Excerpted with permission from Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine by Maximillian Potter, to be published on July 29 by Twelve, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing.
The chamber the man had built for himself was small and dark, filled with a kind of disquieting energy. The very same things could be said for his mind.
It was a late fall night in 2009, and inside that small, dark space, he began to stir. A barely audible click, then a light—his headlamp.
He had been lying down, not so much resting as he was waiting for nightfall. Now that it was about 1 a.m., just when he was certain the world around him was asleep, he rose and readied himself.
He was short and squat, with a thick neck and a head like a canned ham. He shuffled about as one tends to do in darkened, cramped quarters. He bumped into things. He was groggy. His breathing heavy. Always, there was wine in his blood.
As the man moved, his tiny spotlight moved with him, darting here and there, illuminating his surroundings in flashes: four walls, a couple of center posts, a roof. The framework formed a chamber no larger than eighty square feet. The limbs that served as vertical supports were anchored into a dirt floor. Wall and ceiling unions bound together by rope and L-brackets. Exterior walls and roof made of blue plastic tarps stretched taut. Blue plastic also covered the floor and on top of the plastic, like a flower floating on a mud puddle, a brightly colored doormat. The overall aesthetic of the place was akin to Robinson Crusoe meets the Unabomber.
The interior felt vacuum-sealed. The trapped air was greenhouse humid, weighted atmosphere, invisible cobwebbing, stale. Tolerably uncomfortable. That the space was subterranean, burrowed into the earth like a giant weasel warren, was palpable. So, too, were the smells: plastic of the tarps, dirt, body odor, laundry in need of washing, pungent cheese, stale wine.
Along the east wall was a cot, also made of tree branches and topped with a foam mat and a sleeping bag. Against the west wall a hot plate, pots and pans, and a narrow table—a plywood top affixed to tree-branch legs. On the floor, around the interior perimeter, plastic bins were neatly stacked, even under the cot and table. Tight. Well organized. All in all, an efficient use of meager space, correctly giving the impression that this was someone accustomed to making use of a confined room.
An array of items was scattered on his makeshift table: a clock-radio, an MP3 player, work gloves, a jar of moutarde, a Tupperware container of carottes, a small wheel of Lepetit brand cheese, a pair of bent and smudged bifocals, a diary-like notebook. And there was a magazine—one of those large-format, richly colored glossies. In the headlamp's light the magazine's cover shined like a polished pearl. It was titled Bourgogne Aujourd'hui, or "Burgundy Today," a periodical dedicated to Les Vins et les Vignobles de Bourgogne, "The Wines and Vineyards of Burgundy." One of the stories in that issue was a feature on the legendary Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
On just about any list of the world's twenty-five top-rated wines, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti regularly places seven: Richebourg, Échézeaux, Grands Échézeaux, La Tâche, Romanee‐St.-Vivant, the Domaine's only white grand cru, Montrachet, and the world's very best wine, which is the winery's namesake grand cru, Romanée-Conti. For its unparalleled and sustained excellence, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti is known by wine critics and serious oenophiles around the world and frequently referred to by its initials, or simply as the Domaine.
The article noted the insatiable market—the legal and otherwise "gray" market—for the wine. This, despite the fact that not surprisingly the wines also happen to be among the very most expensive in the world. A bottle of the Domaine's least expensive wine, Échézeaux, in the most recent vintage available, which is typically the least expensive vintage of any wine, was then going for about $350. For a single bottle of the Domaine's priciest wine, Romanée-Conti, the cost was roughly ten times that of the Échézeaux, at $3,500.
As astonishing as those retail prices were, they were misleadingly low. Because the Romanée-Conti vineyard is so very small—4.46 acres—and because its yield is kept low, the wine is extraordinarily rare. What's more, the Domaine itself keeps strict control over its allotted sales to distributors and select individual clients who buy up the wine in pre-sale orders before the wine is even bottled.
This current project with the vines, it was not that kind of job. Still, he kept a pistol nearby, just in case.
Frankly, there is almost zero chance of finding a bottle or Romanée-Conti in your local fine wine retailer at all. Thus the shady back-channel "gray" market and the wine's booming Internet and auction sales, where the price for a bottle of the most recent vintage of Romanée-Conti—which for all practical purposes is the baseline price—was then more like $10,000 per bottle.
Bottle for bottle, vintage for vintage, Romanée-Conti is the most coveted, rarest, and thereby the most expensive wine on the planet. At auction, a single bottle of Romanée-Conti from 1945 was then fetching as much as $124,000.
In one of the photos that accompanied the article the Romanée-Conti vineyard indeed appeared to be a remarkably tiny patch of earth at the base of a gently sloping hillside. Nothing at all outwardly different from the ocean of vineyards around it. A low stone wall lined a portion of its borders. On top of the wall stood a tall, concrete cross, its elongated shadow swimming across the leafy canopy tops behind it.
In another picture, a draft horse tugged a plow between the vine rows. It was a contemporary photograph, to be sure, which made the antiquated farming technique appear all the more odd. These pages of the magazine were dog-eared and pen-marked, as if the man had lain in his cot studying the pages over and over again.
Also among the items on the makeshift table were three bottles of wine: a Côtes du Rhône, an Écusson Grand Cidre, and a Hérault. All of them drunk into varying degrees of fill levels. The label on the bottle of Grand Cidre promoted it as cuvée spéciale. This distinction, as the man had been formally educated and generally raised to recognize, was little more than one of the wine world's many gimmicks.
There was nothing especially spécial or grand about the Grand Cidre, or, for that matter, the other two bottles—except maybe that they had been in the special sale section at the local supermarché. These wines were what the French referred to as "common." The sort of plonk you'd pick up for a few euros at the local SuperU if you wanted to wash down a microwavable quiche, or, if you were in the market for something to polish off in order to forget, to ease nerves, or, as was now the case for the man, to gin up what might pass for courage before executing the unthinkable.
His selection of wines from the Côtes du Rhône and Hérault regions of France, the man knew, amounted to a perverse irony. It was in the southern part of the Rhône-Hérault region, a century and a half earlier, that a trespasser had crawled into the vineyards and launched an attack on vinestocks that wiped out nearly every vineyard in France. It was a nationwide economic issue, a countrywide identity crisis. Authorities of the time dubbed that menace Phylloxera vastatrix—aka the "devastator of vines."
And now here he was.
About to go out into the night and return to the Romanée-Conti vineyard where he would do his own destruction. He was almost done.
Over the years, for previous jobs—"projects," as he liked to call them—the man had relied on pipes, handcuffs, guns. During the job he was on before this one he had made a point of laying out all three of those tools, piece by piece, ever so slowly, on the kitchen table of his female victim in order to terrify her into compliance.
On that job, which he executed in another famous French wine region, Bordeaux, the man had proven he would pull a trigger, even if it meant taking aim at les policiers of the gendarmerie. However, he had done enough crimes, done enough time, exchanged enough gunfire, to realize there were easier ways to take a buck. This current project with the vines, it was not that kind of job; those kind of tools and that kind of risk were not necessary. That's what the man told himself. Still, he kept a pistol nearby, just in case.
His headlamp beam settled on a container not much larger than a lunch box. It was on the floor near the cot. He opened the case. Inside was a battery-operated drill. A Black & Decker. Not far from the drill, a few syringe-like devices similar in size and appearance to turkey basters. He grasped one of the syringes—his fingers were as stubby as hors d'oeuvres sausages—and reached for a plastic gallon container and from it clumsily poured a liquid into the syringe.
His heavy breathing became more strained as he pulled on calf-high green rubber boots. From a hanger dangling on one of the crossbar tree limbs he removed a long hooded rain jacket. Green and rubbery like the boots, it wasn't so much a coat as it was a hooded cape. He put it on, tucked the drill and syringe into a pouch belted about his waist, and turned to the door.
The hatch, too, was made of sticks. He pulled on the door, once, then again. The bottom of the door, as always happened, had snagged on the dirt ground. He opened it just enough to squeeze through.
Outside, the chilly air sent a shiver up his sweaty back. He scrambled a few feet up into a small clearing surrounded by dense woods. The night sky was as black and as soft as tuxedo satin. So many stars. The moon was full and bright. Liquidy, as if the orb were filled with white lava. Wisps of clouds crossed its face. There was no need for the headlamp. He clicked it off. Doing so decreased the already slim chance of his being noticed.
He waited a moment to give his eyes time to adjust.
Sometimes, at about this hour, there were the sounds of wild boar cracking through the woods around him. Off in the distance, straight out in front of him, to the east, he could hear the faint whooshing whistle-groan of the TGV. The high-speed train streaked along tracks either bound for the city of Dijon in the north or heading south toward Beaune.
The train was how he would make his getaway. He was so close. He just needed to finish this last critical bit, then collect the money, and take his cut, and be gone.
As he stood there above the shelter, it would have been understandable if the man felt a sense of accomplishment. Viewed from this perspective his handiwork was all the more impressive. His flat, square box of a cabin was inside a square ditch. The walls, which were about six feet high, were almost entirely below ground level. The exterior was wrapped in olive-colored plastic tarp. The roof, covered over with leaves and twigs, was indistinguishable from the forest floor.
Some of the most skilled detectives of the French national police soon would come to learn you could fly a helicopter over it a dozen times and not see it. Hell, you could be standing right next to it and never realize it was there. Investigators would marvel at the structure. The excavation alone, not to mention everything else involved in erecting and equipping the place—sturdy, water resistant, bivouacked into the earth, buffered from the wind, masterfully camouflaged . . . it had taken months.
The man headed off into the woods.
Within minutes he emerged from the forest and stepped into a panorama that was as expansive and as ethereal as his shelter was small and squalid. A silhouette in the hooded cape, he stood atop a hill, his pulse throbbing within his thick neck. As he had done so many nights before, he scanned the landscape to make sure all was clear.
In the moon's glow, the view was empowering; the world was at his feet: Spilling down the hillside and then everywhere was a vast patchwork of vineyards. Sprawling straight out in front of him, to the east, and to the north and south, seemingly without end. Row after row they unfurled, barely separated from one another by ribbons of fallow land or narrow road. The vines were frost dusted and barren, twisted and vulnerable, like the skeletons of arthritic hands reaching for spring.
Just as he had come to expect, just as it had gone on the previous nights, no one else was out. The only movement was the headlights out east, well beyond the vines. The cars traveled on Route Nationale 74. Beyond the RN‐74, the train tracks. He could once again have his way without fear of detection. It never ceased to amaze him, to please him, that so much value was just left there unprotected.
The hill—the côte—on which he stood is part of a formation that stretches through much of the Côte d'Or, some twenty miles to the north and twenty miles to the south. He turned right and took a footpath south.
The sound, the soft whir of the drill's motor, registered as nothing in the vast quiet.
With the vines to his left and the tree line on his immediate right, he took the path for about a half mile. He then descended the slope and entered the vines.
The vine rows continued as the hill flattened out and then right up to the edge of the small hamlet, less than a mile away. The tiny town's skyline was humbly marked by a church steeple. Walking through the vines in the direction of the town, he exuded the purpose of someone who knew precisely where he was headed and what must be done when he arrived.
Midway between the hilltop and the town, on the upper edge of a vineyard that was at the base of the gently sloping hillside, he stopped and fell to his knees. Had anyone happened upon him he might have appeared to be praying. Which he knew would not have been unusual.
For months, he had been casing the vineyards, on bike and on foot. He watched as people from all over the world arrived every day at that vineyard. Some were your typical tourists. Many, however, were zealots, passionate about Burgundy wines. Like pilgrims traveling to Mecca, these "Burghounds" came not so much to see the vineyard, but rather to behold its presence. Often these pilgrims quite literally would kneel. Always they would go to the tall, concrete cross towering over the vines and snap a photograph.
Affixed to the low stone wall, not far from the cross, was a sign. Words written in French and in English stated:
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.
— THE MANAGEMENT
Truth be told—and the Management realized this—it was not unusual for a visitor to dismiss the sign; to throw a leg over the wall—wait for a moment as if they half expected an alarm to sound—then throw the other leg over the wall and timidly scurry a few feet into the vines and pluck one of the grapes for a taste, or to grab a handful of soil, or even to pocket one of the small chunks of white stone peppered throughout the vineyard.
It was with a mix of pride and benevolence that the Management had resigned itself to the reality of these occasional acts. Not that the Management encouraged such behavior or would ever look the other way if they were present to witness such an intrusion, but they realized these lawbreakers do what they do only out of admiration, adoration even; they meant no harm; they were misguided but well-intentioned. They were like the tourists who ignore the many clearly posted signs at the entrance of the Sistine Chapel and nevertheless snap photographs of Michelangelo's ceiling masterpiece.
Only this vineyard was more ancient; its history every bit as epic, and, to many, even more sacred than that of any of Michelangelo's sixteenth-century paintings. Unlike a masterwork painting, this scene didn't seem to come alive—it was alive. And while the wine it produced was out of financial reach for most mortals, locked away in cellars of wealthy collectors, as far as the vineyard goes there were no alarms, no security personnel, no cameras—the vineyard was right there in the open, just off to the side of a strip of crumbling road, within reach of everyone, vulnerable to anyone.
The man got down on all fours. His barely moonlit face hovered inches above where the vinestocks were married to the earth. The tendrils of his hot breath rose into the night. The topsoil was cold and hard, but scratch just beneath the surface, dig down a few inches as the man did and there was . . .
Mon dieu, le senteur.
Nutrient-rich, rocky soil that had been churned over and over again thousands of times, hundreds of thousands of times, so that the earth could breathe and the vines could drink, hydrating roots that at that very moment, every moment, pushed through, around the rocky geological layers below—pushing through both because of and despite nature.
It filled his nostrils, cut to those parts of his brain that triggered memories of his childhood. His father.
Here, though, the smell was different.
This earth emanated a musk. A musk infused with the scents of salty ocean, minced seashells, a wet minerality—like chalky stone damp with spring rain.
Here the geology was luscious. This earthiness, odd as it may sound, was mouthwatering. There was an aromatic come-hither temptation to taste the dirt, to want a "droplet" of its textures to roll and spread, and rest in the back of the mouth. A musk that caused the tongue to fatten with anticipation of . . . a sip.
He produced the cordless drill and the syringe-like device. He pressed the drill bit into the vinestock, just where the vine disappeared into the earth, and he began to drill. Into the pied de vigne—the foot of the vine.
The sound, the soft whir of the drill's motor, registered as nothing in the vast quiet. In the distance, the quaint town, with its shutters drawn, was too far off, too asleep, too trusting to notice. No one in all of Burgundy—really, no one in all the world—had ever contemplated that anyone would conceive, let alone execute, such an act, such a sacrilege.
Crouched among the vines, the man shifted his attention to a neighboring vinestock. It was less than a yard away from the one he'd already drilled. With the Black & Decker, he repeated the same procedure on the foot of that vine.
Next he took the syringe, inserted it into one the holes he had drilled, and injected some of the syringe's contents. He did the same to the other vine, emptying out the rest of the liquid. From his pouch, he fished out two tiny wooden plugs; he pushed one into each of the holes he drilled and returned the soil around the vinestocks, best as he could, to the way he found it. As if they had never been disturbed.
The man understood perfectly what he was doing in terms of the crime, in terms of the science of the vine—the viticulture. He could grasp the localized smallness and he understood destruction. The implications of his actions, the transcendent largeness of it, that was something he could not comprehend. For him, this was about the money. Well, if he had been forced to admit it, it may also have been about a personal vendetta.
Matter of factly, he collected his equipment and made his way up the hill. He emerged from the vines, traveled the brim of the côte, and again vanished into the dense tree line.
Inside his underworld studio he hung up his hooded cape on the hanger and poured himself a glass of the supermarché swill. A toast to the final stages. The two vines he had drilled were among the more than seven hundred vines that had been drilled in the vineyard of Romanée-Conti.
He lifted his MP3 player from the table and pushed the earbuds into his meaty head. Mozart, as the police would learn from the statement of someone else involved, was the man's favorite. The music poured into him, flowed through him. The man knew that come spring, the sap travels through a vinestock, carrying nutrients to the outer extremities, infusing the precious fruit. Similarly, the music traveled through him.
According to the reams of information that would be gathered by investigators, viticulturists, and scientists, then photocopied, stapled, scanned, shared with the head of the Police Nationale in Paris and the courts, and then finally filed away in confidential dossiers, where it was hoped the unprecedented case would quietly disappear as if it never happened, when this project on the vines was over, when the money was divvied up and the man had his cut, his dream was to buy an old church with an organ. His dream was to learn to play Mozart on the organ, which was how he believed Mozart was meant to be played.
Maximillian Potter is an award-winning journalist and the senior media adviser for the governor of Colorado. He has also been the executive editor of 5280: Denver's Magazine, as well as a staff writer at Premiere, Philadelphia, and GQ. His book, Shadows in the Vineyard, from which this is excerpted, began with a feature story he wrote for Vanity Fair.