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Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine

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Journalist Maximillian Potter uncovers a fascinating plot to destroy the vines of La Romanée-Conti, Burgundy's finest and most expensive wine.

In January 2010, Aubert de Villaine, the famed proprietor of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the tiny, storied vineyard that produces the most expensive, exquisite wines in the world, received an anonymous note threatening the destruction of his priceless vines by poison-a crime that in the world of high-end wine is akin to murder-unless...

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Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine

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Journalist Maximillian Potter uncovers a fascinating plot to destroy the vines of La Romanée-Conti, Burgundy's finest and most expensive wine.

In January 2010, Aubert de Villaine, the famed proprietor of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the tiny, storied vineyard that produces the most expensive, exquisite wines in the world, received an anonymous note threatening the destruction of his priceless vines by poison-a crime that in the world of high-end wine is akin to murder-unless he paid a one million euro ransom. Villaine believed it to be a sick joke, but that proved a fatal miscalculation and the crime shocked this fabled region of France. The sinister story that Vanity Fair journalist Maximillian Potter uncovered would lead to a sting operation by some of France's top detectives, the primary suspect's suicide, and a dramatic investigation. This botanical crime threatened to destroy the fiercely traditional culture surrounding the world's greatest wine.

SHADOWS IN THE VINEYARD takes us deep into a captivating world full of fascinating characters, small-town French politics, an unforgettable narrative, and a local culture defined by the twinned veins of excess and vitality and the deep reverent attention to the land that runs through it.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 06/23/2014
A whodunit with a culprit worthy of a Woody Allen film, Potter’s first book is a rich study of a cinematic crime and bona fide page-turner. Expanding on an article first published in Vanity Fair, Potter ushers readers into the Burgundy cellars of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of France’s most prestigious wineries, and introduces its proprietor, the humble Aubert de Villaine, as he outlines a plot to extort a million Euros from him. The author’s passion for his subject is palpable from the outset, as is his fondness for the troubled Villaine, particularly when he receives the first of three packages containing a detailed map of his winery and an ominous threat: some of the vines have been compromised. The race is on as Villaine receive more menacing missives, and the police attempt to head off the extortionist before centuries-old vines are irrevocably damaged. Potter does a terrific job of maintaining the story’s tension without losing his narrative thread. Digressions on the wine market and various viticultural techniques, as well as profiles of the police officers and the criminal they pursued, give the story depth and context. Even the most devout teetotaler will have a hard time putting this one down. Agents: Larry Weissman and Sascha Alper, Larry Weissman Literary. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"SHADOWS IN THE VINEYARD details the tale of a threat so bizarre it seems unreal: one deluded man's attempt at a big score by threatening a true culinary treasure...the prose is evocative...and captures the gravitas of a crime with deep cultural resonance without becoming wonky."—San Francisco Gate

"Books I devoured in the last few weeks impressed me mightily:...SHADOWS IN THE VINEYARD, a nonfiction blending of several genres - culinary, travel, history, true crime by Maximillian Potter, who's an enviably nimble writer."—Frank Bruni, New York Times

"Mr. Potter...tells the story quite vividly-and the book delivers a happy ending as well."—Wall Street Journal, Great Reads

"A gripping crime drama more creative than most procedurals, and Potter does excellent working in fleshing out both the involved players and the historical context of the Burgundy region and its oenophiles."—The Daily Beast

"[Potter] places the crime in a broad, rich, historical and cultural context that is engaging"—USA Today

"Inspired by a daring crime that a lesser writer might reduce to police procedural, Maximillian Potter has opened a portal into a fabled world unknown to outsiders. The story he so compellingly recounts in SHADOWS IN THE VINEYARD breathes, like the hallowed wine at its heart, with life and history and wonder."—Benjamin Wallace, author of The Billionaire's Vinegar

"Aubert de Villaine is the legend behind the legend. DRC is the most celebrated wine on the planet and the place where the alchemy of the soul of the earth, combined with the elements, as well as the knowledge and wisdom of craftsmen, are united to create this magical nectar. But out of nowhere, the dark side interfered and this inconceivable thriller began. This riveting story, where good ultimately triumphs, instills a renewed appreciation of the Côte d'Or region, its people, and the passion that is the fortitude behind this incredible wine."—Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner, Le Bernardin, author of Avec Eric

"A gripping, real-life mystery and an intimate portrait of one of the world's great wine-makers as he battles the man bent on destroying five centuries of greatness. Maximillian Potter has always been an outstanding reporter and now he reveals the fascinating story of France's legendary vineyard, Domaine Romain Conti."—Michael Hainey, author of After Visiting Friends

"An arch-criminal clicks on his headlamp in his underground lair and instantly, you're hooked. SHADOWS IN THE VINEYARD is non-fiction at its nail-biting best, a literary true-crime thriller that plunges you into the manhunt to apprehend - and understand - a mysterious villain who set out to destroy the most treasured wines in the world. SHADOWS IN THE VINEYARD is so full of bizarre twists and one-of-a-kind characters that if you think you know what's coming next, just wait till you turn the page."—Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run

"Maximillian Potter has taken a sinister plot and woven an intriguing story around the most revered wine estate in the world with the most respected winemaker at its helm. Through this event he has painted a colorful tableau filled with fascinating historical evidence on why the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the terroir of Burgundy, and the culture of Burgundy, are among the most treasured and special sites on the planet. Bravo."—Daniel Boulud, James Beard Award-winning chef, and Daniel Johnnes, James Beard Award-winning sommelier

"A whodunit with a culprit worthy of a Woody Allen film, Potter's first book is a rich study of a cinematic crime and bona fide page-turner....Even the most devout teetotaler will have a hard time putting this one down."—Publishers Weekly (STARRED)

Kirkus Reviews
True crime meets rare, expensive French wine.There’s not much actual poison in the narrative. In reality, the plot involved just one sick mind attempting to extort €1 million from one of the richest men in France.This book is much more a reflection of Potter’s exposure to Burgundy on assignment forVanity Fairin 2011. His first taste of the heady wine was a 1999 La Tâche, which was worth hundreds of dollars per bottle. During his assignment, the author received personal guidance through the best wineries in the world by the vignerons, and he was shown the basic art of creating the “ghost in a glass.” The real star of the book is Aubert de Villaine, the proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Growing up amid the vines, he produced wine of the greatest quality when others produced only quantity; he is the face and the driving force of Burgundy’s heritage. Through his eyes, readers see the rich history of wine production in this fecund area of the world, which has consistently produced what have been the most expensive wines in France for almost 300 years. “At auction,” writes the author, “a single bottle of Romanée-Conti from 1945 was then fetching as much as $124,000.” The Institut National des Appellations d’Origine codified the hierarchy of French wine in 1935, taking into consideration the history of the vines and the remarkable science and mysticism ofterroir. Though Potter does explore this concept and provides a solid picture of Villaine and his top-notch wines, the true crime narrative doesn’t live up to the billing.The countryside backdrop is much more interesting that the supposedly hideous criminal plot, but the book may be useful as a guide to the wines of the Côte D’Or.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Many of us were introduced to wine from the mouth of a jug of Almaden. It was probably white Zinfandel, although the truly unfortunate got a slug of Gamay. There is no shame in this. First, this is a rite of initiation — or, as the French would say, rite d'initiation. Second, and this is a little-known secret, the winemakers at Almaden — California's first winery — taught the vignerons of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti all they know about making a bottle of Burgundy. Yes, that Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (hereafter DRC), owner of, among others, a peerless 4.46-acre parcel of Pinot Noir, which in English means "black pinecone," which is something like what Almaden's Gamay tasted like, circa 1969.

The above is partly, or mostly, an embroidery. Lots of kids were launched with a bottle of Blue Nun or a gallon of Gallo. And it was only one of the vignerons of DRC, or rather an aspiring vigneron and scion of the DRC who sat at the knee of Almaden. DRC also owns ?chéazeaux, La Tâche, La Grande Rue, much of the best of the best, and if the scion — his name was Aubert — learned one thing from his sojourn to America and Almaden, it was that they could keep the Gamay. But every vineyard — like every garden — has a snake, and Aubert's was no exception.

Despite Almaden being California's first winery, getting under way in 1852, DRC has a few centuries on them. As Maximillian Potter's dapper Shadows in the Vineyard — a murder mystery wrapped in an often plaintive if luxurious history of the domaine — tells us, Cistercian monks with pointed hoods, those of the lesser rank who toiled in the fields rather than in the scriptorium, were taking measure of the terroir a millennium ago. "Every patch of earth, then every vineyard, with its specific soil and subsoil; with its particular altitude, pitch, and drainage; with its unique exposition to sunlight, wind, and rain, was unique." The Cistercians were nothing if not thorough: "According to legend, they knelt in the vineyards and tasted the earth. They would keep extensive records. They would adjust and refine." Each harvest a new interpretation of terroir. "For at least four centuries of harvests, they explored viticultural techniques and a small handful of varietals. . . . They would learn that the most exalted, the most divine Pinot Noir came from a few parcels on an east-facing slope." Then the nobles moved in — spoiling things the way the rich always do — and taxed the bejesus out of the Cistercians until the best vineyards were in the nobles' hands. Later, by the mid-1800s and the twentieth century, as Potter tells it, the owners and vignerons of DRC were an amiable lot, more interested in quality than quantity, more in poetry in a bottle than the bottom line. Still, the snake had been invited into the vineyard by the aristocracy and the entitled — single bottles go for many hundreds if not many thousands of dollars — nourishing the envy of one man in particular. His name was Jacques Soltys.

Soltys was a sad-sack crackpot refugee from Poland who lived in the Champagne region with his wife, Martine, and son, Cedric. He was a mean drunk, mean husband, and mean father. Jacques was a Keystone Criminal, full of loony schemes that he actually carried out. He tried robbing a bank without a mask and with an unloaded gun. He got caught. First offense; a stint on probation. He robbed a couple more banks. Got caught and got four years. He then took hostages. Got caught and handed fifteen years (out in eight). While on the penal island of St. Martin's, he cooked up the brainstorm to take the vines of DRC hostage. Jacques enlisted his son in a threat to poison the vines and those of another nearby esteemed vineyard, Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé of Chambolle- Musigny, unless the owners came up with the equivalent of a million euros. He told his extortees to leave the cash in a paper bag at a chosen spot in the vineyard. Jacques walked into the vineyard himself to pick up the loot. He got caught. He hanged himself in jail, one of his few successful operations.

So suspense is not going to be Potter's long suit, for you can't turn a shaggy dog into a greyhound. From the start, it is clear that Soltys et fils couldn't pull off this malignancy any more than the Marx Brothers could negotiate a bridge. (Groucho: "I say that's a viaduct." Chico: "Why a duck? Why a no chicken?" Groucho: "Well, I don't know why a no chicken; I'm a stranger here myself.") Soltys is neither sinister nor canny, nor even sympathetic. Of the more than 700 vines he and Cedric drilled, they poisoned only four, two in each vineyard. Into the remainder, they inserted a piece of black wire. Maybe a 99- percenter impulse churned in Soltys's addled head, but this is no "plot"; this is plain weird.

If Potter will not be bringing home the Edgar Award this year, his history of the Burgundian region is a winner. He has a fine time with the long and storied record of the domaine; all the intrigue and near misses; the comings and goings of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Mozart; the many other snakes in the vineyard; the blights and the sour years (as well as a little flower arranging with his sentences: "The vines were frost dusted and barren, twisted and vulnerable, like the skeletons of arthritic hands reaching for spring"). Soltys is an interesting footnote but not nearly as beguiling as a swath of earth known as "the slope of night." More of these goods, and Shadows in the Vineyard could have taken a seat next to Simon Loftus's Puligny-Montrachet. Unfortunately, Soltys is more in the way than a vehicle for our fascination, turning what might have been a bottle of Burgundy to cellar into a Beaujolais nouveau, fresh but fleeting.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781455516100
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 7/29/2014
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 28,897
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Maximillian Potter

Maximillian Potter, an award-winning journalist, is the senior media adviser for the governor of Colorado. He was the executive editor of 5280: Denver's Magazine, and previously a staff writer at Premiere, Philadelphia, and GQ. He has been a contributing editor to Men's Health/Best Life and Details, and contributes to Vanity Fair. Potter is a native of Philadelphia, with a BA from Allegheny College and an MSJ from Northwestern University's Medill School. He lives in Denver with his wife and two sons.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 9, 2014

    It's not often you come across books that read as compelling, fi

    It's not often you come across books that read as compelling, fictional accounts cast in the world of wine. Rarer still that such an account could be non-fiction and based, very accurately, on actual events. This is why this book is such a delight to read. Yes, Potter steeps us in the intoxicating atmosphere that is Burgundy, with the glowing tenor and timbre of anyone that has had the privilege to travel and spend some time there. But the real hook for me, as a wine lover and someone in the industry, was the realization that this whole story actually took place, building over centuries and culminating in the act of terroirism just a couple of years ago.

    The novel reads as much a biographical account of Aubert de Villaine as it does a crime plot, which only endears itself to the reader. The language, whilst never technical, is technically accurate, and an immense educational exercise whether you're a novice or an expert. A wonderful book to read and just as others have already mentioned, a great gift for just about anyone, but especially those tuned in to wine.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2014

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