Berkeley-based journalist Frances Dinkelspiel tells the story behind the arson of ‘Wine Central’, a large wine storage warehouse in Vallejo, California in October 2005. It is estimated the fire destroyed around 4.5 million bottles of wine with a value in excess of $275 million, making it one of the most destructive crimes involving wine in history. Following a convoluted investigation over the course of more than six years, Mark Anderson, a well-known Sausilito wine aficionado, bon vivant and businessman was jailed for the arson.
Dinkelspiel has a personal involvement in the story, as 175 bottles of 1875 vintage Angelica and Port wine, made by her great-great-grandfather Isaias Hellman were destroyed in the fire. The wine was made at Hellman’s Rancho Cucamonga vineyard, a pioneering and now deemed historical enterprise, located 40 miles east of Los Angeles. This connection led Dinkelspiel to research her forebears’ past, the context of the wine and the broader Californian wine industry and its development, as well as backgrounding the personality of arsonist Mark Anderson, and the world he operated and lived in. The sub-title of the book is “Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California”. The range and scope of the book is large and covers three centuries of story, and Dinkelspiel takes the reader through it deftly, capturing and holding one’s attention.
Living Beyond One’s Means
The core of the book and story is simple and easy to understand, and is about Mark Anderson, a wine buff who essentially lived beyond his means. Accustomed to the high life, he established a fine wine storage facility ‘Sausilito Cellars’ for collectors and businesses to house their wines. Anderson’s reputation as a wine-knowledgeable man was one of the attractions for people doing business with him. However, to fund his lifestyle, he illegally sold off many of his customers fine wines. As his clients became aware of the stock discrepancies, Anderson moved his storage to ‘Wine Central’ as part of his web of deception.
As his activities were about to come to a head and be revealed, Anderson set fire to his stored wines to cover his tracks, the fire spreading and destroying most of the wine within the warehouse facility. Many wine producers lost rare and expensive, irreplaceable wines, and much of the liquid vinous history of California was lost, causing heartache and financial hardship for the wineries affected. Among these wines were the Hellman 1875 Angelica and Port bottlings.
Anderson proved to be an evasive person to pin down, due to his obtuse nature and delaying tactics, but was sentenced to 27 years in prison, and ordered to pay $70.3 million in restitution, even though he was broke.
Rancho Cucamonga and the Californian Wine Industry
The author puts the modern Californian wine scene and Mark Anderson’s life in wine into perspective with her telling of the historical Rancho Cucamonga vineyard and subsequent growth, fall and redevelopment of the industry as we know it today. The chapters on these subjects bring the past to life, and refer to the subtitle of “Greed, Murder and Obsession”.
Rancho Cucamonga was first planted to vines by Tiburcio Tapia, a Mexican soldier, after he acquired the land in 1839, and the property ended up in the hands of John Rains in 1858. Rains expanded the winemaking side of his interests significantly, but when he was murdered in 1862, there began a battle for control of his estate, Rains’ much younger wife an inexperienced pawn in the proceedings. Another four deaths occurred in the period following for the ownership of the not-insubstantial holdings.
In 1870, the author’s forebear Isaias Hellman acquired Rancho Cucamonga and restored the vineyard and property. Then followed a time of rising and falling fortunes, during which the 1875 Angelica and Port were vintaged, and eventually bottled from cask in 1921.
Dinkelspiel goes on to describe the nature of the Californian wine industry during that period, particularly that of the great San Francisco wine houses. She tells the story of the war between the California Wine Association, a conglomeration of the most powerful wine houses, which controlled the wine production of California, and a group of opposing growers called the California Wine-Maker’s Association. Little has been recorded of the war, but the author shows it was a titanic battle, which the former body eventually won. This is a piece of history that deserves more attention. The demise of this ‘golden’ era came with the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, and the following period of Prohibition.
It’s All Personal
During the course of her research, the author visited the sites of Rancho Cucamonga and the associated winemaking facilities. It has all practically disappeared, given up to urban development, though looking hard, there is still evidence in building remains and place names. Dinkelspiel describes her search with a sense of lost history and nostalgia, and quite rightly so. There’s clearly a very personal element in the story.
Dinkelspiel had in her possession a bottle of the 1875 Port made by Isais Hellmann, handed down the generations. She managed to get a professional assessment of the wine by Fred Dame, Master Sommelier, and shared in the drinking of the wine, which was pronounced as “phenomenal”. There are other bottles of the 1875 Hellman Angelica and Port in the hands of other family members and collectors, but they must be few in number. More is the pity that most of the stock of some of California’s historically important wine was lost due to arson.
Tangled Vines, By Frances Dinkelspiel
St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 2015, ISBN 978-1-250-11389-4