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The Assassin in the Vineyard

Who would poison the vines of La Romanée-Conti, the tiny, centuries-old vineyard that produces what most agree is Burgundy’s finest, rarest, and most expensive wine? When Aubert de Villaine received an anonymous note, in January 2010, threatening the destruction of his priceless heritage unless he paid a one-million-euro ransom, he thought it was a sick joke. But, as Maximillian Potter reveals, the attack on Romanée-Conti was only too real: an unprecedented and decidedly un-French crime.


MASTER OF HIS DOMAINE Seventy-one-year-old Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of France’s most celebrated vineyards, photographed in front of his property in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or.

The winter-night sky above the Côte d’Or countryside of Burgundy, in eastern France, is cloudless, with just enough moon to illuminate the snow-covered ground and silhouettes. From dense woods atop a hill, a man emerges. He moves from the trees and starts down the gently sloping hillside—and almost immediately he is surrounded by vineyard. The vines are frost-dusted and barren, twisted and vulnerable, like the skeletons of arthritic hands reaching for spring.

The vineyard is within a sea of vineyards that stretches seemingly without end to the man’s left and right: row after row after row they unfurl, barely separated from one another by ribbons of fallow land or narrow road. In the direction he walks, easterly, the vines flow with him down the hill, continuing as the ground flattens, until off in the distance they end at a small village. The hamlet, Vosne-Romanée, is constructed of ancient stone and topped with shake shingles, its humble, storybook skyline marked by a church steeple. At this late hour, in early January 2010, shutters are closed, and no one stirs.

As the man descends the hill, navigating the vines, he exudes the purpose of someone who knows precisely where he’s headed and what must be done when he gets there. All around him the vine rows are so uniformly straight it’s evident they have been meticulously arranged, painstakingly cultivated. At one particular vineyard, the man stops. Unlike the vineyards around it, this one is marked by a monument: a tall, gray, stone cross that towers over the vines like a sacred scarecrow. In the base of the cross are engravings; there’s a date: 1723. The cross is perched atop a section of a low stone wall, and affixed to the wall is a sign in both French and English. It reads:

MANY PEOPLE COME TO VISIT THIS SITE AND WE UNDERSTAND. WE ASK YOU NEVERTHELESS TO REMAIN ON THE ROAD AND REQUEST THAT UNDER NO CONDITION YOU ENTER THE VINEYARD. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COMPREHENSION.

Here, in the vineyard called La Romanée-Conti, the man drops to his knees. For a moment, it appears that he might pray, that he might be one of the thousands of devotees who every year for decades now have come from around the world to see this patch of earth that oenophiles regard as a kind of mecca-Xanadu.

“A fabulous thing”—so begins one of the books about this vineyard. “Mysterious, sensuous, transcendental, the greatest wine in the dukedom of Burgundy, once reserved for the table of princes, its origins blurred in the mists of time—cannot help but spawn fabulists. For two centuries, no wine—no vineyard—has so deeply and so consistently motivated man’s mythologizing instinct as La Romanée-Conti.”

But the man has come for other reasons entirely. His breath puffing into the frigid night air, he reaches to his forehead, and a headlamp flicks on. From his shadow of a shape, he produces a cordless drill and a syringe. He begins to drill into the pied de vigne—the foot of the vine—the low whir of the drill’s motor lost in the cold, smothered by the overwhelming quiet. He moves to a neighboring vine, less than a yard away, and does the same.

He takes up the syringe. He plunges it into the hole he has drilled in one of the vines and injects some of the syringe’s contents. He performs the same procedure on the other vine. The man collects his drill and syringe, turns off his headlamp, and makes his way up the hill. He steps from the sea of vineyard and disappears back into the trees.

The Holy Grail

Burgundy’s Côte d’Or is arguably the world’s most enigmatic wine-growing region. About a three-hour drive southeast of Paris, it is a 30-mile-long-by-two-mile-wide slice of countryside between Dijon in the north and Beaune to the south. Within Burgundy—or Bourgogne—there are dozens of subregions, and within those, numerous towns and villages. Vosne-Romanée is a village in the Côte d’Or. And in this relatively tiny sliver of Burgundy there are literally hundreds of vineyards, or climats.

Although the region cultivates almost exclusively one type of red grape, the Pinot Noir, the wines of each climat are distinctive. This is not the hype of wine marketers or the sales pitch of French wine brokers—négociants—but rather a geological fact. Abrupt, dramatic changes in fault lines and other natural phenomena unique to the Côte mean the characteristics—the terroir—of individual climats, even ones side by side, can be wildly different. So, too, then are their Pinot grapes. Along with the hundreds of climats, there are almost as many wine-making domaines, and most every domaine has its own viticulture techniques. Therefore, to refer to a wine from this area as a “Pinot Noir” means nothing and discounts everything.

All of these same factors are what draw discerning oenophiles and savvy collectors to Burgundy. The diversity, the complexity, the romantic alchemy of it all, when done well, when uncorked and dancing over the palate, are what make Burgundies … well, so divine. As the writer Matt Kramer put it in his critically acclaimed guide to the region, Making Sense of Burgundy, “Even the most skeptical are willing, after savoring a genuinely great Burgundy, to concede that there may well be—dare one say it?—a Presence in the universe beyond our own.”

The fact that Burgundy has such a small wine-growing region and produces, comparatively speaking—in relation, say, to the expansive French Bordeaux region—so few bottles only makes the quest for the finest Burgundies all the more worthwhile. One would be hard-pressed to find an educated wine-lover who would disagree with Robert Sleigh, one of Sotheby’s leading wine experts, when he says, “Romanée-Conti is hands down the best and rarest Burgundy in the world—the Holy Grail.” The legendary vineyard is a postage stamp of soil at 4.46 acres, producing roughly 500 cases annually, which is less than one-fiftieth the production of Bordeaux’s Château Lafite Rothschild.

Indeed, whatever superlatives can be ascribed to a wine apply to the eponymous wine from the Romanée-Conti vineyard. It ranks among the very top of the most highly coveted, most expensive wines in the world. According to the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s exclusive American distributor, Wilson Daniels, acquiring or purchasing a bottle is as simple as calling your local “fine-wine retailer.” However, because D.R.C. is produced in such limited quantities, and because the high-end wine market is such an intricate and virtually impenetrable web of advance orders—futures—and aftermarket wheeling and dealing, it’s not as simple as the distributor suggests. Wilson Daniels’s own Web site points would-be D.R.C. buyers to wine-searcher.com, which is a worldwide marketplace for wine sales and online auctions. There, the average price for a single bottle from 2007 (excluding tax and the buyers’ premium) is R35,455—and that’s the most recent vintage available.

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