ABOVE: FRANCES DINKELSPIEL. PHOTO COURTESY OF NATHAN PHILLIPS
When firefighters rushed towards large plumes of dense black smoke filling the Vellejo, Northern California sky on a warm October afternoon in 2005, they initially thought a 747 Airliner had crashed. The fire, in fact, was started by Mark Anderson, then in his late 50s, a life long fraudster and con-man, who had finally got himself in too deep and was desperately trying to cover his tracks. He had set ablaze a wine storage facility containing some of the rarest and most valuable bottles of vino the United States. In total, 4.5 million bottles were destroyed worth more than $250 million.
Connected to the destruction was Berkeley, California resident and New York Times journalist Frances Dinkelspiel. Her family lost 175 bottles of their 150-year-old Port. A crime reporter and investigative journalist, Dinkelspiel’s previous book, Towers Of Gold, was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. As she learned more about the crime, Dinkelspiel realized that beneath the facade of elegant sophistication associated with California’s wine regions and its tremendous wealth was a violent and sordid past that had seldom been told. Her new book, Tangled Vines, which came out this week via St. Martins Press, melds past crimes with the present in a gripping fashion.
JEFF VASISHTA: The research behind this was obviously extremely exhaustive. What inspired you initially and how did you go about collating the information and structuring it into a book?
FRANCES DINKELSPIEL: There are at least two different strands in the book—the arson, which destroyed 4.5 million bottles of fine wine worth $250 million, and my search to understand the value of some of the bottles that burned, specifically some Port that my great-great grandfather made in 1875 from one of California’s oldest vineyards. I have always loved writing about crime. I have been a reporter for years and have dashed to crime scenes more times than I can count. So I was eager to write about the man who set this destructive fire and damaged the lives of so many Napa County vintners.
At the same time, I love history. For my first book, Towers of Gold, I went through 50,000 primary documents regarding 19th century California. There is something writers call “research rapture”—the delight in finding out background information and avoiding writing. Writing about my ancestor’s wine gave me the opportunity to do historical research again. I spent time at two of California’s most amazing libraries—the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley and the Huntington Library— as well as visiting the San Bernardino County assessor’s office where I got to open leather bound assessment rolls from the 1850s.
It took me a long time to figure out how to structure the book. I had a modern thread—the arson and search to snare the criminal—and the historical thread. I didn’t know how to combine them so they felt like they belonged together. I finally realized I was the missing thread. I had a connection to the fire because I had covered the trial for The New York Times and had developed a relationship with the arsonist. I had also gone on a hunt to find out more about my ancestor’s wine. So once I decided to put myself in the narrative, the book came together quickly.
VASISHTA: Did you pitch the book first and then write it or the other way round?
DINKELSPIEL: I sold my proposal to St. Martin’s Press, which published my first book, in 2012. I then wrote the book.
VASISHTA: The history of California wine making is pretty violent, as is the history or California itself. I was reminded in places of Philipp Meyer’s The Son, which is fiction, but details the history of Texas. Basically, the Mexicans and Native American Indians were really badly treated. Were you aware of this before you started researching?
DINKELSPIEL: The most eye-opening aspect of my research was my discovery that Native Americans were essentially slaves forced to work in the vineyards. I knew that the Franciscan friars who created California’s mission system had treated Indians badly. But I had no idea that the Mexicans who took over California in 1821 and the Americans who took over in 1848 treated the Native Americans even worse. In fact, the very first law passed by the state legislature was nicknamed the “Indian Indenture Act.” It allowed virtually any white man to tell authorities that a Native American was drunk or indolent. They would be arrested, fined, and their labor auctioned off to the highest bidder.
VASISHTA: Mark Anderson appears to have no redeeming qualities. He comes across as a complete fraud and a con-man. You have met him often in person. Is there any positive to say about him?
DINKELSPIEL: Mark Anderson did some terrible things to a lot of people. However, like many criminals, he appears like a normal guy. Mark is smart, articulate, and funny and this was the side he showed me when we talked. I had to remember that there were dark aspects of Mark’s character that he was hiding.
VASISHTA: How did you get him to open up and give you so much personal information?
DINKELSPIEL: Mark spent a lot of time in jail awaiting trial and sentencing. He was probably bored and happy that a reporter took an interest in him. I just asked him about his childhood and how he got interested in wine and he wrote me pages and pages about his life.
VASISHTA: I noticed that a lot of the book is told as fact by you and not in quotes. Obviously you must have conducted a lot of interviews to gather so much information, particularly about the events around the crime. Why did you decide to tell the story in that way?
DINKELSPIEL: I thought a lot about how to make Tangled Vines novelistic, and used character development, scenes, tension, etc. when I wrote the book. I interviewed dozens of people and read thousands of pages of court documents. Quotes can actually slow down the reading experience so I used them sparingly.
VASISHTA: Mark Anderson is fascinating because he’s something of a sociopath. He shows little remorse for the lives he has ruined. It seems like a ludicrous notion to start a fire and burn down the storage facility, given the fact that he was already under suspicion and being investigated and in broad daylight too. There are witnesses and cameras. It’s almost as if he was asking to be caught or thought he was above the law. What was he thinking?
DINKELSPIEL: Mark had been charged with stealing and selling the wine his clients had stored with him. I think he thought that if he burned down the Wines Central warehouse in Vallejo he could tell authorities that his clients’ missing wine had been destroyed in the fire. Then police couldn’t prove that he had actually sold the wine. Mark is someone who constructs his own reality and considers himself smarter than most everyone else. So he probably thought he could get away with his crimes.
VASISHTA: This book was a huge undertaking. How did you fit it into the rest of your life as a writer?
DINKELSPIEL: It was tough, particularly since I am executive editor of Berkeleyside, a daily news site about Berkeley. I had to swing back and forth between covering the news of Berkeley and focusing on Tangled Vines. Fortunately, my partners at Berkeleyside were very supportive and let me take off all the time I needed. But I have been working pretty hard the past few years.
VASISHTA: Have the people you’ve written about read the book? It must have been difficult to decide what to put in and what to leave out?
DINKELSPIEL: No, the people I write about haven’t read Tangled Vines yet, but I hope they like the book. And yes, there was a lot of stuff I cut out. I mentioned “research rapture” earlier—besides describing a tendency to keep on researching, it can also mean the desire to cram all the information you uncover in a book. But a writer’s loyalty must be to the narrative, to creating a book that has forward momentum and propels readers to keep turning the pages. That means cutting out scenes that are tangential. I did a lot of that, particularly scenes about the early history of California wine.
VASISHTA: If this were being made into a movie, who would play Mark Anderson? How would you include the early California history such as that of John Rains and his wife?
DINKELSPIEL: There aren’t too many Hollywood stars that weigh 300 lbs, so it might be hard to find someone. But if actual weight was not the issue, I would love to see Paul Giamatti play Anderson. He was in Sideways, so he knows about wine, and he has also played a lot of sleazy characters.
When books get made into movies, a lot of stuff is dropped. I think much of the historic material would have to be dropped— nless someone wanted to make a movie about the crazy period in which California transitioned from Mexican to American rule. There is enough violence and racial tension in that era for a great film
VASISHTA: Do you have another book planned?
DINKELSPIEL: I have a few ideas for another book in my mind, but in the next few months I will be focused in getting the word out about Tangled Vines and on Berkeleyside. Then I will return to finding a new topic.
TANGLED VINES IS OUT NOW.