Federal Aid May Be Extended to California Winemakers

The nation’s premier wine-producing region is assessing damage from the strongest earthquake to strike northern California in 25 years and may receive aid from the federal government.

“You have to accumulate data and determine the extent” of the damage, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today before an event in Arlington, Virginia. He said it was too early to make any disaster declaration that would give affected growers eligibility for special loans and USDA disaster programs.

The 6.1 magnitude temblor that hit the region injured more than 120 people, including three critically. The region’s wineries were also damaged, with reports of broken bottles and dumped casks throughout the area. Napa County has 789 licensed wineries, with sales of $5.5 billion in 2011, according to the Napa Valley Vintners Association, a trade group.

Some wineries, mostly in the city of Napa and immediate surrounding areas, sustained significant damage to barreling storage, wine inventories and production equipment, according to Patsy McGaughy, a spokeswoman for Napa Valley Vintners, a trade association based in St. Helena, California.

“We’ve definitely heard from members and seen posts and photos from people that suffered damage,” she said in a telephone interview.

Harvest Fine

There’s no reason to expect any interruptions in the harvest, said Cate Conniff, also a spokeswoman for Napa Valley Vintners.

While the earthquake has caused pockets of damage in the southern half of the valley, recent cool weather may help grape growers, giving them room to extend the harvest as grapes ripen more slowly.

“People are starting to clean up and get on with the business of harvest,” she said in a telephone interview. “There’s a strong spirit of collaboration here. If someone’s missing a fermenter, someone’s going to get it to them.”

The majority of wineries have reopened, and all are assessing damage to the 2013 vintage already in storage and determining how electrical power losses may affect the 2014 grape harvest under way, said Michael Kaiser, public affairs director for Wine America, the Washington-based trade group for winemakers.

“There isn’t a good time for an earthquake to hit Napa, but this may be the worst time,” Kaiser said in an e-mail.

Assessing Damage

Constellation Brands Inc., based in Victor, New York, reported minor damage inside some of its northern California wineries, a company spokeswoman said in an e-mail. The company is still assessing the damage. So far there is no structural damage, and vineyards weren’t affected.

Constellation operated 18 wineries in California as of the end of February, according to documents filed with regulators.

The temblor was the strongest in the San Francisco Bay Area since the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, which struck during a World Series baseball game between the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants.

California, the world’s ninth-largest agricultural economy with about $45 billion in farm production, has been struggling with a three-year drought that has left 82 percent of the state in extreme and exceptional dryness conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.