Friday, August 29, 2014

(A Cynic's Guide To) What Napa's Earthquake Means For Wine

Last Sunday's 6.0 magnitude earthquake in Napa Valley has provided media outlets with some terrific material: images of teenagers skateboarding on large asphalt heaves and cellar workers bouldering over fallen barrels.  This kind of stuff makes terrific cover stories.  But what does this really mean for wine?

Not much.

While there certainly is plenty of real damage - over 200 buildings have been deemed uninhabitable and schools have been closed - there were, thankfully, no deaths. My guess is that, in the final analysis, the actual percentage of unrecoverable inventory will end up being negligible, though that won't stop a PR effort from prognosticating a dramatic shortage and consequent justification of even higher prices. 

As we look ahead to the fast-approaching 2014 harvest, the logistics of this once a year rush to the vines requires an infrastructure that, at least according to this LA Times piece, was spared the worst of the damage.  What does a winery really need to get through harvest?  People more than anything.  Then tractors, trucks, and roads.  And a place with the right equipment to get fermentation under way - either a cellar or custom crush facility.  All of these appear to remain intact for the approximately 500 wineries in Napa Valley.

But what about all those pictures of broken bottles? 

Look, earthquakes are real.  And scary.  And dangerous.  They wobble the earth and everything on it.  Babies cry, adults wet their pants.  Shelves topple and spill their contents.  Bottles are bound to break.  No surprise.  But this quake was also a unspoken blessing to some wineries.  Many are still sitting on high-priced bottles from the terrible 2011 vintage.  If I found myself in that situation, I would have gotten over the shock of seeing inventory spilled all over the floor in a big hurry - and be awfully tempted to add significantly to the heap.  As painful as filing a large insurance claim is (and unlawful if you're deliberately damaging insured items), it's a much faster way to be compensated than actually having to market and sell it the old fashioned way.

Forgive the unsympathetic posture, but as it relates specifically to wine and the damage the earthquake inflicted, we're talking about mostly insured product (and is some cases also less than desirable product) in one of the wealthiest corners of the world. 

For the surviving bottles (of which there are plenty), there will be a predictable flood of cutesie "Shaken, not stirred" one-off labels coming to market soon to commemorate the occasion.  In the meantime, calls for donations to help "the effort" are being shot around the internet from all players in the industry.  It's just a matter of time before there's an ice bucket challenge to raise earthquake awareness.  Napa is nothing if not adept at exploiting opportunity for self promotion.

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