In quake, barrels became quarter-ton projectiles

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 30, 2014 at 9:36 am •  Published: August 30, 2014

NAPA, Calif. (AP) — Napa Valley's seismically reinforced winery buildings generally held up to the largest earthquake to hit Northern California in a quarter-century, but the precious wine piled inside often did not.

In winery after winery, oak wine barrels stacked high and weighing more than a quarter-ton each came cascading down, renewing worries about a lightly regulated threat to safety in fault-riddled wine country.

Vintner Richard Ward, in his south Napa Valley winery in the hours after the Aug. 24 magnitude-6.0 quake to help workers re-stack barrels, was one of many to say the time of the quake — 3:20 a.m. — limited casualties.

Authorities say falling debris seriously injured three people, none apparently at wineries that were then mostly unstaffed.

Had the quake happened one day later, Ward said, gesturing as workers used forklifts to right toppled empty barrels at his Saintsbury vineyard, "this place would have been full of people" working on this year's harvest.

Napa Valley's roughly 500 wineries still are compiling financial estimates for the quake's impact, spokeswoman Cate Conniff of the Napa Valley Vintners trade group said. The most commonly reported damage was the fallen stacks of wine barrels.

The barrels each hold the equivalent of 25 cases of wine. At some wineries and wine-storage centers after the quake, spilled wine from broken barrels pooled over workers' feet and ran under doors to puddle on streets and sidewalks.

Wine barrel storage sites, which can hold thousands of barrels belonging to many owners, said they too were still assessing the loss, but numerous full wine barrels had spilled to the ground in some.

Beyond general worker safety rules, state officials say there are no specific regulations addressing wine barrel stacks, which a 2004 report by the Oakland-based Earthquake Engineer Research Institute said pose "significant threats to life and property."

In a few wineries with tasting rooms among the barrel stacks, tourists could have been in harm's way as well.

Materials in workplaces are supposed to be secured, but there are no specific state laws or regulations covering wine barrel stacks, said Peter Melton, a spokesman for the California state division of occupational safety and health.

OSHA inspectors tended to see such stack collapses as inevitable in a large temblor, Melton said, and no wineries have been cited in the latest quake. "I don't think they (barrel racks) were designed for an earthquake," he said.

Beyond the economic losses of wine, "the bigger issue is the risk to life safety is profound if it happens during the day," said Joshua Marrow, an earthquake safety specialist who has written on easing the dangers of the stacks for more than a decade.

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