Oenophilic Pyramid Scheme Kingpin Admits to $200 Million Wine Torching

Berkeley native destroyed 6 million bottles of wine

By Jackson West
|  Tuesday, Nov 17, 2009  |  Updated 5:39 PM PDT
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Wines were served to the flames, prosecutors charge.

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Mark Anderson, a Berkeley native and friendly fixture in Sausalito, admitted to setting fire to a warehouse in Vallejo in an incident that destroyed generations of California wine vintages -- $200 million in total.

In a federal courthouse in Sacramento, wearing a faded-orange jumpsuit, Anderson plead guilty to arson and 18 other counts. He spoke little during the 15-minute hearing, and did not reveal a motive.

But, prosecutors believed the motive was to destroy evidence stemming from an earlier investigation into Anderson's wine-storage company, Sausalito Cellars, which rented space in the torched warehouse. 

After accepting deposits of bottles of wine from customers, Anderson was accused of selling them through a Chicago company -- and sometimes replacing the expensive bottles he sold with Trader Joe's "Two-Buck Chuck."  Indeed, it appears that Anderson was running a massive oenophilic pyramid scheme--and, for the wine world, has carved a path of destruction not dissimilar to Bernie Madoff's decimation of New York high-society.

The fire, at a converted Navy bunker on Mare Island, didn't just destroy the wines stored by Anderson, but many stored by dozens of other wineries and collectors.

Some of the holdings included the product of century-old California vines, and historical samples of every vintage from area wineries, with those libraries spanning decades.

A total of 6 million bottles were destroyed, with wines that boiled in their bottles ending up being turned into ethanol by the East Bay Municipal Utility District.

In exchange for the plea, prosecutors agreed to recommend a sentence of 15 years, 8 months. Had Anderson been convicted in trial, he could have been sentenced to up to 70 years.

Jackson West cries over the burning of local oenophiles' library of Alexandria.

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