I started working for Autodesk CEO, Carl Bass, in 1990 when he moved his 3D graphics company from Ithaca, New York to Alameda, California. While at Ithaca Software, Gary Wayne was our marketing VP. Gary's wife is Frances Dinkelspiel whom I had always known as a friend and an award-winning newspaper reporter. In 2010, I read and reviewed her first book:
so I was thrilled when I got the chance to do it again.
Tangled Vines is the perfect title. It's a reflection of the structure of the grape plants that ultimately yield wine (including the maze of tentacles that often extend 10 feet below the surface making them impossible to uproot), but also the story of an arsonist who destroyed what can never be regained. Here's the gist. By the way, there's no need for a spoiler alert. This is a non-fiction book — you can get the information from the newspapers.
What you can't get from newspapers is the enthralling way that Frances tells the story. For example, I just imagine her unearthing the following facts:
- Winemaker, Delia Viader, had stored all of her 2003 vintage, about 7,400 cases in the Wines Central warehouse.
- Her son, Alan Viader, was her vineyard manager.
- When he learned of the fire, Alan called his mother to let her know.
I, of course, would write this up as:
It was a dark and stormy night. Winemaker, Delia Viader, who had stored all of her 2003 vintage (about 7,400 cases) at the Wines Central warehouse, received an urgent call from her son Alan, who was also her vineyard manager, alerting her to a fire at the warehouse.
What you get from Frances instead is:
"Suddenly her phone rang. Viader looked at it, not certain if she should answer. But the call was from her son Alan, the second oldest of her children. He was her vineyard manager and heir apparent and was poised to take over as head winemaker. Viader flipped open the cell phone. At first she couldn't quite understand Alan. He was in a panic, his voice strained, his breathing hard. He seemed close to tears. He told her something about a warehouse. He screamed into the phone that everything was on fire."
See what I mean? The book is a perfect blend of story-telling and fact-based history. Here are some of the cool tidbits of knowledge I picked up while reading.
The first commercial sale of wine from California occurred in 1840 when Jean-Louis Vignes sold his wines and brandies in Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco. Page 78
The first shipment of California wine to the East Coast occurred in 1860. Page 162
In 1878, yellow fever ravaged New Orleans, Louisiana. Residents blamed the outbreak on the city's inadequate sewer system. People turned from drinking water to California wine. Page 186
Just after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, some determined Italian immigrants used barrels of their homemade wine to fight the resulting fire. Page 191
California wines gained worldwide recognition when they outscored French wines at a now famous Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. Page 223
The current city of St. Helena, California erosion control laws are the result of wine maker, Delia Viader's use of dynamite to crack apart volcanic rock. After a heavy rain in 1989, dirt from an exposed hill liquefied and flowed downhill into the Bell Canyon reservoir. Page 27
Winemakers are picky about how damaged inventory is disposed of. In 2000, the Rombauer-Frank Family lost ~$40M of wine in a fire, but instead of destroying the ruined wine, an insurance company sold it to a salvage company that was supposed to remove the labels. They did not and 9,000 bottles wound up in San Francisco as "new." Wine lovers sued when the burned taste did not meet their expectations. Page 46
Many insurance companies did not cover the wineries losses in the 2005 fire as they declared that the wine in a storage facility was considered "in transit" from winery to restaurants and thus, was not covered. Page 50
To recoup some of his losses from the 2005 fire, Ted Hall turned to making grappa, a strong, clear Italian liqueur using leftover pomace from his wine making process. He did so at St. George's Spirit facility in Alameda — walking distance from my home. Page 225
I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys crime stories or wine. Alas, the intersection of these two is a non-empty set. For Californians, it should be required reading.
Think about this for a moment. We now have backup solutions like Dropbox, so it's rare that we lose computer files nowadays. But I can recall a time when I had spent hours working on a computer only to lose my work. I was sick to my stomach. Those were hours I could never get back. Yes, I could sort of recreate the work from memory, but it was an arduous task. Now think about wine. It involves the planting of grape vines, waiting for the grapes to grow and ripen, picking the grapes, the wine-making process itself, bottling the wine, and storing it for years and even decades. Imagine something being gone after doing all that. And what's worse is that unlike a computer file, it cannot be recreated. It is just gone forever.
Wine is alive in the lab.