A slim man with long hair crosses a dark, empty Manhattan street in the middle of the night. He has a lighter in his right hand as he approaches a wooden dining shed of the type that have sprung up across New York City since the pandemic began.
Glancing around quickly, he flicks the lighter beneath a napkin dispenser affixed to one end of the structure, igniting a small flame. He then walks to the shed’s opposite end and does the same thing to the napkin holder there before sauntering off down the block.
The seemingly casual act of fire-setting, caught on security-camera footage, is startling enough. More startling still is the person accused of doing it: a celebrity sommelier with an ownership stake in a popular Lower Manhattan wine bar.
On Wednesday, fire officials announced that the sommelier, Caleb Ganzer, had been arrested and charged with two felony counts of arson and several other crimes in connection with three fires, including two at outdoor dining sheds in Manhattan.
Mr. Ganzer started the fire seen in the video, at a structure belonging to Prince Street Pizza, just before 3 a.m. on July 13, officials said. In January, officials said, he set fire to a dining shed outside Forsythia restaurant on Stanton Street shortly before midnight. He is also charged with starting a trash fire at the corner of Broome and Centre Streets in June.
Both sheds, especially Forsythia’s, were damaged by the fires, but no one was hurt, officials said. Still, Daniel Nigro, the fire commissioner, noted in a statement that “every act of arson has the potential to spread rapidly, endangering the lives of New Yorkers.”
Fire officials did not indicate what motive Mr. Ganzer, 35, might have had for starting the fires. It was not clear whether he had a lawyer. He did not respond to phone and text messages and did not answer the door at his home address. His social media accounts became inactive shortly after the charges were announced.
In a statement, the wine bar where he is the managing partner, La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels on Centre Street, said, “We as the company are aware of the incident, and Mr. Ganzer is on a leave of absence.” The bar declined further comment.
Forsythia’s owner, Jacob Siwak, said in an interview on Wednesday that a well-dressed man wearing a beanie and a scarf had tried to light the restaurant’s outdoor structure ablaze four times over the course of at least nine days in January.
Security-camera footage showed the man unpacking his backpack, placing a pile of kindling next to trash that had been out from the night before and then repeatedly setting the kindling on fire, Mr. Siwak said. The man waited for a sizable fire to burn before walking off.
Before he reviewed the security footage, Mr. Siwak said he “was expecting it to be a guy that flicked a cigarette butt in the trash or a homeless man trying to keep warm.” Instead, he discovered a nattily dressed man intent on setting fire to his business.
Several of the man’s attempts to burn the shed were successful, and two were “pretty damaging,” Mr. Siwak said. Another resulted in flames that were at least two stories high and threatened to spread to the restaurant and from there to the rest of the building.
The restaurant spent about $3,500 to repair the shed, which had to be rebuilt after both ends burned down completely, Mr. Siwak said, adding that the structure was now fire retardant.
The damage was less severe at Prince Street Pizza, said Tony Sosa, the manager, but he added that “it could have been very dangerous,” especially if the fire had spread to the restaurant and the apartments above.
A native of Illinois, Mr. Ganzer moved to New York about a dozen years ago, according to a 2017 article in The Daily Journal of Kankakee, Ill., which noted that Food & Wine magazine had just named him one of its sommeliers of the year.
“New York is one of those places where the longer you’re here, the more you carve out your own niche, and the more you want to make that niche bigger,” he told the newspaper. “New York’s become home.”
In a recent interview with Sommelier Business, Mr. Ganzer spoke of investing in his wine bar’s outdoor dining space after what he called the “roller coaster” of the past nine months, a period he described as “sort of existentially crippling.”
“There were so many different waves of emotion,” he said in the interview. “In the very beginning, there was denial, bordering on feeling personally attacked, because no other industry was hit as hard.”
Earlier in his career, Mr. Ganzer was the sommelier at Eleven Madison Park, which The New York Times referred to in May as “the Manhattan restaurant that has been called the best in the world.”
According to a brief biography posted on the website greatsommeliers.com, he was “always a lover of wine” who moved to Paris during his senior year of college, “where he worked in a champagne store and grew his love of wine into a full-fledged passion.”
The bio lists several restaurants owned by the chef Daniel Boulud, including Daniel and DBGB, as other places where he was the sommelier.
In a video posted on the website, Mr. Ganzer, then the Eleven Madison Park sommelier, demonstrates a technique for serving port wine that involves heating a pair of tongs with a Bunsen burner so that they can be used to cut off the bottle’s top “to bypass the cork and just get at the wine.”
“This is the most dramatic aspect of it,” he says at one point in the video. “It’s the fire.”
Christina Morales and Colin Moynihan contributed reporting.
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