This is the true story of an extortionist plot to poison the vines of the vineyard of Romanee-Conti. It is told by Maximillian Potter, well-known as a journalist for Vanity Fair, and the tale was published in that magazine with this book as an expanded follow-on. Potter spent many years reporting on crime for the Denver magazine 5280, and recently has worked as media adviser to Colorado governor John Hickenlooper. These appointments show the credentials Potter has in writing the book.
In January 2010, Aubert de Villaine, head of Domaine Romanee-Conti, arguably Burgundy’s greatest producer and one of the great world’s best was delivered a package which contained a map of the domaine’s prized vineyard, Romanee-Conti and a note claiming that the vines within a section had been drilled and a piece of wine inserted in the holes. This was followed by another delivery with greater detail explaining that the drilled vines were filled with poison which would be carried to the rest of the plants by the rising sap with the growing season. The cost to avert the potential disaster was one million Euros.
The story of the foiling of the plan and the capture of the extortionist is a relatively short and simple one, and in many ways a very tragic tale. The kind and human nature of the victim, as well as a sensible, publicity avoidance strategy has meant that very little news of this was ever made. But the episode has given much cause for thought about the protection of France’s invaluable vinous assets – the mature vines grown in the country’s best vineyards.
The book is all about human nature. Primarily it focusses on the personality and philosophy of Aubert de Villaine, the co-gerant or co-director of the domaine, who is called the ‘Grand Monsieur’. The author recounts seminal episodes of de Villaine’s life, as a child, his teenage years, as a young man in service for his country, being educated in and coming to appreciate wine, and his unique position in it, in the United States and his journey at the domaine. There are plenty of tangents, such as the meeting of his wife Pamela, the establishment of his own property at Bouzeron, and of course more fractious ones such as the acrimonious falling out of co-gerant Lalou Bize-Leroy.
However, the book not only presents de Villaine’s background, but also that of his predecessors and the entwined development of the domaine to its present exalted status. There is considerable attention given to Louis-Francois de Bourbon, or the Prince de Conti, who owned the famous vineyard, giving his name to it. The material covers the Prince’s relationship with Louis XV and Madame Pompadour, and the political machinations at the time.
The Nature of Burgundy
In telling the tale, the background and the history, Potter covers much ground. There is plenty of information on viticulture, winemaking and the hierarchy of wine, as well as the wine trade and the market. However, what comes through strongly is the respect for the land, soil and the belief in terroir. The book describes not only the physical attributes of this concept, but the almost mystical awe that people who live it possess in their minds and souls. It appears that the author is a true convert to Burgundy and all of its ways.
Potter is emotionally involved in Burgundy, and it shows in the deep introspective narratives attributed to de Villaine and other subject members. They are the cast, and Potter’s style is more novel-like when they speak their mind and recount their thoughts. This would be my only real criticism of the book, as it makes the material border on fiction, even though it was designed to make it more personal and indeed human.
The book is wide in scope, and while the topic of extortion and its resolution is brief, there is much material that gives the general reader considerable insight into wine and its place in the world. For the keen wine enthusiast there is much detail and background to glean. The reading is easy, fast-paced and in the end, a satisfying exposé of the generally good side of human nature, and a more satisfying description of how people are part of a living, continuing and evolving world that in the end remains the same.
Shadows in the Vineyard, By Maximillian Potter
Twelve, New York, 2014 ISBN 978-1-4555-1609-4