Q & A #22 With Maximillian Potter – “Shadows in the Vineyard”

PotterBookCoverThe rave reviews for Shadows in the Vineyard by Maximillian Potter have poured in–for good reason.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Publisher’s Weekly and celebrity chef Eric Ripert have all showered praise (and that’s just for starters).

In Shadows, Potter takes a crime in the vineyards and uses it as a jumping-off point for an enjoyable look at the context for the tradition-filled wine culture in France. (A review follows.)

Max Potter is currently the Senior Media Adviser and speechwriter for Gov. John Hickenlooper and he’s the former Executive Editor and Editor-at-Large for the magazine 5280, but he took time out to answer, in thorough and entertaining fashion, a few questions about the book.  You might need a glass or two to sit back and savor Max’s in-depth and colorful replies. He even offers an opinion on the standard weeknight fare around our house, Trader Joe’s “Three-Buck Chuck.”

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Question: Do you think Americans can appreciate the degree of devotion and reverence that the French hold for wine in general and wine, in particular, from many of these highly-valued vineyards?

Potter: Absolutely. I guess I’d say that I’m proof.

When Vanity Fair first sent me to Burgundy to report on the crime, I knew next to nothing about wine and zero about Burgundies. My oenophile friends justifiably got a kick out of the idea of me in Burgundy. Their reaction was pretty much, “Dude, really?!” I’d like to think that makes me your typical American when it comes to French wine. It was in preparation for my first reporting trip for the magazine piece that I began to research the region, the wines, and the culture, and to say I was skeptical of what I read would be an understatement.

When I read about terroir, which is the concept that one particular parcel of earth is so much more special than another patch of earth—and that is why wine made from one parcel of soil can sell for, say, $1,200 while wine from a parcel just three yards away can “only” sell for $300—I thought that was just bananas. It seemed to me that terroir was nothing more than a French marketing scheme established so that Burgundian winemakers could jack up the prices for their fermented grape juice. I dismissed the philosophy of the Burgudnian vigneron as pretentious hooey. Vigneron is the term for just about anyone who works in wine cultivation, and Burgundian vignerons do not believe wine is made, but rather subscribe to the notion that wine is born. They view themselves as midwives birthing nature’s fruit and pressing it into wine. I thought, Give me a break.

When I first told my father I was going to Burgundy to report on this crime, he said, “So you’re going over to investigate a crime committed against some plants?” Really, my pop’s question sums up what was at the core of my American cynicism on this topic.

But here’s the thing, after I had spent a relatively short time there, I not only saw Burgundy through new eyes, what’s more, because of Burgundy, I saw the world differently. Terroir is real. It is a product of science and spirituality. Because of hundreds of years of geological upheaval and transformation, with oceans receding and the earth’s crust buckling and bulging, and the resulting abrupt, uneven fault lines beneath the vineyards, Burgundy very much indeed is in a global sweet spot to grow vines, and each parcel is truly unique. Call it the work of God, or chalk it up to shifting Tectonic Plates, or both, whatever. There’s that.

Additionally, there has been the work of man, beginning with the medieval monks, who married the Pinot Noir vines to Burgundy, and you might say engaged in centuries’ worth of experimentation and ultimately perfection when it comes to viticulture. There truly is a difference in wine that comes from one patch of terroir and another that is, oh, just across the road.

Quick story: I attended probably north of 50 tastings in Burgundy; at one of them, more than 50 of the best wines of the Côte de Nuits region were uncorked, all were 10 years old. The co-host of this particular event, who became a dear friend, was cooking in the kitchen and asked me to fetch him a glass of a wine that I liked. (This guy is a massive man with a massive heart, a brilliant Brit who lovingly liked to call me a certain derogatory term for females—rhymes with punt—but that’s a whole other story.)  I honestly can’t remember what wine I selected for him, but I do recall it was from the village of Pommard. Presented with the glass, this big guy in his apron stood in his kitchen before his simmering pot of stew, sniffed the wine for a few seconds, took and drink and he nailed the exact vineyard and producer, out of hundreds of vineyards and producers. I was stunned. I said something to the effect of, “Well, I must have just grabbed a wine that you know very well.” He

Maximillian Potter

Maximillian Potter

told me to go get him another glass of something else. I did, and he nailed it again. We played this game for about a half dozen glasses. In no time, frankly, I could tell the difference of wines from a given village, though I could never approach being able to discern wine from neighboring vineyards in the same village the way this fellow can. The difference in flavor is largely due to the uniqueness of the terroir.

Contrary to my dad’s statement, the vines in Burgundy are not just plants. In the overwhelming number of domaines, these vines have been a part of a family for decades, in some cases, hundreds of years, and the vines are regarded as children to be cared for and raised by each generation. In the case of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, its patriarch, Aubert de Villaine, almost literally cares for his vines as his children, and for decades he has tended to them with an unwavering dedication and tenderness. There is nothing more sacred in Burgundy than that ancient marriage of the vine to the earth. In many ways, that union is what holds the culture together, at times it feels like literally the culture is tethered to the earth with a vine. And for centuries, there has been an unspoken arrangement, I think, between man and the vineyards, wherein “we” realize that these vineyards are out there, vulnerable, and no one had ever dreamed of entering a vineyard and intentionally laying waste to it. Yet, that is exactly what these bad guys threatened to do, and, frankly, they showed it was possible. This crime drilled into and attempted to poison that very essence of Burgundian culture.

Quick story 2: There was a moment along the way in my reporting when I found myself talking to Francois Millet, one of the vignerons who was another of the victims of this crime. Francois was explaining to me how this crime had shaken him and really all of Burgundy. He said that until this crime the vineyards of Burgundy had been free of evil. He told me that the vignerons realized this and did not take it for granted. On the contrary, he said that Burgundian vignerons “had the luxury to focus on the poetry that God had given them—the vines, the earth, the sun and the rain. But, Francois added, that luxury came with a price: It meant that they had the responsibility to birth the very best wines from it.”

In writing the book, I was very conscious of my own journey from skeptic to Burgundy believer—I was very conscious of my father’s reaction—and I tried to structure the story, or rather stories, in such a way that a reader like me, or like my dad, who had every rational reason to dismiss it all, would come to know and appreciate the place, the people and the wines the way I came to appreciate them. I’ve said it many times, but I mean it, a crime is what drew me to Burgundy, but that poetry of the place is what drew me back … and makes me wish I were there right now.

Question:Is the wine from DRC really that much better? $10,000-per-bottle better?

Potter: Yes. Again, I think I’m probably a great barometer for this. The first Burgundy I ever had was a 2008 La Tache. Monsieur de Villaine, the co-director of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti kindly invited me into his cellar and poured me a glass of the La Tache, which is widely regarded as one of the very best wines in the world. It was, without exaggeration, the best flavor—really, flavor isn’t right, it was the best sensation—I have ever had in my mouth. That same day, I walked across the cobblestone street to the Domaine Liger-Belair, and there I was served at 2008 La Romanée, another of the world’s very best wines. Later that night, back at my hotel with my translator, all we could think about that night was how incredible these two wines were. Since then, I’ve had several vintages of Romanée-Conti, which many critics and collectors think is the world’s best wine, along with many other highly prized Grand Crus from the DRC along with many other prestigious domaines, and man, oh, man, they are magnificent. Since then, back at home in the real world, I’ve pretty much been limited to Burgundies that are at the bottom of the wine hierarchy, which is to say $25 “Regional” Burgundies. Regionals can be very good, but nothing compared to the Grand Crus.

I guess I liken the differences between a Grand Cru and all rest to a piece of remarkable writing and something that is just readable. When you read truly great writing, even if you don’t understand its engineering, you know it and you measure everything else you read or write against that highest standard. The Grand Cru wines of Burgundy are very much like that. When a Grand Cru wine comes into your life, you are blessed and ruined, ruined in the sense that all the wines that follow are … ok.

Question: As you expanded on the original Vanity Fair article about the crime (which I have not read as a stand-alone piece), how did you go about finding ways to expand on the story? How much research did you do and how did you go about organizing it? How did you decide how far back to go in the history?

Potter: Well, I’m a big believer that structure is 70 percent of a successful piece of writing. You want to tease and ultimately satiate the reader. Call it narrative foreplay. Hey now! … Writing, it seems to me, if done well, is a very selfless endeavor. For me, writing is not about the writer, it’s about the reader. As I mentioned, I worked very hard to try to replicate my experience—Burgundian neophyte/skeptic who, through exposure and education became an unapologetic Burghound believer. Pursuing this goal made the structure at once incredibly easy and challenging. The crime was my portal into that world—who doesn’t like a good crime story–and so I began with that to lure the reader. Through the crime, I stepped into and learned the incredible history of the place and came to meet the characters past and present (and future), and so, similarly then, as the author, I tried to replicate that with that experience. I think of the crime as the main vine stock and the other stories in the book as offshoots, which I hope bear fruit for the reader and generally enrich their experience and understanding of the place and the wines.

Basically, I wrote the book for people who have not discovered Burgundies, or for that matter, wine, who find the “pretense” off-putting, but who have the sensibility and soulfulness to appreciate the wine and the culture when given the chance.

Quick story 3: One of the characters the reader meets in the book told me that wine is a blend of the ghost of grapes and all of the ghosts who have worked over the centuries to make that wine. Whether it’s a $12,000 bottle of Romanée-Conti or a $30 Regional Burgundy, I’d say the vast majority of the wines are made with the same type of care and tradition. In other words, there are wonderful ghosts in every glass of Burgundy and my hope is that after reading the book, you would better appreciate the ghosts in your glass.

Question: It’s interesting to read Shadows in the Vineyard, which references the heavy persecution and oppression of Protestants by Catholics in the mid-18th Century, with what happened in Paris on January 7 this year. What were some of your thoughts about the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the history of religious differences–in France and elsewhere?

Potter: I don’t see a parallel between the Pre-Revolutionary French oppression of Protestants and the slaughter carried out by those terrorists in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. The Protestants who were oppressed by the Pre-Revolutionary French government were indeed oppressed, and they took up arms, as our forefathers did here in America, only after logic and reason and politics had failed them over and over again. Beyond that, I’ll leave it to the geo-political experts.

Look, I’m a way lapsed Catholic who went to 13 years of Catholic School including four years of high school with Jesuits (“God’s Marines”). The Jesuits are big on critical thinking, which ironically, I guess, is the kind of thinking that propelled me from the Church and organized religion in general. I came around to the idea that organized religion is not for me. I wish it was. I miss the sense of community and world order that comes with organized religion. But I’m not a fan of exclusivity or dogma, or superiority—that’s where, it seems to me, the world gets into problems. Crazy thing about organized religion and codified beliefs—and maybe this does apply to the Hebdo massacre—is that organized religion has historically been a cause of oppression and bloodshed.

I certainly don’t believe that any one religion is better than any other. I mean, it seems to me, they’re all roads to the same place: selflessness and love and community. Yet somewhere along the way, organized religion often gets perverted and fucked up. If there is a God, and I believe there is, I’m of the mind that we are all his People. While I’m a lapsed Catholic, I will forever admire the Jesuits who taught me, and I will forever hold fast to their credo, which simply says: Be a person for others. I kind of think that’s all we need: remember love and to be a person for others … And wine!

Question: I’ve seen a few comments from readers who expect Shadows in the Vineyard to offer up a typical true crime book, but it seems to me that your goal was to put this crime against the vineyard in a broader context about elitism, about ruling class versus working class. Thoughts?

Potter: Well, I never set out to write a typical crime book. And while I was conscious of the classism that has always surrounded wine, I tried to place Burgundy wine in a larger historical context and show that wine is meant to bring people together.

Quick story 4: During my reporting for the book, over the course of two and half years, I had the great fortune to lunch many times with Aubert de Villaine. We would often eat at the Domaine: meats, cheeses, fruit and he would open an awfully nice bottle of wine. As I detail in the book, Aubert is a humble, hardworking farmer; and a man of extraordinary kindness and tenderness. He’s a big proponent of hugs, though rarely gives them himself. However, he is a man born into privilege and by definition, an aristocrat. Then there’s me: born into a working poor family in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. During one of my last lunches with Aubert we discussed our very different backgrounds and I said I found it amazing that a guy like me was sitting here with a guy like him drinking his amazing wine. Aubert cocked an eyebrow in such a way that conveyed he had never thought of it that way, because, quite frankly, I don’t think that is how he thinks. There was a long pause, he took a drink from his glass (2007 Romanée Saint-Vivant) and he said that I should try to find a way to put our meeting, and our differences, into the book. When I asked him why he responded, “Because that shows the power of wine. Wine brings people together who might not otherwise have ever met. That is the beauty of wine—the relationships and community it creates.”

Long story short, that was the overarching theme and context of the book I was trying to achieve: All of the events and characters you encounter in Shadows are gathered around wine.

Question: Have ever tried Three-Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s? Thoughts?

Potter: Dude. Come on! Two-Buck Chuck and Rolling Rock is my terroir. That’s where I was born! As high-schooler growing up in Philly I used to spike my Water Ices with generic Vodka and Night Train. My thoughts: I’d much rather drink a Burgundy.

Question: What’s your pick for a good–and affordable–Burgundy that you can readily find in Colorado? Where do you buy it and how much is it?

Potter:
Well, as far as Burgundy goes, here’s a suggestion that is good insidery type stuff: Aubert de Villaine, who oversees the D.R.C., also has a domaine of his own. It is in the far south of Burgundy and until he moved there in the early 70’s, it was thought of as the Hoboken (before it was cool) to Burgundy’s Manhattan. Aubert has changed all that.PotterRed2 His Domaine is A&P de Villaine and I buy his wines because they are affordable and, clearly, he makes great wines. I recommend the Domaine A&P Bouzeron Aligote (a white), and of his reds, I recommend the Domaine A&P Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise La Fortune both under $30.PotterWineRecWhite

Question: I know you might have plenty to do on a daily basis, but do you have plans for another book?

Potter: I have few book ideas that I can’t seem to shake. There are a few topics, and one character in particular, I just can’t shake. I’m figuring out which one I want to tackle first as a book. I’m also waiting to see how some of these unfolding stories around me wrap, with fingers crossed for happy endings.

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And now, a review:

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Settle back (perhaps with a glass of wine) and relax. Shadows in the Vineyard is a thoughtful, smart, elegant look at a nasty attack on the “storied” vineyard known as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. (DRC if you’re in the know.)

I am not.

Given the heightened terrorism fears in France and across Europe as I write this review (January 2015), it’s hard to put this particular attack in context. But Maximillian Potter does—and he sees the 2010 extortion-by-poison as a big-picture event with roots, so to speak, in history.

Shadows in the Vineyard covers lots of ground and (sorry for all the agriculture metaphors) and tills the soil with care. Fans of heart-stopping true crime stuff, seek else.

The attack was wicked and required enormous dedication—carefully drilling holes in over 700 precious vines and threatening to inject them all unless an exorbitant ransom is paid.

Potter intersperses tales of the crime and the events as they unfolded with glimpses of history—Louis XV, Madame Pompadour, the Prince de Conti all get screen time as Potter demonstrates the growing reverence for wine. The shadows in the vineyard of DRC are shadows first cast a few centuries ago—and Potter’s case is well prosecuted. Along the way are questions about classism, snobbery and outright religious oppression.

In fact, the chase for the suspect is hardly heart-pounding (despite several dead ends that stump the elite team of investigators) and the center of gravity for the book shifts to the growing decay and troubles under the reign of Louis XV. As the narrative flips back and forth, you may feel at times like you’ve strayed way too far from the inciting crime of this story. But Potter brings the threads back together in deft manner at the end and we see how one vineyard took on such exalted status that it could be compared to a work of art—and, as such, draw the attention of French government officials to protect the purity of the lineage and, well, bloodline.

Potter takes the case like a cutting, nurtures it carefully, and gives us all a narrative we can sit back and savor.

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Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance. – Benjamin Franklin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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