Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review -- Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine

The over-reach on this book begins with the subtitle. There never was a plot to poison the world's greatest wine. Rather, there was a plot (foiled) to extort money from Domaine Romanée Conti (DRC) by threatening to poison a portion of its Romanée-Conti vineyard. But maybe I am being too picky. Let's move on.

I have had wines like this book before and the term generally used to describe them is "did not deliver," precis for "great nose, did not deliver on the palate." This book has mesmerizing cover art and a "come hither" title for wine and crime buffs alike but falls far short in the fulfillment arena. As a matter of fact, this book leaves itself open to accusations of "false adverising" or "baiting and switiching." It could have (should have?) been more appropriately titled: (i) An ode to Aubert de Villaine; or (ii) The Life and Times of Aubert de Villaine; or (iii) The History of Burgundy. But definitely not the title and subtitle under which it went to market.

The book purports to tell the story of the plot to poison the DRC Romanée-Conti vineyard (based on the intent rather than the subtitle) but there is no there there. Of the 274 pages of text directed at the reader, approximately 43 pages have anything at all to do with the story on offer. And those pages are distributed like oases in the desert across the full span of the book:

  • Chapter 2: pp 21 - 34
  • Chapter 9: pp 129 - 139
  • Chapter 11: pp 167 - 170; 178 - 183
  • Chapter 13: pp 197 - 198
  • Chapter 16: pp 237 - 246; 253 - 258.

The book falls victim to the disease of trying to extend an article into a book. The author apparently wrote an article for Vanity Fair on the topic post its occurrence and then someone had the bright idea to further capitalize on the buzz by writing a book about it. But the story did not merit a book. It was too simple. A small-time crook devised a plan to extort money from DRC. DRC reported it to the police. The police set up a sting and caught the guy who had enlisted his ne'er-do-well son to assist him in tagging the vines in the vineyard. The crook hung himself in his prison cell before trial. There. That's it.

The remainder is a classic example of Lee-Daniels-The-Butler Syndrome: let's pack everything about the broader topic (in this case Burgundy) into the pages regardless of its bearing on the core story. Chapter 1 is a paen to Aubert de Villaine (He probably was too embarrassed to complete that gooey, cloying, obsequious mess); Chapter 3, a look back into the life and times of the Prince de Conti in the 1755 timeframe; Chapter 4, young Aubert and his grandfather; and so on and so on. And the presentation of this extraneous material did not even conform to some sort of organized plan. There was a lot of unceremonious jumping back and forth between periods and people and between perspectives and storytellers. There probably was some good stuff somewhere in there but I could not get over the feeling of being conned long enough to discover/enjoy it.

Two passages in the book, in the author's own words, are indictments against the concept of a book on this topic. The first was the quote that the crime was "far less nefarious than anyone had ever imagined" and the second was the statement that upon conclusion of the effort, the detectives involved in the case felt "full of emptiness." Not elation, emptiness. The same feeling that I had upon completion of this book.

I read this book. You don't have to.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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