The letter threatened to poison all the vines in one of the most prized vineyards in the world. When Aubert de Villaine, co-director of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, opened it earlier this year, he didn't know what to make of it. "But when a second arrived shortly afterward," de Villaine told French media, "I took the affair very seriously."
De Villaine realized that Romanée-Conti was the target of a 1 million euro (about $1.26 million) blackmail scheme. In the second letter, the man provided detailed knowledge and maps of the grand cru Romanée-Conti vineyard, a DRC monopole, and threatened to pour poison onto the roots. De Villaine contacted local police, and the extortionist was nabbed in a cemetery trying to pick up a fake ransom.
Located in Vosne-Romanée, in the heart of Côte de Nuits, DRC is the most famous Burgundy producer in the world, making it a tempting target. DRC's Romanée-Conti 2005 was released in 2008 for $3,650 to $4,300 per bottle; at retail, it now ranges from $8,000 to $16,000. Just last weekend, Christie’s sold six bottles of Romanée-Conti at auction in New York for a record high $26,000 per bottle. Wine fans looking for vine cuttings have jumped the walls of Romanée-Conti's 4.4 acres before, but no one had ever threatened poison.
"The letters were well-written, with a really good knowledge of our vineyard, and you never know, I didn't want to risk a hostage situation," said de Villaine. "It could have been an organized crime gang."
The police hatched a scheme to trap the letter writer. They had de Villaine write back, setting up a ransom drop in a cemetery in nearby Chambolle-Musigny on the night of Feb. 22. When the man, accompanied by his son, arrived to pick up the bag, actually filled with fake euros, the police moved in.
According to de Villaine, the extortionist is a trained vineyard worker from Marne, to the North, who spent two years in Burgundy but never had contact with DRC. He also has a criminal record. A trial will be scheduled during the next 12 months. De Villaine would not comment on whether DRC will explore security options for its prized vines.
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