Sue’s story of this past weekend brought back memories of my first visit to Domaine Romanee-Conti. It was in the spring of 1976, and I had been traveling in Burgundy with Leonhard Humbrecht and the late Gustave Rinn. We rang the Domaine bell at exactly our appointed time — 10:30 a.m. Robert Parker had not yet taken over the ratings game for the world’s wines, but everyone knew that the Pinot Noir from this plot was very special.
I have never forgotten our welcome. “I’m sorry. I have strict instructions not to allow anyone to taste any Romanee-Conti.” She was charming about it, but her years had given her a resolve of steel. She was Genevieve Clin, then mistress and regisseur of this most expensive agricultural plot probably in the world. Leonhard, himself one of France’s most respected vintners insisted that “Monsieur” had personally agreed to meet us. (At the time I had not heard of Aubert de Villaine or of any of the other Romanee estate directors.)
Madam Clinn was undaunted as she poured us glasses of 1972 La Tache and 1973 Richebourg, wines also classed as “princes of the blood” from adjoining vineyards, and she explained that when one bought a case of Romanee-Conti, only one bottle would be the real thing. The other eleven bottleds would be wines from other Domaine estates: Romanee Saint-Vivant, La Romanee, Montrachet, as well as La Tache and Richebourg, all splendid wines but which all bow to Romanee-Conti.
“Monsieur” saved the day by arriving late but in time to take us through a couple vintages of the precious wine. I have since returned to Domaine Romanee-Conti only twice but have walked past it and its famous vineyards dozens of times on visits to the village of Vosne-Romanee.
I admit I have never bought a bottle of Romanee-Conti, though that may not be technically true. I have been gifted a couple of bottles and enjoyed a tutorial tasting at one of the WINE SPECTATOR New York experiences. I used the phrase technically true because when my daughter was a student in Munich she went into Dollmayers to buy a special bottle for my birthday. Even as a twenty-something she knew the value of Romanee-Conti and asked to buy a bottle. The store clerk called the floor manager who tried to explain that she couldn’t or shouldn’t afford it. She presented a few credentials and convinced them that this poor student understood what she was asking for, and, of course it eventually wound up on you know who’s credit card.
A memorable birthday indeed.
Cue the spooky music–get ready for a tale of intrigue, set in the vineyard that produces what Sotheby’s wine expert, Robert Sleigh has stated is “hands down the best and rarest Burgundy in the world–the Holy Grail.”
The vineyard is the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti–perched in the gentle hillsides of Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. Less than 5 acres in size, this tiny vineyard produces about 500 cases annually, with the most recent available vintage of 2007 selling for a starting price of $6,455.
So, where does the terror in the terroir begin? With a plan to extort 1 million euros from Aubert de Villanine, the vineyard owner. The year was 2010. De Villaine received a cylindrical container with a blueprint-like drawing of the vineyard and a letter threatening harm to the vines unless demands were followed. De Villaine ignored this first threat, thinking it was a hoax of some sort. When he received a second parcel, he became more concerned and notified the Police National.
An investigation showed that many of the vine rootstock had holes that had been systematically drilled in preparation for a poison to be injected. Plans were made to apprehend the perpetrator. Ransom notes continued, each leading the Police on wild goose chases. Finally, the perpetrator demanded that 1 million euros be delivered to a cemetery.
Fortunately, the villain, a man by the name of Jaques Soltys, was not terribly bright and was caught when he picked up what was really a bag of counterfeit money, and as the saying goes, the crops were saved! All this is told in much better detail in a newly released book entitled Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine, by Maximilian Potter.
Talk about a diabolical plot!
This may be more of a health care tale than a wine story, but certainly both subjects are addressed. Triggered by a delightful Rabiotte rose from the Coteaux d’Aix en Provence a few days ago, my thoughts went back to Christmas Eve 1958.
My new wife and I were on our first visit to Provence and were in a nearly empty comfortable hotel in Aix-en-Provence. The night was very dark — and though the sky was clear, even Van Gogh’s stars seemed reluctant to appear. Dinner was to be in the hotel, limited menu for the few guests because of the holiday.
Throughout the day, while sightseeing, my wife developed chest pains that wouldn’t subside and began giving us considerable concern. When I asked the hotelier about a doctor, she explained that it probably would be impossible on this night to find one willing to come to the hotel. (I have since learned and actually experienced doctors in France coming to a hotel room.) However, she called one on the edge of town who said he would see my wife if we came to his house. He had guests and didn’t feel he could leave them.
Some house. We could see that it was surrounded by vineyards and that it was a chateau with large ground floor windows through which we could see large chandeliers illuminating what was clearly a gala party — people in formal dress dancing to music from a small string ensemble that we could hear even out at the side entrance.
The doctor himself came to the door, not in “scrubs” but in a tuxedo. He escorted us into a small book-lined office and asked us to explain the problem. Limited English on his part, limited French on ours but he readily understood our concern and agreed that it was important to check her out. He looked, he listened, he tapped, he used a stethoscope, his ears, and a bit of balm he rubbed into her chest. He pronounced it “neuralgia” and gave us the balm to take with us, suggesting we apply it several times a day till it’s gone.
Excusing himself for a moment, he returned with two flutes of Champagne and a bottle of wine. He wished us a pleasant Christmas and to relax with the flutes before going back to the hotel. In the course of his examination he had learned we were new to France and to Provence and wanted us to enjoy a bottle from his own vines, then went back to his guests.
The wine was a rose, the first in our memory. Alas, I have long since forgotten its name, and I am not even certain we ever got the name of the doctor. But the town was Aix. Over the years we have been back to Aix several times but have never been able to identify the grand house where we spent our first Christmas Eve in France.
But I think this story helps explain why we are partial to rose from Aix-en-Provence. The one we drank the other night cost about $12 at Total Wine, and it was produced in 2013 at Domaine La Rabiotte in Aix. I like to think that it may have come from our doctor’s vineyards.
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