On October 12, 2005, a massive fire broke out in the Wines Central wine warehouse in Vallejo, California. Within hours, the flames had destroyed 4.5 million bottles of California’s finest wine worth more than $250 million, making it the largest destruction of wine in history.
Mark Anderson, a passionate oenophile and skilled con man, had set the fire with a bucket of gasoline-soaked rags and a propane torch. The Sausalito businessman was trying to hide evidence that he had stolen wine from the warehouse.
Among the priceless bottles destroyed were 175 bottles of Port and Angelica made by Frances Dinkelspiel’s great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman, in 1875. The grapes used for the wine came from a vineyard in Rancho Cucamonga that had first been planted in 1839, making it one of the oldest vineyards in California.
Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California tells the story of the inferno and Dinkelspiel’s journey to reconstruct the history of the vineyard where Hellman’s wine was made. It’s a search, too, to understand the passion that drives men and women to make wine, and what turns people like Anderson to wine’s dark side.
Tangled Vines is full of great characters like Delia Viader, the Napa Valley winemaker who refused to be bowed even though the fire destroyed thousands of cases of her wine and her insurance company declined to pay for her loss. It showcases the perseverance of ATF investigator Brian O. Parker and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Lapham, who spent seven years hunting down Anderson and making sure he spent time in jail. And there is Anderson himself, Berkeley-born, well educated, a world traveler and esteemed photographer whose love for wine led him to risk everything.
Tangled Vines also reveals the little-known history of wine in California before Prohibition. Los Angeles, not Napa or Sonoma, was the center of the wine world for most of the 19th century. That only changed when Pierce’s Disease killed off most of the vineyards in southern California in the late 1880s.
The men who worked to make California wine palatable – and desirable to the rest of the world – include the Frenchman Jean Louis Vignes (pronounced vines) who had more than 100 acres of vineyards along the banks of the Los Angeles River (now the site of Union Station). Other great characters include Leland Stanford, one of the “Big Four” builders of the transcontinental railroad, who built the biggest vineyard in the world. There’s Benjamin Dreyfus, the state’s most accomplished wine wholesaler and the Jewish vintner who first introduced kosher wine into the California market.
Dinkelspiel searched through dusty assessment records, library archives, and long-forgotten books to uncover the story of the Cucamonga Vineyard and the wine that was burned in the fire. In many ways, it mirrors the history of California. Native Americans first wandered the area around Rancho Cucamonga. Tiburcio Tapia, a former mayor of Los Angeles who got a 13,000 grant of land from the Mexican government later pushed them off. Then a Confederate sympathizer named John Rains purchased the land. He was murdered, along with four other men, in a fight for control of the vineyard. His wife, a Californio heiress descended from some of the earliest Spanish visitors to California, lost the land because of his treachery. Hellman bought the land at a sheriff’s sale in 1870 and rose to become one of the most influential financiers on the Pacific Coast, heading up Wells Fargo Bank and other financial institutions. California’s ruthless monopoly, the California Wine Association, which controlled 80% of the production of wine in the state, eventually took over the vineyard.
Tangled Vines rips off the elegant veneer of California’s wine regions to find the obsession, greed and violence lying in wait.