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

An excerpt from the new book by Frances Dinkelspiel who will be appearing at Litquake on Oct. 11, Mrs. Dalloway’s Books on Oct. 14, the Uncharted: Berkeley Festival of Ideas on Oct. 17 and throughout California in the coming month. Full list of events here.

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.

Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives

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.

Tangled bottles

Only a few bottles of Isaias Hellman’s 1875 Port and Angelica remain after 175 bottles were destroyed in the warehouse fire. (Photo courtesy of the author

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.

tangled vines coverChapter Eleven – Wine Fraud

In then dark evening hours of November 28, 2013, at a time when most Seattle residents were just finishing their Thanksgiving dinners of roast turkey and stuffing, two men drove a large black SUV and huge van up to a warehouse on the city’s south side.

The men smashed the locks on the door leading into the cavernous room and made their way to a small utility closet in the rear of the building. They pulled out some tools and cut through the sheetrock. When they broke through the wall, they had gained entry into Esquin Wine & Spirits, one of Seattle’s leading wine retailers and home to thousands of bottles of fine wine.

The burglars ignored Esquin’s retail inventory of wine from Washington state and vineyards around the globe. Instead, they headed into a private wine storage area in the basement, where dozens of temperature-controlled wooden lockers lined the room. Then they acted with the precision of characters in a Mission Impossible movie.

The two men had visited the wine storage room right at closing time the night before. While the staff wasn’t watching, the men had thrown plastic bags over the motion detectors of the alarm system. Then they spray painted the lenses of the surveillance cameras.

So when the men broke into the storage area on Thanksgiving night, their movements were invisible. They were not afraid of getting caught. They went to work and methodically emptied the area of some of its most precious contents. They unscrewed the doors of storage lockers they had previously identified as containing valuable wine. They removed dozens of wooden boxes, which they transferred to a black Cadillac SUV waiting outside.

Over the next fifteen hours, the two men made nine trips in and out of the Esquin storage room. They whisked away two hundred cases of wine worth an estimated $650,000.

The thieves were not done yet. They needed to cover their tracks. So they punched numerous small holes in the gas lines of the adjacent warehouse. Then they ignited the gas coming out of a kerosene heater mounted near the ceiling, forming an impromptu pilot light. The men hoped that once the leaking gas filled the space, the pilot light would ignite, causing a huge fire that would destroy all evidence. Then the men departed into the early morning light, as silently as they had arrived.

The gas leaked into the warehouse space for hours, but for some miraculous reason, the flames never ignited the gas lines. Around 11:30 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 29, the owner of Esquin came to work and smelled gas. He rushed to the building’s turn-off valve and stopped the gas at its source. He then alerted the police.

The theft from Esquin’s storage lockers, with its cloak and dagger techniques, was dramatic, but in no way unique. Wine theft is fairly common. Wine may not be as valuable as diamonds or gold nuggets, but some bottles are worth thousands of dollars, even tens of thousands of dollars. Wine is anonymous, too, since producers make many bottles of each vintage. The rise of the Internet and the proliferation of websites selling or buying wine make purloined wine fairly easy to get rid of.

Wine storage facilities are natural targets. Many collectors park wine in the temperature-controlled lockers and don’t check their collections regularly. Often a collector doesn’t notice a theft until long after a thief has sold his wine to an unsuspecting buyer.

That’s what happened in a wine storage warehouse in the Orange County city of Irvine. Legend Cellars was located in an innocuous business park in the Southern California city, but had a reputation for good service. Scott Osumi owned the business, and his father, George, managed it. Wine collectors could rent lockers that held as few as eight cases of wine or as many as two hundred and fifty cases. Rents ranged from $325 to $2,750 a year. One of the business’ selling points was that the 15,000 square foot facility was monitored by video cameras twenty-four hours a day.*

Since George Osumi managed Legend Cellars, he often helped new clients move into their lockers or assisted them when they brought in more cases. That gave him the chance to scope out who had rare and expensive wines and who only visited the place irregularly. That knowledge proved too valuable for Osumi to resist.

Osumi had two ways of stealing wine: by stealth, or out in the open. Sometimes at night he entered the warehouse wearing latex gloves. He had hired a locksmith to make keys that fit the padlocks on some of the locker doors. Osumi would enter, his gloves covering up his fingerprints, and break open wooden wine storage boxes. He would remove expensive bottles of French and California wine, replacing them with cheap bottles. Then he would nail up the boxes and place them back exactly as he found them. On other occasions, Osumi would order subordinates to enter the lockers and remove wine.

Over a five-year period from 2008 to 2012, Osumi stole about $2.7 million in wine, including bottles from a friend who had recently died. He stole 1,200 bottles from another collector. Osumi then asked his girlfriend to approach the Belmont Wine Exchange near the San Francisco airport and consign wines through them. She sold about $280,000 of wine during a one-month period in 2008. Osumi gave her a portion of the sales. Police later determined that neither she nor the store knew the wine had been stolen. Osumi also sold wine over the Internet. He pocketed close to $311,000.

Osumi was caught after a client of Legend Cellars noticed that his wooden box that was supposed to contain six bottles of white wine from Domaine Leflaive, worth about $370 each, had been replaced with bottles of Chardonnay worth $6 each. He went to the police. A jury found Osumi, 64, guilty of theft in 2013. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

There’s a pattern to many wine thefts. In May 2011, six thieves broke into an east London wine storage facility in Bethnal Green, disabled the alarm and CCTV cameras and then used a forklift to place about four hundred cases of vintage wine on a pallet. They then carted the wine, worth an estimated $1.63 million dollars, away in two white vans and a brown truck. They have never been caught.

There are no firm numbers on how much wine has been stolen in recent years, but the numbers certainly reach into the millions of dollars. It’s a difficult crime to track, as criminals often sell the stolen goods online case by case or bottle by bottle. Unlike art or antiquities, there is no centralized registry for stolen wine, making it difficult to connect any specific bottle to one that is missing.

A thief has numerous ways to get rid of stolen wine. He or she can put it up for sale on websites like EBay, Craigslist, or Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce site. He can approach a wine broker who buys old cellars or collections and sells them to wine stores. Or he can approach any one of a number of wine retailers who sell their products over the Internet. Some restaurants have been known to buy stolen wine sold to them for much less than the wholesale price, which suggests they may realize they are buying stolen goods.

In turn, there often is little scrutiny of the wines offered for sale or consignment. Few retail stores or brokers expect sellers to have receipts for their wine, particularly older vintages. They assume that the wine was purchased long ago, has sat for a decade or more in a cellar, and the receipts are lost. This courteous attitude may reflect the gentlemanly origins of wine collecting, when it was an avocation of just an elite few. There is camaraderie between those who revere wine, a brotherhood, and a sense that too much crass commercialism and scrutiny of a wine buyer taints the process. When I called numerous merchants around the country to ask about this dark side of wine, few were willing to talk about the underbelly of the wine world. None wanted their names attached to their remarks. “We don’t want any bad publicity,” one said.

Wine merchants do try and check to see if a seller is legitimate, but they rarely delve deeply into someone’s background. One retailer told me he Googles the name of any potential seller, and if there is any whiff of wrongdoing he immediately aborts the sale. But if nothing turns up, he makes the sale. Another online retailer who deals in expensive French, Italian, and California wines asks potential sellers for photos of their cellars or refrigerated spaces. On occasion, he will visit. To cut down on the possibility of buying stolen wine (which has happened, he confessed) he won’t pay cash for wine. He will only pay by check to establish a paper trail. And the retailer won’t buy any wines older than twenty years in order to minimize the possibility that they may be fake. (There is no financial incentive to create fraudulent bottles of new wine, he said.)

When Anderson approached various wine houses around the Bay Area to see if they would be interested in purchasing wine, none of them asked for proof that he owned the bottles. All Anderson did – and all that was required – was offer verbal assurance that he had the legal right to sell the wine. It was not until years later, after newspaper articles appeared detailing Anderson’s crimes that the wine merchants cut off relations with him. Even then, Anderson managed to circumvent the obstacles and sell wine under a fake name.

Given this lack of scrutiny and how difficult it is to track down stolen wine over the Internet, happenstance can play a large role in catching criminals.

* Christopher Early, “The $2.7 million Wine Heist,” Orange County Register, November 27, 2013

Horizontal RuleExcerpted from Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California by Frances Dinkelspiel. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

In 1893, in one of many attempts to elevate the reputation of California wine, four wine merchants created the “Big Tree Wine” exhibit for the Chicago Columbia Exposition. A statue of “Viticulture,” along with one of a Franciscan friar and an Indian woman holding a basket of grapes, stood in front of a forty-foot-tall, hollow replica of a redwood tree. Inside fair revelers could marvel at the displays of wine. But fair management corruption made it difficult to actually drink the California wine.

In 1893, in one of many attempts to elevate the reputation of California wine, four wine merchants created the “Big Tree Wine” exhibit for the Chicago Columbia Exposition. A statue of “Viticulture,” along with one of a Franciscan friar and an Indian woman holding a basket of grapes, stood in front of a forty-foot-tall, hollow replica of a redwood tree. Inside fair revelers could marvel at the displays of wine. But fair management corruption made it difficult to actually drink the California wine.

Horizontal RuleWe urge you to purchase Tangled Vines at your local bookseller but if that is not possible it is available via our affiliate accounts with Indiebound or Amazon.

For an Q&A with author Frances Dinkelspiel visit her web site.

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Photo by Nathan Phillips

Photo by Nathan Phillips

Frances Dinkelspiel is an award-winning author and journalist. Her first book was the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California. The San Francisco Chronicle and the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association both named it a Best Book of the Year. 

A graduate of Stanford University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Frances started her reporting career at the Syracuse Newspapers in upstate New York and later moved to the San Jose Mercury News. Her freelance articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, People Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Magazine, and elsewhere.

In 2009, after watching newspapers decimate their local reporting staffs, Frances co-founded Berkeleyside, a news site about Berkeley, CA. In 2013, Frances and her partners created Nosh, a site about the food scene in the East Bay.

Frances is an accomplished speaker and has appeared in a number of television shows and documentaries.

In 2013, Frances received a Hess Winery Fellowship to attend the Napa Valley Wine Writers Symposium and has taught at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She currently serves on the board of Litquake after serving on other.

Frances is a fifth-generation California who was born in San Francisco. She now lives in Berkeley with her husband, Gary Wayne, who works in the solar energy business. She has two adult daughters.

 

 

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