I am delighted to announce that the city of Whittier in Los Angeles County has selected Tangled Vines as its Whittier Reads selection for 2017. (As has the city of Benicia, but more on that later.) I will be delivering a lecture on April 7 and then attend a dinner put on by the Whittier Library Foundation later that evening. The Foundation is a major sponsor of the libraries. It raises about $600,000 a year to fund the library programming, which includes Whittier Reads.
On Wednesday, Sept. 23, much of the Catholic world was focused on the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. Pope Francis, a pope who has come to symbolize the rights of the poor and downtrodden, anointed Junipero Serra a saint. In doing so, the Pope cast light on the brutal history and treatment of Native Americans during the Mission period.
But Californians shouldn’t sit back smugly and think that violence against Indians was just a problem of the Franciscans. Serra, a citizen of Spain, may have started the trend of forcing Indians to work against their will, but the Mexicans and Americans who assumed control over California at different points in the 19th Century were worse in many ways.
In working on Tangled Vines, the most disturbing part of my research has been the realization that Native Americans paid the highest personal price for the development of the wine business. California wine may now earn international accolades and generate $24.6 billion a year, but the industry was founded on a philosophy of greed and violence.
My forthcoming book, Tangled Vines, focuses on the largest crime involving wine in history: an arson fire that destroyed 4.5 million bottles of wine worth $250 million.
The book also traces the life one of the bottles lost in the fire. It was made in 1875 in a vineyard in Rancho Cucamonga in southern California by my great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman.
I did a lot of research on the history of California wine for my book and found some fun things.
Here are five little-known facts about California wine:
1) The Franciscan fathers were the first to plant grapes in California. Father Junipero Serra wrote to his bosses in Baja California in the late 18th century and asked that they ship grapevines north. The grapes were planted at Mission San Juan Capistrano near Los Angeles. They were named Mission grapes and became the primary grape used for making wine throughout the 1880s, even though the wine they produced was flat and bland. Historians think the first harvest in California was in 1782.
I am very excited to announce that my new book, Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California will be published on Oct. 6, 2015 by St. Martin’s Press.
I have been working on this book since late 2009, ever since I wrote a story for the New York Times about an arsonist who destroyed 4.5 million bottles of fine California wine worth more than $250 million. The culprit set fire to a wine warehouse in Vallejo in October 2005. Four years later, he was about to go to trial for the crime.
It was only later that I realized that 175 bottles of wine made by my great great grandfather Isaias Hellman in 1875 in Rancho Cucamonga were burned up in that fire. I had long wanted to write about Hellman’s involvement in wine. For my first book, Towers of Gold, I had examined Hellman’s role in the banking industry, as well as other endeavors, but I had glossed over his role as a wine maker and businessman. I realized in 2010 that I might have my next book topic – an examination of the arson, the largest involving wine in history, with a special focus on that 130-year old bottle and how it came to be.