Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Thoughts on an Earthquake

My first thought after awakening to the news that the 6.0 earthquake in wine country was centered in Napa? Sounds like all those falling bricks will delay harvest…
Earthquakes are a reminder, if we really need one, that we’re rather insignificant beings on this colossal planet. If we see Earth as a berry, humans are a kind of botrytis, an Ignoble Mold. We’ve spent a couple of hundred years of our Industrial Revolution trying to destroy Earth. It only makes sense that Earth is going to fight back once in a while. It’s the movements of its tectonic plates, like the minor movement that dismantled downtown Napa early Sunday, that created the beauty and diverse soils of Napa and Sonoma, the soils that make them such wondrous winegrowing regions. An earthquake is like your father saying to you when you misbehaved as a child, “I brought you into this world, I can take you out.”
As a lifelong resident of earthquake country, I recognized the rolling movements of my bedroom in Healdsburg as a sign that I wasn’t near the epicenter of the quake. Near the epicenter, an earthquake is sudden and explosive, only, unlike an explosion, you don’t know which direction it’s coming from. When the Whittier Narrows earthquake struck Los Angeles in 1987, I was in the shower. I have never been more grateful for shatterproof glass. I had shampoo lathered in my hair and suddenly my apartment was trying to move in next door. I grabbed a towel, even in a crisis we cover our dicks, and ran down the stairs. In the distance I could see sparks from a transformer of some kind shorting out, and I remember the cacophony of the ubiquitous car alarms of the times was very annoying. My girlfriend was screaming. She knew what was behind the towel. And then, in the way of quakes, it just stopped. There is an amazing silence after an earthquake. Even the birds are holding their breath. Dogs are woofless. Had it not been for the fucking car alarms, it would have been like standing at the dawn of time.

I had just started as a sommelier. I was about a month into the job. I drove to work that night and found a dozen large trash cans filled with broken wine bottles. The busboys had piled the shards with labels still intact in a separate place, trying to create an inventory of what had been lost. Cristal, Yquem, Lafite, Gaja, Rayas, Jayer… They were just names then, the carcasses of dead wines, stacked up as if in a graveyard. And you know what? They didn’t matter. Wineries have stories, marketing folks spend hours and hours crafting those Authentic stories, but when real life happens, when we’re taken away from our silly eno-illogical passions by genuine tragedy and heartbreak, it’s not the spilled wines’ stories we care about, it’s the human stories. Wine is only wine.
I couldn’t help but reflect on how Natural Wine might be affected by a Natural Disaster. Or is an earthquake an Authentic Disaster? A Real Disaster? The terminology is so confusing. Someone call Alice Feiring. She'll know. When I think wine and disaster, I think of her.
When I was a freshman at Occidental College, the Sylmar quake struck. Funny how we feel the need to name Natural Disasters. We name hurricanes, we name earthquakes, we name big fires, we name wines from Cornellisen… The Sylmar quake was around six in the morning, and I was unceremoniously thrown from my cheap dormitory bed. I did the exact wrong thing—I ran to the window. Across the street from my dorm was a large grassy area. In the dawn’s early light, I could see the grass moving in two foot swells, a small ocean disturbance. Grass isn’t supposed to be doing the Wave.
An anchor on CNN was speaking to David Duncan, whose family owns Silver Oak, and she was calling the loss of so many bottles of his wine in the earthquake a “tragedy.” Moron. The poor woman who lost everything when her trailer park home burned to the ground? What about her? Who cares? What’s she ever done for every restaurant chain in the country?
I was wondering if earthquakes have anything to do with balance, or terroir. Wouldn’t an earthquake right before harvest change the terroir? Will you be able to taste the difference in Trefethen Cabernet’s terroir beginning with the 2014 vintage? I would think so. Some of the vines are several feet east of where they used to be. And wouldn’t a 6.0 earthquake change a wine’s balance? It changed mine. Though I’ve always been unbalanced. I wonder about these things. This is the minutiae that makes wine interesting.  The shit we dwell on while the ground beneath our feet disappears. We are trivial beings so much of the time.
We live in constant denial of our insignificance and mortality. For a few minutes, earthquakes change that. In those remarkable and unforgettable handful of seconds that an earthquake lasts, we simply don’t know what to do. We run in circles, we scream, we pray for it to end. It’s like reading Palate Press. And when it does finally end, for a few days, at least, we’re a little less certain of our place in the world. The ground beneath our feet is no longer trustworthy. Our priorities are highlighted for their emptiness. I didn’t even check my wine cellar after the earthquake. I didn’t care a whit about the progress of the 2014 vintage. I wanted to hold my wife. I wanted to laugh with my friends. I wanted to remember what mattered in those frightening seconds the quake shook my little world.


Beau said...

I was talking to a friend and colleague about the quake yesterday and we were discussing how much the regular people would be affected. Tasting room staff, grape pickers, cellar workers, etc. While it's sad that Silver Oak (and others) lost library wines, I think the real tragedy is those further down the totem pole. That and small wineries like Lagier Meredith and Matthiasson.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Beau,
There will be hundreds of stories emerging from the earthquake. In the end, as huge as an earthquake is, as disconcerting and frightening, it's a very personal experience. And very humbling.

To his credit, Mr. Duncan tried to downplay any talk of "tragedy." The CNN anchor was doing something anchors should never do--going off script. Her ignorance was breathtaking.

"I think the real tragedy is those further down the totem pole" sums up our society in general, not just in the case of an earthquake. Loss is the largest part of human experience, and it's how we cope that defines us. Winemakers are a resilient group, at their best when coping with disasters. I wish all of them luck and good fortune.

This was just a stupid piece prompted by my own earthquake experiences. It was a trip down seismic memory lane. On the Richter Scale, it rates about 2.7.


Yes, along with being philosophical, we must also be practical. Get your sh*t together. You need to have supplies on hand for a 72 hour period-more like a week-for a more expansive disaster. Please look at the informative web site of www.ready.gov. Do it today. Be prepared.

PaulG said...

Thank you for this. It's good to provide a chuckle, while tossing a zinger at Feiring, and still show genuine empathy for those who deserve it. Well done, be safe, and keep on truckin'...

Francly Speaking said...

So didn't Dire Straights write a song 'Calling Alice'.. seems an appropriate group to call her...

Jack Edwards said...

Ugh.... hard to laugh just yet but thanks!

Dave Butner said...

For my Napa colleagues - for your 2013 spec sheets, feel free to use this as you wish.... ; )

"The 2013 Vintage wines from Napa are remarkable due to a 6.0 magnitude earthquake that occurred on August 24, 2014. The positive ion charged electromagnetic force that was released by the massive seismic energy of the earthquake passed through the barrel aging wine and charged it with Mother Natures purest and most powerful natural forces of energy, directly from the core of the center of the earth."

This will be a special, unique vintage with prices I expect to see upwards of $700/bottle.

Wishing you all the best from Woodinville, WA!

Vine Language said...

A wonderfully comedic reminder of how precious and small we all here in the grand seismic scheme of life. The last few sentences hit home and I appreciate a chuckle or two while trying to regain my balance in Napa. Also a nice reminder to keep bath towels on hand. Though, for some, a wash cloth would suffice.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thanks, my friend. Sadly, no matter the circumstance, my brain begins to write jokes. The lead joke leapt into my head when I was writing a note to Thomas. That one stupid joke made me sit down and riff on the Napa earthquake. And it occurred to me that Natural Disaster has all kinds of resonance with Natural Wine.

My head--you don't want to live there.

Dire Straits? Wow, nice reference. What about Jefferson Airplane and "Go Ask Alice?"

Glad you're OK. I think there are times that laughter is our only defense. Nothing particularly funny about earthquakes, nothing particularly evil about them either. Almost all of the loss was property loss. This is luck, pure and simple. The same quake eight hours later, and the bricks joke isn't the least bit funny.

You might be on to something. See my previous post on wine marketing...

Vine Language,
Thank you. I was only aiming for chuckles, a mild sort of comedy, that has some respect for the losses so many have incurred. It's easy for me to say, of course, but it's only wine and it's only money. If those two things are anywhere near the top of your life priority list, then an earthquake isn't anywhere near your worst disaster.

Thomas said...


Thanks for letting me have the joke first. My wife loved it, too.

Your piece is wonderful. Earthquake is not. It's one natural disaster that I have thus far escaped experiencing, and I think I am grateful for that.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

The joke just came to me as I was responding to your kind inquiry about how I'd fared through the quake. And it led me to this odd, reflective, disjointed post. But I think that's what disasters do--make you think in odd, reflective, disjointed ways. I had a lot more thoughts, but wanted to keep it short.

I've always thought earthquakes the easiest of the natural disasters to live with. You have no warning, so you don't live in frightened anticipation for several days ahead of time. They last less than a minute--by the time you realize it's an earthquake, it's half over. And they have no season, they're not an annual risk. There hasn't been a Big One here since 1989. I've been in four or five major quakes--that's about one every 10 or 15 years. So the Napa Quake might well be my last...

Thomas said...

...and that might well be the famous last words...

I see what you mean about easy to live with, though--kind of like prostate cancer. I had no idea it was living inside me until I couldn't stop peeing.

Mary Rocca said...


Thanks for a moment of humor to lift up my spirits.

Day One I was so happy because no lives were lost, and my family and team were safe.

Then yesterday brought the ugly news of barrels falling on top of one another, and wine being lost.

Still waiting to find out how we fared.
Reminding myself that it's just wine (although an amazingly great vintage) and we'll make it through this one way or another.

Best news of all is experiencing the support from friends and strangers from in and out of our community. Thank you thank you to all that care about our Napa Valley community!

Here's to no more aftershocks...

Ron Washam, HMW said...

When I first realized the size and seriousness of the quake (I guess all earthquakes are damned serious, but you get the idea), I flashed on the hospital in Sylmar that collapsed in 1971, killing dozens of folks, on the folks who perished in the Northridge quake, including the police officer who drove off an overpass that had fallen, and on all of the people killed when the freeways collapsed during the Loma Prieta quake in 1989. That no one was killed by the Napa Quake gives us permission to focus on the wine that was lost. Had the Yountville Veterans' Home collapsed, I doubt anyone would have had the gall to complain about the wine that was spilled. Perspective is a valuable thing, and disasters grant us perspective.

That said, I'm glad you and yours are well. It would have been nice if the quake had happened two years ago and destroyed much of the '11 vintage--a task now taken up by Laube. I hadn't thought of that. Damned earthquakes don't read wine reviews.

I love your wines, Mary. Indeed, you and everyone else in Napa will endure. Burgundy had catastrophic hail, and they, too, will endure. Terroir giveth, and terroir taketh away.

Good luck. I hope your losses are minor. Well, of course they will be, compared to what might have been.

Mary Rocca said...

Totally agree Ron.

Thanks again for keeping everything in perspective for us!

Glad I took the time to let you do that for me. Guess I knew you would!

Dale Dimas said...

It's odd to me how people outside of California freak out over every little quake reported, and yet think nothing of blizzards and hurricanes in their neck of the woods. Having lived all my life in CA I'm a little jaded over quakes. I've never been afraid of them and then a big one hits and there's loss of life (property damage, usually meh) and I'm reminded they are a pretty big deal, and thankfully big ones are much more rare than mudslides and wildfires and blizzards and hurricanes...

I think you hit just the right tone, somber, yet grinning. Reflective and respectful and irreverent.

I remember watching live news on TV after Sylmar (I was home in Lakewood back then) and feeling the floor rolling beneath me like a giant was shaking a carpet for one of the aftershocks...Ooooo, kinda cool, like a roller coaster. Little ones that would shake the bunk bed and I'd think, "My brother is shaking the bed to annoy me, no wait, an earthquake...kinda cool."

Loma Prieta was horrible. One of the few times I've been scared as the arms of the desk chair I was in in Cupertino were stuck under the desk and I couldn't stand up to calmly walk under a doorway. Seeing my mom and dad crossing the street to my office (through the big glass "outdoor mall" windows of my office and dad stumbling, like he'd been drinking. Then the reports of the Bay Bridge and the Oakland freeway collapse.

Coalinga damaged lots of beautiful old brick buildings and we felt it in San Jose.

I barely woke up to Napa, but after, this was pretty bad. A friend's house was trashed. Structurally OK but all the stuff inside tossed around and broken.

Broken barrels are "sad" but not a true loss. Losing one's home, not so good. :(

So, yeah, quakes are a pretty big deal, but usually it's just surface damage. I'm chastened in being reminded how much damage they can cause.

And yet, still, they are kinda cool and way better than tornadoes. Yeah, left them out of the earlier list.

Thanks, Ron

Ron Washam, HMW said...

I also hear folks express irrational fear of earthquakes. I'm sure that the thousands of tourists who were in or near Napa will be telling their survival stories for years. Maybe the worst thing to come out of the quake will be reduced tourism in Napa. That might hurt locals far more than a few days of chaos and busted stuff. After a big quake, LA always had a lot of canceled conventions and decreased tourism. The same may happen to Napa. I hope not, but fear of earthquakes is hardwired into humans.

Those few seconds you're aware of being in a quake stay with you a lifetime. Humbling and awesome.

Marcia Macomber said...

My favorite part was debate on "authentic" or "natural" disasters and earthquakes. Lends itself well to the wine world of late.

You are quite right, Ron, had there been loss of life, the humor might not have been possible at all. I know many who've incurred serious damages to their homes and/or businesses. But it could have been soooooooo much worse. Thanks for providing some much needed levity.

Unknown said...

A San Francisco TV Station found a photo posted around the time of the quake and showed it on the air during a live broadcast. It was of a vineyard that had apparently been "green-harvested" or crop-thinned.
They reported the "quake was so strong, it knocked the grapes right off of the vine!"


Now we know The Hosemaster is spending weekends writing the news...


Ron Washam, HMW said...

Marcia Love,
The "natural" and "authentic" disaster thing was also one of the first thoughts my twisted mind had. So what about if we have "Natural" wines and "Man-made" wines? That makes a certain amount of sense...as much as anything else, anyway.

Satire isn't meant to have any boundaries. Deaths would have changed the circumstances, to be sure, and they would have changed the tone of a piece, but even at the worst of times, there is a use for dark humor.

Anonymous 1,
Man, that beats the CNN woman calling Silver Oak's wine loss a "disaster." Just classic TV news stupidity.

"Look, it shook so hard it made oak trees fall and make wine barrels!"

Charlie Olken said...

Even looking at eight broken wine barrels out of a stack of hundred is sad.

Not as sad as Trefethen's broken winery.

Not as sad as the hundred building or so in Napa that are red-tagged.

Not as sad as those who lost houses or were injured.

But, in the end, most of what was lost was wine and wood and glass. We can replace those.

And yes, it takes a bit of genius to find the sadness and to laugh at the right lines while passing by the pathetic one.

Thanks for lifting the spirits.

On a final note, I drove by Trefethen the other day on the way to a previously scheduled up-Valley event where the eight lost barrels stood sadly in the corner. The mood at Trefethen, while obviously filled with disappointment was incredibly upbeat. It is that kind of spirit that will see us through--and humor, which they still have, is part of that.

Thanks for finding the right voice.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Puff Daddy,
Thank you for the kind words. Writing HoseMaster has always been, for me, an exercise in tone. My previous post about marketing was all about an angry tone. Here I wanted to use humor as a tonic.

When we are all in something together, whether overcoming disaster or doing something trivial like cheering for the same team, humans are a wonder to behold. While it lasts, it's a wonderful thing.

I know the Trefethens will rebuild, and that beautiful old winery will endure. Tourists a hundred years from now will marvel at photographs of that grand old lady bulging (I mean the winery, not Janet), and be amazed at the story of its survival. Won't that be lovely?

gabriel jagle said...

As obvious at it seems, it's nice having one wine writer in the world who is smart enough to say, "it's just wine!" every once in a while. Glad you did ok in the tremor. Keep on keeping on, hose-maestro!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Gabe,
After 35 years in the wine business, the one thing I've learned for certain is, "It's only wine." We assign it human virtues, we overpraise it using flowery language, we fondle expensive bottles like they're long lost lovers--but it's still only wine. With so much energy invested in it, it can be hard for us to see it. And yet, in the grand scheme of life, no matter how much we overestimate its importance, it's only wine.

And I wouldn't call myself a wine writer, though you can do so if you please. I'm an old comedy writer who writes about wine for his own amusement. It's only Tom Wark who thinks everyone with a keyboard is a wine writer. No matter, of course, because IT'S ONLY WINE.