"Give me a bowl of wine. In this I bury all unkindness, Cassius."
Brutus in "Julius Caesar" by William Shakespeare, Act IV, Scene III
The Wine Fire
Winery Insight Featured Article - December 2005 by Timothy O. Rice
On October 12, 2005 a fire broke out in the Wine Central warehouse at Mare Island. Wine Central served as a central storage facility for about 95 wineries, generally in Napa and Sonoma and the surrounding area, and some 40 private collectors. The very features that made this old US Navy torpedo warehouse attractive for storing wine - thick concrete walls and roof, steel doors, easily controlled temperature environment - made the fire extremely difficult to fight. Firefighters had difficulty entering and moving about in the warehouse, while the wooden floors and pallets blazed.
As the smoke drifted away and the days passed, shocked wineries and individuals began trying to calculate their losses. Some 6 million bottles of wine were believed to be in the storage. Initial damage estimates ran from $10 million to $100 million dollars worth of wine, as well as other food products, and another $10 million in structural damage. Investigators began sifting through the wreckage, including officers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The fire was described as suspicious from the beginning. Within days, it was ruled to be arson. Investigators began questioning anyone who had access to the facility on the day of the blaze. This included the employees of Wine Central as well as a number of individuals from their clients.
The inside of the warehouse was described as being in chaos. Estimates vary wildly, but by late October seemed to say that 70% of the wine might have suffered damage. Making things worse, the fire seemed to have been set - and the worst damage occurred - in an area where high-value wines were stored. Some wineries accordingly lost their entire "library" of older vintages stretching back 20 to 25 years. No final determination can be made until all the investigatory work is complete, the insurance evaluations are done, and the wineries can get their wines tested and evaluated.
This is, of course, a great tragedy for the people involved. Many will have lost that which is irreplaceable, wine that will no longer exist. Some wineries have lost their entire production of wines for a year or more, as well as libraries of past vintages they used for vertical tastings and special purposes, the liquid history of their work and art. Some collectors will have lost the pride of their lives, years or decades worth of effort and passion burnt to ruin. Our sympathies go out to them all.
Even with the insurance settlements (and not everyone was insured, or insured in full), a winery can find itself with no wine to sell for a year or more. The choices they face are not pleasant ones. Do they lay off some of their sales staff because they have little or nothing to sell? Bring the next vintage to market early, risking loss of customers to a wine brought forth in haste? Will they lose their customers simply because they will find other favorites and choices when the winery has nothing available?
For some, who had no insurance, or insufficient insurance, this might be a crippling blow. For those who were just beginning to build a reputation and a following, this might be fatal even if they are insured. The loss of momentum and effort might doom all they had built if they cannot overcome it.
For the average wine consumer, the situation is much different.
The enormous total loss at Wine Central, while large, is only a small bucket of the world wine lake. There will be no sudden shortages. There are many wineries trying to sell their product to us, and they will be quite happy to have a little less competition.
If you had a passion for a winery that suffered in the fire, you may be forced to try wines you would not have tasted otherwise -- but California Cabernet is not about to disappear from the market and there will be no drought of Chardonnay. For example, if you were buying the Holder Velvet Collection for your cellar, the 2002 and 2003 vintages just became scare and even more expensive. But very few will be numbered in such groups.
All such disasters are to be lamented. Even more, the deliberate, criminal infliction of such loss on the innocent should bring us to outrage at any time. Let us hope the initial estimates are at least on the high side, and that the hopes and dreams of the winery owners and makers can be rebuilt.
Last modified: August 07, 2007