The Assassin in the Vineyard
Who would poison the vines of La Romanée-Conti, the tiny, centuries-old vineyard that produces what most agree is Burgundy’s ﬁnest, rarest, and most expensive wine? When Aubert de Villaine received an anonymous note, in January 2010, threatening the destruction of his priceless heritage unless he paid a one-million-euro ransom, he thought it was a sick joke. But, as Maximillian Potter reveals, the attack on Romanée-Conti was only too real: an unprecedented and decidedly un-French crime.
The winter-night sky above the Côte d’Or countryside of Burgundy, in eastern France, is cloudless, with just enough moon to illuminate the snow-covered ground and silhouettes. From dense woods atop a hill, a man emerges. He moves from the trees and starts down the gently sloping hillside—and almost immediately he is surrounded by vineyard. The vines are frost-dusted and barren, twisted and vulnerable, like the skeletons of arthritic hands reaching for spring.
As the man descends the hill, navigating the vines, he exudes the purpose of someone who knows precisely where he’s headed and what must be done when he gets there. All around him the vine rows are so uniformly straight it’s evident they have been meticulously arranged, painstakingly cultivated. At one particular vineyard, the man stops. Unlike the vineyards around it, this one is marked by a monument: a tall, gray, stone cross that towers over the vines like a sacred scarecrow. In the base of the cross are engravings; there’s a date: 1723. The cross is perched atop a section of a low stone wall, and affixed to the wall is a sign in both French and English. It reads: