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Uneven vintage: Poison plot in famous vineyard lacks complexity

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/8/2014 (1113 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

So much to do with wine brings with it an air of snobbery. While the stuff is increasingly user-friendly, there are still plenty of writers, winemakers and marketing companies that perpetuate wine -- especially the pricy stuff -- with a vernacular that's melodramatic or just plain snooty.

Sadly, Maximillian Potter's Shadows in the Vineyard falls into that trap -- somewhat surprising, given that the writer isn't a wine geek by trade, but rather a Vanity Fair contributor, as well as an adviser to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

A lot of 55 bottles of "Domaine de la Romanee Conti's Romanee Conti" ranging from year 1952 to 2007, with exception of the 1968, is on display during the auction preview in Hong Kong Wednesday Dec. 7, 2011.


A lot of 55 bottles of "Domaine de la Romanee Conti's Romanee Conti" ranging from year 1952 to 2007, with exception of the 1968, is on display during the auction preview in Hong Kong Wednesday Dec. 7, 2011.

Shadows in the Vineyard grew out of a 2011 Vanity Fair piece entitled The Assassin in the Vineyard, a long-read article that details the plot by one man to poison the vines that produce what Potter calls the world's greatest wine -- namely, the plants that produce grapes grown by Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The Burgundian producer makes about a half-dozen wines, but its eponymous release (often referred to as DRC) is the big kahuna, costing hundreds of dollars per bottle -- providing you can even find one.

The backstories of winery and vineyard are well-padded, taking up three of the book's first four chapters and encompassing a timeline between the late 18th century to the post-Second World War era.

Aubert de Villaine, Romanée-Conti's patriarch and referred to as "le Grand Monsieur," is painted with quite a sympathetic, often-poetic brush. In fact, it would be more accurate to sell Shadows as a biography of de Villaine, which just so happens to contain a chapter or two on the "plot to poison" the vineyard.

Readers expecting mystery and thrills throughout Shadows might yearn to skip pages, or chapters, to get past the historical filler and back to the crime story.

And, the crime: In January 2010, de Villaine and an associate each received a letter as well as a detailed map of the Romanée-Conti vineyard in the mail. The villain, later revealed to be a man named Jacques Soltys, had built a concealed tent-like structure near the vineyard, living in the woods for a long period of time and studying the vineyard from between the vines at night.

In the letter, Soltys, a 57-year-old trained winemaker, details how he poisoned two vines in the historic vineyard, and threatens to poison more in the 1.6-hectare plot if he doesn't receive a one-million-euro ransom -- straight-up blackmail.

With the help of authorities and de Villaine's right-hand man, Jean-Charles Cuvelier, a trap is set, the bait (fake euros and a tracking device) is snagged by Soltys, and the jig is up.

He was found hanged in his cell in July 2010.

Potter takes great liberties in his storytelling -- while the book is dubbed a work of non-fiction, there's plenty of dialogue from historic eras (and, therefore, people he couldn't have met) of which there could not possibly be such accurate records.

As a bio of Aubert de Villaine, Shadows is a fairly touching, somewhat satisfying read. For those looking for more true-crime stuff, keep moving.

Near the book's end, Potter describes tasting the Domaine's prestigious wines with le Grand Monsieur, and it's nothing short of a complete love-in. The first Burgundy Potter ever tastes is Romanée-Conti's 2008 La Tache: "My immediate reaction, and I mean this, was I wanted to turn and hug Monsier Aubert de Villaine."

While clearly an emotional event for Potter, it pales in comparison to when he next tastes the 2010 Romanée-Conti, the Domaine's flagship wine.

It's practically poetic catharsis in a glass: "When I opened my eyes, I found that I had welled up. I thought of my wife. I thought of my children, my enfants. I wanted to hold them all and tell them that life is good; that no matter what evil there may be in the world, there is Burgundy, there is wine, there is light, there is love."

And there is nothing goes better with a great wine than a little cheese.


Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson is the Free Press literary editor and wine columnist.

Read more reviewed by Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson.


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Updated on Saturday, August 2, 2014 at 8:34 AM CDT: Formatting.

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