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Fire That Destroyed Collections of Fine Wines Is Ruled Arson

October 19, 2005|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — A fire that torched as much as $100 million in fine wines at a Vallejo warehouse was deliberately set, federal and local investigators said Tuesday.

More than a dozen Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents from around the country descended on the converted 1942 military facility after Thursday's fire to assist local law enforcement.

On Tuesday, officials from the ATF and the Vallejo fire and police departments released their preliminary findings: Forensic chemists and other specialists have deemed the blaze that burned for six hours arson.

They declined to release information on specific physical evidence while the criminal investigation continues.

The blaze at the Wines Central storage warehouse on Mare Island -- a former naval base -- has rocked the Northern California wine industry. The facility stored wines for more than 90 wineries and 40 private collectors.

As many as half a million cases may have been destroyed -- including entire libraries marking the year-by-year genealogy of wines. Some vintners lost their entire inventory, or close to it, and fear it will take years to rebuild brand name.

"To open a winery and keep a winery open is difficult in itself," Douglas Due, who lost 800 cases representing 90% of his inventory, said Tuesday. "To have someone who has no association with you whatsoever drastically affect the viability of your winery is a [particularly] difficult thing to swallow."

Among those present the afternoon the blaze started was Mark Anderson, a Sausalito businessman facing criminal charges for allegedly embezzling more than 6,600 bottles of wine valued at more than $1.1 million from customers.

Anderson's storage business, Sausalito Cellars, used the Wines Central warehouse to store part of its inventory, said Sausalito Police Det. Bill Fraass.

Sausalito police began investigating Anderson in December 2003, and 10 clients eventually came forward to allege that wine he had stored for them could not be accounted for. Last month, the Marin County district attorney amended a complaint against him for 10 counts of embezzlement. A preliminary hearing is set for January.

Anderson was asked to stop storing wines at the Vallejo facility and had moved out much of his inventory. He is among those whom detectives have called.

His attorney, Douglas Rappaport, said Anderson did not embezzle any wines. "We've always been maintaining that it was a recordkeeping error and/or some third party stealing the wines," he said.

Rappaport has asked that Vallejo police detectives contact him instead of Anderson should they wish to interview his client. No such interview had been arranged.

He called Anderson "the obvious patsy" in the arson case and said the suspicions are misguided.

"I think quite frankly that if anybody set it, they're trying to make it look like Mark did it, because he's theoretically the ideal suspect. But in reality he doesn't have any motive," Rappaport said.

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