Gold. Aerospace. Agriculture. Filmmaking and television. Computers and consumer electronics. Wine. Viewed through the lens of business and commerce, these industries dominate the history of the State of California. Examining any one of them as it has evolved over the three centuries since Spanish monks seized control of the land helps illuminate how California has become the wealthy and populous state it is today. In Tangled Vines, Berkeleyjournalist Frances Dinkelspiel tells the colorful story of California’s wine industry, enriching our understanding of the state’s history — and she makes it read like a thriller.

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Tangled Vines recounts the 18th-century origins of the state’s wine industry in the rising demand for sacramental wine for use in the Catholic missions that were the first centers of European settlement in California. For two centuries, Californios (Spanish-speaking settlers) dominated the field until the Gold Rush brought tens of thousands of English-speakers to the state, newcomers who gained the ascendancy through hard work, shrewd investment, as well as fraud and even murder.

As Dinkelspiel tells the story, California’s wine industry didn’t come into its own until late in the 19th century when it finally gained acceptance on the East Coast of the U.S. as an alternative to fine European wines. The industry flourished, its center of gravity moving from Southern California to San Francisco, until the advent of Prohibition in 1920 — and then collapsed. Revival, and the rise of Napa and Sonoma counties, came late in the 1960s through the pioneering efforts of Robert Mondavi. We all know the rest.

Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California by Frances Dinkelspiel ★★★★★

The focal point of Dinkelspiel’s tale is the tragic 2005 fire that destroyed as much as $250 million worth of wine stored at the cavernous Wines Central warehouse in Vallejo. Set by a 300-pound, self-styled wine expert named Mark Anderson in an attempt to cover up his theft over many years of millions of dollars worth of wine entrusted to his care, the fire occasioned years of shameful antics by Anderson to delay action against him in both civil and criminal courts. Only seven years after the fire was the arsonist and thief sent to prison for a 27-year term that would end after he turned 87.

From the recently canonized Father Junipero Serra to Mark Anderson himself, the tale related in Tangled Vines is crammed with fascinating characters. It’s a great read.

About the author

Frances Dinkelspiel, a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury-News and co-founder of the popular website Berkeleyside, is also the author of Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California. Hellman, the author’s great-great grandfather, also figures prominently in Tangled Vines, which is her second book.

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