Wine scammer pleads guilty to setting California cellar fire

wineThe largest wine scam in the history of the United States was partly resolved this week with Mark Anderson's plea of guilty to numerous counts associated with torching a wine storage facility in the San Francisco area in 2005 to cover the tracks of his wholesale theft.

The blaze destroyed 6 million bottles of top-drawer wines worth an estimated quarter of a billion dollars.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Anderson opened a wine storage business, Sausalito Cellars, in 1998. After convincing a number of avid collectors and local wineries to store their best bottles in his facility, he began repaying their trust by pilfering more than 8,000 bottles and selling them at auction, eventually netting more than $1 million. Anderson even had the gall to replace some of the bottles with Trader Joe's Two-buck Chuck.

His scam started to fall apart late in 2003, though, when one of the collectors discovered that 5,700 bottles of his best stock, worth more than $600,000, was missing. Anderson was soon charged with embezzlement. However, his arrest was not widely publicized, so many of his clients remained unaware and allowed him to continue holding their wines.

The New York Times reports that the arrest didn't stop Anderson. When Sausalito Cellars was evicted from the location he had rented for it, he moved the collections still under his control to another wine storage facility, Wine Central, a converted submarine repair depot on Mare Island. There he sublet a small portion of the warehouse, which also housed the heritage collections of local wineries and private collectors.

By October of 2005, however, Anderson was facing another eviction notice and demands from clients to produce the wine he no longer had. In an attempt to destroy evidence of his theft, he set fire to the entire cellar, sending a shock wave through the wine-collecting world and the San Francisco-area vintner community.

In an amazing display of ineptitude, Anderson even left a torch and gasoline-soaked rags in the storage area he'd rented, and had been browsing the Internet beforehand looking for information about bomb-building.

Anderson is a former Sausalito city commissioner and local newspaper columnist, making the theft all the more notorious. He received a sentence of 15 years and 8 months for his pyromania. Embezzlement charges remain pending, all of which will likely keep him cellared until well after his bouquet has fully evolved.
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