Q: What initially drew you to this story of arson and obsession?
The sheer size of the crime. The arson fire in Vallejo, CA destroyed 4.5 million bottles of wine worth $250 million making it the largest crime involving wine in history. I was fascinated that one person could wreak such havoc on the wine industry, both financially and in terms of the emotional distress it caused.
There was also a personal reason for my interest. When I started writing about Mark Anderson’s trial for the New York Times, I learned that 175 bottles of Port and Angelica made by my great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman, in 1875 in southern California were burned to a crisp in the warehouse. I was driven to discover more about these lost bottles: what was the history of the vineyard the wines came from, why the bottles survived and whether what was lost just had monetary value or represented something more significant.
Q: When did you become interested in wine?
I owe it to my mother! When I was growing up in San Francisco, she used to drink Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon in large balloon-shaped wineglasses. She always said that it was the best wine in California, with an important history. So I was raised with the idea that wine could be special, a treat, as well as something with an interesting backstory. In college, I occasionally drank jug wine but it wasn’t until much later that I started drinking fine wine. Working on Tangled Vines deepened both my interest and knowledge of wine and its history. I visited many different winemakers and learned about their visions, histories, and ambitions. That said, I am not the type of wine writer who can allot scores for particular vintages. I am more interested in the personal stories behind wine.
Q: How and when did you first encounter Mark Anderson? What were your initial impressions? How much interaction did you have with him during your research and investigation?
When I was working on my article for the New York Times, Anderson called me from jail. We continued to talk on and off for the next three years. We exchanged dozens of letters. Eventually, I visited Anderson in jail. I also saw him at his court hearings.
Anderson is engaging, well educated, and clever, so my first impression was positive. But he is a clinically diagnosed narcissist, and people like that are charming, but lack empathy for others. So I was careful to remember that the Anderson I met and talked to was just a scrim; his true character lay hidden.
Q: What does this story tell you about obsession with wine?
I was fascinated how the cachet of wine can drive people to take great risks. Anderson never acted for the money alone. He was trying to preserve his reputation as a wine connoisseur and was willing to do almost anything to stop that from slipping from his grasp.
Q: You move between the present and the 19th & 20th centuries in California’s wine history. Why did you decide to go back so far in California’s history? What drew you to that story?
When I started to research the history of the 1875 bottles of Port made by my great-great grandfather, I discovered they came from one of the oldest vineyards in California, one that mirrored the history of the state. The first grapes were planted in 1839 when California was part of Mexico. A Confederate sympathizer owned the land, as did a Jewish immigrant who fled discrimination in Germany. Five men were killed in battles over the vineyard. A California heiress lost the land when she couldn’t pay the mortgage. The story was far richer, far more dramatic, than I could have imagined. The story of the vineyard was a microcosm of the history of California.
Q: What was the most interesting or unusual fact that you learned during your research?
That Native Americans were essentially enslaved to work the vineyards. The Franciscan fathers who built the missions converted the Indians to Christianity and then wouldn’t let them leave, often forcing them to live in horrid conditions. The Californios and Americans treated the Native Americans just as badly. In fact, the first law the legislature passed after California became a state in 1850 maintained the subservient status of the Indians. The law, nicknamed the Indian Indenture Act, stripped Native Americans of most of their rights and made it easy for vineyardists and farmers to use them as slave labor.
Q: This story is also about you and your family: You also tell the story of a bottle of port that has been in your family for generations. What made you finally decide to open it and drink it?
My stepmother gave me a bottle of Isaias Hellman’s 1875 port for a birthday present years ago, but I never drank it. What occasion could possibly be significant enough to justify opening such an old bottle? So it sat in a cool space in my basement for years. But writing Tangled Vines made me realize that wine is meant to de drunk, not hidden. So I had a party and invited many of my friends to taste the wine. We toasted one another and then sipped the sweet Port, marveling at its rich taste 130 years after it was made. We imagined what the world was like in the 19th century and what had gone into making of the wine. Enjoying it together brought us together. And that was my ultimate conclusion after writing this book: that wine can unite people, can strengthen their bonds. That’s what drives many people to drink wine, to obsess over wine, to go to incredible lengths to be associated with wine.
Q: Mark Anderson was able to fool a lot of people including some prestigious auction houses: what can wine lovers and collectors do to protect themselves and their investments?
For a long time, wine collectors and auction houses downplayed any suggestion that wine fraud and wine crime was a serious problem. That has changed in recent years as a result of a number of high-profile theft and fraud cases. On Christmas in 2014, for example, thieves broke into the wine cellar of the famous French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley and made off with $350,000 worth of fine wine. Most of it was recovered, but that burglary shows that many businesses and collectors are still vulnerable to theft.
Some of the high-end French and American wine houses have started to combat fraud by engraving serial numbers on their bottles or making specially engraved labels that are hard to duplicate. But more can still be done.
Q: Many of the vineyards experienced multiple years of lost income due to the arson ten years ago: how are they doing now? Are they back on their feet?
Oct. 12, 2015 marks the tenth anniversary of the arson. More than 90 collectors and wineries lost wine in the fire, including some wine libraries that stretched back decades. While a few went out of business because they didn’t have insurance, most wineries have recovered and are doing well. It certainly made it easier to put the arson behind when Mark Anderson was sentenced to 27 years in jail in February 2012 – seven years after the fire.
Q: During the course of your research, did you encounter any extraordinary wine? What is your favorite wine to drink on a day-to-day basis?
While there are many great wines out there, what is really special are wine experiences. I believe wine collectors and oenophiles are searching for the camaraderie that happens when they sit around a table with good friends, good food, and great wine. I had many wonderful moments involving wine while writing this book, from attending tastings in caves dug into the Napa hills to dinner with movie stars at the Festival del Sole. I also enjoyed my times just sitting at a table with a winemaker talking about their world and, of course, tasting their wine.
Q: So you’re not going to tell us your favorite wine?
Maybe over a glass of Cabernet sometime….