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Up to 96,000 gallons of wine spills at Rodney Strong Vineyards, most leaks into Russian River

The Russian River flowed with a cherry red tint Wednesday after tens of thousands of gallons of fresh cabernet sauvignon wine poured into the largest tributary in Sonoma County.

The wine - enough to fill more than 500,000 bottles - spilled from a Rodney Strong Vineyards' storage tank at the Healdsburg winery, made its way into Reiman Creek running through the property and drained into the river.

It's likely the biggest wine spill in county history, but certainly in the past 20 years, said Don McEnhill, executive director of nonprofit Russian Riverkeeper, noting he couldn't recall gallons of this magnitude reaching the river.

A roughly two-foot oval door near the bottom of a 100,000-gallon Rodney Strong blending tank somehow popped open about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday and spilled from 46,000 to 96,000 gallons of wine, officials with the Governor's Office of Emergency Services said Thursday.

Local and state water quality and fish and wildlife officials are investigating to determine any negative effects to the river ecosystem and whether the winery violated water quality rules. Investigators with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and California Department of Fish and Wildlife were on-site Thursday to determine the extent of environmental damage.

Charles Reed, a water board supervisor, said the higher river water level from recent rain likely helped dilute the wine that could have been attractive to smaller organisms fish use for food.

Rodney Strong spokesman Chris O'Gorman said the winery is conducting an internal investigation and cooperating with authorities.

“We are deeply concerned and are doing everything in our power to protect our waterways,” O'Gorman said.

Aerial footage Wednesday afternoon from Sonoma County Sheriff's Office Henry 1 helicopter showed much of the wine rushed through the creek and spilled into the river, lining the riverbank for several miles downstream. The helicopter tracked the spill as far south as Riverfront Regional Park within a matter of hours.

While it's early in the investigation, it's technically a code violation to release any substance into the water that could harm fish, said Eric Laughlin, spokesman for fish and wildlife agency's office of spill and prevention response.

Due to the nature of the accident, the county water quality board already identified two permit violations, although what enforcement will be for those is not yet determined, Reed said. Results from water samples taken to measure potential fish kill are expected in a few days, he said, and a full report on the wine spill should be completed in two weeks.

The wine initially drained into an inlet on the floor of the Rodney Strong winery production building, and rushed through hundreds of feet of underground pipe that empty into four wastewater ponds on the property. When those ponds filled up, wine runoff began pouring into the creek, an industrial brook that runs through the vineyards. As the drains became overwhelmed, wine also streamed out of the building and into the creek.

Rodney Strong workers used two vacuum trucks to clean up the spill on its property, and tried to quickly assemble a temporary dam to halt the spillage into Reiman Creek, said Sonoma County Fire District Battalion Chief Mike Elson.

Cal OES officials said about 20% of the initial spill was contained.

Winery officials on Thursday contended further assessment indicated more than half the wine was recovered, a sign the spillage into the creek and river could be less than initially feared.

“We were able to control the leak and shut the tank and save some of that wine,” said O'Gorman, who added that Rodney Strong has “almost completely” ruled out human error as the cause of the wine leaking from the tank. “A lot of it was captured in the building without it leaking outside.”

The winery's financial loss estimate from the spill was not available Thursday.

Brad Sherwood, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency, which gets its drinking water from the Russian River, said there were no effects to its systems.

Water flow at one point Thursday afternoon at the nearest river level gauge in Healdsburg indicated the water was moving about nine times the total amount of the spill each second, according to the United States Geological Survey flow rate.

Healdsburg Fire and the Sonoma County Fire District initially responded to Rodney Strong after Cal OES was notified by the winery about 3:20 p.m. Wednesday, nearly two hours after the leak apparently started.

Containment gear first responders typically use for spills was ineffective for something like wine, said fire battalion chief Elson said, adding “at that point it's just a matter of nature taking its course and letting it flow out to the ocean.”

Wine typically isn't as harmful to the environment as raw sewage, since the latter has many more toxic pollutants, McEnhill said. However, wine can be more detrimental to the ecosystem than treated sewage. Treated sewage is processed and disinfected, whereas wine is highly acidic and untreated, he said.

McEnhill, head of Russian Riverkeeper, a group that has restored and then protected the health of the river since 1993, seemed encouraged Thursday by initial study of the extent of environmental harm from the wine deluge he called “pretty rare.”

“When we don't see dead fish, that tells us we've dodged the worst potential impact,” he said. “We probably lost a lot of fish food and really small organisms that can't swim away from this, but … we've had many worse things happen to our river.”

A review Thursday of Press Democrat story archives turned up two significant wine spills in Sonoma and Napa counties since 1979. In March 2005, a big rig loaded with 6,400 gallons of pinot noir overturned on Highway 121 near Schellville. About 2,000 gallons splashed out of the tanker and into a drainage ditch, raising fears the wine might reach Sonoma Creek and eventually San Pablo Bay. A company vacuumed up the contaminated water before it reached the creek.

Some 41 years ago, the Charles Krug Winery, the oldest winery in Napa Valley, worked to clean up a wine waste spill into the Napa River that killed at least 2,000 fish, including suckers, small mouth bass, catfish, sunfish and blue gill. The fish died because the waste matter absorbed the oxygen in the water, and the spill affected a 1¼-mile stretch of the river near the winery.

Meanwhile, Laughlin, of the state fish and wildlife department, said the agency will write a report on its findings from the Rodney Strong wine spill, and as customary in a case like this, forward the report to the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office for review.

McEnhill said there likely will be some repercussions for the spill, but he commended the winery's response to it as “fast and immediate.”

“This was unfortunate, but hopefully we'll learn something that will prevent it from happening in the future,” he said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. And Charles Reed is a water board supervisor.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig. You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or chantelle.lee@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ChantelleHLee.

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