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In Vino Bills, Veritas: After the Napa Earthquake, the Wine Economists Were Called to Duty 

Tuesday, Sep 2 2014
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As scenes of mayhem and devastation trickled in from the North Bay last week, San Franciscans breathed a collective sigh of relief. There, but for the grace of God, go we. City dwellers may or may not now give thought to earthquake supply kits or gas shutoff valves, but many of us are probably thinking about whether this disaster is going to affect our wine bill.

Well, good news. Sort of. Wine economists say that, despite dramatic images of Napa cellars resembling the aftermath of a Jackie Chan brawl, vino prices shouldn't budge. "If there is any effect, it will be very slight," says Jim Lapsley, a professor in UC Davis' department of viteculture and enology, and a researcher in wine and grape economics at the University of California Agricultural Issues Center. "The thing to keep in mind is that Napa produces only 4 percent of all the wine in California."

So, if all the wine in Napa bled back into the soil, we'd be stuck with the remaining 96 percent (and all the rest of the wine on the planet). Of course, not nearly all or even most of Napa's wine supply was lost. Or, in the grand scheme of things, even much of it.

Vast quantities of wine are stored in temperature-controlled warehouses not far from the epicenter of the quake in American Canyon. It's not unusual for half a million or so cases to be stacked here. Lapsley says the large warehouses he's spoken with, however, suffered losses of "maybe 100 cases."

Much of the region's newer wine was stored in barrels, not bottles — and a falling barrel is far less likely to be destroyed than a falling bottle. A number of vintage collections of Napa's finest have been reduced to broken glass and stains, notes Robert Yetman, a professor at UC Davis' graduate school of management focusing on the wine industry. But, he adds, collectors of vintage wines, who establish the market prices on the priciest of bottles, are spread throughout the country. A collector in Florida or Virginia was, naturally, unshaken by the goings-on in Northern California.

Some individual restaurants, collectors, and wineries were hit hard (read about our trip to Napa on page 43 for more on this). They will, in varying degrees, suffer. But, Lapsley notes, there are upwards of 500 small wineries in Napa alone — meaning the effect on the average consumer is diluted.

Some losses, however, cannot be quantified. "Wineries may have a cellar of 'library wine,' which they keep for themselves to see how wines age," Lapsley says. "Does that have an economic value? Not really. But it's irreplaceable."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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