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
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