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Resilience Forged By Fire, Flood & Quake: Best Practices in the Wine Industry to Prepare for Natural Disaster

The topography and climate so conducive to grape growing is also often vulnerable to wildfire, earthquakes and flooding. Expectations from employees, trade associations, retail groups and customers to be prepared are rising, and wineries need to proactively plan. Yet, studies conducted by the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University found less than half of winery employees were familiar with any kind of disaster preparedness plan. Subsequent in-depth interviews at Napa and Sonoma county wineries revealed that the wine industry faces some unique challenges. Fortunately, these interviews also revealed some best practices, which fall into four primary categories: communication, operational preparation, organizational trust and community resilience.

Disaster Response Demands Communication

When disaster strikes, mitigating long term impact depends upon the quality and depth of three layers of communication: 1) prior communication of plans to employees, families, emergency services, vendors, parent/daughter companies, 2) internal communication in the heat of the moment, and 3) external communication to employees' families, community and press in the hours and days following.

When establishing communication protocols, organizations should remember:

  1. Back-Up Management Structure: Disaster is both personal and professional. Disasters separate families, isolate management and generally disrupt the normal decision making process. Create a back-up management structure and decision-making authority so businesses can respond, while individuals who have lost homes, loved ones or been injured themselves can focus on personal losses.
  2. Employee Contact Information: Assemble and store employee home, cell and family contact details in multiple locations, ensuring everyone knows how to access the information. Establish phone trees with multiple contingencies.
  3. Communication Cubed: Communicate constantly throughout the event to employees, press, families and emergency services through multiple channels.
  4. Call-in Number: In times of emergency, communication with others locally is often easiest via a remote central point. Establish a manned call-in number to establish safety and location that is based at least 200 miles away.
  5. Register for Alerts: Register for appropriate emergency alerts: Sonoma County SoCo; Mendocino County MendoAlert; Napa County and other areas rely on the Nixle system.
  6. Evacuation Safety: In the event of evacuation, insist on virtual, not physical/visual verification. The wine industry shares a strong identification with terra firma, as well as the very human need 'to know'. Yet, sneaking behind evacuation lines to check on winery operations threatens lives and emergency resources. Management should insist that no one ignores evacuation orders. Cal Fire created this real-time Structure Status Map for the Camp Fire and will likely to do so for future fires. Communicate status reports to all stakeholders.

Wishful Thinking is Not a Strategy

Theoretical disasters are no one's favorite topic, but planning and rehearsing scenarios are actually empowering. Proximity to prior disaster (both in distance and time) influences people's interest in preparedness, so use nearby disasters as teaching moments. Remember that the topography, climate and conditions, which destroyed other lives, homes and wineries, is ever-present for yours too. Here is a helpful guide to start. When planning your strategy, remember:

  1. Drills: "Fire season" and harvest overlap. Run drills for various stages of harvest. Know the disaster preparedness plan of any vineyard management company you employ.
  2. Power Back-up: Even though disaster may not strike directly, everyone in the area will likely lose power. Have a multi-day solar system battery pack or generator on site. Consider this investment an insurance policy against the cost of losing an entire year's vintage if pour-overs and storage are compromised.
  3. Training: Invest in specific employee disaster training, e.g., First Aid, EMT, Wilderness Survival; emergency equipment, e.g., flashlights, N95 masks, fire extinguishers; and hold drills so response is automatic. Equip employees with grab bags for sheltering in place and safety equipment for evacuation. Assess off-road capabilities of on-site vehicles; cut the power and make sure everyone still can get out.
  4. Questions: Ask questions of all layers of the organization to gain provide valuable insight.
  5. Data Protection: Ensure data is mirrored off-site and/or in the cloud.
  6. Insurance Assessment: Assess insurance coverage to avoid the surprise faced by many Northern California wineries in 2017 when they learned their policies reimbursed for the agricultural value of grapes, not the production value of wine. The differential in value was obvious.

Measure and Develop Organizational Trust

When employees feel valued and empowered, they will take risks, make decisions and "do the right thing" in times of disaster, regardless of their position in the hierarchy. Those without this critical trust will hesitate to act, not knowing whether they will be later supported by their managers. The indiscriminate, displacing nature of disaster means that employees in a position to help save people and property in an emergency may not be the same employees who - in normal times - have the authority to make decisions. Build organizational trust to ensure employees know they are empowered during emergencies.

Resilient Communities are Only as Safe as Their Neighbors

Work with surrounding neighbors - towns, residents, wineries, property owners - and local emergency services to create a resilience plan.

  1. Fire Maps: Learn about fire breaks; map out historical fire paths; create a greenbelt around your community.
  2. Shelter: Make a "shelter in place" plan in the event of earthquake, when you are cut off from help, communication, family (who has water, back-up power, stored food, satellite phone, radio?), as well as an evacuation plan in the event of wildfire or flood.
  3. Support: If you are unaffected by a nearby disaster, understand what resources you could make available to help others. In 2017, wineries crossed policy lines to buy/sell/process fruit, verify safety of neighbors, etc., which helped the industry to bounce back and project a stronger image to the outside world upon which wineries depend for visitation and sales.

Finally, any strategy should include an assessment of long-term climatic changes, which include increasing temperatures, decreasing water supply and the lengthening and intensifying fire season. Sharing and implementing best practices on dry farming, solar power, water reclamation, irrigation technology and carbon farming not only increases resilience to these changes but can help reverse the underlying cause of the changes as well.

by Strategic Preparedness Research Team at Sonoma State University  

In the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University, Dr. Armand Gilinsky, Dr. Judith Ford, Dr. Astha Sen, Dr. Sandra K. Newton, Dr. Sergio Canavati de la Torre and Ms. Deanna Brown have spent the past year researching the strategic preparedness of the wine industry in the face of human-created crises and natural disasters. For a full report of their research and articles and more information on future best practices workshops, please contact them at

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