Oct. 18 marks the paperback release of Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California written by Berkeleyside co-founder Frances Dinkelspiel.

The book tells the story of Berkeley native Mark Anderson, who set fire to a wine warehouse in Vallejo on Oct. 12, 2005. The arson destroyed 4.5 million bottles of fine California wine worth at least $250 million. It was the largest ever crime involving wine.

Ninety wineries lost wine in the inferno, including Sterling Vineyards, Saintsbury, Long Meadow Ranch, Viader Vineyards, Justin Vineyards and others. Among the bottles lost were 175 made in 1875 by Dinkelspiel’s great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman, from a vineyard in Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County, then the heart of California’s wine industry.

In addition to writing about the arson and exploring why Anderson set the fire, Dinkelspiel traces the history of that southern California vineyard. There were five killings associated with Cucamonga Vineyard, many of them racially motivated. The 580-acre plot of land also reflects the history of California in many ways; it was controlled at different times by Native Americans, Californios, a Confederate sympathizer, a German-Jewish immigrant turned businessman and a wine monopoly that controlled 80% of the production and distribution of wine in the state.

Berkeleyside’s independent reviewer Thomas Riley called Tangled Vines “a stunning new look at the dark side of California wine.” Book reviewer Mal Warwick gave it five stars. The book was a New York Times bestseller, a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, a finalist for the Northern California Book Award and was named a best wine book of the year by the Washington Post and Food and Wine magazine.

Berkeleyside caught up with Dinkelspiel to get another peek into the dark side of wine. (We admit we didn’t have far to go.)

You write a lot about the dark side of the wine industry in Tangled Vines. Have things gotten any better?

No. If anything, wine fraud and wine crime have accelerated, even here in Berkeley. Regular readers of Berkeleyside will remember that one of the world’s biggest cases of wine fraud happened in our own backyard, right on University Avenue near the freeway overpass. A man named John Fox ran a high-end wine outfit, Premier Cru, that primarily sold wine over the Internet. He was famous for sending out emails extolling all the great deals he had on French and Italian wines. Eager wine drinkers from around the world snapped up his offers, with some high-powered financiers spending $500,000 to close to $1 million on wine. Well, much of the wine was never delivered. John Fox pleaded guilty to wire fraud in August, and he admitted he sold at least $20 million worth of wine he never owned and spent at least $5 million on an opulent lifestyle. Premier Cru filed for bankruptcy with $70 million in debts, so there still is a lot of money unaccounted for. On a smaller scale, two former employees of Berkeley’s Donkey & Goat winery are facing charges that they stole wine from their employer. Read Berkeleyside’s coverage of Premier Cru. 

Isn’t Premier Cru an isolated case?

While it is one of the most high-profile cases, it is not unique. Wine theft is rampant because so much wine can be surreptitiously sold over the internet. In December 2014, thieves broke into the wine cellar of the French Laundry restaurant and stole wines that were worth thousands of dollars a bottle. The wines, valued at $300,000, were later recovered in North Carolina, making it seem like it was a thief for hire.

Why would people go to such lengths?

Some of the best wine in the world is the rarest wine. For some, wine becomes an obsession. They are driven to obtain hard to find bottles and taste unique wines. Others want the bragging rights if having tried rare wines like Screaming Eagle or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.

Mark Anderson at the Marin County courthouse, where he faced charges that he embezzled $1.1 million worth of wine from his clients. Anderson, a Berkeley native, later set a fire at a wine storehouse to cover his tracks. Photo: Marin Independent Journal
Mark Anderson at the Marin County courthouse in 2005.  Photo: Marin Independent Journal

What’s up with Mark Anderson these days?

We are not in communication. But he is steeped in Berkeley history. He grew up on Brookside Avenue and his grandparents used to own a “farmlet” near Vine Street. He attended John Muir Elementary and rhapsodized in letters to me about sneaking down the spiral fire escapes at the Claremont Hotel, running through the dark tunnels connecting John Muir with Domingo Avenue, and even putting pennies on the trolley tracks that ran down Claremont Avenue. Much of that is gone now, but one institution isn’t: Star Grocery. It was the center of his neighborhood in the 1950s, just as it is the center of the neighborhood now.

What do you think of the rise of the urban wine movement?

I love it. It’s amazing to me that all these East Bay winemakers get up early during harvest and drive to vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, El Dorado and other counties and then bring tons of grapes back to places like Berkeley and Oakland. One of my favorite things to do in the late summer/early fall is visit places like Covenant on Berkeley’s Sixth Street or Donkey & Goat on Fifth Street, where human feet are used to crush the grapes. There are so many excellent urban wineries around. (Check out Nosh’s coverage of East Bay wine and wineries.) You don’t have to drive to Napa or Sonoma to taste wine; you can stay as close as Oakland, Berkeley, Livermore and Alameda.

At Donkey and Goat Winery of Fifth Street, humans press the grapes. Photo: Erin Callihan
At Donkey & Goat Winery on Berkeley’s Fifth Street, humans press the grapes. Photo: Erin Callihan

Dinkelspiel will be talking about Tangled Vines at the San Anselmo Public Library at 7 p.m. on Friday Oct. 21; at the Commonwealth Club of Silicon Valley at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto on Nov. 1 at 7 p.m.; and at the Story Hour in the Library at UC Berkeley at 5 p.m. on Nov. 10. See a full events listing.

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