When crime writer Maximillian Potter went to France to investigate an extortion case that shook the wine industry to its roots, he couldn't tell a Chablis from a Chardonnay. But after spending 18 months in a small village in the heart of Burgundy, he not only learned about wine. He discovered a place and a community that restored his faith in humanity.
Here he talks about growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, grappling with the French concept of terroir, and why the man he came to know as Le Grand Monsieur inspired him to write this book.
The book explores a famous case of extortion that shook the French wine industry. Can you tell us what happened?
In January 2010 the co-owner and director of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, a fellow by the name of Monsieur Aubert de Villaine, received a note that said: Part of your vineyard has been killed, a substantial portion of the rest of the vineyard is about to be decimated unless you pay me a million euros.
That triggered a police investigation and sting operation because the domaine is located in the heart of Burgundy. One government official referred to it as a national cathedral. In terms of its national and historical significance it's something akin to the Liberty Bell, only you can drink what it produces.
It was partly so shocking because nothing like this had ever happened before, had it?
It was shocking on the face of it because it was unprecedented. But it was shocking in a more existential sense because the most sacred thing in Burgundian wine-growing culture is the marriage of the vine to the earth. It's sacrosanct. It's everything. And for centuries Burgundian vignerons [winemakers] had had enough faith in their fellow man to believe that this unspoken bond between man and nature, that marriage of vine and earth, would not be tampered with, would not be desecrated. There had been many other kinds of crime committed against the wine community, but the one thing that no one had ever dared to do is strike at the vine in the earth.
The perpetrator actually killed the vines by drilling into them right at the juncture of earth and vine, didn't he?
He did. And by drilling right into that juncture of vine and earth, he drilled right into the heart of Burgundian culture. And he put poison in. I remember my first conversation with Aubert, when I knew less than zero about all of this. I said: Aubert, you clearly understand and appreciate this context that you're sharing with me now, but the bad guys didn't understand it, surely. Aubert looked dead into my eyes and cocked his eyebrow and said: No, these people knew exactly what they were doing.
The culprit emerges as part Unabomber and part Robinson Crusoe. Tell us a bit about him and his strange hideaway.
The bad guy dug his hideout out of the earth, six feet down and roughly eight by ten square, a bit like if you were putting in a pool. And within the square he built what the French would call a cabin. It was made of tree branches and fixed together with string and screws and brackets. Then he covered the skeleton of the structure with tarps and camouflaged it with earth and leaves. The police officer that took me to the cabin up in the woods told me that they flew a helicopter over this thing several times, and they couldn't find it.
The character that dominates the book is known as Le Grand Monsieur. Tell us about him.
The "Grand Monsieur" is not a typical term in France, but that's how his employees referred to Aubert de Villaine when they were talking to me about him. Before I went to Burgundy, the image I had of this guy was a soft-palmed, ascot-wearing aristocrat who didn't get his hands dirty. But it immediately became clear that Monsieur de Villaine worked his ass off. He was at the vineyard or at the domaine every day. This is a guy who couldn't have children of his own. The vines were his enfants, and he treated them as such and cared for them as such. He was one of the first to work every day and one of the last to leave. This was a guy that any farmer in the world could relate to. He basically wore the French version of Dickies work clothes and drove a common station wagon. And yet he is one of the richest men in France.
You refer frequently to the idea of terroir. Did you ever fully grasp what that means for the French?
Before I went to Burgundy, I thought this whole idea of climate and the uniqueness of vineyards was a load of French hokey-pokey to market wine. But I ended up living in the heart of Burgundy in this little town of Vosne-Romanée for the better part of a year and a half on and off, participating in harvests, speaking with experts, and doing the book research. Terroir means really subtle things. It's the unique ecosystem. It's the pitch and degree of slope. It's the amount of sunlight. It's about rainfall and soil composition. And it's also about the vigneron: the midwife, who gives birth to the grape that comes from these unique terroirs.
You weren't an oenophile before you went to France, were you? You were more a Budweiser guy from Philly.
Well, I don't like Budweiser, but you're being benevolent in saying I wasn't much of a wine expert. I grew up in a working-class section of Philadelphia inhabited by roofers, cops, firemen, or nurses. You went to the corner tavern and drank shots of Wild Turkey with your Pabst Blue Ribbon, and that was it. The only wine I saw was my grandfather drinking Thunderbird and my mom drinking Chardonnay with my Aunt Elaine, who lived a few blocks away. On summer evenings they'd sit on the screened-in porch and gossip. My grandfather worked for a trucking company, and he'd get so drunk he'd pass out under the table in the dining room. That's where he slept five out of the seven nights a week. So my impression growing up was that working-class guys drink cheap red wine to get shit-faced, and women drink Chardonnay to gossip.
You must have felt very out of your depth in Burgundy at first.
Of course. But I'm used to that role. As a journalist, I've always felt like, if you pretend that you know more than you do, or you're afraid to reveal just how ignorant you are of the topic you're covering, you're not really gonna learn anything. Your obligation is to learn as much as you can to serve the reader. So it's very easy for me to admit what I don't know, and that's a comfortable role for me to play.
The first or second day I was over there, I was offered a glass of white Burgundian wine by this famous American wine critic. I drank it, and he said, "What do you think?" This was like the first time, and I said, "I don't know if this is the right answer, man, but it's pretty good. I really like it." And he said: "Of course it's the right goddamn answer! These days you listen to these fancy wine critics—they talk about how it smells like a wet saddle or has barnyard aroma. How about the f------- grape? Does it taste like a grape? Because that's where it comes from!"
How did your experience of living in Burgundy change your perspective on life?
When I stumbled upon this story, I was in a bad place, Simon. I'd been working as a crime writer for nearly 20 years, and that experience didn't leave me with a lot of faith in my fellow man. There weren't a lot of happy endings, and it was taking its toll on me. Ironically, it was another crime that attracted me to this story.
But then I got there, and I discovered this place. There's a wine maker called François Millet. He's the chef de cave [head winemaker] for the Vogue, which is the other domaine that had been hit. When I first went over there, I asked him, How did you feel when your vines were killed? He speaks in a low whisper and says, "I was furious. Burgundy is a place that has been insulated from evil, and that increases our responsibility to focus on the poetry that God has given us and do the very best we can with it."
I found myself standing there, nodding my head, thinking, I believe this guy. And I needed to hear somebody who believed in that sort of thing at that time of my life. For them, every vintage holds the promise of rebirth, the promise to start again and forget the things you don't want to remember and let bygones be bygones. And as hokey as this may sound, there's incredible value in that. I like knowing that this place exists in the world, and I feel very fortunate that I got to spend time there. It changed me profoundly.
Le Grand Monsieur personified for me, and to everyone in Burgundy who knows him, humility and a grace and a dignity that I was beginning to believe didn't exist anymore in the human race. Meeting him and talking to him is really what started me thinking, Wait a minute, there's a lot that's rare here. The wine is rare, the vineyard is rare, this culture is rare, the people here are rare. And this man I'm talking to right now: This guy is really rare.