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

A Berkeley man who embezzled thousands of bottles of wine from his clients and set fire to a warehouse in 2005, destroying 4.5 million bottles of wine worth $250 million, has died.

Mark Anderson, 74, died on Jan. 13 at the UC Davis Medical Center, just five months after he was given a compassionate release from federal prison because of his health problems. Anderson had been serving a 27-year prison term at Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary.

“He has a striking history of medical problems, including hypertension, acute respiratory disorder, congestive heart failure, chronic kidney disease, hypoxia, morbid obesity, a history of cancer, and many others,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Kimberly Miller, who also noted that Anderson weighed 300 pounds.

Anderson’s appointed attorney, Stephanie Adraktas of Berkeley, had argued he should be released because another bout of COVID-19 in prison might be deadly. Anderson had contracted COVID-19 in December 2021 and had to be rushed to the hospital, according to court documents. Though he was vaccinated, he had not received a booster shot, leaving him more susceptible to the virus.

Anderson was released to “Blessings Care,” a board and care home in Sacramento to be close to the UC Davis Medical Center. The Saint Vincent de Paul Society paid his rent until his government benefits could kick in.

Victims of Anderson’s crimes expressed no sympathy for his death.

“The only thing sad about Mark Anderson passing is that he didn’t carry out his full sentence or pay restitution to the many victims in his crimes,” Debbie Polverino, who managed the wine storage warehouse in Vallejo that Anderson set on fire, wrote in an email. “His sentence should have included attempted murder, knowing we were still in the building when it exploded in flames. He was a coward and a criminal. Hell has a special place for people like him.”

Ted Hall, whose Long Meadow Ranch Winery lost its entire bottled inventory, including two vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon as well as a historical collection of its wines, was not particularly sad either.

“He was sentenced to a life in prison and hopefully he had some moments of peace,” said Hall. “The part that sticks in my craw is he never acknowledged the crime. He never seemed contrite; he never gave a gesture to the victims. There are bad people in the world, and I put him in that category.”

The 240,000-square-foot Wines Central warehouse was destroyed in the 2005 arson fire. Around 4.5 million bottles of wine worth $250 million were ruined. Credit: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives 

In November 2005, Anderson, then a Sausalito businessman and photographer, went to the Wines Central warehouse on Mare Island in Vallejo and lit a fire in his storage area, a crime to which he pleaded guilty in 2009. The fire rocketed through the massive warehouse, blowing out windows, toppling a railway portal, and ruining the wine of more than 92 wineries, including Beaulieu Vineyards, Viader Vineyards, Saintsbury, Justin Winery, ZD, Sinskey, and Thackrey & Co. Sterling Vineyards lost about $37 million worth of wine and was not insured. Many wineries lost all their bottles, forcing them out of the market for years.

It was the largest crime involving wine in history.

The prosecution claimed that Anderson set the arson fire to cover his tracks. In 1999, he had opened Sausalito Cellars, one of the Bay Area’s first wine storage facilities. Restaurants, collectors, and wine appreciation groups stored their bottles in its climate-controlled facility. Many sent bottles to Sausalito Cellars to age and rarely checked in on them.

Anderson began to sell his client’s wines without their permission, according to police, eventually selling about 8,000 bottles worth $1.2 million and pocketing the funds. One of the places Anderson sold his wine to was Premier Cru. In 2016, the owner of that wine business, John Fox, pleaded guilty to running a $45 million wine Ponzi scheme. He was sentenced to six and a half years in prison but was released two years early because of COVID. The Marin County District Attorney filed embezzlement charges against Anderson in 2004.

Anderson thought if the fire destroyed his clients’ wines, authorities could not prove that he had sold them without permission.

Anderson pleaded guilty and then tried to withdraw his guilty plea. He was sentenced in 2012. He then appealed unsuccessfully twice.

He continued to deny he had set the fire.

“My position regarding the event was that it was indeed a catastrophe and obviously a devastating event,” Anderson wrote to this reporter in January 2013. “Notwithstanding the event, I had nothing to do with it; I was not a party or directed the theft of any wines and certainly did not have any part in anything of which I was accused. I was essentially tricked into “the so-called plea agreement.”

Anderson was born in Berkeley in 1948, when the city was more Republican than radical. He grew up on Brookside Avenue in the Claremont District, attended John Muir Elementary School, was a member of the junior traffic patrol and won a citywide fishing derby off the Berkeley pier. He used to flatten pennies on the trolley tracks running along Claremont Avenue and ride down the tubular fire escapes attached to the Claremont Hotel.

Anderson’s family moved to Orinda when he was 11. He returned to Berkeley to attend UC Berkeley. He later moved to Sausalito to build houseboats and stayed until his arrest.

His longtime girlfriend, Cynthia Whitten, who stayed with him throughout his time in prison, notified the court of Anderson’s death.

Anderson had originally been scheduled to be released in 2034. He had also been ordered to pay $70.4 million in restitution to his victims.

Frances Dinkelspiel is an award-winning journalist and author of two best-selling books, ‘Tangled Vines‘ and ‘Towers of Gold.

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