Local News

Wine arson suspect wants to change plea

By March 1, 2011

SACRAMENTO — A former Sausalito wine dealer accused of destroying $200 million worth of Napa Valley wines — including the first release of Rominger West chardonnay and syrah — is trying to withdraw his guilty plea.

A May 3 hearing has been scheduled in Sacramento federal court to determine whether Mark Anderson will be allowed to plead not guilty and go to trial on 19 charges.

Anderson needs a judge’s permission to undo the guilty plea entered in 2009.

Anderson is accused of starting a fire in 2005 at a Mare Island warehouse that destroyed 6 million bottles of wine belonging to 92 wineries and 42 private collectors. Prosecutors say the fire was meant to cover up a scheme in which Anderson sold his clients’ wine without their permission.

He now claims he was coerced into accepting a plea deal.

Some wineries lost everything, and a few were forced to shut down. Among the losses were the first wines bottled by the late Charlie Rominger and Mark West of Yolo County. The fire destroyed about 40 percent of their debut release — 450 cases of chardonnay and 650 cases of syrah — but it represented 100 percent of their bottled wine, leaving them with nothing to pour that first year.

Although the Rominger West wine was insured, “You can’t drink those insurance payments,” Rominger said at the time. “They don’t taste as good as what burned up.”

In November 2009, Anderson’s attorney, Mark Reichel, noted that his client would face up to life in prison if he were convicted of the 19 criminal counts he faced, including arson, mail fraud, and tax evasion.

“If there’s a possibility of not getting a life sentence (with a plea),” the attorney said, “you consider it.”

Before the fire, Anderson rented a cage at Wines Central as part of his own specialty storage business for collectors, called Sausalito Cellars. The UC Berkeley graduate also served on two city commissions, ran Sausalito’s sister-city program and was a fixture at Sushi Ran, a popular downtown restaurant.

But prosecutors and Sausalito police said he turned to fraud to fund a lavish lifestyle. He used aliases, they said, to secretly sell thousands of his clients’ bottles to wine dealers, including a famed 1959 Lafite-Rothschild. He was charged in February 2004 with embezzlement in Marin County, a case that is still pending.

On Oct. 5, 2005, the fire at Wine Central broke out soon after Anderson — who was in the process of being evicted from the storage center — walked out of the building, investigators said. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives concluded the fire started in Anderson’s cage.

About 6 million bottles of wine owned by 92 Napa Valley wineries and 43 collectors were destroyed. Many wineries lost their entire stock. Some lost “libraries” of older wines, robbing them of the ability to offer vertical tastings to show how their wines age.

Much of the prized liquid was shipped to the East Bay Municipal Utility District for conversion into ethanol. One winemaker, Julie Johnson of Tres Sabores in St. Helena, said she turned the wine she recovered into a “fire-roasted zinfandel-pomegranate marinade.”

Johnson said the fire had prompted heavier security and heftier insurance policies in the storage of wine.

Debbie Davis

Debbie Davis

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