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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on December 4th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 15, Issue 39 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 15, Issue 39

Unbroken: How a resilient Santa Barbara County winemaker is carrying on single-handedly three months after a horrific harvest mishap


The morning of Sept. 2, 2014, started out like any typical harvest day. Bins of newly picked pinot noir grapes had just arrived on the crush pad at Arcadian Winery’s facility east of Lompoc, where Chris Bratcher makes Bratcher Wines.

This was his seventh wine harvest in Santa Barbara County, so the 48-year-old has experience setting up and cleaning equipment. He started hosing down the crusher/de-stemmer machine. But a few moments later, the whole rural ranch and some of its neighbors heard a sound that made this particular day at the winery atypical.

Some of the easiest tasks in a winery, like drawing out barrel samples with a wine thief, are now much more difficult for Chris Bratcher, who lost his hand in a harvest accident in September.

“It was loud,” Bratcher said, describing his cries for help. “I’ve never produced that sort of volume in my life!

“A chapter ended on Sept. 2 [at] about 9 a.m., and a new chapter started at that moment,” he continued solemnly.

Fellow winemaker and friend Bruno D’Alfonso was within earshot next door working at his winery, D’Alfonso & Curran.

“I heard this horrific screaming, and I felt in my gut what happened, because I knew what he was doing,” D’Alfonso said. “He wasn’t crushing, so that means that the crusher itself wasn’t operating. The destemmer wasn’t operating, so he had to be cleaning the screw conveyor.”

Bratcher had indeed been cleaning the screw conveyer, and his dominant right hand was caught, crushed, and slowly severed at the wrist. His said his first thought was: “‘I’m going to bleed to death!’ And then I looked down on the ground and saw that I wasn’t bleeding very much, which was such a fortunate thing.”

Bratcher said it took nearly 30 seconds for the machine to cut off his hand, which seemed like an eternity while he struggled to save not only his hand, but also himself.

“You’ve got to really imagine this,” D’Alfonso said. “[Bratcher] had to fight against the screw, which is a very powerful screw. It’s motor driven, and it’s chain connected. He had to fight against the machine and actually pull his hand out, because it would have just taken his whole arm off.”

D’Alfonso is familiar with this equipment, having operated the exact model of harvest machinery years ago at another local winery.

“This is such an old machine, and there’s no panic button,” he said. “The machine is a brute—relentless. These things don’t stop.” 

There must have been a surprise factor in Bratcher’s accident, D’Alfonso added: “You don’t stick your hand in there just willy-nilly.”

Once free of the machine, Bratcher sought help, leaving his severed hand behind.

“Chris came running around. Now he’s within view. He was holding onto his arm,” D’Alfonso recalled. “He said, ‘Bruno, my hand! My hand!’ And I grabbed him, I grabbed his arm above the wound, brought him over to our place, set him down on the ground, and got my assistant winemaker behind him to cradle him.”

D’Alfonso’s bookkeeper was already calling 911.

“I tourniqueted his upper arm, because that’s where that artery is,” said D’Alfonso, who was impressed with Bratcher’s wherewithal during such a traumatic ordeal.

“[Bratcher] said, ‘I want to go to Santa Barbara.’ And he said, ‘Here’s my wallet and my insurance card.’”

Then, Bratcher asked for a phone to call both of his daughters; he relayed a message to a friend to tell his children that he loves them.

While waiting for the paramedics to make their way out to the remote winery on Santa Rosa Road, Bratcher surprised D’Alfonso by saying, “I want a drink!”

“I think he thought I was kidding at first,” Bratcher said. “I was thinking about the movies; I need to be biting a bullet or something. Give me some whiskey! I was in so much pain, and I knew we were out in the middle of nowhere and it was gonna take awhile.

“I said, ‘I don’t want wine. Give me something harder!’ And Bruno goes in the winery and comes back out with a half gallon of this cheap Russian vodka that they use for sanitizing equipment. I just remember sitting there, I grabbed the bottle, I turned it upside down, took a big swig of this vodka, and about threw up because I was dehydrated, in shock probably, and it was so bad! I put the bottle down, and it didn’t help at all, of course.”

Bratcher remembers D’Alfonso doing his best to keep him distracted with wisecracks.

“[D’Alfonso’s] asking me: ‘So, do you want a hook? Or do you want a claw?’”

“I tried to make him laugh,” D’Alfonso recalled. “I did make him laugh.”

Bratcher believes it was these moments of levity that made this harrowing experience bearable, but there were vast stretches of excruciating pain, of “tremendous throbbing and burning.”

Bratcher said he never lost consciousness: “I wanted to. I kept hoping I would.”

But the paramedics arrived first.

“And they gave me morphine; thank God,” Bratcher said.

“He said: ‘Damn, this hurts.’ So I held his hand for awhile,” D’Alfonso said. “There was a paramedic wrapping his hand, or what was left of it.”

An emergency helicopter arrived soon after, and flew Bratcher south to Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara. On the flight, an ice-filled pail next to him preserved his severed hand.

“I was really lucky that a plastic surgeon—a hand specialist—was called in,” Bratcher said. But the surgeon could not re-attach his hand; the damage was too severe.

“And I was OK with it at that point,” Bratcher said. “I was like, ‘Just get rid of this pain!’ I just wanted the pain to go away.”


The aftermath

The next few weeks were rough. Bratcher spent his time attempting to manage the pain and recuperate. He said it helped to focus on family and all the people depending on him at work, both in Lompoc and in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he owns a wine shop.

Chris Bratcher sources fruit from the Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills, among other regions, handcrafting 1,000 cases of Bratcher chardonnay, pinot noir, and syrah each year.

“I’ve been really lucky. I don’t sit around thinking about the accident,” Bratcher said. “I haven’t had nightmares about the accident yet, but I think it’s because I’ve done a pretty good job of compartmentalizing it all.”

He focused on resuming his fatherly duties and all of the work that needed to be done; the accident happened during harvest, a winery’s busiest time of year. Colleagues pitched in to finish processing Bratcher’s 2014 grapes, and they bottled some of his wines.

“The wine community has been incredible,” Bratcher said. “I heard from so many people, people I don’t even know, just getting the warmest notes and coming to see me in the hospital.”

Bratcher is undergoing physical therapy, and he acknowledged that he should eventually seek out therapy to help him emotionally, too. But for now, he’s staying away from reliving it in his mind. He said he doesn’t want to go to that dark place.

“There are things I’m really angry about and hurt about and confused about, and I’m frustrated,” Bratcher said, but he keeps his circumstances in perspective. “I did this working in my winery. People are sympathetic, but it’s not like I lost it fighting for a war, you know.”


The matter at hand

Bratcher, a former professor from Tennessee with a Ph.D. in political science, fell in love with wine while writing his dissertation at the University of Michigan. His professor was a “huge Francophile,” introducing him to the great wines of France.

“Most of my research these days is on prosthetics,” Bratcher said.

In recent weeks, he has flown to Texas to look at state-of-the-art prosthetic hands and has traveled to his home state of Tennessee to meet with a prosthetist.

“I gotta have a hand,” Bratcher said in his gentle Southern accent. “The reality is there won’t be just one hand; most people have several.”

The most sophisticated, electrically powered prostheses have astronomical price tags, starting at $125,000. He has his sights set on a myoelectric-motorized hand, but a more durable, water-resistant prosthetic would also be necessary for operating the forklift, working with wine barrels, and doing other manual winery labor.

He’s a bit disheartened when he thinks about how he’s going to continue operating his one-person winery.

“One-handed, one person,” Bratcher interjected.

With a wine glass in his left hand and a wine thief tucked under his arm, Bratcher gingerly balanced the glass and retrieved a wine sample from a barrel one-handedly. Then, climbing up and leaning on one of the stacked barrels, with his swollen right arm in a bandage, Bratcher juggled the glass and wine thief in his left hand, and shook his head.

“A lot of the work in here involves work on those barrels,” Bratcher said. “For me, it’s very awkward. In this environment, it’s incredibly awkward, and now doubly dangerous and frustrating because you know what you were able to do.”

And that’s just with regard to his cellar work.

“What about the rest of my life? I’m a cyclist. I play golf. I still play golf, and I still ride bicycles, and I still like to rock climb,” Bratcher said with enthusiasm. “All those things that I did before my accident I don’t plan on giving up. But they’re going to require different kinds of hands.

 “I refuse to change the person that I was. I’ll change the way I do things, and I’ll adapt; I already have in some ways,” Bratcher continued. “One of the things that I’m learning to accept: Whatever ends up on my limb will never replace what I lost.”

D’Alfonso believes that Bratcher deserves nothing less than the best.

“I just want him to have the absolutely finest piece of machinery and guys working on it,” D’Alfonso stated. “There’s no reason why in this country somebody shouldn’t get what they want when they’re suffering like that.”

“It’s not like a broken nose or a black eye. Those things go away,” D’Alfonso added. “There are different levels of tragedy, and this ranks right at the top. It’s life changing for him.”

The events of Sept. 2 still haunt the good-hearted D’Alfonso. 

“I think of it easily 10 times a day,” D’Alfonso said. “And I’ve thought of it every day since. If I wanted to be a hero, I’d put his hand back on, you know.”


Caution in the cellar

D’Alfonso fielded phone calls from people in the wine industry across California in the days following the accident. As a result of what happened to Bratcher, some producers gathered their harvest crews to review safety protocols.

Wine production may not seem hazardous to the casual observer, but there’s a wide array of potential dangers.

“In winemaking, it’s asphyxiation, dismemberment, or electrocution. Those are the big deals,” D’Alfonso explained.

Years ago, one of D’Alfonso’s cellar workers punctured his arm on a destemmer machine at another winery in Santa Barbara County. D’Alfonso himself has had a couple of close calls over the three decades he’s been making wine.

Two Bratcher Wines are named after owner/winemaker Chris Bratcher’s two daughters; a pinot noir ($35) is called Jane Madison and a chardonnay ($30) is Mary Ellis.

“I went into a tank too early, and I almost asphyxiated. I drug myself out of the tank and laid on the floor for 15 minutes trying to catch my breath,” D’Alfonso said. “Another time I almost got my finger taken off by a corking machine, but I was really fast, and I got out of there, and everything was fine, but that still scares me.”

He tells his winery workers: “I don’t want you to work fast. I want you to work smart. We have all day to do this.”

From day one, Bratcher knew that winemaking was a difficult business and potentially dangerous work.

“You have to be very, very careful. And even then, there are some things that happen,” Bratcher said. “Like in any job, there are certain inherent risks and unexpected things that happen.” 

 Checking in with Bratcher recently over the phone, about one month after he juggled the wine thief on top of barrels at the winery, he said that the swelling in his arm had gone down significantly, which means he’s closer to being fitted for his first prosthetic hand. It was clear that his spirits are high.

The man’s positive attitude, considering that his dominant hand was so suddenly and rudely taken from him just three months ago, is remarkable.

“When I look down at my arm I could go, ‘Damn, my hand’s not there,’” Bratcher reflected. “What I do is try to look down and go, ‘Man, I’m still here.’

“I’m still the same person. Life goes on. I’m just a couple pounds lighter and I have to do things a lot differently, but still, I’m determined to do them.”


Contributing writer Wendy Thies Sell covers the Santa Barbara County wine industry for the Sun, writing for the Eats column.

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