Berkeley man at center of new book, ‘Tangled Vines’

Mark Anderson at the Marin County courthouse, where he faced charges that he embezzled $1.1 million worth of wine from his clients. Anderson, a Berkeley native, later set a fire at a wine storehouse to cover his tracks. Photo: Marin Independent Journal
Mark Anderson at the Marin County courthouse, where he faced charges that he embezzled $1.1 million worth of wine from his clients. Anderson, a Berkeley native, later set a fire at a wine storehouse in an attempt to cover his tracks. Photo: courtesy Jeff Vendsel/Marin Independent Journal

Today marks the publication of Berkeleyside co-founder Frances Dinkelspiel’s new book, Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California. (See our critic’s review.) Its central character is Mark Anderson who was born in Berkeley in 1948 and who attended John Muir Elementary School. Anderson’s childhood haunts will be familiar to many long-time residents: he loved to slide down the circular exterior fire escapes at the Claremont Hotel, he put pennies on the trolley tracks that went down Claremont Avenue, and he snuck through the tunnel that went from school to the cluster of stores on Domingo Avenue.

“The Pappas family ran the Star Grocery and Sam and Quentin ran the Northgate Pharmacy next door,” Anderson recalled in one of a series of letters he wrote Dinkelspiel from the Sacramento County Jail. “Mrs. Dinwiddie’s Dress Shop had wooden mannequins in the store window that were an ideal target for a five-year-old terrorist, who could visualize their wooden ‘body parts’ strewn all over the display, at any cost.”

The 240,000-square foot Wines Central warehouse was destroyed in the 2005 arson fire. Around 4.5 million bottles of wine worth $250 million were ruined. Photo: ATF
The 240,000-square-foot Wines Central warehouse was destroyed in the 2005 arson fire. Around 4.5 million bottles of wine worth $250 million were ruined. Photo: ATF

Anderson’s childhood may have been idyllic, but he grew up to live a dark adulthood. Anderson is now serving a 27-year sentence in federal prison for setting a fire in 2005 in a wine storage warehouse in Vallejo. The inferno destroyed 4.5 million bottles of wine worth $250 million, making it the most destructive wine crime in history.

Among the bottles destroyed were 175 bottles of Port and Angelica mad ein 1875 by Dinkelspiel’s great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman (subject of her first book, Towers of Gold). The grapes used for the wine came from a vineyard in Rancho Cucamonga in southern California that had first been planted in 1839, making it one of the oldest vineyards in California.


Tangled Vines 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.

Frances Dinkelspiel with a copy of Tanged Vines, published today. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Frances Dinkelspiel with a copy of Tangled Vines, published today. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Here is an section from the beginning of Tangled Vines. Click below to read more.

A Fire is Set

The three hundred pound man dressed in black walked slowly up the steps to the mezzanine area of the cavernous wine warehouse, pausing to rest on a cane when his breath grew short. It was a warm fall afternoon in October 2005, right in the middle of the grape harvest, and the black sweatpants and t-shirt that were the man’s signature look clung damply to his heavy frame.

As he hobbled down the hallway leading to his storage locker, the man could look down onto the main floor of Wines Central, which was packed with millions of bottles of California’s finest wines. Pallets stacked forty feet high stretched the length of two football fields, with wine as varied as that from Beaulieu Vineyards, one of state’s oldest wineries, to cases from boutique wineries like the one owned by Italian racecar driver, Mario Andretti.

The man, however, did not pause to consider the vast array of wine below him. He was in a hurry. And he was angry. He regarded this enormous warehouse in Vallejo, fifteen miles south of Napa, to be his domain. But he was soon to be an outcast.

The man stopped in front of Bay 14, a 2,500 square foot area he had been renting for the previous eighteen months. The space had once been filled with wines from the great houses of Burgundy and Bordeaux, as well as from the cult wineries of California like Sine Qua Non and Harlan Estate. But now it was almost empty. Wooden pallets perched haphazardly on the floor. Cardboard boxes and Styrofoam inserts stacked twenty feet high leaned against a chain link fence. Just 4,700 bottles, seven pallets of shrink-wrapped wine, remained, a bitter reminder of how the man’s wine business had fallen apart during the previous year. While he had once been sought out for his knowledge of wine, asked to join boards and commissions, and invited to Bacchanalian feasts around the world featuring gourmet food and rare vintages, the man was now a pariah, ignored by his long time friends and under investigation from police.

The mezzanine was quiet, the sound dampened by the three-foot-thick concrete walls that had been constructed to hold Navy munitions. The man wiped his sweaty brow and took a final look around. The area was empty. He unlocked the gate into his storage area and went inside. There was no one to see him reach into his canvas bag and bring out a plastic bucket filled with gasoline-soaked rags. He removed a blue propane torch and pulled its trigger, sending a small flame surging from the brass tip. The man held the torch up against a piece of cloth until a flame took hold.

Continue reading …

Related:
Tangled Vines: A “stunning” look at the dark side of wine (1o.05.15)
Arsonist sentenced for destroying $100 million worth of wine (02.o7.12)
Does anyone remember this Berkeley native? (11.16.09)

Join Frances Dinkelspiel at a joint Litquake/Berkeleyside Nosh book reading event on Sunday Oct. 11 at 5:00 p.m. at La Botella Republic wine bar, 2055 Center St. (at Shattuck) in downtown Berkeley. She will also be at Mrs. Dalloway’s Books on Wednesday Oct. 14 at 7:3o p.m.