You've been warned: That two-buck chuck from Trader Joe's you've got lying around? It's probably going out the window, after you read the delightful Shadows In the Vineyard. You'll develop a craving for the best wine, more specifically, a Burgundy from Romanée-Conti, the most exclusive vineyard in the world. "Bottle for bottle, vintage for vintage, Romanee-Conti is the most coveted, rarest, and thereby the most expensive wine on the planet," writes Maximillian Potter in this real-life whodunit, "At auction, a single bottle of Romanée-Conti from 1945 was then fetching as much as $124,000."
The "then" in the above quote was late 2009. But the following year did not get off to a good start for Le Grand Monsieur, Aubert de Villaine, the chief vigneron, and de facto head honcho of the Romanée-Conti. In January that year, a saboteur drilled prized vines in the vineyard and injected them with poison. Two vines were already dead. An antidote was available to get the rest of the poisoned vines back in shape but here was the catch: A letter stated that if one million euros were not delivered at a set time to the person who perpetrated the crime, the rest of the poisoned vines would die as well. This intriguing crime makes up the book's subtitle: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine.
Shadows has its origins in a story Potter first wrote for Vanity Fair. The book adds to that report, filling in more background about the key players and throwing in (inadvertently or not) an occasional red herring. The many names (both of people and vineyards) are disorienting at first but become more familiar as you go along. We get to know the extended family and their internal squabbles and the rich history the de Villaines keep alive through their vineyards.
Especially engrossing is the throwback to centuries ago when the Prince de Conti, a darling of King Louis XV, bought the Romanée-Conti in a rather underhanded fashion from under the nose of his archrival, Madame de Pompadour, the king's fabled mistress. The prince rerouted all wine from the estate for his private use at the elaborate parties he hosted regularly. When the French Revolution put an end to that, the vineyard was wrested from the prince's son and put on the public auction block. Romanée-Conti (or DRC as it is known) has been with the de Villaine family since 1869.
While the details of the crime itself turn out to be a tad anticlimactic, you soon realize that Shadows is more about the journey than the destination. It is equal parts travelogue as it is detective story, and the descriptions of the quaintest towns in the Côte d'Or, along with the insights into the immensely profitable wine industry, are truly what hold the reader's attention. Potter can sometimes get too caught up in his love for his subject and lets occasional overwrought sentences slip through: "Everything was enveloped by an aura, a palpable energy that traveled from sun to vine to his grandfather, from his grandfather to the boy. In the moment there was - and there was no other way to put it - a divine presence." Nevertheless, for the most part, Shadows tells a good yarn and tells it well.
It's a good thing Potter didn't keep the story bottled for too long. Granted, it's not an exact replica of a glass of le grand cru, but Shadows In the Vineyard delivers you close enough to the grandeur of it all - the Cote d'Or, the viticulture, the vineyards, the centuries-old hallowed traditions of winemaking. And isn't that any story's best accomplishment - to truly bring you there? All you need to do is to take a deep breath, sip and savor.
This review was originally published in August 2014, and has been updated for the July 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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