Where There’s a Swill, There’s a Way

Can’t af­ford a $4,000 bot­tle of 1982 Château Lafite-roth­schild Pauil­lac? Then steal a case, or make your own. You aren’t likely to get caught

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MARE IS­LAND would make a fine set for a zom­bie flick. A for­mer mil­i­tary base in Vallejo, Cal­i­for­nia, that pre­dates the Civil War, it once housed the com­po­nents for Lit­tle Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. When the Navy de­camped in 1996, it left be­hind a ghost city of empty con­crete bar­racks. Some of the build­ings have been re­claimed by busi­nesses that need square footage more than foot traf­fic— an earth­quake pro­tec­tion firm, a brew­ery—and though there are peo­ple work­ing on the is­land, you never really see them, which only height­ens the per­vad­ing un­ease.

In 2002, a new ten­ant ar­rived in Build­ing 627, the sand-col­ored ware­house that once housed the nu­clear pay­load. Wines Cen­tral hoped to take ad­van­tage of Vallejo’s lo­ca­tion, near the base of grape-rich Napa Val­ley but also close to San Francisco and Sacra­mento.

As Frances Dinkel­spiel writes in her new book, Tan­gled Vines, one of the pa­trons of Wines Cen­tral was a cor­pu­lent bon vi­vant named Mark C. An­der­son, who stored some 5,600 cases of wine in Build­ing 627. An­der­son was the pro­pri­etor of Sausal­ito Cel­lars, in the tony sea­side vil­lage at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, where he lived in a house­boat. He wrote for a lo­cal pa­per and gen­er­ally gave the sense that he was one of the many “es­tate ba­bies” liv­ing the easy life in Marin County. But af­ter a while, An­der­son could no longer pay the Sausal­ito com­mer­cial rents; Mare Is­land would be cheaper. So in 2004 he moved the cases to Wines Cen­tral, with­out telling the wealthy col­lec­tors, restau­ra­teurs and

vint­ners who were his clients.

There was an­other thing his clients didn’t know: An­der­son had been steal­ing from them for years. There are sev­eral va­ri­eties of wine crime, but the one in which An­der­son en­gaged was about as brazen as yank­ing a glass of pinot out of an ea­ger drinker’s hand: He sim­ply pulled ex­pen­sive bot­tles from their col­lec­tions and sold them, bet­ting that peo­ple with vast stores of ex­pen­sive wine would not no­tice if just a bit of it dis­ap­peared.

In late 2003, a Sausal­ito Cel­lars client de­cided he wanted his wine back. Sa­muel Maslak had been pay­ing An­der­son $600 a month to store 756 cases of wine from a restau­rant of his that had failed. Hop­ing to auc­tion his wines at Christie’s, he sent a mover to re­trieve the wine from Sausal­ito Cel­lars. The mover in­formed Maslak there were only 144 cases of wine, lead­ing to ques­tions about what hap­pened to the other 612, ques­tions that An­der­son an­swered with im­plau- sible ex­cuses. An­other col­lec­tor, Ron Lussier, had en­trusted An­der­son with valu­able bot­tles from Stags’ Leap, the leg­endary Napa vine­yard whose caber­net tri­umphed in the 1976 “Judg­ment of Paris,” the oeno­log­i­cal version of a Rocky Bal­boa vic­tory. In­side one of the cases he’d en­trusted to An­der­son were bot­tles of Trader Joe’s “TwoBuck Chuck.” The miss­ing bot­tles of Stags’ Leap had been val­ued at $650 each.

Law en­force­ment was clos­ing in too. A dis­trict at­tor­ney in Marin County filed em­bez­zle­ment charges in Fe­bru­ary 2004, then added more charges in De­cem­ber. The fol­low­ing April, both lo­cal po­lice and the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice raided An­der­son’s home. In­side they found books like The Mod­ern Iden­tity Changer and Hide Your As­sets and Dis­ap­pear: A Step-by-step Guide to Van­ish­ing With­out a Trace. In June 2005, Wines Cen­tral told An­der­son to take his wine else­where.

On Oc­to­ber 12, An­der­son ar­rived at Wines

Cen­tral, pre­sum­ably to clear out his stor­age space. With him he car­ried a blow­torch and rags soaked in gaso­line. The fire burned for eight hours, de­stroy­ing about $250 mil­lion worth of wine. The fire was in­tended to mask the ev­i­dence of his theft, but it was also a cruel strike against all those who had the so­phis­ti­ca­tion, and the wealth, An­der­son had long en­vied. “It’s re­mark­able,” Dinkel­spiel writes, “how lit­tle it takes to ruin 4.5 mil­lion bot­tles of wine.”

Named af­ter Napa’s first white set­tler, Yountville has a down­town that looks like an er­satz Mediter­ranean vil­lage. Tourists am­ble from tast­ing room to tast­ing room, re­mind­ing them­selves to swirl and smell. Or they head out on the Sil­ver­ado Trail, whose un­du­la­tions goad you into an ir­re­sistible com­par­i­son with Tus­cany.

Un­til the 1960s, Napa was “an agri­cul­tural back­wa­ter given over to prune and wal­nut trees, pas­tures and some vines,” James Con­away writes in his history of the re­gion. Santa Clara was a sleepy col­lec­tion of or­chards too, but then an am­bi­tious new breed of crafts­men set­tled the South Bay towns of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. In­stead of bot­tling zin­fan­dels, th­ese rene­gades etched semi­con­duc­tors. To­day, some of the vast wealth of Sil­i­con Val­ley, as Santa Clara is now uni­ver­sally known, flows north, over the Golden Gate Bridge, into the vine­yards of Napa and Sonoma. Worth mag­a­zine re­cently noted that “many of the best wines” in Cal­i­for­nia “were built with hand­some prof­its from Sil­i­con Val­ley ven­tures.”

But if only Sil­i­con Val­ley code cow­boys were pro­duc­ing and drink­ing Rus­sian River pinot noirs, the Cal­i­for­nia wine in­dus­try wouldn’t be the $24.6 bil­lion be­he­moth it is to­day. In 2014 the United States be­came the top wine con­sumer in the world, and the wine mar­ket has be­come phe­nom­e­nally demo­cratic—you can pay thou­sands of dol­lars for a cov­eted Scream­ing Ea­gle caber­net, but you can buy a 2013 Ken­dall-jackson Vint­ner’s Re­serve Chardon­nay, rated 91 by Wine En­thu­si­ast, for $15.99. All you need to be a wine snob to­day is a 20-dol­lar bill.

With so much money, cu­rios­ity and envy tied up in the wine busi­ness, it’s easy to see why the greedy and the un­scrupu­lous have taken to wine. Some, like An­der­son, re­sorted to theft, fig­ur­ing that with 31.4 bil­lion bot­tles of wine swap­ping hands each year, no­body will miss a few prized cases that fell off the truck. Far more lu­cra­tive than theft is fraud, the pass­ing off of cheap wine as ex­pen­sive stuff. It’s art forgery in a bot­tle, ex­cept that a fake paint­ing is prob­a­bly eas­ier to sniff out than a fake Bordeaux chardon­nay. An un­opened bot­tle of wine is dif­fi­cult to au­then­ti­cate, since corks and la­bels can eas­ily be faked, es­pe­cially for older wines. You can try to ver­ify by taste, but open­ing a bot­tle im­me­di­ately ab­ro­gates any value out­side your mem­ory of the sen­sa­tion. Even then, you don’t really know what you’re drink­ing. “No­body in the world, no­body, is able to au­then­ti­cate via taste,” wine fraud ex­pert Mau­reen Downey re­cently told NPR.

In 2007, a Ger­man wine dealer named Hardy Ro­den­stock be­came in­fa­mous af­ter it was con­vinc­ingly al­leged, in a law­suit filed by Wil­liam I. Koch, that he had passed off bot­tles of wine he’d mixed as hav­ing be­longed to Thomas Jef­fer­son. Koch, a prom­i­nent wine col­lec­tor and a mem­ber of the much-reviled po­lit­i­cal clan, came to re­al­ize that many of the wines in his cel­lar were proba- bly fake. He told The New Yorker in 2007, “When I get fin­ished go­ing through all the wine in my col­lec­tion, I’m go­ing af­ter all the peo­ple who sold it to me. The re­tail­ers, they know they’re do­ing it. They’re com­plicit.”

Koch also sued Rudy Kur­ni­awan, a Los An­ge­les dealer who per­pe­trated what Van­ity Fair called “the largest known ‘wine’ fraud in history.” One merchant called him a “gen­tle­man thief,” and Kur­ni­awan struck a plan­gent note as prison loomed: “I thought th­ese peo­ple were my friends, and I wanted to be ac­cepted in their world.”

To fake a great wine takes a great palate, as well as great in­ge­nu­ity. What An­der­son did is more crude. Last Christ­mas, some­one stole 76 bot­tles of wine worth a to­tal of $300,000 from the French Laun­dry, the Yountville restau­rant some­times called the best in Amer­ica. The wine was later found in North Carolina. Ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg Busi­ness­week, the thieves had likely been af­ter Do­maine de la Ro­manée-conti, a

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