Plot To Poison Famed French Wine Makes For Gripping (Pinot) Noir

Jul 26, 2014
Originally published on July 26, 2014 4:18 pm

Romanée-Conti — a legendary French vineyard — produces one of the most elegant and extravagantly-priced wines in the world. In January 2010, proprietor Aubert de Villaine received a threat to his livelihood, if not his life: Pay more than 1 million euros in ransom, or his Burgundy vines would be poisoned.

Maximillian Potter first wrote about this plot for Vanity Fair and has now authored a book called Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine.

This wine, he tells NPR's Scott Simon, is really something special: "Without being overly hyperbolic, it's definitely the finest flavor I've even had in my mouth," he says. "I drank it and ... I was immediately filled with an incredible warmth. It just seemed like something that was alive and wonderful and warm."


Interview Highlights

On vineyard proprietor Aubert de Villaine

Before I went to Burgundy and I had the opportunity to meet him, in my mind's eye, I saw, you know, a soft palmed, ascot-wearing French aristocrat who probably didn't spend too much time in the vines and delegated the real work. And, when I met him, within a very short period of talking to him, it was abundantly clear to me just how wrong I had been. He's one of the first to work in the morning, he's one of the last to leave. He drives the French version of a very economically priced station wagon. I thought of him at different times as a kind of Sam Walton almost in terms of his work ethic and demeanor.

On de Villaine coming home one night to find a cardboard cylinder addressed to him – with a map and a note inside

Well, first he looks at the map and he recognizes it immediately to be a map of Romanée-Conti, the crown jewel of France's vineyards, and certainly his crown jewel of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. He sees a very detailed drawing of the vineyard, every single vine is marked. And then he opens a note and it informs him that there's a plot underway that is attacking his vines and that if he wants his vines to live, to stay tuned for another note ... [that would] make clear their demands and how those demands could be met.

On calling French law enforcement for help

After Monsieur Aubert de Villaine received the first note, his initial reaction was to dismiss it as a joke in horribly bad taste. When he received the second note, which laid out, in its certain terms just exactly what was going on and foreshadowed the possibility of the devastation in a way that Monsieur de Villaine could not ignore. Then he began to think about: How do I deal with this.

And so he didn't mess around; he called the French version of the FBI, which was the Police Nationale and within minutes of talking with Monsieur de Villaine the inspector on the other end knew right away how serious this was. And he went to the head of the Police Nationale who at the time, was a fellow by the name of Christian Lothion. And he dispatched his best investigators from Paris to Burgundy to oversee this investigation.

On a few wild goose chases

The investigators had quite a few wild goose chases. And the first one was ... the police were tracing one of the packages through the French version of Federal Express. And there was a coding mistake that was made and they descended on this one poor fellow who was coming home from work at a plumbing supply shop. And it turned out that he was ordering ... a PlayStation. And just when the police were starting to get demoralized is when they had their breakthrough.

On setting up a sting operation

The investigations after several goose chases were reaching a point where they really were beginning to turn their attention toward the serious possibility that there was an inside job. At that moment, they received the final of several notes from the bad guys. And it directed them to place 1 million Euro, in cash, in a suitcase and deliver to a cemetery in the town of Chambolle-Musigny, which is a small hamlet just to the north of Vosne-Romanée. The plan was that because Monsieur de Villaine was out of town, Jean-Charles Cuvelier, his right hand man, volunteered to be the bag man. He carried in a bag of counterfeit cash into the cemetery. And shortly thereafter, one of the bad guys emerged to come and collect it. And that was the beginning of the end.

On the man who was ultimately arrested

He wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. His name is Jacques Soltys. The plan that he enacted really wasn't his idea. He had been a career criminal [or rather] he was a career prisoner ... and during his last stint inside, someone gave him the idea: Hey, in Burgundy they treat their vineyards as sacrosanct. And most of them are French noblemen and aristocrats, they don't like gossip. They are wealthy; you could probably extort them, threaten them and get them to pay you just to have [you] go away.

Once basically the plan became his, he undid himself and he's the guy who planned the bag drop-off in the cemetery in the middle of the night. ... They could have done a digital transfer. He set himself up for failure, for sure.

On the value of Romanée-Conti today

I think there's a renewed appreciation for what it represents — and for the philosophies and spirituality and tenderness and care and history that are all tangled in the vines of Romanée-Conti.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Romanee-Conti is one of the most famed vineyards in the world - in history, really - where they produce one of the most elegant and extravagantly-priced wines in the world. In January of 2010, Aubert de Villaine, the famed proprietor, got a threat to his livelihood, if not his life - pay more than a million Euro in ransom or his Burgundy vines that have produced wines famed all over the world would be poisoned. Maximillian Potter first wrote about this plot for Vanity Fair magazine. He's been a staff writer for Premier and GQ magazines and is now senior media adviser to the governor of Colorado. His new book - "Shadows In The Vineyard: The True Story Of The Plot To Poison The World's Greatest Wine." Maximillian Potter joins us from member station KUVO in Denver. Thanks so much for being with us.

MAXIMILLIAN POTTER: My immense pleasure, Scott. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: First off, how good is this wine?

POTTER: Without being overly hyperbolic, it's definitely the finest flavor I've ever had in my mouth. I drank it and, you know, I was immediately filled with an incredible warmth. And it just seemed like something that was alive and wonderful and warm.

SIMON: Tell us about the Grand Monsieur of this wine, Aubert de Villaine. This is his wine. This is his family.

POTTER: I'll give you the before and after, Scott. Before I went to Burgundy and I had the opportunity to meet him, in my mind's eye, I saw, you know, a soft-palmed, ascot-wearing French aristocrat who probably didn't spend too much time in the vines and delegated the real work. And when I met him, within a very short period of talking to him, it was abundantly clear to me just how wrong I had been. He's one of the first to work in the morning. He's one of the last to leave. He drives the French version of a very economically priced station wagon. I thought of him at different times as a kind of Sam Walton almost in terms of his work ethic and demeanor.

SIMON: So the Grand Monsieur comes home one night and there's a cardboard cylinder addressed to him...

POTTER: Yeah.

SIMON: ...And a map and a note inside. What was that about?

POTTER: Well, first he looks at the map and he recognizes it immediately to be a map of Romanee-Conti, the crown jewel of France's vineyards and certainly his crown jewel, the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. He sees a very detailed drawing of the vineyard. Every single vine is marked. And then he opens a note. And it informs him that there's a plot underway that is attacking his vines. And that if he wants his vines to live, to stay tuned for another note where the bad guy or bad guys - at this time no one knew who they were - was going to make clear their demands and how those demands could be met.

SIMON: Did it become a matter of national importance to the French national police to find the alleged perps?

POTTER: Yes. So after Monsieur de Villaine received the first note, his initial reaction was to dismiss it as a joke in horribly bad taste. When he received the second note - which laid out in uncertain terms just exactly what was going on and foreshadowed the possibility of the devastation in a way that Monsieur de Villaine could not ignore - then he began to think about how do I deal with this? And so he didn't mess around. And he called the French version of the FBI, which is the Police Nationale. And within minutes of talking with Monsieur de Villaine, the inspector on the other end knew right away how serious this was. And he went to the head of the Police Nationale, who at the time was a fellow by the name of Christian Lothion. And he dispatched his best investigators from Paris to Burgundy to oversee this investigation.

SIMON: As I guess you would in any investigation, they had a few wild goose chases, didn't they?

POTTER: The investigators had quite a few wild goose chases. And the first one was through a mix - the police were tracing one of the packages through the French version of Federal Express. And there was a coding mistake that was made. And they descended on this one poor fellow who was coming home from work at a plumbing supply shop. And it turned out that he was ordering an Xbox.

SIMON: A PlayStation or something, right?

POTTER: A PlayStation...

SIMON: Right.

POTTER: It was a PlayStation. And just when the police were starting to get demoralized is when they had their breakthrough.

SIMON: How did they ultimately get on the right track and plan a sting operation?

POTTER: Well, the investigation - after several goose chases - were reaching a point where they really were beginning to turn their attention toward the serious possibility that it was an inside job. At that moment, they received the final of several notes from the bad guys. And it directed them to place 1 million Euro in cash in a suitcase and deliver it to the cemetery in the town of Chambolle-Musigny, which is a small hamlet just to the north of Vosne-Romanee. And the plan was that because Monsieur de Villaine was out of town, Jean-Charles Cuvelier, his right-hand man, volunteered to be the bag man. He carried in a bag of counterfeit cash into the cemetery. And shortly thereafter, one of the bad guys emerged to come and collect it. And that was the beginning of the end.

SIMON: As it turns out, the man ultimately arrested, who turns out to be behind the plot - let me just put it this way, we're not exactly talking about John Dillinger here, are we?

POTTER: (Laughing). No, he wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. His name is Jacques Soltys. The plan that he enacted really wasn't his idea. He had been a career criminal and...

SIMON: Or trying to be a career criminal. Sounds like he kept striking out. He was a career prisoner.

POTTER: He was a career prisoner. That's fair. And during his last stint inside, someone gave him the idea. Hey, in Burgundy, they treat their vineyards as sacrosanct. And most of them are French nobleman and aristocrats. They don't like gossip. They're wealthy. You could probably extort them, threaten them, and get them to pay you just to have them go away. Once basically the plan became his, he undid himself and that - he's the guy that planned the bag drop-off in the cemetery of the middle of the night. There's any number of ways - I mean, they could've done a digital transfer. He set himself up for failure for sure.

SIMON: Yeah. Mr. Potter, is Romanee-Conti, if anything, even a little more precious today?

POTTER: Well, you know, every year, Burgundy as a region - the prices are going up and up and up, unlike Bordeaux by the way. In terms of a more existential value, in Burgundy, in France and with oenophiles around the world, I think there's a renewed appreciation for what it represents and for the philosophies and spirituality and tenderness and care and history that are all tangled in the vines of Romanee-Conti.

SIMON: And to be absolutely plain, if you have some, you don't like mix it with club soda, right?

POTTER: No, you want to drink that straight.

SIMON: Maximillian Potter - his new book "Shadows In The Vineyard: The True Story Of The Plot To Poison The World's Greatest Wine." Mr. Potter, thanks so much.

POTTER: My immense pleasure. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.