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Quake damages historic Napa winery building

NAPA — The images of wine industry damage in the aftermath of the American Canyon earthquake have been stark, from the jumbled piles of barrels in warehouse facilities to broken bottles smashed on the floor of restaurants and stores.

But for some in the industry, the most distressing image is that of the damage to the historic Eshcol Winery building at the Trefethen Family Vineyards on the northern outskirts of Napa. The grand wooden building, which survived countless earthquakes since its construction in 1886, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But the three-story structure, which was used as Trefethen’s visitor center and tasting room, is now leaning at a precarious angle and has been cordoned off as structural engineers assess its fate.

“It’s a treasure,” said James Lapsley, a UC Davis viticulture professor and author of “Bottled Poetry,” which chronicles Napa Valley from Prohibition to the modern era.

Wine historian Charles Sullivan said the building stands out among others designed by Hamden McIntyre in the 19th century because it was built of wood, instead of stone like those at Far Niente, Inglenook and Greystone. It also is notable because it was built in the valley, not near the hills like the others that used McIntyre’s pioneering gravity-flow system.

“The Napa and Sonoma areas are a collection of the great winery buildings in the world,” Sullivan said. “It’s unique. It’s a great wooden structure.”

Owners John and Janet Trefethen are committed to refurbishing the building if it can be repaired, pending an analysis from structural engineers, said Terry Hall, a spokesman for the winery. “That’s the goal. It’s such an integral part of the brand and history and legacy,” Hall said.

Eugene and Catherine Trefethen, John’s parents, bought the historic building and six small farms in 1968 and set out to restore the old winery. Their efforts helped convince the Department of the Interior in 1988 to put it on the National Register of Historical Places. Today, the family produces 60,000 cases annually, using only grapes grown on their own property, Hall said.

Over the last 128 years, the building withstood large and small earthquakes, including major temblors in 1906, 1989 and 2000. But Sunday’s magnitude 6.0 quake was too much.

Now, engineers must determine if it can be saved.

Production will not be affected because Trefethen has a modern fermentation facility and 13,000-square-foot barrel cellar. But the first floor of the damaged building was still used to age some wine in barrels. The second floor contains the winery’s original de-stemmer and crusher.

In a fortuitous piece of timing despite the overall tragedy of the earthquake, the barrels in the building were largely empty in preparation for this year’s harvest.

“While there is no good time for an earthquake to hit, Mother Nature was kind to us in her timing nonetheless. This week is the small window when we are post-bottling and pre-crush,” Jon Ruel, winery president, said in a statement.

Trefethen’s 2012 vintage red wines and 2013 white wines had been bottled and sent to warehouses with the Wine Service Cooperative, where they survived the temblor without damage. The 2013 cabernet sauvignon had been moved from wooden barrel to tank. Some of Trefethen’s large tanks suffered some damage, such as being sheared from their mounts, but the wine was moved to other tanks without any loss.

The winery also caught another break because the recent cooler weather has eased the timing of harvest as the grapes are ripening at a slower pace, Hall said. That will allow the cellar crew more time to repair equipment.

Lapsley said he was not surprised to hear the Trefethens were committed to refurbishing the building. He noted that during an outbreak of the insect phylloxera in the Napa vineyards during the mid-1980s, wineries were forced to replant using a more bug-resistant rootstock.

The Trefethen winery had been noted for its riesling wine, but financially it made more sense to grow the more valuable cabernet sauvignon. But the family kept up the tradition of planting riesling grapes for use as a dessert wine.

“It’s a business,” Lapsley noted. “But they are not in it to maximize a profit. They are in it for the artistic expression.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@ pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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