As astonishing as those retail prices were, they were misleadingly low. Because the Romanee-Conti vineyard is so very small4.46 acresand 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 back orders before the wine is even bottled.
Frankly, there is almost zero chance of finding a bottle of Romanee-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 Romanee-Contiwhich for all practical purposes is the baseline pricewas then more like $10,000 per bottle.
Bottle for bottle, vintage for vintage, Romanee-Conti is the most coveted, rarest, and thereby the most expensive wine on the planet. At auction, a single bottle of Romanee-Conti from 1945 was then fetching as much as $124,000.
In one of the photos that accompanied the article the Romanee-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 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 Cotes du Rhone, an Ecusson Grand Cidre, and a Herault. 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 bottlesexcept 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 Cotes du Rhone and Herault regions of France, the man knew, amounted to a perverse irony. It was in that southeastern part of the Rhone-Herault 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 vastatrixaka the "devastator of vines."
And now here he was.
Over the years, for previous jobs"projects," as he liked to call themthe 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.
From the book Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine. Copyright (c) 2014 by Maximillian Potter. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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