Tangled Vines

Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California

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Published by: St. Martin's Press; 2nd Print edition
Release Date: October 6, 2015
Pages: 320
ISBN13: 978-1250033222


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.

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A New York Times Bestseller
A San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller
A Best Book for Wine Lovers – Wall Street Journal
One of the Best Wine Books of 2015 – Food & Wine
Finalist for best nonfiction book  – Northern California Independent Booksellers
Finalist for a Northern California Book Award

The Washington Post says “Dinkelspiel weaves elements of a mystery novel with historical narrative,” resulting in “the most engrossing and engaging book about Napa Valley since James Conaway’s two-volume saga, “Napa” and “The Far Side of Eden.” – Washington Post

The New York Times Book Review says the storytelling in Tangled Vines is "skillful," and "clear and persuasive." – New York Times

In its "Holiday Gift Guide to 10 Great Food Books of 2015," Bay Area Bites calls Tangled Vines "a riveting narrative" that "reads like a novel." – Bay Area Bites 

Tangled Vines is included in "The Best Books for Wine Lovers," – Wall Street Journal, Nov. 20, 2015

"I would say that if you know everything there is to know about wine, you will know everything there is to know about the Golden State." – Larry Wilson in the Los Angeles Daily News

"Grapes of Wrath – When $250m of rare wine was set on fire," – New York Post

"From its explosive prologue to the very last sentence, Frances Dinkelspiel has written an utterly riveting true crime book."
– Los Angeles Review of Books

Somm TV with Jill Zimorski reviews Tangled Vines.

Tangled Vines by Frances Dinkelspiel opens your eyes to the dark side of the wine industry in California and is written in such a page-turning way that if you didn’t know any better, you would think you were reading a novel.”
The Academic Wino

“It is a tantalizing mix of California historical scholarship, true crime storytelling, and a personal quest to follow and understand the wines made by her ancestor... It is also an unsentimental examination of the corruption, ambition, and violence that have plagued the state’s wine industry since its infancy.”

“page-turning stuff,” … “moving,”… “an impressively thorough investigation.”
“Its great achievement is to convey a sense of wonder about wine.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“gripping” … “unflinching”… “a page-turner”
Publishers Weekly

"More than just a crime story, this is a book about the wealth, passion, and murky reality shaped by life inside the twisted vines of California's most revered crop... An enjoyable read for wine connoisseurs and neophytes alike. (Kirkus Reviews)"

"Tangled Vines: A Must Wine Read" – The Wine Write

“I gulped down this page-turning chronicle of big egos, bold Cabernets, and brazen wine wars. Frances Dinkelspiel vividly captures the wild early years of California's wine industry as well as the modern crime revealing the dark obsession some people have for wine. I'll never look at a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet in quite the same way again. “
—Julia Flynn Siler, New York Times bestselling author of House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty

“The author is deeply rooted in the Golden State's financial history, as anyone knows who read her excellent Towers of Gold. Now we find that terroir's part of that story, too. A family member's bottled heirlooms passed down through generations fall victim to a bizarre crime, and the author's drawn in by a sense of loss, anger, and curiosity. How could even an unhinged perpetrator of the worst case of wine arson in California history destroy vintages bearing some of the biggest names in West Coast viticulture, and apparently get away with it? Dinkelspiel weaves together strands of past and present in an enthralling narrative that binds the reader to the investigation and to her personal triumph.”
—James Conaway, New York Times bestselling author of Napa: The Story of an American Eden

“History, wine and crime intertwine in this fascinating page-turner. Dinkelspiel travels in time to create a dark and deep portrait of three centuries of California wine culture.”
—Davia Nelson of NPR’s "Kitchen Sisters"

“Tangled Vines is a captivating account of how a wine connoisseur became one of the most notorious wine criminals in history. Dinkelspiel deftly weaves his true tale into the rich, colorful, and at times shady history of California wine. A delicious read.”
—Allison Hoover Bartlett, author of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession


On my 40th birthday, I received a lovely gift from my stepmother: a bottle of Port made by my great-great grandfather Isaias W. Hellman in 1875.

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.