RICHMOND – This is earthquake country and there are few who do not worry about the lives that will be lost and the homes destroyed when the big one hits.
Much attention, for example, has been paid to the danger that unreinforced brick buildings could fall down and “soft-story” apartment buildings might collapse.
But Friday at Richmond’s Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center, run by UC Berkeley, the focus was on a even more sobering catastrophe – the destruction of California’s wine supply.
Wine makers from across the state gathered to view a simulation of an earthquake and to see its possible effects on wine storage.
The demonstration was part of a research project called the Wine Industry Seismic Hazard Reduction Project. The project is headed by Joshua Marrow, a graduate student at UC Berkeley and engineer with Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Consulting Engineers in San Francisco.
Sponsored by various wineries, manufacturers and industry associations, Morrow is researching the seismic performance of the steel barrel rack system. This system is one of the most popular and is used to store wine barrels throughout California, Oregon and Washington.
Problems arise with the rack system when the barrels fall off and either crack open or lose their silicon bung, or cork, spilling their contents. This sort of scenario is likely in the event of an earthquake.
Large wineries like Kendall-Jackson, Mondavi and Gallo can have 50,000 to 60,000 barrels stored,” Marrow said. “At $3,000 to $5,000 a barrel, this can really add up.”
To test the rack system, Morrow has been using UC Berkeley’s Earthquake Simulator, also known as a “shake table.” Berkeley’s table was the first of its kind ever built and is currently the largest in the United States. Morrow has been using the table for a week and is nearing the end of his tests.
For Friday’s test, Morrow invited more than forty wine industry insiders, from vintners and journalists to insurance agents, to see first-hand the effects an earthquake might have on the steel barrel rack system.
Yesterday’s test saw twelve barrels, stacked six high, subjected to the maximum horizontal acceleration the shake table could supply. The results were spectacular, with the entire stack falling off to one side and all the barrels coming loose from the rack. Fortunately, Morrow had the foresight to attach all the barrels to an overhead crane so that they were constrained to the perimeter of the shake table and no one was in danger.
Though the scene was certainly extraordinary, no one was surprised by the results. Morrow has been keeping his sponsors informed of the results by phone and e-mail.
“It was pretty much the way it was anticipated if you look at it from the perspective of dollar value impact,” said Al Paniagua of Great American Insurance. He stressed the importance of the tests because in the wine industry what matters, logically enough, is the wine.
“That’s the thing about the wine industry,” Paniagua said. “Once you lose your barrels, they’re gone for the year.”
Paniagua pointed out, however, that Friday’s test was not representative of most wineries. “There are very few wineries that go six high,” he stated, referring to the number of barrels in a stack. Most wineries in fact only stack barrels up to four high.
Morrow has been doing tests with a four high configuration as well, and though none have been as potentially destructive as Friday’s six-high stack, the results are still not encouraging.
Vintners are certainly taking notice of Morrow’s research. Jeff Ritchey, of Clos LaChance winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains is worried about what will happen to his investment during a large quake. “We’re building a new facility and we want to look into making this the safest for everybody,” he said.
Though Morrow’s research is primarily into exploring what happens in the event of an earthquake, he has also been looking into ways of minimizing the damage. He already has a patent on a method that works by securing the top barrels to each other, though he is quick to point out that it has not yet been fully tested.
“I patented it primarily to make sure no one starts using it until we know more about it,” he said.
Evelyn Heraty of Clos du Bois winery agreed. “I think further testing needs to happen,” she said. “We need to look at more secure racking systems.”
And more testing there shall be. Next week Morrow will continue his research by shaking two stacks of barrels placed side by side, to more accurately simulate a real life wine cellar.
To find out more about the Wine Industry Seismic Hazard Reduction Project and Josh Morrow’s research, head to the project’s website at http://www.eResonant.com.