Earthquake in Oregon Wine Country
A Wobbling Willamette Valley
June 23, 2011
Edited by Christina Kelly
When Oregon winemakers lie awake at night, they are often ruminating about the weather, harvest, bottling, or even the economy and sales.
But with recent massive earthquakes pummeling such countries as Japan, New Zealand, Chili and Haiti, the idea of a big earthquake in the heart of Oregon wine country isn't so far fetched. In fact, a number of leading seismologists continue to warn of a potentially damaging earthquake to jolt the Northwest, and it isn't a matter of "if" but when.
It's only when we see the devastation from other countries that we begin to wonder how we can be prepared, whether it is to protect a small collection of wine, or large inventory in a winery.
The reason why Oregon winemakers may lose even more sleep is that despite a few tumblers now and then, there are two active fault zones located right beneath some of the most densely planted stretches of the Willamette Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area).
"I see the (global) earthquake devastation on the news and wonder, have I done enough to protect our winery?" said Lynn Penner-Ash. "I also worry about volcanic eruptions too, since we live in the area of an active volcano chain. But in the end, I try to do what I can and try not to lose too much sleep."
Map above from State of Oregon
Dept of Geology and Mineral Industries
Native Americans seemed to know, generations ago, about Oregon's shifting personality. Some of the Willamette Valley's first inhabitants named the region after a Kalpuya word that translates to "spilled water." The last major quake was in 1700, some 140 years before settlers started Oregon's first winery. Geologists have been predicting that the region is due for another large-scale quake in the near future.
Small quakes have rattled Oregon wine bottles in the past, with the 5.6 magnitude Scotts Mills quake in 1993 being the most recent. Seattle experienced a 6.0 earthquake in 2000 that sent wine bottles crashing to the floor in several downtown wine shops.
The question is whether Oregon's vineyards and wineries are rooted deeply enough to hang on through an earthquake's rollercoaster ride.
Barrels and Pallets and Vats, Oh My!
The oldest wine storage facilities in the mid-Willamette Valley today contains much of the Willamette Valley's wine. Chuck Sinner of the Abbey Wine Warehouse in Lafayette was worried the day of the Scotts Mills Quake in 1993, but arrived at the warehouse to find no damage. "You don't stack something if you don't feel comfortable about it," Sinner said.
Winemakers visiting the Abbey Warehouse joke about the sky-high stacks of wine that teeter in place even on normal days (photo left.) Two structures store the wines - one built in the early 1960s and the other completed in 1994. According to Sinner, the pallets, sometimes stacked four high, are "locked in" through staggered shrink-wrapped formations, with alternating rows for added stability.
Each pallet consists of 56 cases of wine and weighs about a ton. They made it through the 5.6 Scotts Mills event unscathed, but what if the next one is stronger? "It's in the back of my mind," Sinner says of the next big seismic rumble.
Michael Stevenson of Panther Creek Cellars (at right) operates out of an 88-year-old brick structure that once functioned as McMinnville's power plant. He arrived just months after the Scotts Mills quake, but recalls a few smaller trembles that have occurred during his sixteen years at the winery.
"Wine was sloshing around and I remember asking my assistant why he was shaking the barrels," Stevenson recalled. "When I walked out of the winery, I realized he was nowhere near the racks."
Panther Creek uses re-enforced barrel racks, but Stevenson, like most winemakers, does not really know how they will hold up in a big quake. Nor, he adds, does he want to know.
Steel barrel racks are about as commonplace in Oregon wineries as rubber boots and tasting notes. Because they need to be lifted easily with a palate jack or forklift, the racks rest on points instead of lying perfectly flat.
It doesn't take too much imagination to picture 600-pound barrels bouncing off racks, hoses spraying, valves bursting, bottles and lab equipment shattering during a major earthquake. It amounts to a year's worth of sweat and tears spilling into thirsty drains.
Where there's a threat, there's a business opportunity, some savvier than others. Certain companies offer earthquake-safe cellar layouts, fit with interlocking barrel stacks and vats that bolt to the floor. For the home cellar, many manufacturers are offering racks with angled slots to keep bottles from spilling out of their holds. California based Quake Guardian goes one step further, trademarking a securing pin that functions essentially like a small leash and collar for individual bottles.
Testament to the Golden State's ongoing battle with seismic activity is Presidio Wine Bunkers in San Francisco (entrance below right,) an underground ammunition bunker turned wine storage facility made entirely of cement. After the "World Series Quake" of 1989 in San Francisco, Californians envisioned ways to secure their vintages. Labels like Roudon-Smith in the Santa Cruz Mountains wished not to repeat wading around ankles-deep in still-fermenting Chardonnay. Sturdier tank doors, fixed racks and shorter barrel stacks offered added peace of mind.
No one in the wine business has more respect for the forces of faults than the cellar crew at Turley Wine Cellars in Paso Robles, where the San Simeon shaker in 2003 toppled stacks of 600-pound barrels, which bounced on the cellar floor like rubber balls. Unlike rubber balls, however, some burst. Bungs exploded out of others. It resulted in the loss of 4,000 gallons of Turley's 2002 and 2003 vintages when the temblor hit Paso wine country. The wine that survived had little gold stickers on the surviving bottles indicating it was an earthquake wine.
A few years back, some Oregon State University professors created an earthquake proof wine shelving line called MightyPine. Many grocery stores and bottles shops feature the wood racks, built to protect up to thirty cases of wine in a 7.1 magnitude quake. Winemakers like Rollin Soles of Argyle have learned ways to secure their equipment, such as stringing barrel racks together to create a single solid structure as opposed to individually swaying columns.
"Brick buildings will not do well in a megathrust quake," said Portland State University Geologist Dr. Scott Burns. "Wooden buildings built after 1994 will do much better." This is good news for tasters, as the lion's share of area wineries were erected within the last fifteen years. As Pat O'Brien of O'Brien Contractors recalls, the architecture has gone increasingly towards metal and cement, which he says "is generally pretty resistant to earthquakes."
When O'Brien broke ground on his company's first winery in 1986, there were less than 50 statewide. The iconic structure otherwise known as Domaine Drouhin Oregon helped make Willamette Valley a household name (photo at right.)
"We used to joke about what would happen to that building during a big quake," O'Brien remarked. "It might slide all the way down to Highway 99 but it would stay fully intact."
As early as the 1980s, Oregon seismic building codes were fairly stringent. They became even more so after the Scotts Mills Quake of 1993, requiring builders to construct safer, albeit more expensive, wineries and tasting rooms. Archery Summit was one of the first wineries to build a winery with a conscious effort to stand up to an earthquake.
"Buildings are the safest places," said James Roddey, Earth Sciences and Information Officer for ODOGAMI (Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Studies). "It's the stuff inside that will come crashing down." Roddey says the Scotts Mills quake was a mere five seconds, centered a bit outside of wine country. It is predicted, he says, that a major earthquake in the region will have a much more sustained shaking period.
"You shake even the strongest barrel racks for two to three minutes and there will certainly be damage," Roddey said. "I'd estimate that 85-90 percent of the wineries have done nothing to prepare." He adds that he keeps his wine at home as close to the floor as possible, just in case.
John Paul of Cameron Winery (at left) is one of a few Oregon winemakers thinking about quakes. He credits that to living in California for many years, where small and big quakes happen more frequently. Meeting seismic code in 1993 translated to more rebar in the cement of his barrel cave for added stability. It also meant retrofitted beams in Cameron's older cellar, customized with springs that allow them to flex during a quake.
"I know a lot of damage in California wineries happened with the tanks," John Paul said. "You don't want to bolt them down-they need some give."
Cameron's tanks rest on plates at all four corners, allowing them to "bounce a bit," as John Paul describes it, if the Dundee Hills begin to quiver. "Our barrels are only stacked two high," he adds. "I have friends in Napa that lost some wine on taller barrel racks."
The Geology of
A five-minute condensed clip of Oregon's 60 million year geological history would have more action and explosiveness than every Michael Bay movie (Transformers) combined. It would begin deep in the Pacific, with tremendous heat and friction. A string of volcanoes would bubble to the surface, surfing along the colossal North American Plate towards the continental west coast. Like a spatula, this plate would scoop up much of Oregon, propping up the Coastal Range and Cascades.
A fireworks display of eruption to create a blanket of basalt would be followed by a lengthy chill in the form on an ice age. Finally, as mild temperatures returned, massive flooding would drown the region from Montana to the Willamette Valley. When the water finally dried and the dust settled, an expansive layer of rich soil would remain, ideal for viticulture.
Regional fault lines have produced 19 earthquakes of 8.5 magnitude or greater in the last 10,000 years. Much of this tussling is the work of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, an enormous plate boundary just off the Oregon Coast. The last major shake-up occurred in 1700, lifetimes before people would associate Oregon with world-class wines.
Northern California, Mendoza, Tuscany, and the Victoria region of Australia are nestled in distinct climes atop restless fault zones. And while major quakes will only strike these regions every several hundred years, some - like Oregon - are approaching their respective due dates.
"I joke with some seriousness in my presentations that people should be stocking up on Pinot," says Roddey when he makes presentation on earthquake preparedness. "Because Oregon wineries are not prepared for a Cascadia event, many will suffer catastrophic damage.
"Those who have put way cases of the good stuff will be able to make a fortune after the earthquake is over on eBay," he added.
The two active fault zones that run beneath the Willamette Valley AVA are roughly southeast from Elk Cove Vineyards to Lange Estate-that is the Gales Creek Fault Zone.
Further south is the Mt. Angel Fault, the likely culprit for the Scotts Mills Quake, which stirred sleeping barrels from Hillcrest Vineyard in Roseburg all the way to Chateau Ste Michelle in Woodinville, Wash. This fracture runs southeast from Woodburn along Abiqua Creek to its terminus just northeast of Silverton.
Ian Madin, Chief Scientist at ODOGAMI, believes the chances of a sizable Oregon quake are quite high. "I'd say a twenty to thirty percent chance over the next fifty years," he said. "Outside of the coastal zones, the major impact would in the form of landslides."
The "big one" will almost certainly start at the sea, along wine country's closest major fault, said Madin. Cascadia, as its known, is the same colossal shelf that pushed up the Cascade and Coastal Mountain ranges. Such powerful creation can just as easily turn destructive, causing a towering tsunami on the coastline and heavy rocking in the Valley.
Untethered vats and barrels would tumble, steep hillside vineyards would shift and the many old barns and structures Oregon winemakers call home would suffer damage.
Consider the Chehalem Mountains, where vines are planted on sharp inclines that reach well over 1,500 feet in elevation. The Ribbon Ridge AVA, a sliver-sized bench that rests halfway up these hills, is home to Beaux Freres and Patricia Green Cellars' vineyard, among others. Sharp hillsides mean great exposure and drainage for vineyards, but also potential danger.
"All of the existing areas in wine country are moving and subject to landslides," said Madin. "But a large quake would certainly accelerate the movement."
Evan Bellingar, Operations Manager of Results Partners, helps tend and manage the vines of more than 50 wineries in the northern Willamette Valley. He believes a perfect storm is required for substantial vineyard damage. "Since younger vines haven't sent their roots deep enough to provide any anchoring, and there is likely no permanent cover," he explained. "If you had an earthquake during the wet season, you could see a very large slide. The damage would be much less during the drier summer and fall seasons."
With new plantings, Bellingar will till or "fracture" the top layer of soil, carving a pathway for the roots of infant vines to follow. This is the same logic builders employ when laying foundation-the deeper the hold, the tighter the grip. A deep root system, like cement, has an anchoring effect.
Oddly enough, the loosest soils lie not under the abrupt hillsides but the flatter valley floor. From sea level to about 200 feet in elevation, the Willamette Valley holds loose sedimentary soils that could liquify in a powerful quake. Bob Lillie, Professor of Geology at Oregon State University, suggests that this unstable earth could actually "amplify" the shaking in parts of wine country.
That could mean violent swaying followed by sinking or slouching for low-lying wineries like Argyle in Dundee and Panther Creek in McMinnville. Higher up, where most of the vineyards reside, stronger layers of basalt bedrock keep crop rows fixed and tasting rooms tethered.
"Being in a vineyard would be the absolute safest place you could be during an earthquake," Bellingar added. "Because there is nothing to fall on you."
Nevertheless, some Oregon winemakers will add earthquakes to their worry list and take actions to minimize damage to their wineries. Others, like Jim Arterberry Maresh, won't lose any sleep over it.
"I don't worry about it," Aterberry Maresh says. "My wine is stored in barrels and those barrels are quite strong. I've dropped them from a forklift onto a cement floor and all that happens is the sound of a big thud. I am not losing sleep over it."