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A Tourist in the Mouth of the Wolf: Visiting Napa After the Earthquake 

Tuesday, Sep 2 2014

When the sun came up over the Vaca Mountains on Sunday, Aug. 24, the streets of downtown Napa were running red with Cabernet. A 6.0 earthquake at 3:20 that morning had shaken up homes and municipal buildings and sent more than 100 people to the hospital, but the damage to the region's wineries, wine bars, and tasting rooms quickly became the dominant story. Tweets and Instagrams flew around the internet from locals and early-on-the-scene reporters, bringing the world visions of toppled wine barrels in warehouses, the smashed remains of hundreds of glass bottles in supermarkets and wine bars, and red and white varietals spilling out of stainless steel tanks and mingling in pools on winery floors.

For a while it looked like the Napa wine scene had taken a major hit, maybe one that it would never properly recover from. But as inconvenient and expensive as the earthquake is proving to be, it probably will not have a significant impact on the region's $13 billion wine industry, according to its nonprofit trade group, the Napa Valley Vintners Association. This has as much to do with the quake's fairly low severity as it does the collaborative, hardworking spirit of the region. Some tasting rooms opened the day of the quake, and most of the hardest-hit wineries reopened within the week. The grape harvest, which came early this year because of the drought, is continuing as planned, with lesser affected wineries helping out the hardest-hit. Though most wineries suffered loss, some significant, the consensus among winemakers is that this is part of the bargain you make when you farm in the seismically formed Napa Valley, a place where subterranean activity makes the soil that makes dozens of wine varietals possible.

As the wine industry rolled on, so did the great Napa Valley tourism machine. Napa's the closest thing we've got to a domestic Tuscany, and the region caters to 3 million visitors annually, who bring in about $1.4 billion in revenue. Most downtown restaurants and bars simply swept up the broken glass and reopened Monday or Tuesday, if they had closed at all. To be a wine country tourist a few days after the quake was a disorienting experience: an enjoyable, exceedingly pleasant visit to a disaster zone.

That's not to say there weren't signs of destruction and chaos. Four days after the quake, downtown Napa was still a maze of streets and sidewalks cordoned off with yellow caution tape and temporary chain-link fences; some buildings, like those housing restaurants Sushi Mambo and Don Perico, bore ominous red tags declaring the building UNSAFE in big block letters. Earthquake damage, which at press time was estimated to be around $300 million, was still being assessed. Massive trailers from private disaster-relief companies shared parking space with media trucks. Every block had several windows boarded up with plywood.

But for every business that was closed, there were at least three that were open and happy to serve — even ones that had faced significant loss, though you wouldn't know it if you didn't inquire. Lucero Olive Oil made the news on the Sunday of the quake as about 80 percent of the store's California olive oil and vinegar inventory seeped from broken bottles under its front doors. Employees pitched in and helped with the cleanup, and on Wednesday the store was back open and serving samples of its chocolate-infused olive oil and fig balsamic vinegar with no signs of the wreckage that had reigned earlier in the week, save for some olive oil stains on the front sidewalk.

Oxbow Market, a smaller version of San Francisco's Ferry Building near the Napa River, reopened Monday morning. Many of its tenants, like Ritual Coffee, Hog Island Oyster Co., and housewares shop Poor House, had lost some inventory (mostly shattered glassware), but the new building itself had been fine, a manager at Hog Island explained — it had fared much better than his house, where he was still cleaning up. His story, which echoed that of other local servers, wine pourers, and bartenders, was a reminder that even though the earthquake felt like an abstraction in the face of a dozen oysters and a crisp glass of Sauvignon Blanc, it had ruptured the Napa community in ways that weren't immediately discernible to the tourist's eye.

It was similarly possible to forget the quake had happened over a Pimm's Cup on the sunny rooftop deck at The Thomas, a recently renovated Main Street dive that now serves $18 cheeseburgers and $12 plates of heirloom crudites with truffled baba ganoush. But there were small signs that this wasn't just another languid day in wine country: the antennas of the news trucks sticking up over window boxes full of succulents, the two men peering over the railing to survey the structural damage of the building they owned next door. A man approached them with a business card in his outstretched hand. He was a contractor up from the city offering his services, just another in the swarm of insurance adjusters, cleanup crews, and government officials who had descended on the city since the 24th.

Most of these hangers-on found solace, as did many locals, at Downtown Joe's, the riverfront brewery and public house across the street, which has a history of staying open. Napa residents gathered there during the river's flood in 2006 and they gathered there after the quake, even when the town had no power. Its bar seats were filled with as many neighbors drinking beer and eating happy hour burgers as tourists; the only concession to the quake was a hand-lettered sign: "Feeling shaky? Time for a beer." Harried-but-friendly staff rang a bell over the bar every time a local entered or left, exchanging jibes or pleasantries, reminding those who didn't belong what a small, working-class, agricultural town Napa is at heart.

Two men from the U.S. Geological Survey, in town to measure aftershocks, were eating burgers at the bar. They'd been dispatched to Virginia in 2011 after that earthquake and had found themselves comforting a freaked-out populace; here they praised the cheerful, stoic, let's-get-on-with-things reaction of Napa residents. But that's part of the worldview in a place like Napa — its residents can't be ruffled when the inevitable happens, even if it is unpredictable. Should a 10.0 earthquake someday swallow the region, if there's a place still standing, it'll be open, awaiting the oenophiles of the apocalypse.


About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.


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