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Making Wine on Shaky Ground: Industry Looks for Answers to Seismic Safety in the Cellar


By Elizabeth Hans McCrone

The 6.0 earthquake that shook Napa Valley in the wee hours of the morning last August did a lot more than rattle nerves and break a few bottles of fine wine. In addition to taking the life of at least one person and injuring more than a hundred others, the trembler knocked out power to thousands of homes, cost millions in damages and prompted President Obama to declare the area a federal disaster zone.1

The seriousness of that event and the potential for an even more devastating quake down the line has prompted industry leaders to seek more innovative methods of protecting their personnel and financial investments in the cellar. According to those grappling with the problem, the solutions aren’t exactly easy – or inexpensive.

Mike Blom is the owner of Napa Barrel Care, a 20,000 barrel storage facility located in the heart of the Napa Valley. To say that his company suffered major damages during last year’s quake would be an understatement.

“It shut down our ability to operate,” Blom admits. “We went into triage mode. Some barrels were fully intact, some were damaged, and some couldn’t be salvaged. We had to figure out how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

It was more involved than just cleaning up the chaos. Blom and his team had to rebuild their cellar in a way that would allow it to withstand a similar – or worse – seismic event, while also safeguarding the health and well-being of the facility’s employees.

The company enlisted the help of Josh Marrow, a structural and earthquake engineering consultant with Partner Engineering in San Francisco. Marrow worked with Napa Barrel Care on more effective fastening techniques and shifting the position of the barrels 90 degrees, so the bilge of the barrel, rather than the head, faces the aisle to prevent sliding.

“It doesn’t mean they won’t slide off in a violent quake,” Blom acknowledges. “But changing the orientation and strapping barrels to the ends of the rack means it takes more energy to eject the barrel and gives people more time to exit the building safely.”

Winemaker Justin Seidenfeld with Rodney Strong Vineyards in Sonoma County is a fan of four barrel versus two barrel racks to promote security in his cellar. He says the greater weight, width and depth of the racks make them “exponentially more stable” and notes that none of the Napa wineries he’s spoken to that are using the 4-barrel racks had problems during the quake.

Seidenfeld confirms that the difference in cost between two and four barrel racks “is substantial,” requiring a significant investment of winery resources. He says Rodney Strong converted to the four-barrel rack system about ten years ago.

Seidenfeld also points out that seismic safety at Rodney Strong includes the winery’s new, state-of-the-art La Garde fermentation tanks and the way those tanks are fastened to the floor.

Seidenfeld explains that a special earthquake collar was designed to go around the feet of the tanks. The collar bolts to the ground, not the tanks, which allow the tanks to “dance around the space a little bit” in a set footprint without tipping or shearing in the event of an earthquake. In addition, he says, engineers placed a rigid, structural collar around the middle of the tanks to keep them more secure, but made the glycol connectors flexible so they can move if the tanks are shaking without breaking off and spilling thousands of gallons of glycol onto the ground.

Another option for seismic safety has recently emerged in the form of recyclable, plastic barrel racks, made by Bonar Plastics, a subsidiary of Snyder Industries, out of West Chicago. The company has specialized in the design and manufacture of material handling containers for more than 50 years.

According to Mike Spurrier, VP of Sales and Marketing, Bonar Plastics looked into designing an alternative to steel barrel racks about five years ago “as a gentler, more corrosion resistant solution to wine barrel handling.”

Spurrier says sales were only moderately successful before the Napa quake happened.

“We started to get feedback that our plastic racks performed really well,” Spurrier reports. “We always thought they would as a result of other plastic product testing … because plastic absorbs energy … but we had never done any earthquake testing so we couldn’t make that claim.”

The company has since taken their racks to a lab in UC Berkeley that has the ability to simulate earthquakes. Spurrier claims the test results, which were completed last month, show that the 2-barrel plastic racks performed at 125% of the Napa quake energy. By comparison, two-barrel steel racks performed at just 75%.

Barrels stacked 6 high on plastic racks after 125% of Napa quake energy
Barrels stacked 6 high on plastic racks after 125% of Napa quake energy*
Barrels stacked on steel racks would only pass 75% Napa quake energy.
Barrels stacked on steel racks would only pass 75% Napa quake energy.*

*Photos: UC Berkley PEER Test Center

Spurrier says “through word of mouth,” his company has already had a big response from wineries interested in comparing the Bonar Plastic racks with the steel versions currently in their cellars.

“The speed at which people convert will be related to what investment is required over time,” he predicts. “Besides providing a higher useful life to costs ratio, the plastic racks are now being purchased to reduce risk and for loss mitigation in case of an earthquake.”

Earthquake retrofitting is not confined to wineries by any means. WorkSafe™Technologies, headquartered in southern California, works with multiple clients world-wide on seismic mitigation. The company has developed ISO-Base™ technology, which consists of two load plates “sandwiched” over a steel ball bearing. The bottom plate moves with ground motion, dissipating energy away from the top plate and structure above, which reduces or eliminates the pathway for shock waves and vibrations.

WorkSafe™ has just launched the SeismaRack System, a new wine barrel storage option, which works on the same “seismic isolation” principle. The system includes a specialty-designed barrel pallet that connects to the front bay of what’s called an isolated rack structure. According to the company’s website, the barrels are supported by a flexible, stainless steel band and side stacking braces. The feet on the bottom pallet are adjustable and the pallets can be stacked six barrels high. During an earthquake, the bottom isolator load plate moves with the ground while the top plate remains motionless. Once the ground stops shaking, the system is designed to roll the rack structure back into place.

Don Hubbard, President of WorkSafe™ Technologies, is excited about the launch of SeismaRack and optimistic about the applicability of his company’s technology for the wine industry. He’s surprised that wineries haven’t suffered more from earthquake damage before now.

“It finally happened in Napa, the heart and soul of the wine industry,” Hubbard says. “It’s the ultimate sign … The wake up call to Napa should get the industry to look at things in a whole different way, especially in terms of safety.”

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