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Sommelier Who Set Fire to Dining Sheds Agrees to Pay Back Restaurants

A sommelier charged last year with arson has reached an agreement with the Manhattan district attorney’s office that will require him to pay thousands of dollars to two downtown restaurants whose outdoor dining structures he set on fire.

The sommelier, Caleb Ganzer, who was a managing partner at a popular Lower Manhattan wine bar, will pay $3,050 to the Forsythia restaurant, $2,250 to Prince Street Pizza and undergo a course of treatment to be determined by the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with the state courts system.

Under the conditions of the agreement reached last month, Mr. Ganzer, 36, is subject to regular drug testing, and must complete recommended vocational and educational training and find full-time employment, among other requirements. If he meets its terms to prosecutors’ satisfaction after at least 15 months, the charges against him will be dismissed.

A lawyer for Mr. Ganzer, Thomas Rotko, said in a statement that Mr. Ganzer understood the seriousness of his actions and was “deeply sorry for the pain and suffering he caused these individuals and their businesses.”

“He accepts personal responsibility and is fully committed to his ongoing sobriety and mental health recovery,” Mr. Rotko’s statement said. The statement did not explain Mr. Ganzer’s motive for setting the fires.

Representatives for the two restaurants could not be reached for comment.

A 2017 Food & Wine magazine sommelier of the year, Mr. Ganzer was arrested last summer after having been caught on video using a lighter to set fire to a dining shed outside Prince Street Pizza. The restaurant is about an eight minute walk from La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, the wine bar where Mr. Ganzer worked, which the website Thrillist described in 2014 as having “a sexy Euro vibe.”

An outdoor dining structure at Forsythia restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side after it was set on fire. Credit…via Forsythia

Officials said that Mr. Ganzer had set fire to the shed of Forsythia, another neighboring restaurant, in January 2021. He was charged with several felonies, including arson, by the Manhattan district attorney’s office — crimes that can carry significant prison time if a defendant is found guilty.

The district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, has sought to make diversion programs — which seek to guide defendants toward supportive services and away from prison — a cornerstone of his office’s approach to criminal justice. Mr. Bragg has said such programs can reduce recidivism and aid troubled defendants.

Mr. Ganzer stands to benefit from that approach. Originally from Illinois, he has been a New Yorker for more than a decade, scaling the heights of the restaurant industry to work as the sommelier at Eleven Madison Park, one of the most highly regarded restaurants in the world.

La Compagnie opened in 2014, and Mr. Ganzer soon decamped from Eleven Madison Park to join the team there. Three years later, VinePair, a website that covers developments in the wine industry, called the bar “hands-down the hottest industry hang,” a status it credited to Mr. Ganzer.

But the bar and the industry at large were hit hard by the coronavirus. Mr. Ganzer reflected on that difficulty in an interview with Sommelier Business, another trade website, saying that the nine months of the pandemic had been “a roller coaster, for sure.”

“There were so many different waves of emotion; in the very beginning, there was denial, bordering on feeling personally attacked, because no other industry was hit as hard,” he said, adding that the threat to his livelihood had been “just sort of existentially crippling.”

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