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Wine Warehouse Blaze Declared Arson

Investigation continues into fire that damaged facility where California producers and collectors stored $100 million of wines

Tim Fish, Dana Nigro
Posted: October 19, 2005

The massive blaze that is presumed to have destroyed $100 million of wine at a Northern California storage facility last week has been declared a case of arson. Local police, fire and arson investigators, along with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, announced on Oct. 18 that the physical evidence indicates the fire at Wines Central warehouse was intentionally set.

No suspects have been named, and the investigators declined to say how the fire started or release any other details about the evidence while their work is ongoing. The team continues to question people who had access to the warehouse in Vallejo or other connections to the company.

Located just southeast of Napa, Wines Central stored wine in barrels and case lots for some 40 private collectors and nearly 100 wineries in Northern California, including big-name estates and boutique producers still getting established. Officials at Wines Central could not be reached for comment, but published reports have said that there were about 6 million bottles inside the warehouse at the time of the fire.

The ATF, which sent 30 agents to investigate the blaze, has locked down the site. As customers have not been allowed access to the facility, estimating losses has been difficult, but most assume everything is gone. Even if any bottles did survive the flames, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) could potentially restrict or prohibit their sale. Producers also may be hesitant to sell the wines for fear that some bottles may be flawed and damage their reputations.

In the meantime, the Napa Valley Vintners association is holding a workshop on Oct. 25 to assist any winery that lost wine in the fire with dealing with insurance, filing TTB paperwork and continuing to market their brand. The event will include advice from North Coast vintners who lost wine in the 2000 blaze in a warehouse at Frank-Rombauer Cellars.

Many prominent names in California wine kept wine at the Wines Central facility. Last week, Tom Leonardini Sr., owner of Whitehall Lane, said about 5,000 cases of his 2002 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon were stored in the warehouse. "That has a wholesale value of $2.5 million," Leonardini said, adding that it "was the last of the 2002. We were saving it for the holidays."

Justin Vineyards in Paso Robles had 10,000 cases of wine in the warehouse, including a significant portion of its 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2003 Isosceles, its flagship red blend. Owner Justin Baldwin said, "I have wine stored at another warehouse so we will have an '03 release."

Some vintners were not as lucky. Napa Valley wineries Von Strasser, Sherwin Family Vineyards and Realm Cellars, for example, kept all of their 2003 production and the remainder of their 2002 wines in the facility. Realm's winemaker, Michael Hirby, also had his own tiny label, Relic, stored there, including all of his 2003 wines and half of his 2004s. Hirby's partner, Schatzi Throckmorton, said, "We were really excited about the '04s, so it's a hard loss." Brice Jones, the founder of Sonoma-Cutrer Winery, believes he has lost the entire debut vintage of his new Pinot Noir project, Goldridge.

Saintsbury, in Carneros, is writing off its entire wine library--about 2,000 cases, including large-format bottles and vertical collections dating back to the winery's earliest years--as it was stored on the facility's mezzanine, which had wood floors. Saintsbury cofounder Richard Ward said, "It's hard to put a value on a lot of those wines. They can't be replaced. The worst part is losing all that history."

The fire started at 3:37 p.m. on Oct. 12 and raged out of control for nearly seven hours despite the efforts of more than 80 firefighters from around the area. No employees of Wines Central were hurt, and only two firefighters suffered minor injuries.

The warehouse's unique selling point as a wine-storage facility is also what hampered firefighters. Built in the 1940s, the facility was a former bunker at the decommissioned Mare Island Naval Base and was once used to store torpedoes and bombs. Its walls and roof are 3-foot-thick reinforced concrete, which offered perfect insulation for wine storage but also limited access to the fire inside.

"All the heat and the flames were contained by the building. It was a very intense and drawn-out process in containing the fire," said Bill Tweedy, public information officer for the Vallejo Fire Department.

The facility was reopened for wine storage in 2002, and the company's Web site reported that the warehouse had a "state-of-the-art" fire-monitoring system. The structure, according to fire officials, sustained about $10 million in damage, but there was no official estimate for the loss of wine. "We're not wine evaluators," Tweedy said. "Most of the 240,000-square-foot building did suffer some sort of damage."

While most vintners say their wines are insured, their policies vary, and some may take a financial hit. The loss goes beyond money. Producers wonder, for example, what their salespeople will do for a year or two while there is little or no wine to sell. They also worry about losing hard-won placement on retail shelves and restaurant wine lists. "My concern is not financial," Baldwin said. "It's keeping my visibility and my continuity in the marketplace."

For now, vintners say they are crossing their fingers but preparing for bad news. Throckmorton summed it up when she said many vintners are taking solace in the ongoing harvest and in the wines that will be made in the future. "I think it's important under these circumstance to remain optimistic," she said. "But right now we're in the middle of harvest, and we're just going to focus on getting through that."

--Additional reporting by MaryAnn Worobiec Bovio

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