NAPA -- With its annual harvest in full swing, the crush of visitors to Napa Valley over the next several weeks was expected to be as big as the crush of grapes -- and nearly as lucrative. It's a time of year when tourists from the Bay Area and beyond descend upon Wine Country for tasting, fun runs and charity concerts. And Sunday's 6.0 earthquake left the wine world's head spinning as it faces the possibility of canceled reservations while mopping up the mess that was left when the earth moved.
In viticultural terms, what happened Sunday could be called "swirling." When executed by wine snobs holding a Zinfandel so dense you could practically cut it with a knife, it awakens a wine's slumbering flavor molecules.
But the swirling shaker that spun up from nearly 7 miles below the earth's surface Sunday roiled the vineyards and wine tasting rooms that form the heart of a $50 billion-a-year agricultural powerhouse. Though many of the world-class wineries clustered north of Yountville -- such as the legendary Château Montelena, winner of the 1976 Judgment of Paris that put Napa on the map -- escaped significant damage, others in the valley's namesake town, and further south, did not.
The loss was especially painful at Napa's City Winery, a venue for music, winemaking and the culinary arts, which opened last spring in the historic Napa Valley Opera House. According to owner Michael Dorf, burst water pipes flooded the winery restaurant, and wine bottles that tumbled from shelves were floating in water inches deep. Dorf estimated the loss of wine at 300 to 400 bottles, including some rare wines purchased at auction as well as more than 200 pieces of Riedel stemware.
As of late Sunday, there was still much that remained uncertain about how far into the fall the temblor's shock waves would ripple, as many wineries were still assessing damage and expected to know more about losses in the days ahead.
With vineyards bursting and the harvest at its peak, the mess created by the quake left people planning visits to witness the fall crush at Napa Valley's nearly 800 wineries similarly uncertain what they might encounter when they got there. Similarly, the multimillion dollar tourism industry was left holding its breath to see if the phone rings on Monday and whether people call to cancel or book reservations.
That confusion extended beyond Napa late Sunday when Sonoma Valley's Sebastiani Winery revealed that 19 stainless steel tanks of wine spilled on the floor of its blending facility. The tanks were nearly 60-feet tall, and though a spokesman for Sebastiani declined to put a dollar value on the loss, word quickly spread through a valley that had thought itself safe that Sebastiani may have lost much more than any of its Napa brethren.
Sebastiani sent some tasting room staff home, said Christopher Johnson, the tasting room manager, and canceled some tours. He said he wasn't worried about a tsunami of cancellations, however. As he spoke groups of visitors poked their noses inside glasses of wine, while others kicked back by the winery's fountain. Johnson said he was especially worried about Sebastiani's holding facility in American Canyon, the quake's epicenter, which has not been inspected yet.
At Saintsbury Winery, which lost about 400 bottles of pinot noir and chardonnay, barrels cascaded and smashed on the winery floor, said owner Richard Ward. It's mostly a game of pickup sticks, he said. On Sunday workers were busy picking up the fallen barrels, restacking them and washing down the floor.
Patsy McGaughy, a spokeswoman for Napa Valley Vintners, which represents 500 vineyards, said it was too soon to assess the economic impact of the temblor. "Right now we're focusing on our community and making sure they are safe and have everything they need."
The news was much more definite, and better, at Napa's Domain Carneros, the sparkling winemaker, where the harvest was almost over and 99 percent of the wine was in tanks.
"If you picture a 6,000 or 30,000 tank going through fermentation, what's happening is that yeast is causing a lot of activity in there and what the earthquake did was shake it up," said winemaker TJ Evans, chair of the Carneros Wine Alliance. "It creates a lot of pressure and could have been potentially dangerous, but nothing happened."
Not even barrels of bubbly stacked five-high on steel racks toppled over. "I have to say," Evans admitted, "we have a little bit of survivor's guilt."
Despite a tumultuous scene at Mattiasson Wines, the boutique Napa winery whose owner posted pictures on social media of a room filled with wine barrels toppled to the floor, local winemaker Alison Crowe of Garnet Vineyards remained upbeat.
"Everyone's going to gear up and get right back to work," she predicted. "It's a blessing that we've had this recent cool weather because it has actually slowed things down a bit. I took my first load of Carneros pinot noir in (last Friday) and wasn't planning on crushing more fruit until this Friday. We live in the lap of Mother Nature here, so we know that we're not in control, but sometimes it takes something as big as an earthquake to really open your eyes."
Bay Area News Group staff writers Bruce Newman, Martha Ross and Joyce Tsai contributed to this story. Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004.