The Assassin in the Vineyard and the Story of the La Romanée-Conti Vineyard

I’m not much an oenophile (or not at all). But I loved this story in the May 2011 edition of Vanity Fair, “The Assassin in the Vineyard.” Maximillian Potter does an astounding job of going behind the scenes to explain the history of the fabled vineyard, La Romanée-Conti.

The gist of the story: La Romanée-Conti is a small, centuries-old vineyard that produces what most agree is Burgundy’s finest, rarest, and most expensive wine. But when Aubert de Villaine received an anonymous and sophisticated note, in January 2010, threatening the destruction of his heritage, unless he paid a 1 million euro ransom, he did not treat it seriously at first. Who was the mastermind behind this crime? And did the criminal get caught? All is revealed in the article…

Previously, I had never even heard of La Romanée-Conti. But Potter describes it as a “mecca-Xanadu,” and explains the significance of the wine coming from this vineyard:

Indeed, whatever superlatives can be ascribed to a wine apply to the eponymous wine from the Romanée-Conti vineyard. It ranks among the very top of the most highly coveted, most expensive wines in the world. According to the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s exclusive American distributor, Wilson Daniels, acquiring or purchasing a bottle is as simple as calling your local “fine-wine retailer.” However, because D.R.C. is produced in such limited quantities, and because the high-end wine market is such an intricate and virtually impenetrable web of advance orders—futures—and aftermarket wheeling and dealing, it’s not as simple as the distributor suggests. Wilson Daniels’s own Web site points would-be D.R.C. buyers to wine-searcher.com, which is a worldwide marketplace for wine sales and online auctions. There, the average price for a single bottle from 2007 (excluding tax and the buyers’ premium) is $6,455—and that’s the most recent vintage available.

On the storied history of the vineyard (or how the Conti name came to be):

The Benedictine monks of the medieval Catholic Church were the original obstinate ones who civilized Burgundy’s Côte. They were the défricheurs, or “ground clearers,” who married the fickle Pinot Noir grape to the ostensibly inhospitable terrain. They discovered that a narrow strip of land about halfway down the gently sloping hillside produces the very best wines—the grands crus. “The Slope of Gold,” it was called. While the monks first cultivated the vineyard that would become Romanée-Conti, it was the Prince de Conti, centuries later, who gave the wine its name and infused it with nobility and naughty.

The worthless forest and fallow land that the Duke of Burgundy had deeded to the monks in the 1100s were by the late 1500s profitable climats, and the monarchy wanted in. Taxation compelled the priory to sell a “perpetual lease” on their finest climat, the first incarnation of Romanée-Conti: Cros des Cloux. Between 1584 and 1631, Cros des Cloux had three owners, before it was transferred to the Croonembourg family. Under this owner, Cros des Cloux blossomed in the marketplace. As it did, for reasons historians can’t fully explain, the family changed the name to La Romanée. By 1733 the Croonembourgs’ La Romanée was going for prices as much as six times those of most other reputable growths of the Côte. Still, when the Croonembourg patriarch died, in 1745, the family over the next 15 years slipped into debt and La Romanée was sold to Louis-François de Bourbon—the Prince de Conti.

There’s so much more in the piece, but I leave with this quote, describing the ransom letter. You now know that the mastermind of this devious plan knew much about La Romanée-Conti:

It was not so much a note as it was a package, delivered to his private residence. (A similar package arrived at the home of Henry-Frédéric Roch, who holds the title of co-director of the D.R.C. and represents the Leroy family’s interest in the Domaine.) Inside the cylindrical container, the type an architect might use for blueprints, was a large parchment. Unrolled, the document was a detailed drawing of Romanée-Conti. While the 4.46-acre vineyard is essentially a rectangle, there are nuances to its shape. De Villaine noticed that whoever had sent this letter and sketched the vineyard knew its every contour, and what’s more, the author had noted every single one of its roughly 20,000 vine stocks. In the center of the vineyard sketch this person, or persons, had drawn a circle. There was a note, too, which conveyed that the vineyard would be destroyed unless certain demands were met…

Continue reading the entire thing to find out what happens next. You won’t regret setting aside half an hour for this riveting read.

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