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Californian wine warehouse arsonist sentenced

So, Mark C. Anderson (63), convicted of setting fire to a Californian wine warehouse in 2005, was recently sentenced to 27 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay $70.3 million in restitution. All that after his former lawyer tried to negotiate a 15-year plea bargain, just few years ago. Some might think that it is a harsh punishment, some might think it’s not enough, for the worse loss in the wine history.

I still remember how shocked we were in our company, when we first learned about this tragedy back in 2005. An upscale Mare Island wine warehouse burned down, burying in fire millions of irreplaceable wines – both valuable private collections and winery’s inventories.

I remember how we starred at each other in disbelief. Then our minds started to slowly digest the facts and realize what it really meant. It wasn’t just immediate financial loss. For us, professional wine salesmen, it was deeper than that. We also understood what it meant for some wineries, who had their entire vintages stored there. For some, to disappear for a year or two from the ever changing, dynamic wine market, could also mean “never-come-back”- kind of sentence. And how about all those irreplaceable personal collections?

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I remember how we were frantically trying to find out which winery had their wines actually stored there. I know, a little selfish at that moment.  But it  affected us directly. This massive fire in California meant that we were not going to receive the promised allocation of their wines, for at least that same calendar year. If ever again.  For example Saintsbury, the winery we represented exclusively, lost their entire wine library in the blaze.

Others, like Long Meadow Ranch, Relic, Tres Sabores and Von Strasser – learned that they had lost entire vintages, even debut vintages, or entire collections.

So when you start thinking about it in depth, it affected the business in the worse way – not only some wineries had lost everything they produced that calendar year (just think about all that work), but they also lost the expected profit from their sale (that no insurance will cover). Money, they were counting on to re-invest into future production of wine. For example, to replace wine barrels needed. Or simply upgrade the technology. So for some, it affected their future production of wine as well.

Secondary, it had an immediate effect on my own little salesman business. I too lost commission from the expected sale of the lost wines and my customers missed out the vintage on some really special collectible wines. Most likely I lost those placements I worked so hard to get, both in wine stores and on the restaurant’s wine lists.

And then we learned that the fire was an arson, started intentionally. Who could do such a terrible thing and why? There were more questions than answers that day.

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Anybody, who collects wine knows, how precious their collection is. It’s not just financial matter, it’s the excitement when they found something really special and then waited for years to discover how that wine developed in the bottle. That’s why they spent more money to have their treasures taken care of, in two-story, 240,000-square-foot, environmentally controlled facility. This fantastic wine storage housed mostly premium wines from Napa Valley and Livermore area vintners.

All gone. After assessments, the damage was conservatively estimated at $200 – $250 million. The wine storage facility never reopened again. More than 4,5 million bottles of wine were destroyed.Two firefighters were injured while fighting the blaze.

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The convicted Mark C. Anderson, who owned Sausalito Cellars, (a professional wine-inventory management company for collectors from around the world), started the fire to cover up another crime – embezzlement, for which he was already investigated in Marin County.

It seemed that Anderson’s company sold some wines that his clients trusted him to safely managed, without their permission. Burning down the warehouse, where he rented a space to store some of the bottles, served two purposes in his mind: it could effectively hide the theft and also prevent the IRS investigators to find out exactly how much taxes he owed from such an income, generated by the non-permitted wine sales.

“Start finding replacements for those wines in our portfolio, ” our managers were instructing us then. “It’s much easier to get wine off the wine list in the restaurant, than get it back on.” Well, didn’t we all know that! It sometimes took a years of persuasion to convince some bar owners that your wine will make an impact on their customers. As soon, as you were out of stock on that wine once and they see it as unreliable, it could be taken off that wine list in a matter of seconds.

I would like to understand what goes on in Anderson’s mind today. Is he sorry for what his action has caused? Could he even imagine what kind of impact his crime in 2005 had, and how many lives he affected for years to come?

Seven years later, I know it affected our business in Connecticut in some small way. Which, of course couldn’t not even be compared to some small wineries, who lost their entire existence after that, no matter how hard they tried to recover.

I know, it’s not like actual lives were taken away. There are worse crimes happening in the world. After all, it was just a wine. Or, wasn’t it?