MASTER OF HIS DOMAINE Seventy-one-year-old Aubert de Villaine, proprietor of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, one of France’s most celebrated vineyards, photographed in front of his property in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or.
The winter-night sky above the Côte d’Or countryside of Burgundy, in eastern France, is cloudless, with just enough moon to illuminate the snow-covered ground and silhouettes. From dense woods atop a hill, a man emerges. He moves from the trees and starts down the gently sloping hillside—and almost immediately he is surrounded by vineyard. The vines are frost-dusted and barren, twisted and vulnerable, like the skeletons of arthritic hands reaching for spring.
The vineyard is within a sea of vineyards that stretches seemingly without end to the man’s left and right: row after row after row they unfurl, barely separated from one another by ribbons of fallow land or narrow road. In the direction he walks, easterly, the vines flow with him down the hill, continuing as the ground flattens, until off in the distance they end at a small village. The hamlet, Vosne-Romanée, is constructed of ancient stone and topped with shake shingles, its humble, storybook skyline marked by a church steeple. At this late hour, in early January 2010, shutters are closed, and no one stirs.
MANY PEOPLE COME TO VISIT THIS SITE AND WE UNDERSTAND. WE ASK YOU NEVERTHELESS TO REMAIN ON THE ROAD AND REQUEST THAT UNDER NO CONDITION YOU ENTER THE VINEYARD. THANK YOU FOR YOUR COMPREHENSION.As the man descends the hill, navigating the vines, he exudes the purpose of someone who knows precisely where he’s headed and what must be done when he gets there. All around him the vine rows are so uniformly straight it’s evident they have been meticulously arranged, painstakingly cultivated. At one particular vineyard, the man stops. Unlike the vineyards around it, this one is marked by a monument: a tall, gray, stone cross that towers over the vines like a sacred scarecrow. In the base of the cross are engravings; there’s a date: 1723. The cross is perched atop a section of a low stone wall, and affixed to the wall is a sign in both French and English. It reads:
Here, in the vineyard called La Romanée-Conti, the man drops to his knees. For a moment, it appears that he might pray, that he might be one of the thousands of devotees who every year for decades now have come from around the world to see this patch of earth that oenophiles regard as a kind of mecca-Xanadu.
“A fabulous thing”—so begins one of the books about this vineyard. “Mysterious, sensuous, transcendental, the greatest wine in the dukedom of Burgundy, once reserved for the table of princes, its origins blurred in the mists of time—cannot help but spawn fabulists. For two centuries, no wine—no vineyard—has so deeply and so consistently motivated man’s mythologizing instinct as La Romanée-Conti.”
But the man has come for other reasons entirely. His breath puffing into the frigid night air, he reaches to his forehead, and a headlamp flicks on. From his shadow of a shape, he produces a cordless drill and a syringe. He begins to drill into the pied de vigne—the foot of the vine—the low whir of the drill’s motor lost in the cold, smothered by the overwhelming quiet. He moves to a neighboring vine, less than a yard away, and does the same.
He takes up the syringe. He plunges it into the hole he has drilled in one of the vines and injects some of the syringe’s contents. He performs the same procedure on the other vine. The man collects his drill and syringe, turns off his headlamp, and makes his way up the hill. He steps from the sea of vineyard and disappears back into the trees.
The Holy Grail
Burgundy’s Côte d’Or is arguably the world’s most enigmatic wine-growing region. About a three-hour drive southeast of Paris, it is a 30-mile-long-by-two-mile-wide slice of countryside between Dijon in the north and Beaune to the south. Within Burgundy—or Bourgogne—there are dozens of subregions, and within those, numerous towns and villages. Vosne-Romanée is a village in the Côte d’Or. And in this relatively tiny sliver of Burgundy there are literally hundreds of vineyards, or climats.
Although the region cultivates almost exclusively one type of red grape, the Pinot Noir, the wines of each climat are distinctive. This is not the hype of wine marketers or the sales pitch of French wine brokers—négociants—but rather a geological fact. Abrupt, dramatic changes in fault lines and other natural phenomena unique to the Côte mean the characteristics—the terroir—of individual climats, even ones side by side, can be wildly different. So, too, then are their Pinot grapes. Along with the hundreds of climats, there are almost as many wine-making domaines, and most every domaine has its own viticulture techniques. Therefore, to refer to a wine from this area as a “Pinot Noir” means nothing and discounts everything.
All of these same factors are what draw discerning oenophiles and savvy collectors to Burgundy. The diversity, the complexity, the romantic alchemy of it all, when done well, when uncorked and dancing over the palate, are what make Burgundies … well, so divine. As the writer Matt Kramer put it in his critically acclaimed guide to the region, Making Sense of Burgundy, “Even the most skeptical are willing, after savoring a genuinely great Burgundy, to concede that there may well be—dare one say it?—a Presence in the universe beyond our own.”
The fact that Burgundy has such a small wine-growing region and produces, comparatively speaking—in relation, say, to the expansive French Bordeaux region—so few bottles only makes the quest for the finest Burgundies all the more worthwhile. One would be hard-pressed to find an educated wine-lover who would disagree with Robert Sleigh, one of Sotheby’s leading wine experts, when he says, “Romanée-Conti is hands down the best and rarest Burgundy in the world—the Holy Grail.” The legendary vineyard is a postage stamp of soil at 4.46 acres, producing roughly 500 cases annually, which is less than one-fiftieth the production of Bordeaux’s Château Lafite Rothschild.
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.
A bottle of 1945 Romanée-Conti would be a steal at $38,000. Last October, in Hong Kong, Sotheby’s Sleigh staged a record-setting sale of Romanée-Conti. The 77 bottles, which included three magnums, were divided among 18 lots, spanned relatively recent vintages between 1990 and 2007, and fetched a total hammer price of $750,609. A single bottle of 1990 Romanée-Conti went for $10,953—which was a few hundred dollars more than the sale price that day for an entire 12-bottle lot of 1990 Château Lafite.
Only a few months before that Hong Kong auction, word of the attack on the vines of Romanée-Conti began seeping into the world beyond Burgundy. Very little news of the incident—what in reality was an unprecedented and remarkable crime—had been reported in the French media. In the United States, there was nothing other than small blurbs in the wine press. Clearly, no one in Burgundy—including the patriarch in charge of the family-owned-and-operated Domaine de la Romanée-Conti—wanted to talk about it publicly. By way of explaining the silence, a former mayor from the Côte and a wine-maker there, Jeanine Gros, summed it up succinctly: “ ‘Wine’ and ‘poison,’ these two words do not belong in the same sentence.”
The Slope of Gold
‘There are no great vineyards produced by predestination, by divine providence,” the French observer Pierre Veilletet wrote. “There is only the obstinacy of civilization.” The obstinate one in charge of the great Romanée-Conti today is 71-year-old Aubert de Villaine. Over two rainy days this past fall, he allowed me into his Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and discussed, albeit most reluctantly, the plot against his wine. However, as de Villaine pointed out, he does not feel that the vineyard is his family’s per se; rather, it belongs to Burgundy, to history—and to fully appreciate the crime, the sacrilege, one must understand all of the holiness and hedonism that flow through Romanée-Conti.
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.
A noble, and a magnet for intrigue, drama, and a good party, Louis-François was married and had a mistress by the time he was 16. His mother-in-law caught wind of the affair and to punish him persuaded the monarchy that her young son-in-law ought to serve in King Louis XV’s army. During France’s 1733 war with Austria, Louis-François earned the rank lieutenant general and the king’s admiration.
The king came to cherish the prince. He not only gave de Conti his own army but knighted him into the Order of Malta, one of the highest honors of the time (which excused him from the otherwise required vow of celibacy). The king grew so close to the prince that the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, came to despise de Conti. It so happened that when the Croonembourg estate offered La Romanée for sale in July 1760, she, too, desired it. Perhaps knowing that if Madame de Pompadour learned of his interest in the vineyard she would surely outbid him, the prince hired a proxy who successfully represented him in the sale.
The Order of Malta appointment gave Louis-François claim to the Palais du Temple, in Paris. He and his mistress turned the palace into something of a party compound for intellectuals and artists—Mozart was a regular guest. Immediately upon purchasing La Romanée, the prince removed the wine from the market and kept it for himself, for entertaining at the palace. The La Romanée that had been first cultivated as God’s work, and that was then sold for six times more than other grands crus, was now exclusively for nobles and their V.I.P. dinner parties, out of reach for mere mortals.
Rooted in the Domaine
The Prince de Conti died as America was born, in 1776. His son, Louis-François Joseph, the next prince, carried on his father’s partying and aristocratic ways. And this did not serve him well in the wake of the French Revolution. “His house is filled with plotters and conspirators” is how one historical record describes the prince in 1790. “It is easy to see … that it is he and he alone who conceives and guides aristocratic plots.” The prince was arrested, and the government auctioned his vineyard, which for the first time was billed at sale as La Romanée-Conti.
The vineyard passed through three families between 1794 and 1869, the year that Aubert de Villaine’s ancestor Jacques-Marie Duvault-Blochet took over. Upon Blochet’s death, shares of Romanée-Conti splintered among his heirs, and no one thought much about the vines until 1910, when Aubert’s grandfather Edmond Gaudin de Villaine, who had married into the family, took on the role of managing the D.R.C.
Edmond was the architect of the modern D.R.C. He unified the parcels of Romanée-Conti that had fractured among the heirs. In 1912 he trademarked “Domaine de la Romanée-Conti,” and in 1933, Edmond acquired all of the La Tâche vineyard, which is but a few yards from Romanée-Conti. Acquiring sole ownership of Romanée-Conti and La Tâche gave the D.R.C. monopoles over the two best vineyards in Burgundy, and for that matter two of the best vineyards in the world.
Of course no success is without struggle. World War I destabilized Europe’s wine market. America, with its Prohibition and Great Depression, was not yet a market that could be counted on. Fortunately, Edmond found a like-minded partner in a local négociant,Henri Leroy, who bought a 50 percent share in the Domaine. Thanks to their collective leadership and financial resilience the Domaine’s monopoles of La Tâche and Romanée-Conti remained whole and strong. What’s more, even as other domaines had to sell and divide their climats, Leroy and de Villaine maintained parcels of other top-tier vineyards—Échézeaux, Romanée-St.-Vivant, Richebourg, and Grands Échézeaux—all very near one another, under the banner of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. These climats—along with the lone D.R.C. Chardonnay Montrachet, which the Domaine acquired between 1964 and 1980—produce grands crus that are second in quality, reputation, and price only to La Tâche and Romanée-Conti.
Growing up and watching his grandfather, and then his own father, Henri, give so much of themselves to the D.R.C., young Aubert was not sure wine-making would be for him. One of six children, he went to Paris, the big city, where he studied political science. In the early 1960s he moved to America and hung out for a year in Northern California, wine country of all places. He wrote a couple of articles about California wines for La Revue du Vin de France. He fell in love with an American girl from Santa Barbara with a Gatsby-esque name, Pamela Fairbanks, who would become his wife.
It was after moving about, leaving the D.R.C., that a 26-year-old de Villaine came to realize that his life, his soul, was indeed rooted in the Domaine, and in 1965 he asked his father if he could begin working at the vineyard. Ever since, de Villaine’s reverence for the D.R.C. has been absolute. He and Pamela do not have children, so in the fall of 2010, he turned over his shares in the Domaine to his nieces and nephews. He tried to make them understand that the shares were not gifts from him and were much more than shares in a company. He impressed upon his young relatives that the shares derived from people they had loved dearly: one of de Villaine’s two brothers, who died very young, and his own father, who died years ago. He told his nieces and nephews, too, that the shares were fruits from vines cultivated by people they never knew, who gave the best of themselves for many generations.
Wine and Poison
On the top of Aubert de Villaine’s otherwise tan, bald head there is a doily-size pinkish splotch. When he takes a moment to give something consideration, he scratches this spot, just as he does when he has to decide when the harvest ought to begin—and just as he did on that day in early January 2010 when he found himself reading an unsigned note informing him that the D.R.C. must prepare to pay a ransom or Romanée-Conti would be destroyed.
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; the note stated that another letter with further instructions would be coming in 10 to 15 days.
De Villaine viewed the letter as a hoax, some kind of sick joke. Really, if he has to admit it, he chose to see it that way. That was easier, much easier, than to think it was real. Then, in mid-January 2010, he received another package at his home. It was in the same type of cylindrical container, and inside was the same sketch of the vineyard. Only this time there were two circles. In addition to the circle in the center, there was another, much smaller circle in the upper left corner of the vineyard.
The correspondence instructed de Villaine to leave one million euros in a suitcase in the corner of the Romanée-Conti vineyard, right near the area represented by the small circle on the drawing. By way of proof that he—she, they, whoever they were—meant business, the letter informed de Villaine that some 82 vines of Romanée-Conti had already been poisoned. According to the note, the two vines in the area marked on the sketch by two X’s in the small circle had been killed by poison. The other 80 vines were marked by X’s in the much larger, center circle; however, those could be spared with an antidote—that is, provided de Villaine paid up.
This time, de Villaine called the authorities. He did not call the local police. Burgundy is too small, too full of gossips and competitors who might use this fact or fiction against his Domaine. True or not, if the world thought the D.R.C. vineyards had been compromised … Well, de Villaine could not begin to imagine, or, rather, he could imagine what that might mean. He could not afford for this to be mishandled, and so he called a police official he’d met in Dijon who was now a senior official with the police based in Paris. Investigators arrived at the D.R.C. The two vines supposedly poisoned were removed. Quickly, it was determined they had been poisoned, and were dying. The other 80 or so vines in the large circle—while they had been drilled—in reality had not been poisoned. That part, at least so far, was a bluff.
Whoever was responsible, de Villaine was convinced, knew exactly what he was doing by targeting the D.R.C. It was clearly someone who had been sneaking around in his vineyard, and for quite some time, to produce such a detailed sketch. What’s more, it appeared to de Villaine that whoever it was likely knew a great deal about wine. The second letter included sophisticated wine-making terms, like décavaillonnage anddémontage.
And there was this fact: from what the police had discovered, the criminal, or criminals, used a syringe to inject the poison. This was especially significant—over the centuries,vignerons had used such a pal or syringe-like technique to inject liquid carbon disulfide into the soil and save the vineyards from devastating infestations by the phylloxera insect. Meaning, the very methodology that had been used to preserve the vines was now being employed in an attempt to kill the vineyards of Romanée-Conti.
On the advice of investigators, de Villaine did not drop off the money as directed. Instead, a trusted employee, in the dark of night, left a note in the vineyard on the specified day, February 4. In the note, de Villaine relayed that he would pay as demanded, but it would take time to muster the euros; he’d have to call an emergency meeting of the shareholders from the Leroy and de Villaine families. Within a matter of days, de Villaine received another mailing—what would be the third and final piece of correspondence. The tone of this letter was polite, even grateful that payment would be made. It instructed de Villaine to please deliver the money in a valise to the cemetery in the neighboring town of Chambolle-Musigny. The suitcase was to be left inside the cemetery gates at 11 P.M. on February 12, 2010.
The week of the arranged drop-off, de Villaine was scheduled to be out of the country, in America, on a promotional tour for the D.R.C.’s 2007 vintages. The investigators assigned to the case encouraged de Villaine to go about his normal business. They told him it was important to act as if nothing unusual were afoot. They reminded him, too, that the same D.R.C. employee who had left the note at the vineyard could serve as the drop-off man. Jean-Charles Cuvelier, the deputy manager of the D.R.C., the police said, appears to “be capable and cold-blooded.” The latter part of the description was wry cop humor, for Cuvelier is about as cold and hard as a freshly baked croissant.
Cuvelier has been de Villaine’s indispensable lieutenant since 1993. The two met at a party in Dijon. Cuvelier, then in his early 30s, had mentioned that he was a schoolteacher who worked with at-risk kids and that the job was wearing on him. De Villaine mentioned he was looking for an assistant. Ever since, Cuvelier has been at de Villaine’s side, or, rather, quietly anticipating his needs. As Étienne Grivot, himself a respected wine-maker in the Côte, puts it, Cuvelier is considered “the guardian of the Temple.”
Cuvelier is a stocky man, now in his late 50s, with bifocals perched on the end of his nose, which he tends to wrinkle. He has a gap-toothed smile and fidgets a great deal, but with a nervousness that’s endearing. Evidently he easily perspires through a dress shirt and a wool sweater on a cold day, but only because, it seems, he is sweating the details of the D.R.C.
Not all that long ago, Cuvelier became a widower. After a prolonged battle against cancer his wife of 33 years died in June 2008. And so, who would have blamed Cuvelier if, on that night of February 12, 2010, he had allowed himself to wonder what his wife would have said if she could see him now, walking into a cemetery in the black of night, carrying a suitcase filled with one million in fake euros. Not knowing who or what was behind this plot and what might be in store, he could only hope she would watch over him and keep him safe.
The ancient village of Chambolle-Musigny is only about two miles north of Vosne-Romanée, if you take the right dirt road through the vineyards of the Côte. Like Vosne-Romanée, Chambolle-Musigny has no more than 600 full-time residents. The cemetery is on the outskirts of the town. You pass it on the way in and out; it’s square, surrounded by a stone wall, and not much bigger than a public pool. The entrance is an arching, green wrought-iron fence. Just as the criminal had directed, it was 11 P.M. when Cuvelier pushed through the squeaking gates.
Earlier in the day, Cuvelier had traveled to the police station in Dijon, where he was briefed on the night’s plan. There would be about a dozen armed police officers hidden about the cemetery, with their eyes on him and everything around him. In the bag, along with the fake euros, there’d be a transmitter—a tracking device—that would be activated when the bag passed by a sensor embedded in the threshold of the cemetery archway. Cuvelier was instructed to keep the earpiece for his cellular phone in his ear and activated, as a police officer would be in constant communication with him. Cuvelier, breathing heavily, trembling, perspiring, his heart pounding, entered the cemetery. It was cold and dark, with frost on the tombstones. He dropped the bag in the flower box just inside the gate and exited. He got into his car and drove off. No more than 30 minutes later, he received a call from the police: We got him.
Crime and Punishment
Cuvelier immediately phoned de Villaine in the United States and passed along the information police had thus far. The man’s name was Jacques Soltys; he was in his late 50s. Stunningly, catching him had been a snap. After Cuvelier left the bag, police spotted Soltys coming down a hillside on foot, then heading toward the cemetery. He retrieved the bag and walked off. He was caught less than 200 meters from the cemetery, on his way to a nearby train station. In the days that followed, as police learned more, so did Cuvelier and de Villaine.
The D.R.C. had not been Soltys’s only mark. He had simultaneously orchestrated a similar plot against another very highly regarded vineyard, Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé, in Chambolle-Musigny. Police discovered this because the first package mailed to de Villaine had a Paris postmark. Footage from the surveillance cameras at that Paris post office revealed that another package, very similar to the ones mailed to de Villaine, had been mailed to the owners of de Vogüé. That vineyard, too, had lost two of its vines to poison.
As de Villaine and Jean-Luc Pépin, the director of de Vogüé, suspected, based on the extortion notes and sketches, Soltys indeed knew about wine-making. When Soltys had been about 12 or 13 years old, his parents sent him to the Lycée Viticole de Beaune, a boarding trade school that specializes in wine-making. According to the current principal, Pierre Enjuanès, who still has Soltys’s file, Soltys was raised in the Épernay area, a region known for champagne. His parents were wine-makers there, overseeing a modest vineyard. And, Enjuanès says, Soltys was trouble from the start. He was at the school for only a few months before he was expelled, for offenses including smoking, cursing, and staying up all night. In the file at the school, there’s a black-and-white picture of young Soltys: dark hair, starched white collar, furrowed brow. A headshot for a boy that would have a life of mug shots.
Soltys went from delinquent to career criminal. He’d committed a string of armed robberies and even attempted a kidnapping. During one of the crimes, shots were exchanged with the police, and Soltys ended up hit in the chest. In all he’d been sentenced to at least 20 years. Though he served only a portion of that time, he’d spent most of his adult life behind bars. Soltys figured that there were easier jobs to pull off, like extorting wine-makers.
Soltys had done a considerable amount of planning and preparation. He’d built a makeshift shack deep in the woods atop the hills overlooking the vineyards. In the shack, among other things, police found a sleeping bag, a couch, a hot plate, a change of clothes—the clothes of a vineyard laborer—batteries, a headlamp, a cordless-drill kit, syringes, many bottles of the weed killer Roundup, and a handgun.
Soltys had not been operating alone. He’d been able to mail the package to de Villaine’s home because, according to what the police told de Villaine, Soltys had his son, Cédric, follow the wine-maker and learn his address. Unlike his father, Cédric, who according to sources is in his late 20s or early 30s, didn’t have a record but, according to several sources, is mentally fragile. Perhaps because of the way his father had raised him, or, rather, didn’t raise him. Regardless, the portrait of the son that emerges is one who relied heavily on his father. Soltys Sr. may have treated his son poorly, but he also looked after him. It was an Of Mice and Men George-and-Lennie bond. According to a central character in the investigation, Soltys’s life of crime had left his wife, Cédric’s mother, struggling to get by. If anything, it seems, she too was a victim.
To show his thanks to the investigators, when de Villaine returned from his trip to America he invited them to the Domaine and uncorked a few bottles of 2006 Vosne-Romanée Premier Cru—along with a tasting of a 1961 Romanée-Conti—to toast their work. In the weeks following the arrest, as word of the crime leaked into the French press, de Villaine began hoping that the whole matter could be bottled up quietly, that whatever criminal proceedings there needed to be would be resolved without trial.
De Villaine was concerned that a trial would generate media attention, which in turn might inspire copycat crimes. Also, why would he want the world to think about the fact that weed killer had been injected into vines of Romanée-Conti? Five months after the arrests, the prosecution’s case against Jacques and Cédric Soltys became extremely difficult to pursue, because in July 2010, Jacques turned up dead in a Dijon prison. According to prison officials, he’d hung himself in a bathroom.
The French legal system is unlike America’s. Among the many differences, once a suspect is in custody, the matter is turned over to a juge d’instruction. Akin to a one-person grand jury, this judge takes over the investigation, overseeing both the defense and the prosecution, and the police, and decides whether official charges—“formal accusations”—should be filed. Until a trial begins, there are no public records of the case. No police reports are made public, not even mug shots. Defense attorneys can be fined or worse for speaking to the media. Officially, the only officer of the court empowered to discuss the Soltys matter is Éric Lallement, the equivalent of the district attorney of Dijon.
On an afternoon late last year, Lallement showed me into his office and through an interpreter fielded questions about the matter. A man in his early 50s, dressed in a blue suit, he sat with his legs crossed and fiddled with his cuff links while he spoke. On the coffee table between us was a file filled with information about the Soltys case. He kept this file to himself but referred to it periodically throughout our conversation. Soltys, he said, left behind a suicide note, but in it he did not, as a father might do, attempt to absolve his son of responsibility. Cédric, he said, had been released from prison, but not cleared of charges.
Lallement suspected the judge would determine formal accusations were warranted against the son. After all, he said, Romanée-Conti is not only a Burgundian treasure but a national one, and it is important for the government to send the message that such crimes will not be tolerated.
Of particular interest to Lallement is that the Soltys plot to poison the most storied vineyard in the world is unprecedented. While there have been crimes of vandalism, agriculture terrorism, and extortion on vineyards in France and elsewhere, never before has there been a poisoning of the vines. The top wine-makers of the most storied domainesand families in Vosne-Romanée—Étienne Grivot, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, Jean-Nicolas Méo-Camuzet, Jeanine and Michel Gros—all say that they have never seen a crime like this before.
Yes, they are concerned. Quite frankly, they all would rather not discuss such a vulnerability. Like de Villaine, they are concerned about the possibility of copycat attempts. They quietly support his wish that there be no trial, that there be no further talk of the Soltyses and poison in the vines, as there is nothing anyone could do, or at least wants to do, to prevent such crimes. “A Burgundy with fences and lights and patrolled by German shepherds,” says Cécile Mathiaud, press director for the association of Burgundy wine-makers. “This is something I cannot imagine. This would not be Burgundy.”
According to a law-enforcement official, when Cédric found out about his father’s suicide, he sat in a chair, staring into space, looking lost. This same source said that while the judge may determine formal accusations may be warranted against Cédric Soltys, experts hired to determine his mental competency would likely declare he is not fit to stand trial, and the matter would never reach a public trial. Thus far, Lallement’s prediction for the legal proceeding is the correct one. Early this year, according to Jean-Luc Chemin, a prosecutor colleague of Lallement’s, the French courts had determined that Cédric will face trial. Chemin says he has been assigned to prosecute the case, which he suspects will begin “sometime after September.”
Such a trial might solve a lingering mysery: on the surveillance tape the police obtained from the Paris post office, the person mailing the Soltys packages was not Jacques or Cédric, though it was unclear who exactly the person was. Perhaps whoever it was was an ignorant pawn, simply someone asked to mail a few parcels. Or perhaps not. According to Jean-Luc Pépin, the director of the Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé, the police found evidence of plans to carry out similar plots against other vineyards. “Oh, yes,” he says, “it appeared there would be more vineyards targeted.”
Outwardly, at least, Aubert de Villaine seems to have moved on. After all, the two tainted vines have been removed, and all traces of the Roundup are gone. Ultimately, no other vines were harmed—the terroir has been preserved, there will be no impact on future harvests. In addition to producing the world’s finest Burgundy, de Villaine is at the forefront of a campaign to have the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognize all of the Côte as a World Heritage site. Currently there are 911 sites around the world that have received this rare distinction. World Heritage status means that, among other criteria met, the site has “outstanding universal value.” The Great Barrier Reef, the Great Wall of China, the Tower of London, the Statue of Liberty, and the banks of the Seine in Paris are but a few on the list. It would, undoubtedly, be a fitting tribute for the D.R.C., the de Villaine family, the larger Burgundian family, and France. Such an honor, Aubert de Villaine understandably hopes, would make it easier for everyone to forget all of this talk of wine and poison.