the wineries referred to as “The Big Four,” along with Far Niente, Inglenook and Greystone, designed by renowned sea captain Hamden MacIntyre. Trefethen in the only wooden structure of the four and has withstood quakes from 1906, 1989 and 2000, the last one having its epicenter very nearby.

'Winery President Jon Ruel said, “While there is no good time for an earthquake to hit, Mother Nature was kind to us in her timing nonetheless. This week is the small window when we are post-bottling and pre-crush. The 2012 vintage red wines and 2013 whites were all recently bottled and sent to the Wine Service Coop for storage where all was safe and sound. The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon had just been racked - moved from wooden barrel to tank - before the quake. While the large stainless tanks sustained some damage, some being sheared from their mounts, the wine was able to be moved to other tanks without loss. Barrels in the production buildings as well as those in the historic winery were thrown about helter-skelter; they were largely empty at the time.”

'Ruel continued, "As farmers we are continually humbled by the acts of nature and constantly strive to adapt to what’s thrown our way. I am proud of how quickly and passionately the team rallied together at this time - and I am once-again honored and amazed at the resolve of the Trefethen family to commit to this legendary vineyard and winery.” '