MOG Blog

Did you learn the lessons of the Napa earthquake?
We're starting work on our upcoming July edition that will feature several articles on the use of barrels and oak in winemaking. Several of these reports came out of our third annual oak conference that took place in March in Santa Rosa, Calif. The conference included a session on effective cellar management and one of the panelists was Mike Blom who spoke at length about seismic safety. There wasn't enough room in the magazine for a feature on that session but we did want to report on Blom's unique perspective on the issue. 

Nearly three years since the 2014 South Napa earthquake toppled barrel stacks at several wineries and hit his barrel storage facility particularly hard, Blom says many in the industry don’t seem to have learned from what he and others experienced.

Blom said the best way to prepare an earthquake is to adjust one’s thinking from not “if” but to “when” a quake will affect your business and property. Blom gave a presentation on seismic safety as part of a session on cellar management during the Wines & Vines Oak Conference. “I just want to impress on everybody that there are things you can do to make yourself better prepared for it, but also ultimately be more safe,” he said. “You need to think it will happen.”

Blom said he’s made several changes to how he stores barrels and he knows many larger wine companies have begun switching to four-barrel racks but he said many smaller wineries are still using two-barrel racks with little thought to doing it as safely as possible.

Such leeway on stacking and storing barrels could quickly change if, during the next earthquake that hits a wine region results in deaths. As he showed the audience images of heaps of toppled barrels, mangled metal racks and a rolled-over forklift with a crumpled safety cage he said the risk of fatalities is real. “You can see if anybody had been in the room at the time of the earthquake on a forklift, on a rolling ladder on anything they wouldn’t have survived,” he said.

As a custom storage operation, which recently merged with the bottling services Top it Off and will soon move to a larger facility in south Napa, Blom said his business needs to accommodate any racks used by clients. To make stacks of the two-barrel racks safer, Blom now stores them with the bilge facing the main forklift aisle and straps down the topmost racks. (This revised stacking method is described in detail in this feature article by Blom in the October 2016 edition of Wines & Vines.)

Blom not only had to deal with a chaotic mess of toppled barrel stacks at his warehouse, Napa Barrel Care, but also national media attention after clients posted images of the damage to Twitter and Facebook. Images of the chaotic mess of toppled barrel stacks at Blom’s warehouse, Napa Barrel Care, were picked up by the national media and had to fend off numerous press inquiries by phone, email and in person as he tried to clean up his facility.

He suggested a winery consider a policy about what is and what is not appropriate for employees to post to social media accounts in the wake of a disaster.

Winemakers and cellar masters should also put together a plan that details not just what to do in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake but where to find the specialized equipment needed to clean up heaps of toppled barrels. Blom received help from friends in the industry who had access to heavy duty lifting equipment as well as Bay Area contractor. “The only way to clean something up like this is one barrel at a time,” he said.

He also said he purchased a Raspberry Shake, which is a circuit board for the Raspberry Pi platform and described by the manufacturer as a “professional grade personal seismograph.”

Blom is using the device as his own in-house early warning system and hopes it and strapping the barrels down will give his team a few extra seconds to flee in the case of an earthquake. “The number one goal is to make sure that no one gets hurt and so if I can give you another five seconds because I’ve strapped the top few barrels than that’s what we’re going to try and do,” he said.

Blom also reminded the audience to think of seismic safety when it comes to winemaker dinners or other special events held inside barrel rooms. “We’ve all been to these dinners,” he said. “We’re having these events at our locations and we’re thinking about the events rather than what could happen.”


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