There are plenty of true crime books out there. _Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine _(Twelve) by Maximillian Potter tells the story, as the subtitle points out, of a unique crime, and one that after this book, readers will hope does not inspire copycats. The crime - pay me off or I will poison your vines - is related in less than half of the pages of Potter’s book, so if you just want a police procedural, look elsewhere. The other pages are about wine lore stretching back over the centuries and about the current family holdings and production status of the esteemed Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (known as the DRC in the business) in the Burgundy region. They aren’t filler; they help show wine culture, the importance of this particular vintage, and how horrifying the crime could have been. I know nothing about wines, slightly less than Potter did when he started investigating this story. He was a crime reporter, and true to the image, he had stuck to beer and whiskey. He learns plenty while working on this story, and has obviously enjoyed recounting the bizarre crime during the length of the book and the meandering but colorful asides throughout. Also, lucky fellow, he has gotten to enjoy the wines themselves.
The DRC would be a good target for extortion. It produces red wines that are regarded as the pinnacle of viniculture. Some of them can cost $10,000 a bottle. Jacques Soltys knew something about wine. He was a failed bank robber and kidnapper, and hatched the plot of kidnapping vines while he was in prison. One evening in January 2010 the Grand Monsieur of the DRC, the elderly Aubert de Villaine, found a ransom note along with a detailed map of the vines of the DRC. The French equivalent of the FBI went to work, initially thinking it was an inside job, and amazed to find when it came time to pay off the ransom in a quiet local cemetery that there was no truck full of gun-toting hoods, no motorcyclist who sped away with the duffel bag full of money, but only a man who casually appeared from nowhere, picked up the bag, and sauntered off. It must have been a big let-down for the cops to make a simple arrest of an unsophisticated former robber, and there were essentially no loose ends after the arrest; case closed. I don’t mind telling the ending here, because there isn’t much excitement to the story and the denouement of the capture of the sad and incompetent Soltys is only surprising because it has no surprise to it. The story of the crime and capture threads throughout the book, but it is the digressions that make it worth reading. Among these are the descriptions of the Grand Monsieur himself., who remains close to the earth with an unassuming home life, complete with cheap cars he can use for what was essentially the career of a farmer. He did regard his vines as his children; when he learned of the plot and regarded the poisoned plants, he wept.
Villaine always said that to fully appreciate a wine, you had to understand the vines and you had to understand the terroir, or all the natural characteristics that go into it, like soil, sun, and rain. But he also thought you had to understand the history of the place and of the people who brought the wine through the centuries. Potter’s work does this for DRC and its region. Not only does he profile Villaine and his family, he goes into the court intrigues during the reign of Louis XV, the economic competition that secured the original vineyard for the raffish and mysterious Prince de Conti, and the religious and political intrigues that led up to the French Revolution. Other illuminating tangents are the devastation of the vineyards by the pest _Phylloxera_ in the late 19th century, how Americans got interested in French wines, the effort to make the region of the DRC a World Heritage Site, and a glimpse at the history of wine fraud. Even for those of us who never drink wine, and those who will never get to taste one of the Grand Monsieur’s bottles, this is a satisfying crime story expanded into a love letter to a great French vineyard.