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Cause of wine warehouse fire still a mystery

Federal officials are investigating the cause of a huge Vallejo warehouse fire believed to have destroyed or damaged as much as $100 million of stored vintage wines and other food materials.

Some rare bottles may have been worth about $1,000 each, officials said, and C&H Sugar lost an estimated $2.1 million of its sugar inventory.

Wines Central converted an old military warehouse into a 240,000-square-foot facility that stored an estimated half a million cases of wine, including rare vintages and in some cases entire inventories for dozens of Bay Area wineries and private individual collectors.

The facility also stored other food items, including sugar, pasta and pasta sauce, for C&H Sugar and the Neibaum-Coppola Winery.

Because the fire broke out in a former Navy warehouse with thick concrete walls and steel doors, some observers suspect arson, but officials had not pinpointed the fire's cause as of late morning Friday. "It's suspicious, but we're not classifying it as arson," said Bill Tweedy, a Vallejo Fire Department spokesman.

Tweedy said a physical inspection of the structure with the ATF's national response squad will start Saturday and take several days to complete.

The eight-alarm fire caused an estimated $10 million in structural damage to the warehouse, according to the ATF, and the possible loss of tens of millions of dollars of stored wine from an unspecified number of local wineries and private collectors.

Although much of the inventory was insured, some was not. But the larger impact in many cases will be the loss of various specific vintages, said grape and wine broker Bill Turrentine, president of Novato's Turrentine Brokerage. "Wine is a product tied not only to a place but to a time," he told the Business Times. "If you lose a vintage, that's a real problem."

Once a winery loses a spot on a restaurant's wine list, Turrentine said, it's not easy to win its way back on.

 
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