At 3:20 a.m. on August 24, scores of people in the Bay Area were awakened with a jolt. The 6.0 earthquake, centered in Napa Valley, lasted up to 20 seconds and was the strongest to hit the region since 1989. Miraculously, no one was killed, and only a handful of people were seriously injured — yet dozens of buildings sustained structural damage. This being wine country, tanks also busted open and barrels got tossed around, with thousands of gallons lost.
The tally: $400 million worth of damage and counting, as well as a potential near-term blow to the region’s tourism industry. Napa Valley’s wine and food are powerful draws, and its hotels and wineries hosts thousands of incentive trips and conferences each year. My first visit was in 2001 for a small corporate retreat, one that included an unforgettable dinner in Mumm Napa’s barrel room. Last week, I arrived in Napa for a meeting of 40 or so that was planned months in advance, but had to be moved from a still-shuttered downtown hotel to another on the outskirts of the city. Some of that hotel’s employees were still dealing with being displaced from their homes.
Yet sob stories are hard to come by here; Napa’s residents have sprung back with typical Californian buoyancy. Cracks are visible on the facades of many downtown Napa buildings, and some are still roped off, but the people still show their bravest faces. Harvest likely helped: Some winemakers, such as Michael Martini at Louis M. Martini Winery (which we visited), spoke with cautious optimism about the grapes his team hauled in a few weeks ago. Martini (the third generation winemaker in his family) handed out inky tank samples of fermenting 2014 juice before we debunked to the cellar for a feast of succulent roasted veal and even more of his lauded Cabernet Sauvignons. At our table, we talked more about California’s ongoing drought than the quake, which perhaps our hosts were purposely already turning into a footnote.
The next day, as we crossed into Sonoma for a sun-splashed, al-fresco lunch on a vine-covered private terrace at E&J Gallo (wood-fired pizza, kale Caesar, roasted cauliflower salad, and more wine) — followed by a raucous wine blending seminar at Frei Brothers — it was clear that earthquakes, drought, fire, and possibly even invading aliens could ever keep us away. It’s in this region’s DNA to ride out whatever challenges get thrown their way — from vine pests to heat waves — and year after year create both beautiful wines and unforgettable experiences. I’ll be thinking of our hosts as they continue to recover, and I brought home plenty of their wines with which to toast their mettle.
To assist those rebuilding from the Napa earthquake, consider a donation to the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund.