Dinkelspiel dips into the dark side of wine history in 'Tangled Vines'
By Lou Fancher
The ugly underbelly of California's exalted wine industry is laid bare in Frances Dinkelspiel's gripping "Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California" (St. Martin's Press, $26.99, 320 pages). Anchored on an incredible crime, the award-winning journalist's story is a page-turner.
On Oct. 12, 2005, at the Wine Central warehouse in Vallejo, oenophile Mark Anderson set a massive fire that destroyed 4.5 million bottles of precious wine worth $250 million. Among the exploding, shrink-wrapped bottles of wine cooked by flames in the former Navy bunker warehouse were 175 bottles of 19th-century port made by Isaias Hellman, the author's great-great grandfather and the subject of her first book, "Towers of Gold." Having "skin in the game" drove Dinkelspiel to a yearslong investigation of the crime that uncovered revelations about her ancestor's complex history with a simple liquid made from grapes.
An assignment to write about Anderson's trial for the New York Times led the Berkeley writer to phone conversations with Anderson, a jail visit with the clever-but-crooked narcissist and dozens of letters he sent over a three-year span. Intrigued by his charisma, she was nonetheless struck by the colossal effect of his embezzlement, a cover-up crime that killed no one but slaughtered the dreams of nearly 100 wine connoisseurs and destroyed cherished wine libraries. The contrast unlocked her inner investigator. Dinkelspiel interviewed Anderson's acquaintances and former employees, government representatives, winemakers and industry experts and pored through library and digital archives as she traced her family's connection to the industry.
Within the historical references, she discovered nearly two centuries of deception, betrayal, murder and more. Dinkelspiel realized she had the makings of a book.
A San Francisco native raised primarily by her mother but haunted by a desire to connect with her father -- Dinkelspiel's parents divorced when she was a toddler, and her father died when she was 16 -- she sold the book proposal without the family history.
"I was denying the connection I had to the story. It was purely Anderson's crime," she says. "Eventually, I realized I had to put myself in as the connective tissue."
Along with the realization came structure, an element defining Dinkelspiel's reading and writing habits. When she was a child, Laura Ingalls Wilder's historically realistic "Little House" books were clear favorites. "I was the girl under the covers with the flashlight at night, reading them over and over," she says.
A graduate of Stanford University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Dinkelspiel reported for newspapers including the San Jose Mercury News and freelanced for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, People and other publications. "I write all the time," Dinkelspiel says. "I get up early, have coffee, read newspapers, go to the computer."
Writing a book is different from journalistic writing, she says. "You have to find a story that makes a
cohesive whole. You have to create a description of a place to which you may never go. It's slower and more considered."
She found writing about a "devastating, callous act" like Anderson's oddly alluring -- her literary equivalent of people's tendency to gawk at terrible things, she says, laughing.
Dark surprises are part of the attraction in the book: Franciscan fathers, California's earliest winemakers, brazenly exploited Native American workers; the California Wine Association was a bullying monopoly whose domination ended with Prohibition; and during the decades it took to build what is today an estimated $24 billion industry, people died or were cheated out of legacies -- so Anderson's arson is hardly the sole tragedy in wine history.
Dinkelspiel says that unlike him, however, many wine connoisseurs are just people with an intellectual passion for history, drawn together by a mutual appreciation of drinking wine. "In competitive fields, you sit down together, and it breaks down boundaries," she says.
Writing about the moment she finally opened the one bottle of Hellman's 1875 port she owned, Dinkelspiel relinquishes her reporter's guard: "Almost immediately, a sweet aphrodisiacal scent filled the air. I was standing about four feet away from the bottle, yet I could smell the port's fumes. The aroma, cooped up inside a bottle for ninety-three years, rushed out."
Clearly, Dinkelspiel's pleasure lies not only in having written an exposé, but in having found a missing piece of her family puzzle. "I love that I was able to trace the planting of the grapes all the way to the destruction of the wine. I got pleasure from writing this story: the life and death of a bottle of wine."
Anderson was convicted in February 2012 and sentenced to 27 years in prison. Dinkelspiel wonders if she should write to tell him about the book. "I'm sure he won't be happy," she predicts.