The green glass bottle had an intriguing shape. It was more elongated than a traditional wine bottle and had an air bubble on one side. Forest green wax covered the cork.
The label offered hints to the bottle’s history. There was a round emblem that resembled a cattle brand with the initials “IWH,” at the top, referring to my ancestor. Then there was “Port Wine,” followed by “Vintage 1875,” and “Bottled from Wood in 1921.”
I loved getting a piece of my family’s pastas a gift, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. How does one open a bottle of port wine that is more than 120 years old? What occasion is important enough? So I put the bottle in a cool spot in my house in Berkeley and forgot about it.
It wasn’t until many years later that I thought about that wine again. I was writing a story for the New York Times about an upcoming trial for a man accused of setting an arson fire in Vallejo, CA that had destroyed around 4.5 million bottles of wine worth around $250 million.
I suddenly remembered that my distant cousin had told me that she had stored about 175 bottles of Isaias W. Hellman’s Port and Angelica, a type of sweet white wine, in that same warehouse. Now it was gone. The arson suddenly got a lot more personal.
I had long been interested in the history of my ancestor. Hellman came from Germany to California in 1859, a penniless Jew who grew up to be one of the Pacific Coast’s most powerful financiers. He started Los Angeles’ earliest bank and eventually was president of Wells Fargo Bank. I had even spent eight years writing a biography about him titled Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California.
The arson set me off on another journey, one to better understand what had been lost in that fiery cataclysm. Was it something significant, a family heirloom? Or had the wine turned to vinegar and no longer held real value? I started to research the history of the vineyard from which the Port came. I traveled to Rancho Cucamonga, where these days only a few grapevines struggle to grow. I combed through dusty archives and assessment books to find out who had owned the land.
I discovered that the vineyard in Rancho Cucamonga, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, had a remarkable history and one that mirrored the history of California. The Kukomonga Indians had once roamed the land. Then a former alcade, or mayor of Los Angeles, was awarded the vineyard as part of a 13,000-acre land grant while California was still part of Mexico. He planted grapes there in 1839. A brash American built his bride a home on the property – only to be brutally murdered a few years later. A Frenchman whose uncle turned making wine into a commercial industry in California was the winemaker. Then the California Wine Association, a little-known monopoly that controlled 80% of the production and sale of California wine from the late 1890s until Prohibition controlled the vineyard. Finally, in the 21st Century an arsonist, a man who ironically considered himself an oenophile, destroyed much of the wine.
The more I dug into the back-story, the more fascinated I became. What I discovered shocked and grieved me. And out of that came Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California.