Chilean winemakers hit hard by quake

MOLINA, Chile — When Chile’s worst earthquake in 50 years hit, Alvaro Galan bolted out of bed and ran, still in pajamas, to his winery next door.

In the 4 a.m. darkness of the echoing warehouse, rocking and groaning from aftershocks, he waded through a scene from a sinking submarine: Streams of liquid sprayed from cracked tanks that teetered and slammed against each other, and the cement floor ran red with cabernet.

Galan worked desperately to siphon the wine into undamaged tanks, but by dawn he had lost 30,000 gallons — plus the pajamas off his back, wrapped like a tourniquet around a broken spigot.

“If one of the hatches had blown,” he recalled, “it would have come flying off with the pressure and taken me with it.”

Across Chile’s vaunted wine-growing region, vintners like Galan scrambled in the first crucial hours after the Feb. 27 quake to save their livelihoods. Three weeks later, a desperate struggle continues as farmers brace up fallen vines and race to bring in the current harvest.

An early estimate put the total initial loss at 33 million gallons (125 million liters) worth $250 million, or 13 percent of Chile’s annual production.

Consumers probably won’t notice a price increase, given the size of the world market. But as officials size up the cost of reduced capacity for the world’s fifth-largest wine exporter, many producers are facing a harsh new economic landscape that may put them out of business and deliver a second, cruel blow to families coping with lost homes and loved ones.

Francois Waleski, an export manager at the Valdivieso winery, says the industry has been challenged recently by a weak U.S. dollar after decades of strong growth.

“Everybody is struggling to keep up with the harvest,” Waleski said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some wineries don’t make it.”

Larger winemaking operations, supplying most Chilean vintages sold on shelves from London to Los Angeles, are in position to collect insurance, repair infrastructure and ride out a rocky year.

But smaller producers, some of them uninsured and already straining under debt, may have to scrape by on reduced production or be forced out of the market altogether — meaning fewer Chilean labels for wine enthusiasts around the world.