Sonoma County Goes After Winery Over Huge Wine Spill

A faulty tank caused 97,000 gallons of cabernet sauvignon to flood into a creek that feeds the Russian River.

(Image by Security from Pixabay)

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (CN) — The Sonoma County District Attorney’s office wants to penalize Rodney Strong Vineyards after a faulty wine-blending tank caused what could be the biggest wine spill in county history last year.

Roughly 97,000 gallons of cabernet sauvignon leaked into Russian River tributary Reiman Creek on Jan. 22, 2020, the fault of a blending tank hatch that unexpectedly popped open. 

At the time, the winery believed that at least 50% of the wine never made it past its vineyard ponds, pumps and drainpipes — and the recovery efforts of winery personnel and a third-party contractor — but added, “Unfortunately, some wine made it from the creek into the Russian River.”

The spilled wine would have filled eight large tanker trucks.

Located just south of Healdsburg, the winery was founded in 1959 by Sonoma County wine pioneer Rodney Strong. It prides itself on its environmental stewardship and sustainable practices.

Facilities manager Larry Solomon told investigators the winery set up a makeshift dam in Reiman Creek and used a trash pump to siphon the wine into a wastewater treatment system. A local wastewater maintenance and repair company also helped; using a vacuum truck to pump wine from both sides of the dam into a wastewater process pond. Solomon said the winery had recovered approximately 20-50% of the spillage.

North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board staff estimated the length of the spill using Google Earth, observing 700 feet of wine stains from the point where the spillage entered Reiman Creek to where it meets Sotoyome Creek, and 600 feet of staining in Sotoyome Creek downstream of the convergence. 

Staff spotted several dead earthworms in Reiman Creek, but did not find any dead fish.

This week, Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Ann Gallagher White filed a complaint for civil penalties against Rodney Strong Vineyards, seeking a $25,000 fine against the winery for violating regulations related to illegal dumping into state waters and $2,500 for violating California’s business and professions code. The county also seeks a fine of $10 for every gallon of unrecovered wine, though it remains unknown how much wine actually ended up in the river.

Neither the district attorney’s office nor the state Department of Fish and Wildlife responded to further inquiries about the spill, the investigation or the attendant complaint.

Christopher O’Gorman, communications director for Rodney Strong Wine Estates, said in an email Thursday morning that the winery is working out a final settlement with the DA and could not comment further.

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