Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Villain who burned others' wine gets 27 years

Mark Christian Anderson. Photo courtesy Sausalito PD
California is releasing 34,000 non-violent prisoners because of a federal court order on overcrowding, which means anybody who commits crimes against property, not people, has a pretty good chance of walking free these days.

Fortunately, the worst wine villain of this millennium was tried in federal court, not state court. Mark Christian Anderson might not serve all of the 27-year sentence he got Tuesday, but it's a pretty good bet that he's had his last glass of wine for at least a decade.

Good. This is a guy who stole from other people's wine collections, and when facing charges for embezzling, he tried to destroy the evidence by torching a giant wine warehouse, destroying 6 million bottles of wine. The repercussions were horrible: some wineries, like Saintsbury, lost their entire libraries. 

Perhaps it's unseemly for me to cheer bloodthirstily for Anderson's sentence, which was more than 11 years longer than the prosecutor recommended. That's a HUGE difference, and might mean Anderson, 63 -- who has been in prison since 2007 -- never gets out.

It's certainly not good journalism on my part, as I worked on the news stories seven years ago about the arson. But it was never my job to cover the trial, only the impact on the wineries involved, and it was immense. Example: Realm Cellars lost an entire vintage when it was just starting out. Normally that would be a story, but I talked to so many better-known wineries that were also devastated that I didn't even have space for it.

Fortunately, there were no physical injuries in the fire. In many states, the fact that "only wine" was hurt might have been enough to convince Judge Lawrence Karlton to go easy, but Anderson's strategy of being a complete asshole in court (first pleading guilty, then withdrawing it and blaming his lawyer, plus claiming every health problem he could imagine) appears to have backfired spectacularly.

Anderson may have been surprised at his inability to charm Judge Karlton, because he managed to fool city leaders of Sausalito, not to mention wine collectors around the world, for years.

Anderson told people he managed the rock group Iron Butterfly, was a former sumo wrestler, and invented voice mail. None were true. This man is a sociopath, and it's amazing that he got away with so many outrageous lies for so long. That he managed to fool wine collectors into storing their wines with him, without individual lockers or the ability to visit their own wines, was comparatively minor.

His wine embezzlement was apparently a classic Ponzi scheme, based on the fact that different collectors tend to own the same stuff. Example: three different collectors place bottles of 1990 Lafite-Rothschild with Anderson. He sells or drinks two; we never did learn what he did with the missing wines. But he still has one, so whichever collector asks for his '90 Lafite first, gets it. If collector #2 asks for his '90 Lafite, Anderson has to hope another collector (#4) has subsequently stored a bottle with him. Like all Ponzi schemes, eventually an empty-handed client will learn and reveal the truth, and that's exactly what happened.

As delighted as I am to see his evil fat ass rot in Lompoc -- and to hope he gets a large, horny roommate -- I feel regret that earlier judges didn't recognize him as dangerous, because the warehouse fire would have been prevented.

Anderson was first arrested on wine embezzlement charges in February 2004. The charges grew in number as more of his wine-storage clients discovered they were missing bottles they had entrusted to him. By September 2005 he was facing 10 counts of embezzlement for more than $1.2 million worth of wine. If only he had been in custody, or some judge had thought to deny him access to the wine warehouse on Mare Island.

But he was free on bail, and in October 2005, he set fire to the warehouse. The idea was stupid, because the warehouse had a visitors' log and Anderson was suspect No. 1 immediately. It was a desperate act by a desperate sociopath, and it ruined 6 million bottles of wine.

I have an illegal bottle of wine from that fire. The BATF, the federal agency in charge of wine at the time, ruled that most bottles close to the blaze could never be sold, which is a reasonable position, if painful for businesses that lost so much inventory. Sean Thackrey gave me an unlabeled magnum of Eaglepoint Ranch Sangiovese that had survived the fire only to be ruled unsalable. It has been in my own offsite wine cellar pretty much ever since.

It seems unseemly for me to fetch that wine this week and toast to Mark Christian Anderson spending most if not all of the rest of his miserable life behind bars, where he'll never taste wine again. Where his most delicious gourmet treats will be snack foods from the commissary. Where if he prattles on about having been a sumo wrestler, somebody might challenge him to a match.

So maybe I'll wait 'til next week. Goodbye and good riddance, Mark Christian Anderson, you horrible asshole. And I hope you're a Christian, because in that case the judgments are just beginning.

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Portland Charcuterie Project said...

What a douchebag.

It's nice to see bad things happen to bad people like him.

New Hampshire Wineman said...

This not about wine, but crime; I understand that the victims are related to the wine industry (Maybe this is a 'hate' crime), but compartmentalizing it shouldn't detract from its broader significance.
Last time I checked people of the vine were still people and entitled to their feelings and thoughts, all of which will be somewhat different, but hasn't Hollywood been teaching us that vengeance is a good thing? A notable exception was Batman who allowed the joke to be on Gotham as he allowed that maniac to get away and kill several police officers, but then again, are police officers really people!(:-< The idea of justice is that the guilty should pay, it won't bring back the wine, but it will satisfy the social, legal, and emotional equilibrium civilization NEEDS.

Bill Stephenson said...

KCRA NEWS 3 in Sacramento ran a lengthy investigative report on this story on their "Commmon Ground" topical program last night. It covered much of what we already knew but also had segments with the arson investigator and the winemakers from Viader and Saintsbury.
The editing was shaky but overall it left no doubt as to the extent of Andersen's guilt and greed

David Clark said...

"Restrain yourself... and gloat in silence. I'll have no jubilation here. It is an impious thing to exult over the slain."

- Homer - from "The Odyssey", translated E V Rieu

...or in another fool meeting his self-created fate, even if richly deserved.

I agree completely with your conclusions about his guilt, but find it sad that a person could go so wrong. Still, good post. Good to hear the end of one of the wine world's most outrageous acts.

David Clark