Napa wineries may get quake aid

Bloomberg, AP

The United States’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 Monday 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 temblor that hit the premier U.S. wine-growing 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.

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

“Clearly, we are concerned that people are going to see that it was a catastrophe, and it certainly wasn’t good, but it wasn’t a catastrophe by any means,” Clay Gregory, president of tourism organization Visit Napa Valley, said as workers at a shuttered downtown visitor’s center updated lists of open wineries and surveyed hotels about cancellations. “The real story is that it has impacted a very small part of the valley.”

In Napa Valley, two hotels and 12 wineries were still closed Monday, as well as many of the businesses downtown, he said.

Local officials have an early working estimate that Napa Valley suffered $1 billion in property damage, but they hope the long-term economic impact of the quake to businesses will be modest, Napa County Supervisor Bill Dodd said. He said 80 percent of the valley’s 500 or so wineries were unaffected.

If people “think Napa is devastated, it’s anything but devastated. We’re only 24 hours out from an earthquake, and we’re on our way back,” Dodd said.

CoreLogic Eqecat, which models economic losses from disasters, estimates that insured losses from the earthquake could range from $500 million to $1 billion. Vineyards have already started to harvest their grapes, crush them and store the juice. If the earthquake had happened before the harvest, Eqecat notes, the losses would have been lower.

The wine business and associated tourist crowds represent a bulk of Napa County’s economy. Visit Napa Valley estimates that 3 million tourists spend $1.4 billion a year within the county. The Napa Valley Vintners trade association says the industry generates more than $13 billion of economic activity each year, including 46,000 local jobs.

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.

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.