Journalist Maximillian Potter spent years on the crime beat for Denver magazine 5280. These days he mainly works on Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s communications strategies. Yet his first book, Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World’s Greatest Wine, is not simply a crime story, nor is it about another subject you might expect him to write about, like state politics. Rather, it’s a book about a community of Burgundian winemakers and the breathtaking land they cultivate.
There is a crime story nested in Potter’s book—about a plot to inject poison into the most prized vines of the Domaine de la Romanée Conti, then extort money from its head winemaker by withholding the poison’s antidote. But it’s one among a medley of stories that span in time and place from Napa in the 1960s to France during the reign of Louis XV, all connected by their relationship to the Domaine or its head Aubert de Villaine, the book’s main character. And these stories are all related in a lyrical style, which is sometimes pitch-perfect and sometimes a little bit much. Reading the book, the first question that came to mind was this: How does a hard-nosed crime reporter end up writing these phrases about a sunset in Burgundy? “It was the most intense, the most divine light I have ever seen. The scene convinced you that if you ran to the top of that hill and you got off a good jump, you would be able to grasp the bottom of that seam, pull yourself up, and throw a leg over into heaven.”
I ask Potter over the phone whether his poetry was newfound, and he gives an embarrassed chuckle. “Well, I hope it wasn’t cheezy. But that place [Burgundy] rocked my world. I never thought I’d be writing about a sunset,” he replied. When in 2010, while on vacation in Napa, he first discovered the story that would become Shadows in the Vineyard; his mental state was bleak, especially when he thought about his job as an investigative reporter. Once in Napa, settled among the vines with a glass of wine in his hand, chatting with the winemakers there, he sensed that there might be a way through his funk. He said to his friend, “I gotta find a way to do a story here in wine country where nobody is getting shot, nobody's getting screwed over, nobody's dying, at least that I can see.” His friend replied that, in fact, he had a wine story that might interest Potter. A pitch to Vanity Fair later, he found himself on a plane to France with a mission to talk to the heads of Burgundy about the crime that had just shaken the region.
“I tried to replicate in a voyeuristic way, my entree into that world,” Potter says. “A crime brought me into it but that’s not what kept me and that’s not what brought me back.” One of the things to which he’s referring is his friendship with Aubert, who as the head of the Domaine was the primary victim of the crime. When Potter first met Aubert, he had very little knowledge about wine or winemaking, but the two men got along: Aubert found Potter refreshing as an industry outsider (according to Potter); Potter had a lot of sympathy for Aubert, whose “children” as Potter describes Aubert’s vines in the book, were being murdered. And of course, Potter wanted Aubert’s take on the crime for a piece he would eventually publish in Vanity Fair.
After the article was released, Potter went back to Burgundy to expand the piece into a book. There, while spending more time at the Domaine, witnessing the grape harvest, he got to explore more deeply the lives of an expanded cast of characters involved in Burgundian winemaking— from a school teacher who changed careers to become the director of the Domaine, to Louis François de Bourbon, the Prince de Conti, who took over the Domaine during a politically fraught period in France’s history. Potter perceived that these people had one thing in common: They sought redemption through wine.
This resonated with Potter and became the main theme of his book. And so it’s completely understandable that the book is at once overwrought in places, and utterly and charmingly sincere. “The point is that in this crime, for me, I found a poetry and humanity and tenderness that I needed,” Potter explains. “I hope that when people drink a Burgundy, that that’s the context that they bring to it.”
Alexia Nader is a writer in San Francisco and a senior editor of The Brooklyn Quarterly.