It was Sunday morning at 3:20 am. Suddenly a huge jolt rocked the Napa Valley, especially southern Napa county and the city of Napa itself. The earthquake measured 6.0 on the Richter scale, equivalent to exploding one million tons of TNT. The atomic bomb exploded in Nagasaki, Japan in 1945 measured only 5.0 on the Richter scale — ten times weaker than the Napa quake last week.
Over 100 injuries were reported and structural damage to buildings in downtown Napa was substantial. Broken glass was everywhere. Furniture was overturned. Aftershocks were frightening and caused more destruction. Homes became uninhabitable. Many buildings were red tagged. The widespread damage required major cleanup efforts for residents and local businesses. The fault line had slipped 20 inches in places. The good news is that there were no fatalities.
“What will be the impact on wineries?” we wondered. The short answer is that the Napa Valley wine industry seems to have suffered no major losses. There should be no repercussions in wine prices or wine availability. Most wineries went back to carrying on business as usual within a few days.
A good deal of the credit for the wine industry’s minimal losses surely belongs to one of California’s true wine pioneers, Dr. Richard Peterson. Among Napa’s most prestigious winemakers and industry legends, Dr. Peterson’s long list of contributions to the wine industry includes an invention that saved hundreds of thousands of barrels of Napa’s best wines from calamity.
Why? Well, Dr. Peterson is the original designer of the “Peterson Pallet” that is home to countless oak barrels filled with precious vintages of wine, aging for months or even years before bottling. Stacked high in barrel rooms, climate-controlled warehouses and even underground caves throughout wine country, these valuable barrels of developing wine — containing the future fortunes of many wine producers — were safely cradled in the arms of the Peterson Pallet when the earthquake struck Napa on August 24, 2014.
Used by most wineries in America and many others worldwide, the Peterson Pallet is almost taken for granted these days. It is a steel pallet designed specifically for wine barrels: fashioned so that individual wine barrels fit snugly down into the pallet, preventing them from rolling even in the event of earthquakes like this latest shaker.
The Peterson pallet changed the way wineries work and vastly improved their efficiency. Dr. Peterson published the design and formally presented it to the wine industry in 1974 — in his characteristically altruistic manner — rather than patenting it for profit.
The drawing shown here is from the official transcript of the Wine Industry Technical Seminar held in Fresno, California in November, 1975. The first winery ever to use Peterson Pallets was The Monterey Vineyard, where Peterson was Winemaster and Luigi Fortino was Cellar Manager.
It’s almost impossible for 350 pound heavy, full wine barrels to roll out of the cradling nests of the Peterson pallet. However, there were some reports of pallets that were stacked high toppling over (see photo). Very little wine was actually lost, although the pallets and barrels had to be restacked by fork lifts. I asked Richard Peterson why he thought this toppling might have happened. He commented:
“From the picture it looks like the stacks to the left and to the right in the picture were stacked close together, so each stack was supported by the stacks to each side. (The same way that redwood trees, notorious for having shallow root systems, support each other and do not fall down in severe wind storms because they grow in groups.) But the barrels that fell were not stacked together: there was a space about the width of another row in between the two stacks. That space allowed the barrel stacks to wobble left and right in the earthquake and they fell, knocking each other down. I believe most, if not all barrel stacks that were stacked close together as they should be in warehouses, did not fall. Only minor damage would be expected because of an occasional weak barrel or defect in the welding of an occasional rack.”
Tightly stacked, each pallet of wine barrels is securely supported by neighboring pallets. The fact is that almost all the Peterson pallets stayed upright, strong and steady in this major earthquake — just as planned by the designer. Very few barrels of Napa wine were lost. So we at Wines.com tip our hats to Dr. Richard Peterson and the Peterson Pallet, unsung heroes of the Napa quake of 2014. Thank you from wine lovers everywhere!
Dr. Richard Peterson’s bio includes accomplishments as both winemaker and scientist. He holds several patents on improved wine production processes and methodology for treating plant diseases, notably Pierce’s Disease of grape vines. He has led winemaking at diverse wineries, including E&J Gallo, Beaulieu Vineyard, Atlas Peak Vineyard, The Monterey Vineyard, Folie a Deux Winery and others. He has served as long time director of Wine Institute, past Chairman of WITS, a Supreme Knight in the Universal Order of Knights of the Vine and as a member of most professional wine societies. He is a founding member of the American Institute of Wine and Food, AWARE, Society of Wine Educators, and the International Wine Academy. He serves as wine judge and consultant around the world. His other major contributions to the wine industry include two amazing daughters, Chef Holly Peterson Mondavi and noted winemaker, Heidi Peterson Barrett, both enriching the Peterson legacy in their own ways. Look for Dr. Peterson’s upcoming book on his life in winemaking to be published soon.