By Thomas Riley
Gather your drinks and snacks. Find a comfortable place to sit. And do this early in the day because, once you pick up Tangled Vines, Frances Dinkelspiel’s stunning new look at the dark side of California wine, you won’t want to get up until you’ve devoured the entire book.
Wine books, generally, are not known to be riveting reads. It is the rare volume that swallows its readers whole. Tangled Vines is that uncommon page-turner. Dinkelspiel has woven skillfully three distinct yet inextricable narratives into a book that will inform and fascinate readers for years to come. While the stories she tells are engrossing on their own, it is her steady journalistic tone, backed by prodigious and painstaking research, that gives this book its power and allure.
Subtitled “Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California,” Tangled Vines juggles effortlessly the birth of the state’s wine industry in and around Los Angeles in the 1840s, the role played in the 1870s by her great-great-grandfather, Isaias Hellman at Rancho Cucamonga, and, finally, the destruction of the massive Wines Central warehouse on Mare Island in 2005 by Sausalito businessman Mark Anderson.
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 Hellman, 175 bottles of which were destroyed by Anderson’s history-making arson. It is also an unsentimental examination of the corruption, ambition, and violence that have plagued the state’s wine industry since its infancy.
Nearly all the profiles she paints are limned with precision and pathos. Many of the characters in these stories are sympathetic victims, and Dinkelspiel ties their travails to the events of their days with measured objectivity, avoiding melodrama or hyperbole, letting the stark relief of tragedy and misfortune provide the weight and attention they deserve. Similarly, she avoids the all-too-easy indulgence of casting her villains — and the book has its share of felonious scoundrels — in a cartoonish or exaggerated light. Again, she lets the damning historical record speak for itself.
In a book crowded with malefactors and sociopaths, it is the Sausalito photographer and man-about-town, Mark Anderson, (born in Berkeley), who steals the show. Literally. A larger-than-life character, Anderson was the consummate confidence man, whose insatiable lust for fine wines led him to create a bogus wine-storage boutique, which gave him access to collections worth millions of dollars. Increasingly, Anderson sold off his clients’ wares in order to finance an enterprise that was nothing more than a shallow Ponzi scheme.
As pressure from clients and authorities mounted, Anderson needed to hide the extent of his fraud. Staring at a future that offered nothing more than bankruptcy and incarceration, a desperate Anderson set the Vallejo storage facility ablaze, destroying what was left of his clients’ wines, as well as hundreds of thousands of bottles of wine owned by many of California’s top wineries and retailers. The blaze also destroyed a large cache of Port and Angelica bottled in 1875 from wine produced when the author’s ancestor owned and operated the now-historic winery at Rancho Cucamonga in Southern California. Her relatives had entrusted the wines to a prominent wine industry executive, who believed the Mare Island depot was the most appropriate storage site for the irreplaceable wines.
But Tangled Vines is more than a recounting of Anderson’s pathetic rise and destructive fall, as it is also a detailed examination of the less attractive elements of California’s wine industry. Dinkelspiel yanks back the romantic, gauzy veil through which so many wine aficionados view their beloved beverage. Starting with land grabs and murders in the mid-19th century, followed by calculated corporate power plays, and finally the high stakes, often cut-throat games played by today’s big money buyers and sellers, she repeatedly makes it clear that wine, while a central element to large swaths of human society, is, too often, at its core, a numbers game. Wine in California is big business, always has been, and the bottom line, for many industry players, is what matters most.
In the hands of a less skillful writer, this tale might have ended here in an impossibly dark place. But Dinkelspiel believes too deeply in those veins of generosity and community that carry the wine industry from vintage to vintage. She closes on a personal note, recounting how she persuaded the legendary American master sommelier Fred Dame to taste a bottle of her great-great-grandfather’s Port. Dame was heading overseas and said he had no time to meet. The author was relentless and Dame eventually conceded a small window just before his departure. The expert’s impatient, all-business demeanor faded away in the glow of the elderly wine, which Dame described as phenomenal. He said that it was his honor to share the wine with Hellman’s descendent, and insisted that there was plenty of life left in the nearly 140-year-old port.
In that moment, Dinkelspiel’s quest came full circle, her investigation to find out “why is wine so special? What drives people to become fascinated by it?” finally bore fruit. The answer, of course, had nothing to with money and everything to do with wine’s power to bring people together, to foster relationships, to build and nurture community. And, yes, even to slow down time. There is no arguing that the world of wine is peopled with rogues and frauds and felons. The author’s unblinking examination of California history makes that clear. But, in the end, it is not malfeasance and the lust for economic power that animates the world of wine. It is, simply, the wine itself.
Frances Dinkelspiel will be talking about Tangled Vines at an event co-sponsored by Litquake and Berkeleyside Nosh on Sunday, Oct. 11, at 5 p.m. at La Botella Republic at 2055 Center St. (at Shattuck) in Berkeley. She will also appear at Mrs. Dalloway’s Books at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 14. For more events and information, check out her website.
Editor’s note: Berkeleyside co-founder Frances Dinkelspiel’s new book, Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California, will be published Tuesday Oct. 6. This review was pitched to Berkeleyside, and written independently, by freelance wine writer Thomas Riley. Berkeleyside had no influence over Riley’s opinion.
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