Friday, February 16, 2018

Wine Book Review: Tangled Vines - Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California

If the title doesn’t make it clear, this is a great beach read. Author Frances Dinkelspiel digs deep into California wine history, her own past, and a series of wine-related misdoings to tell a tale that is fascinating, educational, and a whole lot of fun. Wine neophytes and oenophiles alike should find something interesting in “Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California.”
Dinkespiel uses the infamous 2005 arson fire at Wines Central warehouse in Vallejo, California, as a launching bad to explore other (somewhat connected) nefarious, wine-related events. That fire, deliberately set by wine collector and swindler Mark Anderson, destroyed some 4 million bottles of wine worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars. Almost 100 wine producers had stored their wines there, and some lost entire vintages.

Destroyed in that fire were some of the only remaining bottles (175 of them) of fortified wine from an historic Rancho Cucamonga estate that dates back to 1875. This Southern California vineyard is connected to the author (and the 2005 arson) because the wines were made by Isaias Hellman, the author’s great-great grandfather. 

At first, I thought the connection between the fire and the Rancho Cucamonga estate was tenuous, and I was skeptical of the author’s ability to tie these two elements together in a convincing way. Well, Dinkelspiel pieces together history and recent events expertly, and her knack for recreating historical occurrences is impressive.

The estate at the focus of the book, located 40 miles east of Los Angeles, was one of the most storied vineyards in California in the mid-1800s. And the fortified wine made here, and passed down through the generations, connects the author to her family past and the roots of the California wine industry. When many bottle’s her family’s Rancho Cucamonga wine was destroyed in the arson fire Dinkelspiel decided to explore what the ranch was like back in her great-great grandfather’s time. “To me, the loss of the wine felt like the severing of my past, something I had been trying to grab onto for as long as I could remember,” she writes.

Wine and history nerds will find all sorts of interesting information in Dinkelspiel’s book. For example, I had no idea that Los Angeles was the center of the wine trade in the 1840s. The Gold Rush brought a massive boom to the state’s vineyard acreage, which jumped from about 300,000 grapevines in 1855 to some 6 million in 1859, according to Dinkelspiel’s research. This also brought a shift in regional focus, as more and more vines were planted in Northern California.

I was also not fully aware of the history of brutality against Native Americans that is intertwined with the California wine industry. For example: “When California became a state in 1850, it immediately legalized a practice of short-term indentured servitude for Native Americans, a practice of which winemakers took advantage. One of the first acts passed by the California Legislature was a law nicknamed the Indian Indenture Act. It stripped Native Americans of most of their rights, including the right to vote or testify against whites in court.”

I won’t go into the full details of Mark Anderson’s arson fire at the wine warehouse in Vallejo, because the author does such a great job delving into the intricacies of this bizarre event. But she tells the story well, after interviewing him in prison and corresponding with him extensively.

Sure this is a “wine book,” but I think it would appeal to a far wider audience — those interested in history, true crime, California in general. I devoured the book in a day and a half and highly recommend it.

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