Friday, March 11, 2011

The Chileans Rebound, As Will The Japanese

If anyone can identify with the shock, fear and loss that the Japanese are experiencing right now, it's the Chileans. In Santiago, Chileans are riveted by reports and videos coming out of Japan after yesterday's earthquake and tsunami. Just a little more than a year ago, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck Chile about 200 miles southwest of Santiago. More than 500 people were killed; the property damage was estimated at $30 billion.

As I tour wine valleys about Santiago, vintners recall the day of the quake but don't dwell on it. They talk fleetingly but not glibly about large stainless-steel fermentation tanks collapsing as if they were soft-drink cans being stomped on, a dam falling apart, barrels shattering. One vintner says he lost two million liters of wine. Another says he lost 1.5 million liters. A third put his loss at 1.6 million liters. In all, the Chilean wine trade lost around 125 million liters. Vintners don't shrug off the quake and its aftermath, but their attitude suggests that they are well acquainted with their environment and its history and that they recognize the need to move on.

At one winery, Casa Silva, marketing and hospitality manager Thomas Wilkins Biggs recalled how 80 laborers worked six months to repair the cellar, how its restaurant had to be relocated to another building on the edge of the estate's polo field, and how the on-site hotel only reopened in September. As he led me through a maze of tunnels under the cellar I couldn't help but ask, "Did any of the tunnels...." "No," he was quick to respond, apparently picking up the quiver in my voice.

At wine estate Vik, rebuilt dam awaits winter rains
At another wine estate, Vik, the quake broke a dam whose irrigation waters ordinarily cover some 60 hectares. The quake came at the end of the growing season, when the lake ordinarily is low, so downstream damage was small as the water flowed away. But the break in the dam couldn't be repaired in time to capture runoff from the following winter's rains, so farmers dependent on the water for their crops took a financial hit this summer.

The dam, however, has been rebuilt, its new rock gleaming in the intense Chilean sun. This winter, provided that normal rains return, it again will fill with runoff, and the region's farmers will rejoice. Here and there throughout Chile's wine regions, evidence of last year's quake remains in the rubble of adobe houses, in the water wheels that got knocked off kilter and still aren't again turning, and in the nervous chatter among residents and visitors when they discuss the length and intensity of the previous night's aftershock that awoke them.

Despite their losses and the apprehension they continue to feel with each tremor, Chileans haven't lost their sense of humor. At the winery Lapostolle, winemaker Andrea Leon Iriarte recalls the earthquake advice her grandmother gave her family: "'Wear nice nighties and don't close the door; they jam.'" Maybe that isn't so much humor as sound advice.


  1. Sounds like you are having fun in South America. I liked the place so much on my wine visitation that I am planning to go back on holiday.

  2. Come on down, Charlie, the weather's great, the restaurants are terrific and the people are gracious and entertaining, except when they are driving. It's a tossup whether I'll get run over first in Santiago or Mendoza. Curiously, in Mexico the motorists almost without exception will stop for pedestrians.