by Fred McMillin
for April 17, 1998

Winery of the Week

An Earthquake Heartache

5:12A.M., April 18,1906—Young Louis Martini was delivering a wagonload of his father's fresh-dug clams to a San Francisco fish market. Suddenly he said, "What's the matter with Julia?" The 20-year-old mare was throwing her head wildly as she drew the cart. "Then for fifty-eight seconds it lasted. Nothing to do. Everything collapsed"...including a vat of wine he had aging in a downtown cellar.

(By Teiser & Harroun)

Louis' loss was dwarfed by that of the Italian Swiss Colony winery. To the north in Sonoma County, they had the largest wine tank in the world, holding half a million gallons of wine. The concrete vat was cracked by the quake and the wine lost.

The Rest of the Story

Tomorrow is the 92nd anniversary of the great quake. Historian William Heintz's careful compilation indicates something like 30 million gallons of wine were lost, much of it from the storage vaults in San Francisco. One of the largest was that of Gundlach Bundschu. Charles Bundschu was there and here's how he described it.

"A puncheon of Red Wine was shaken from its saddle of the third row right above my desk and the Claret flooded everything...Half an hour after the shock a mountain of heavy dense smoke loomed over the heart of the City...A furious wall of fire consumed the Palace Hotel...Our building fell at 5 o'clock...At our home, we buried our silverware in the garden, before our hasty flight to Sonoma from the city of hell, the thunderbolt having smashed the last hope of my life forever." (From P. Latimer's "California Wineries")

Happily, the devastation was not permanent. Charles' great-great grandson, Jim, now runs the vibrant Sonoma winery, with his sons, Jeff and Robbie, doing more and more of the heavy lifting. So, my earthquake anniversary wine will be a Gundlach Bundschu...the white will be their Riesling, since their first Riesling was harvested exactly 140 years ago (1858). For reds, the Merlot, Zinfandel and Cabernet have all done well in my tastings. For more, phone Robbie at (707) 938-5277.  


When the earthquake-fire destroyed the Palace Hotel, it also destroyed the 40 pairs of boots belonging to its most famous guest, the magnificent Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso. Upon leaving for his homeland, he shouted to the press, "Give me Vesuvius!"

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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