EARLY ON in Frances Dinkelspiel’s Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California, Mark Anderson says that, when drinking a fine rare vintage, he would wonder about the people who had “lovingly coaxed the grapes to maturity and transformed them into wine.” He called fine wine “bottled sunshine, the sweet juice of a small star.”

This poetic sentiment comes from the man accused of destroying a quarter of billion dollars’ worth of fine wines: the largest wine arson case in history.

From its explosive prologue to the very last sentence, Frances Dinkelspiel has written an utterly riveting true crime book. Investigating the infamous 2005 fire set in the Wines Central warehouse, an extensive wine storage facility in Vallejo, Tangled Vines spans centuries and tackles multiple storylines: the history of the wine industry in California; the impact of the fiery destruction on the winemakers and wine workers; and the motivation of Mark Anderson, the man who did it. 

In the present, the author shares the days in the lives of people — vintners, wine lovers — impacted by the most massive destruction of wine in history, while circling the elusive Mark Anderson, tracing his steps, attempting to discover what drove him to this colossal damage. He obliterated a mind-boggling $250 million dollars’ worth of wines, a figure which does not begin to include the financial impact on the lives of the small wineries and wine makers shattered by this devastation.

When we meet Mark we are struck by his self-absorption and bottomless capacity for denial, only partially obscured by his attempts at camouflaging himself in wine erudition. It is clearly a strategy that worked. Filled with bravado and probably spurious tales of his life on this continent and abroad, Mark Anderson leveraged his love for sushi at the popular Sushi Ran Sausalito restaurant into a columnist gig for Sausalito’s The Signal, and later a Marin paper. Apparently an affable and personable raconteur, he charmed many people, and as he opened his own wine storage facility with declarations of exaggerated innovations, people, evidently beguiled, took his claims at face value.

An older vine the author attempts to untangle is the creation of the California wine industry itself. It starts with the Spanish missionaries, using the slave labors of the indigenous, and the conquerors who were thirsty for sacramental and daily wine. The plantings flourished particularly well near the Mission San Gabriel in southern California. In Rancho Cucamonga, Tiburcio Tapia, the grantee of its 13,000 acres, was the first to plant grapes. We see Rancho Cucamonga in southern California grow into the heart of the industry, when “purple” gold rivaled the gold mined and panned for, by men seeking their fortune. We follow these vines to a savvy southern sympathizer, John Rains, as he marries Maria Merced Williams, and into the family that now owns these lands. Dinkelspiel vividly recreates this past world, and in the telling reminds us of the multiple crimes committed against the Native populations, the greed of the conquerors, as well as their unexpected violence. Later, as a successful businessman and winemaker, Rains sets off on a customary trip to Los Angeles. When his body is found 11 days later it sparks anti-Californio sentiments, fraud, land swindles, and a lynching. Dinkelspiel has us holding our breath for the widow, and for the murder investigation that continues on.

Dinkelspiel has a captivating personal connection that serves as the device which links the birth of the wine industry in Cucamonga Vineyards to the horrific arson in 2005: the possession of a few bottles of 1875 Port and Angelica wine. The grapes were grown and bottled in the Cucamonga Vineyards, then owned by her great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman (of whom she has written extensively, in Towers of Gold). As far back as 1847 the wine was described as “a most delicious cordial […] and if the Olympian gods could get a drop of it, they would soon vote nectar a bore.” Her cousin Miranda Heller was in the process of having her own 175 bottles of the vintage wine appraised; they were temporarily stored in the Wines Central facility. This huge warehouse, a former naval bunker, was massive, with walls three feet thick thought to withstand a monumental earthquake. The 2005 fire in Vallejo destroyed all of her 175 bottles of 1875 Port and Angelica — 175 bottles among the 4.5 million.

While we wonder and wait for the unraveling of what drove Anderson to this deed, and ponder the fate of the widow Maria Merced Williams de Rains, Dinkelspiel takes deliciously engaging detours into past and present day fraud and theft of high-end vintages, as well as enjoyably voyeuristic forays into even higher-end lifestyles. Along the way we learn about the controversy over Fred Franzia — he of Two Buck Chuck fame — and his sentencing for Zinfandel fraud; we see a Koch brother spend a fortune to expose a wine scam. We meet a man who monthly spent one million dollars on wine. We savor the details of Raymond Vineyard’s wine bacchanal, and we learn about kooky rich people who pay for the privilege of toiling in the vineyard like, well, a field hand.

You may consider the arson and think, “Ah, rich people’s problems.” But winemaker Ted Hall called the arson “a crime against families: those that owned the businesses and many everyday working men and women who helped us produce these irreparable wines […] The fruit of our hands and of our hearts is irretrievably gone, like a piece of fine art trashed by a barbarian sacking the city.” Dinkelspiel, a gifted historian, researcher, and storyteller, connects us to those emotions of working people, in the past and in the present, in a manner that is both seamless and page-turning.

(One does not need to be a wine drinker, expert, connoisseur, or snob to enjoy this fascinating exploration of the crimes involving wine, but it is impossible to read it without craving a glass and an open bottle nearby.)

We once bought a bottle of ’97 Brunello di Montalcino. It was our most expensive wine purchase, to that date, and we squirrelled it away for an appropriate occasion. Ten years later the occasion had arrived. At the shared feast our friend swirled his wine, closed his eyes, and inhaled. He set the glass down, his eyes sparkling; he picked it up and sipped. His eyes still alight, he talked about the hills of Italy, the kind of grape this was, and how perfectly it embodied all of what a Montalcino should be. We drank and ate and drank some more.

Unlike my friend and the wine collectors in Tangled Vines, I cannot taste “the earth, the sun, the sky, and the steady hand of the winemaker in that glass.” But I know a spectacular book when I read one.

¤

Désirée Zamorano is a California-based short story writer, novelist, and playwright. She is the author of the novels Modern ConsHuman Cargo, and, most recently, The Amado Women.