Seismic expert urges safer barrel-stacking method
-From UC Berkeley Cal Alumni Association’s California Magazine-
By Coby McDonald
A forklift operator at Wild Horse Winery near Paso Robles was maneuvering between barrel rows in the wine cellar when suddenly the ground started to shake. The 18-foot-high stacks swayed above her and then collapsed, burying her in an avalanche of 600-pound barrels. It took rescuers over an hour to reach her, after carefully draining and removing barrels one by one.
The woman escaped the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake with only a broken rib. And the Paso Robles wine industry escaped without a single fatality despite numerous barrel collapses at area wineries during the Magnitude 6.6 quake. They got lucky—as did wineries near the Magnitude 6.0 South Napa Earthquake last month, where wine was lost but where timing probably saved lives.
“Earthquakes that happen in the middle of the night are the best kind, when people are all snuggled up in their beds,” says seismic engineer and earthquake risk consultant Joshua Marrow. Had it occurred in the daytime when barrel rooms were filled with workers, he says, there would almost certainly have been fatalities—and had it struck a week later during the bustling harvest, things likely would have been even worse.
Earthquakes and wine, it turns out, are a natural pairing; the rolling hills and rich soil that characterize California’s world-class grape-growing regions are mostly the result of eons of seismic activity. Marrow, who received his master’s degree in civil engineering from UC Berkeley in 2000, has studied the clash of these California titans for 17 years, specifically the seismic performance of wine barrel stacks. After a big earthquake hits wine country (there have been three since his graduation) Marrow is there—collecting data, collaborating with seismic experts, and recommending changes that he believes would make wine-barrel stacks safer.
Recommendations for a safer winery
- Lower barrel stacks to four high
- Replace two-barrel racks with four-barrel racks
- Move stacks away from walls where falling barrels can cause structural damage