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About the Author
FRANCES DINKELSPIEL is an award-winning journalist and the author of Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California. Towers of Gold was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and named a Best Book of the Year by the Chronicle and the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. She is the co-founder of the news site Berkeleyside and her work has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, People, San Francisco Magazine, and other venues. She lives in Berkeley, California.
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Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California
By Frances Dinkelspiel
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Frances Dinkelspiel
All rights reserved.
THE MYSTERY OF WINE
The aerial acrobat was dangling from a silky, sea-green rope attached to the ceiling. She wrapped one portion around her foot, used that as an anchor, and slowly turned upside down, arching her back as she slipped down the rope, the better to show off her gold lamé leotard and elbow-length fingerless black satin gloves. Grasping the rope with one hand and a bottle of Raymond Vineyards Chardonnay with the other, she carefully poured wine into the glasses lifted toward her. She didn't spill a drop.
It was the night before the seventeenth Premiere Napa Valley, the annual auction in February that lures big wine retailers, auction houses, and a select number of the very rich to the Napa Valley. The place to be that evening was at the party thrown by Jean-Charles Boisset, a smooth talking, sexy upstart French winemaker who paid no attention to the convention that the California wine lifestyle was laid back and tasteful. Boisset liked big, he liked brash, he liked red. The main room in his Raymond Vineyards winery off the Silverado Trail is called The Red Room, and it is decorated like a fin de siècle French bordello, with stuffed red velvet settees, red velvet walls, leopard-print rugs, crystal chandeliers, and pictures of a scantily clad Marilyn Monroe scattered around. Boisset's Crystal Cellars, where thousands of gallons of wine ferment in enormous stainless steel tanks, is probably the only winery in northern California equipped with a Baccarat crystal chandelier and theatrical lights that can flicker between red, blue, and yellow.
When Boisset first came to the Napa Valley, the scion of a successful French winemaker, and started a buying spree that netted him Raymond Vineyards and the historic Buena Vista Winery, many old-timers rolled their eyes in dismay. But disdain eventually turned to respect. Boisset, who dresses in Tom Ford suits and Louboutin shoes, married Gina Gallo, an heir to E. & J. Gallo, the world's largest wine company. The couple moved with their twin daughters into the hilltop home built by Robert Mondavi for his wife, Magritte, as if to declare that they were the new generation. Boisset then devoted himself to putting the fun back into wine with over-the-top gatherings that included erotic dancers and models bathing in tubs of chocolate. No one could discount Boisset's financial success or ignore the fact that he seemed like a genuinely sweet guy who loved nothing more than throwing a great party.
When I walked into the fête, Boisset was standing by a table covered with colorful feather masks. He greeted me — and everyone else — with kisses on the cheeks as if we were old friends, then encouraged us to disguise ourselves with masks and get our pictures taken. He even jumped into some of the photos. It was classic Boisset — fun and frivolous, with a hint of naughty.
I took a mask and walked slowly through the winery, feasting on a huge spread of shrimp and oysters in one room and cheese, bread, and olives in another room. The Asian buffet was next, and I piled pot stickers, egg rolls, and stir-fried noodles on my plate. My wineglass was never empty, as passing waiters regularly topped it off with a Raymond Vineyards white. I could have had his JCB Champagne made from Burgundian grapes or a nice Cabernet if I had preferred.
All around me the music blared. People were laughing and joking. In the crush of guests and behind the anonymity of the feathered masks, some revelers were tossing aside their inhibitions and openly rubbing against each other. Napa Valley, usually known for its tasteful wineries disguised as rustic barns, its rows of green grapevines under bright blue skies, its olive trees, rosemary bushes, and lavender plants, was the location that night for a party that better resembled a nightclub at a racy Club Med than a dignified occasion for sniffing and swirling.
The lubricant, of course, was wine.
* * *
The first recorded mention of wine is in the Bible, which said that one of the first things Noah did after surviving the flood was to plant a vineyard. "And he drank of the wine, and was drunken." The Greeks and the Romans both had wine gods, one called Dionysus, the other Bacchus. Their civilizations celebrated wine at every opportunity, from the planting of the grapes, to the harvest, to drinking until debauched. Wine was so central to the Roman Empire that its leaders believed that everyone, not just the elite, deserved to drink it daily.
The American relationship to wine is more complex. For much of this country's history, people have preferred cider or beer. Early efforts by California winemakers to convince those living on the East Coast that their wine was as good as that of Europe were ignored, at best, or openly scorned. Wine was largely the drink of the wealthy until the 1880s, when a flood of immigrants from France, Spain, and Italy came to the United States. They regarded wine as an everyday beverage, not something limited to special occasions. Consumption picked up, as did wine quality, but those advances were wiped away with Prohibition. It was not until the late 1960s, when men like Robert Mondavi began to promote a lifestyle that included drinking wine and eating good food that wine made deep inroads into the American psyche. First Americans turned to jug wine, those ubiquitous glass gallons labeled "Chianti" or "Burgundy." Then came the switch to 750-milliliter bottles and a rush to drink the slightly sweet Sutter Home white Zinfandel. Then wine moved on to supermarket shelves and Costco. Now the United States is the largest wine consuming country in the world, drinking 13 percent of all the wine produced globally in 2013.
Most people who drink wine reach for bottles that cost less than ten dollars. But there is a smaller, yet influential, group that regards wine as more than just a beverage. Those people think of it as an elixir, something that changes feeling and mood. "Wine can be a portal into the mystic," wrote wine importer Terry Theise. Just as grapes are transformed into wine through fermentation, people are transformed by wine. It warms our bodies as we sip it. It cheers us up. A bottle shared around a dinner can enhance friendships. Taken to the extreme, wine can loosen tongues to let out long- suppressed truths.
For some people, wine is an intellectual journey. The more they drink, the more they want to know — about the grapes used, the place they came from, the vineyard's history, the winemaker's thoughts when blending a wine. They may develop an affinity for a particular varietal or winery. In time, that can evolve into an urgent need, an obsession of sorts. Those who are fanatical hunt down elusive vintages of Domaine de la Romanée Conti or Château Cheval Blanc, two highly regarded French wines. They join waiting lists of the so-called "cult" wineries, like Screaming Eagle, Harlan, or Sine Qua Non in California and patiently wait for years, even decades, until their first allocation. They scour retail stores for rare bottles. They join wine bulletin boards to exchange tasting notes. Then there are the collectors, often extremely rich men who own tens of thousands of bottles, more wine than they can possibly drink in their lifetime.
These oenophiles are fascinated with wine because they see it as a living, breathing thing, a beverage that evolves with age. If you pour wine into a glass it will taste different in an hour and even more different at the end of the evening. If you store it in a cellar, in ten years it will have a completely different character than it does today. Nothing changes like wine.
Matt Kramer, a wine writer, tried to explain in a 2013 article in the Wine Spectator magazine why wine enriches life. "Why should you care about fine wine?" Kramer wrote. "The answer is surprisingly simple: Fine wine can — and indeed will — expand your world. It broadens and deepens the reach of your senses. It can help soften the rough edges of daily life and even remind you that beauty exists in moments when it seems least likely to penetrate your daily life."
Maya, a character in the 2004 hit film Sideways, rhapsodizes in one scene about wine. Although she is a fictional character, her words could have come out of the mouths of many of the people who flock to Napa Valley on a summer day. "I like to think about the life of wine ... How it's a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I'd opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your '61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline."
For people just as happy with a bottle of Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe's as a $150 bottle of California Cabernet, all this rhapsodizing may seem ridiculous. And the language around wine, such as tasting notes that talk about essences of chocolate, graphite, and berries, can be over the top. But not for the true believers, men like Mark Anderson. He wrote to me from jail to say that when he drank a particularly good glass of, say, a 1900 Château Lafite Rothschild, which is extremely rare, he liked to close his eyes to intensify the sensations. As the deep red liquid swirled in his mouth, setting off buzzers of taste, he would visualize the sunshine on the Bordeaux vineyard the year the wine was made. He would think about what had happened in 1900. Who had lovingly coaxed the grapes to maturity and transformed them into wine? What had they been dreaming about? And he thought, as he often did when he drank a great vintage, that the wine was "like bottled sunshine, the sweet juice from a small star." Anderson may have been accused of destroying the largest amount of wine in recorded history, but when it came to wine he had a poet's heart and the words to express it.
* * *
Anderson was first seduced by wine in the 1960s, when the Napa and Sonoma valleys were coming out of their long Prohibition-induced slumber. The area north of San Francisco was pastoral, with small towns scattered among large fields and grazing land. Vineyards were tucked among prune, pear, and walnut orchards and travelers along Highway 29 were as likely to see farmers cutting wheat as laborers picking grapes. Feed, hay, and fuel stores, not high-end boutiques and tasting rooms, clustered along St. Helena's Main Street.
A few Italian families were making wine then, including the Mondavis and Sebastianis, as were a handful of wineries like Beaulieu and Beringer Brothers. Sweet wines outsold table wines throughout the country, so many growers sent their grapes to the Central Valley to be blended into bulk wine.
The old wineries that had been abandoned during Prohibition still stood unattended, their vineyards overrun with weeds and the yellow mustard that bloomed with the cold winter rains. The aspiring winemakers who would transform Napa Valley into the most sought-after wine destination in the United States during the next two decades had just started to arrive.
Anderson used to drive up to the region from the San Francisco Bay Area with an empty jug in his backseat. Wine tasting was mostly an informal affair. Visitors didn't need appointments. Anderson could wander in to Charles Krug in Napa or old man Pagani's in Sonoma and fill up his bottle for fifty cents. It wasn't hard to spot Robert Mondavi, who had just built his mission-style winery in Oakville, wandering the grounds to greet visitors.
The small-town feeling made it easy to meet winemakers and talk to them about what they were doing. Along with the camaraderie was a sense of discovery that impressed itself upon Anderson. "Those wines weren't rated in points and by today's standards would not even be listed," Anderson recalled much later. "But it was all we had and we enjoyed it. It was inexpensive, vintners were learning, we were all learning. European wines were very difficult to find and not much better." When Anderson sat on the lawn of a winery, eating a picnic lunch under blue skies, and sipping a bright red wine, all while staring out at rows of green vines, he felt like he belonged.
Fifty years later, Napa Valley has perfected that sense of belonging. It is no longer a bucolic secret; it is one of the most visited tourist destinations in California. The valley has seven hundred wineries that pump $13 billion annually into the local economy. The Napa Valley Tourism Bureau spends $4.5 million a year promoting the valley, emphasizing both wine and food with their slogan "Come here to experience the art of living well." Yet people still connect with the valley for the very same reasons Anderson did more than fifty years ago: they feel included.
Winery owners know that nothing sells wine better than a sense of intimacy and connection to the land and to the winemaker. So the valley plays down its corporate-owned wineries, its significant role in the global market of wine. The family story, the tale of determined men and women who have produced stellar wine from unique hillside or valley vineyards, is a dominant theme.
Around three million people visit Napa each year. Most come just for the day, dropping into three or four wineries. They pay anywhere from fifteen to fifty-five dollars to sip, swirl, and spit the valley's many Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignons, and Pinot Noirs. In the summertime, when the days are bright and hot, Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, the north-south roads that traverse the west and east sides of the valley, are bumper to bumper with cars. While the traffic might be frustrating, the scenery is beautiful. The wooded Mayacamas Mountains rise sharply on the west, a natural buffer between the cool fog that rolls off the Pacific Ocean and the inland temperatures that reach into the high nineties. The dryer Howell Mountains form the eastern boundary. Rows of grapevines extend across the valley floor and into the foothills, with their summer clusters of purple grapes peaking from under bright green leaves.
The tourists weave in and out of the traffic to stop at the tasting rooms lining the highways, and then go to eat at Oxbow Market in Napa or Redd in Yountville or Mustards in Oakville. If they are really fortunate, they have snagged a reservation at Thomas Keller's French Laundry.
Day tripping and wine tasting can only go so far, however. As enotourism has evolved into a multi-million-dollar industry, true wine lovers seek out experiences, ones that bring them closer to winemakers and the winemaking process. They want to feel a part of the Napa Valley.
Napa has developed ways to meet the expectations of the people Kramer might define as "obsessed." Need help assembling a wine cellar? Soutirage, a personal wine merchant, can help. The private sommeliers will come into your home, assess your cellar, and develop a plan for buying wine for everyday drinking, aging, and investment. With their deep contacts at American and European wineries, they can get their clients rare or hard to find wines, like Colgin, a Napa Valley cult wine made by Ann Colgin, or Château Mouton Rothschild. They can arrange a truffle hunt in Piedmont or a private dinner at a French château. If a client is at a London restaurant trying to choose between two Italian Barolos on the wine list, that person can text the Soutirage staff, many of whom have been sommeliers at restaurants like the French Laundry, for a recommendation. They will take your personal preferences into consideration and tell you which Barolo you will probably like best. If there is a bottle you particularly enjoy while at a restaurant or a friend's house, Soutirage clients can take a photo of it, shoot it to the sommeliers, and Soutirage staff will locate the bottle and put it in your cellar.
Do you have a hankering for your own vineyard? The eighty-acre Napa Valley Reserve is a place where wine lovers who don't have the money (prime vineyard land can cost $300,000 an acre) or the time to grow their own grapes can pretend to be winemakers. Located right next to the Meadowood resort in St. Helena, the Reserve is a perfect expression of Napa Valley's casual luxury, with its artificially weathered wood building, rows of olive trees, an organic garden, and grapevines running up to near the edge of the crushed granite paths.
For a mere $175,000 initiation fee and a promise to buy at least another $7,500 of wine each year, the Reserve's six hundred members get the right to "own" two or three rows of vines made from cloned grapes from Harlan Estate.
In early fall, the Reserve's rows of grapevines are filled with the bankers and doctors and real estate investors — and their children — who are members. They get up early, mimicking the rhythm of the Mexican or Central American field workers who pick most of the valley's grapes, don thick protective gloves, and use red-handled grape shears to cut off clusters of ripe red grapes. They then sort out the unripe fruit, leaves, and bugs before the grapes are crushed. Once the wine has fermented, each member can work with a master winemaker to blend his or her own vintage, which will then be aged in French oak for two years and bottled with a personalized label.
Excerpted from Tangled Vines by Frances Dinkelspiel. Copyright © 2015 Frances Dinkelspiel. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsPrologue: A Fire Is Set
PART ONE: DESTRUCTION
1. The Mystery of Wine
2. All Is Lost
3. The Wrecked Remains
4. A Soggy, Charred Mess
5. Joe Sausalito
PART TWO: INVENTION
6. The Beginning of Rancho Cucamonga
7. Wine Fever
8. Blood on the Land
PART THREE: FABRICATION
9. Sausalito Cellars
10. For the Love of Wine
11. Wine Fraud
PART FOUR: EXPANSION
12. The Struggle for Recognition
13. The Era of the Great San Francisco Wine Houses
14. The Wine War
15. Earthquake and Fire
PART FIVE: DECEPTION
16. Theft and Deception
18. The Trap is Set
PART SIX: REDEMPTION