Fault in Our Vineyards: Debby Zygielbaum Recounts the 2014 Napa Quake

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Apparently my farming is earth shaking: a fault runs through my vineyards.

In the wee hours of August 24, 2014, I woke as my bed started to shake. It was one week into harvest and this would have been my first full night of sleep; it was not to be. The quakes I’ve known begin with a rolling, which builds to a crescendo and then tapers off. The Napa Earthquake was having none of that – the shaking started angrily, built, got angrier, shook harder and just kept going. An orange flash made me jump and my wife scream – she thought there was a fire and I thought a transformer had blown. But it was earthquake light – and we weren’t the only ones to see it. After that, the day just got weirder.

I spent most of the rest of the early morning tweeting and texting with friends and family, making sure my friends in Napa were all right, assuring those further away that we were all right. Our house was far enough from the fault to be in the severe shaking zone; we had some new cracks, a drawer or two open, knick knacks smashed on the floor. Others, closer to the fault, were not so lucky. The destruction was amazing. The extent of the damage in Napa would be revealed as night turned into day – the contents of kitchens creating a new horizon of floor. Damaged chimneys, broken windows, houses off foundations or cracked in two. Vintners lost entire vintages, stands and wine barrels making a game of pick-up sticks on the cellar floor.

When it was light enough, we headed out to check on the state of things in the vineyards. I was tense, unsure of what we would find. As we drove closer, we were awed at the shifts in the ground – the yellow line at one point of the highway had moved askew at least a foot. Old Sonoma Road had heaved. Some roads were impassable. Helicopters circled and circled overhead – some the electrical company checking lines, others news agencies and a few unmarked.

The epicenter was about a mile south of our Three Amigos Vineyard. And indeed, the shop was a bit of a mess – used oil spilled, windows cracked, cinder blocks askew. But that wouldn’t be the worst of the damage. We arrived at Vandal Vineyard to discover cracks running through the vineyard avenue. My wife disappeared down a row, exclaiming that they went all the way through the vines. There were even more, and larger, cracks at OSR Vineyard. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was the actual earthquake fault – opened up and seemingly yawning to the center of the earth.

In the next day or so, USGS came to map the fault in our vineyards – some of those helicopters flying the day of the quake were mapping the fault line. I was amazed to learn that the surface ruptures from the fault were also visible by satellite! (The USGS report is online here.)

As the days passed into months, we kept finding things – that the cracks (surface ruptures) got bigger with each aftershock. There were broken pipes, bigger cracks, fallen posts, underground mysteries. The last ten rows of irrigation in our Cabernet block at Vandal just stopped working, no obvious wet spot where a leak might be. We finally found the broken main, the water running down through yet more cracks in the earth.

What to do with huge, yawning chasms in one’s vineyards? Ruptures that run willy-nilly through the vines and avenues, that can create sink holes as the forty foot deep cracks allow the subsoil to fill with water and the top soil to sink, that keep us from night picking blocks lest some unlucky soul fall down them?

I did what any good farmer would do: busted out my spader and cultivated them, smoothed them, then covered them in cover crop seed and straw to settle over the winter. Problem, solution! Then back to business as usual – but we still know what’s there, waiting, that fault line lurking under the surface.

 

Debby Zygielbaum is the Vineyard Manager (or, as she’s fond of saying, ‘Dirt Farmer’), at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa and a frequent contributor on Nopalize. She can be found @walkthevine on Twitter and Instagram.