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A Call for Earthquake Preparedness

September 2010
by Jim Gordon
In March of this year I flew to Germany to attend two big international wine shows. During the trip I had the pleasure of getting to know a fellow wine industry journalist, Eduardo Brethauer of Vitis magazine, from Chile.

Eduardo said he was very happy to be in Germany where, unlike in his home country, the ground was not shaking, and where crumbled winery walls, crumpled stainless steel tanks and runaway wine barrels were not a part of the landscape.

When Chile’s magnitude-8.8 earthquake hit Feb. 27, Eduardo was sleeping in his 23rd-floor apartment in Santiago. He said the building swayed dramatically, dishes crashed from every cupboard and chaos ensued -- but little structural damage occurred.

Chileans, he said, are very conscious that they live on fault lines. For several decades they have been using seismic safety in their buildings and infrastructure. Eduardo’s building was modern and designed to sway and flex during a strong quake rather than to break apart. Unfortunately for the wine industry of Chile, many of its facilities were not as well prepared for the earthquake as was Eduardo’s apartment building. Does a similar situation exist in our wine industry?

Our writer was there
Hearing Eduardo’s account of the quake and how it affected grapegrowers and winemakers in Chile reinforced the importance of an article idea that freelance wine writer Deborah Grossman pitched to me just before my trip to Germany. She, too, had personally experienced the recent earthquake in Chile -- five times stronger than San Francisco’s Loma Prieta quake of 1989 -- while on a research trip there.

The mass media had already covered the story well from a general viewpoint, but Deborah and I decided that a different kind of reporting could produce a valuable article for Wines & Vines that our readers weren’t likely to find elsewhere. She was to report on what systems, structures and equipment failed at vineyards and wineries in South America, so that our readers in North America could get better prepared for the next seismic challenge here.

We all know it’s coming. Californians live with the imminent possibility of a major earthquake while we make light of the periodic weak temblors that rattle our stemware. Other parts of North America are potentially at risk, too. Many of us are prepared to some degree. But how long has it been, if ever, since you took stock of your vineyard and winery operations and considered how to protect your assets and stay in business during and after a major quake?

What could happen to you?
I highly recommend that you read carefully through Deborah’s cover story and the related sidebars to see what transpired in Chile’s wine country and then consider what could happen in yours.

From Deborah’s story, you’ll learn several specific weak points that can be corrected -- some expensive and some not so much. Emergency planning is relatively cheap, for one thing, and creating a plan for your employees’ safety, for backup power and alternative communications is the least you should do.

Tanks are a special concern. Barrels stacked high with nothing to keep the stacks from swaying are a glaring concern. Correcting these issues is not rocket science but simple engineering.

Other items to weigh carefully are human safety and legal liability. Will your employees, your family and any consumers visiting your facility be safe on the day that your AVA gets a magnitude-8.8 shaker? I can’t help but picture a wine club event staged in a barrel room, where the lights are low, dozens of people mingle with glasses full of new releases, and towering above the people are, what, five levels of wine barrels weighing 600 pounds each? Is anything in place to keep the barrels from teetering, falling and harming your staff and customers?

I’m sure no one wants to hear that they should spend more time and money on their cellars, especially during a recession, but that is what’s called for. At the very least, owners and managers should review their earthquake preparedness, run numbers about the cost of upgrades and insurance vs. potential losses of product, equipment and production time. “Be prepared” is at least as good a motto for vintners as it is for Boy Scouts.
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