Tedium in the Vineyard
The tale of the attack on the World’s Greatest Vineyard doesn't require the World's Greatest Editor - a merely competent one would do

Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine
By Maximillian Potter
Grand Central Publishing

We know from prison movies that inmates who really ought to be spending their time hatching plots to amend their lives are more likely to use their enforced leisure to meditate new and better crimes.  So it was with Jacques Soltys, aged 57, a second-generation French citizen of Polish descent and career lowlife who, jailed for nine years after conviction for a botched kidnapping scheme, decided that he had aimed rather too low in seizing the aristocratic wife of a well-to-do Bordeaux winemaker and holding her, unsuccessfully, for ransom. How much cleverer – and more remunerative – to take hostage vines planted in the most famous and cherished vineyard in all of France and reap a million euro payday for not poisoning every last one of them?

It’s a bit hard to communicate to those who aren’t lovers of red Burgundy the reverence, even awe, in which Romanée-Conti, the vineyard that was Soltys’s target, is held.  A bit less than 2 hectares (about 4 acres) in area, it annually produces a few thousand cases of some of the most sought-after wine in the world.  Prices in the Boston area for the current release start at around $5,000 per bottle but some vintages sell for much more. The Domaine de la Romanée-Conti owns this vineyard outright and portions of other grand cru vineyards nearby.  If you were looking to shake down people who could afford to pay you real money, you could scarcely do better than this, and Soltys, once released, lost little time in putting his plan into action.

In the fall of 2010 he surreptitiously dug and carefully camouflaged an underground workroom for himself in the forested land at the edge of the famed vineyard in the tiny village of Vosne-Romanée. In a series of nighttime sallies from it Soltys drilled small holes in the trunks of a few vines and inserted a length of black wire. The maneuver wouldn’t kill a vine, but it would be enough to show his intended victim, Aubert de Villaine, the universally respected director of the Domaine and, according to the author one of the richest men in France, that he meant business. “If I can drill your vines without your knowing it, I can poison them at will” was the unsubtle threat.  To call the scheme harebrained is to insult the intellectual abilities of rabbits.

Romanée-ContiWhen the police finally nab Soltys (spoiler false alarm: I’m not giving the details) and the story surfaces, Vanity Fair dispatches veteran journalist Maximillian Potter, then editor of a Denver magazine and now senior media advisor to Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, to Burgundy to cover it. His 6000 word report appeared in the magazine’s May 2011 issue under the title “The Assassin in the Vineyard.”  “Shadows in the Vineyard” is based on that article, but stretching the story out to book length only makes the original — and the editing at Vanity Fair — look brilliant by comparison.

Potter’s effort for the magazine is a tightly-written and engaging story that hits all the right notes with just the right amount of force and sustain — a bit of the history of Burgundy and the development of its vineyards under centuries of monastic custodianship; a peek at the chain of ownership of the property from the time of the cunning, duplicitous Prince de Conti, confidante of Louis XV, to the present day — but Potter’s extended treatment of the l’affair Soltys in “Shadows” doesn’t move at the clip or exhibit the brio of the magazine piece.

Part of the problem is that a precisely-timed, impeccably-executed gambit of the sort we know from heist films like Rififi, or Ocean’s Eleven isn’t remotely within reach of the schlubby Soltys, who hasn’t a shred of charisma and elicits neither our sympathy nor grudging admiration for a clever guy breaking bad. Nor is there much here that you could call suspense. But there’s more wrong than this. The history is potted, the material on the background of de Villaine drawn-out and almost embarrassingly obsequious (he is incessantly referred to as “The Grand Monsieur”), and the lengthy excursus into the 18th century intrigues of the Prince de Conti feels like filler.  Add to this some mangled translation of French (one howler has Napoleon leading the armies of the restored Bourbon monarchy) and prose that seems aimed at young adults, and you have a bit of a slog.

There is an element in this otherwise unsatisfying book that sticks with you: the dread that somewhere out there a mind far more clever and well-capitalized than that of Jacques Soltys may be meditating using his crime as a template in a venture that has more of a chance of succeeding.

“It never ceased to amaze him,” Potter says of Soltys, “that so much value was just left there unprotected.”

This article was originally published in the Boston Globe on July 29, 2014

Stephen Meuse can be reached at tableintime@icloud.com

When wine doesn’t rhyme
What do Limericks and appellations have in common?

I like wine that’s Italian and red.
“I shall have a Barolo,” I said.
But I had to think twice
When they told me the price.
Now I favor barbera instead. 

The cute verse is from the site OEDILF.com where an editorial team and a host of contributors are compiling a complete English dictionary with each word defined within a Limerick. Hundreds, possibly thousands of words are already treated there in this way.  Start browsing and you’ll find it very hard to pull yourself away.  Some are awfully clever; some just ordinary. The effort is almost heroic — in a Quixotic sort of way.

Limericks earn their living by providing a form into which we pour words.  Like its low-rent sibling, the knock, knock joke, the scheme is nothing if not predictable. Once we hear the tuh tuh TUMP-itty TUMP-itty TUMP we  know what’s coming.  The expectation that the five lines of verse, once underway, will tumpitty-tump their way to a conclusion is part of the pleasure the Limerick provides.  Alter the familiar meter, add or subtract a line, fail to adhere to the rhyme scheme and you risk losing your audience.  ”Hey,” someone will say, “that’s no Limerick.” Read More →

Not as advertised
Is deceit, deception, and mendacity in wine's DNA?


Two nights last week we returned to a familiar theme and played the game I call Three Bottle Monte at the tasting table in the wine shop where I work.  The bottles and their labels are on display, but their contents have been poured into three identical decanters. The challenge is to taste the wine from each decanter and match it with the bottle it came from.

Most people are not winners, of course, but that doesn’t seem to dampen enthusiasm. During some down time I started thinking about why I named the game after a notorious scam played on city streets all over the world by shady characters and their partners in crime (called shills) who pose as ordinary schnooks absorbed in the game that are from time to time seen to win (the better to attract more schnooks). The thought occurred to me that maybe Three Bottle Monte is a too-close-for-comfort metaphor for the deceptive practices that dog the wine trade and have from the beginning.

Wine was one of the very first goods that were widely traded across and along the shores of what the ancient world called the Great Sea and we call the Mediterranean.  Along with olive oil and grain vast amounts of wine made their way from one port city to another on small ships that feared to venture into blue water and instead hugged the shorelines. The carriers for this cargo in the days before the rise of Rome and well before the Greeks learned to sail were the intrepid Phoenicians, who, with little of value to trade themselves (the exception was the famed luxury textile known as Tyrian purple the dyes for which were a closely-guarded secret), enriched themselves by trading the goods of others; buying low, selling high, and monopolizing the sea lanes. Read More →


Dirt is the new fruit
What's behind our fascination with soils?

Early in his career Robert Mondavi recognized that he could differentiate his California-made wine from those made in Europe by emphasizing the inherently fruity character of the former. In comparative tastings he habitually badgered guests into conceding that while European wine was often good California wines were “just a bit fruitier” and therefore just a bit better.  The reasoning followed this line: because it is made from fruit, wine’s most perfect expression one that most resembles fruit. In his winemaking Mondavi favored an approach that pushed fruit to the fore.

His reasoning and winemaking practice seemed sound enough at the time, so long as one didn’t examine the logic behind either too closely. Why exactly did something that started as fruit have to retain its fruity character in the finished product?  Aged Gouda starts out as fresh milk, but a slice of this hard, waxy, dark orange cheese bears so little resemblance to what was squeezed from the udder of a cow you’d never connect the two without being told they’re related.  Would we take seriously a person who claimed that cheese should only be made in ways that preserve the taste of fresh milk?  Should vodka taste like a potato? Read More →

It’s July 4, 1776
Let's raise a glass of . . . what exactly?

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Colonials share a bowl of punch in a tavern. Artist unknown.

The twentieth may have been the American century, but it was during the eighteenth that we made the transition from an ethnically uniform but marginally viable colony of the British Empire clinging tenaciously to the east coast of North America to a fully independent administration taking its place and its chances among  the nations of the world.

The Declaration of Independence is still a thrill to read 238 years after its composition by a youthful Thomas Jefferson under the watchful eyes of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

It’s not clear how or on what timetable the declaration was actually read or heard by citizens of the spanking new United States of America, but if you were a partisan of independence it must have rejoiced your heart to read such a stirring defense of your cause and driven you to raise a glass to its prospects.  But what would that glass have held?

Let’s survey the possibilities … Read More →