Most of the Napa Valley wine industry rebounded fairly quickly with minimal loss after the destructive 6.0 magnitude earthquake in August 2014.
Not so for the Trefethen Family Vineyards in Napa. Although the Trefethen family and their 100 employees, like other winemakers, picked up debris, then immediately returned to the urgent work of harvesting the year’s crop, their cleanup lasted far longer — 33 months.
The historic old Eshcol Winery building on their 600-acre estate had buckled badly and was close to collapse, becoming an enduring symbol of nature’s wrath. Some thought it a lost cause, but passion prevailed over practicality, and on Saturday the winery unveiled a painstakingly refurbished structure.
John and Janet Trefethen and their children, Hailey and Lorenzo, immersed themselves in the massive undertaking to restore the beloved wooden structure, which had survived many temblors since it was constructed in 1886. The pumpkin-colored structure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, had been knocked as much as 4 feet to the west during the quake.
“This is a great symbol of recovery from the earthquake. It’s also a symbol of the strength of family-owned wineries in Napa Valley,” said Jon Ruel, chief executive officer of Trefethen Family Vineyards.
The Napa County earthquake was the strongest in Northern California since the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, which killed 63 people and resulted in more than $7 billion in damages. In contrast, the 2014 quake contributed to the death of one person and caused about $360 million in property damage.
Napa vintners realized they caught a break with the quake striking at 3:20 a.m., at a time when no one was at their facilities.
“If the quake had hit during the afternoon, we might have had fatalities rivaling the Loma Prieta with 600-pound barrels tumbling down from stacks onto tourists and workers alike,” said Rob McMillan, founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division, based in St. Helena. “It was bad, but it could have been so much worse. We were lucky.”
For the rebuilding, the family turned to Hailey Trefethen, the 30-year-old, third-generation executive vice president. She led the process by assembling for the project a team of contractors, architects and engineers who had experience with historical properties.
Trefethen oversees the vineyards and winemaking at the estate. But she had no prior construction experience herself.
“What she had was a passion for the building, a passion for the company and a desire to put it right,” Ruel said.
The family was committed to rebuilding the structure, even though one industry analyst noted, “Any sane person would have knocked the barn down and rebuilt something.”
Hailey Trefethen conceded the project was not financially prudent.
“This wasn’t the financially responsible thing to do. This is what we love. We are stewards of this building,” Trefethen said.
Ruel did not provide an exact cost, but said it was between $1 million and $10 million.
The building was designed by Hamden McIntyre, who also was the architect of other classic Napa Valley winery buildings such as Inglenook, Far Niente and Greystone.
Unlike Eshcol, those structures were built against hills. Workers would take loads of grapes by horse-drawn wagons up to the top of the winery, where the grapes would be crushed. The juice would flow downhill to be fermented, aged and finally bottled, said James Lapsley, a UC Davis viticulture professor and author of “Bottled Poetry,” which chronicled Napa Valley from Prohibition to modern times.