Rarely do the participants of the Drinking to Drink interview series stumble on to me, rather than me on to them, but that was the case with Maximillian Potter. Max had a Google alert set for any new press concerning his outstanding book Shadows in the Vineyard, so when my recent blog article about the text popped up on his radar, he reached out to express his thanks. I absolutely devoured Shadows in the Vineyard while vacationing in Paris a few weeks back (as did Corniche Pictures, who quickly snapped up the movie rights and are looking to bring the story to the big screen). My mother of all people was the one who recommended it to me, after hearing an interview with Max on NPR recently, so I ordered a copy for the road before leaving. While I knew the gist of the story—the plot to poison the vineyards of Domaine Romanée-Conti and blackmail its owners—I had no idea how deep Max would go into the history of the Burgundy region, its wines, its residents, and its storied vineyards. It was actually a wine book disguised as a crime caper, but written for people like me who enjoy the more romantic aspects of drinking, rather than the statistical side. Being a fairly recent convert to Burgundy, I was thrilled to learn more about its illustrious past. But being someone who appreciates plain and simple booze talk, I was genuinely inspired by Max's feat.
So when a message from Max showed up in my box, I knew exactly what was in order. I wanted to get him on the phone, get him talking about Burgundy, and hopefully ignite in all of our customers the same excitement and enthusiasm that Max had unleashed upon me. Despite the fact that I've worked at K&L for almost eight years now and have tasted countless wines from Burgundy throughout that time, I still feel like there's so much I'll never understand. But that feeling of helplessness stems partly from how I approach the region—my attempts at memorizing the most important vineyard sites, the mechanistic manuals that breakdown its varied soils, and the fantastical price points that exclude my access to tasting more from Burgundy's most heralded vineyards. It felt like learning a foreign language without any understanding of the culture. What Maximillian Potter uncovers, however—without any experience in the wine industry whatsoever—is the soul of Burgundy; the philosophies, the ideals, and the traditions that make it so unique. I quickly realized that I was going about my studies all wrong. I needed to focus less on the specifics, step back, and take in the bigger picture. After talking with Max one-on-one, I'm even more convinced of this new approach.
In this edition of Drinking to Drink we talk about the anxiety of walking into the world's most prestigious wine region without any wine knowledge, why Burgundy's combination of science and mysticism is incredibly romantic, and how our preconceived drinking notions can sometimes turn out to be entirely the opposite. Previous editions of the D2D series can be found by clicking here, or by visiting the archive in the right hand margin of the blog.
David: I think my favorite thing about Shadow in the Vineyards is that the crime aspect of it—the actual plot to poison the vineyards of Romanée-Conti—is really just a tool to talk about Burgundy as a whole. Throughout the book you paint a portrait of the region—one specifically known for its complexity among wine drinkers—that’s easy for anyone to understand, and your inclusive tone allows a wider audience to enter into the fold. It’s everything I wish we could accomplish here at K&L on a more regular basis. It’s everything I want from a wine book when I sit down to further educate myself, especially one about Burgundy where I feel so much of what’s normally presented is dense and difficult to decipher. I love reading about the history of the region and the people who live there.
Max: The synopsis you just laid out there, and an audience pretty much exactly like you, is exactly what I had in mind when I wrote the book. The way I structured it was an attempt to replicate my own entry into that world. A crime is what brought me there, and I didn’t care so much about wine at the time. I didn’t know much about winemaking, didn’t know a Burgundy from a Bordeaux—it didn’t make a difference to me. I went to pursue what appeared to be a pretty good crime story for Vanity Fair magazine, but when I got there I quickly realized the crime was not really the most interesting part of the Burgundy story. It was merely the portal through which I entered that world. That’s very consciously how I structured the book—for people like my dad. He doesn’t care about Burgundy. This is a guy who lives in a row house in Philly.
David: What did he think about the book?
Max: When I first told him about the piece, he essentially said, “Let me get this straight: you’re going to go over and write a 5,000 word magazine article about some bad guys who poisoned some plants?” So I was very conscious to try and reach an audience like me or you—guys who don’t necessarily wake up every morning thinking about Burgundy. But once we’re exposed to how beautiful that place is, the storied history, and the wonderful personalities that make and flavor the wines there, I think we’re exactly the sort of audience for Burgundy that guys like Aubert de Villaine want.
David: I think one of the largest barriers to attaining a wider audience for Burgundy—and even Bordeaux in some instances—is the fact that few people seem to talk about it in an accessible way. I think that’s almost by design. There’s a certain high-brow audience that wants to control the conversation in a very specific way—one that assumes you already understand what they’re talking about, and if you don’t then maybe you shouldn’t bother. So when you say you think Aubert de Villaine would rather have a more grounded audience, your portrayal of his philosophies behind making the wine seems to suggest as much. I found that topic far more interesting than say drawn-out descriptions of soil content.
Max: I feel like I’m talking to a kindred spirit for sure (laughs). Like many folks who I think flirt with having an interest in Burgundy, I was initially very intimidated. But also not—and by that I mean that when I first went to Burgundy I didn’t know a soul. I didn’t speak French, and I didn’t know a thing about French laws and winemaking. That’s the context with which I get on the plane and go over there. Initially Aubert didn’t want to play ball, either, so I didn’t even have that going for me. What I did have going for me was a very good friend of mine, a guy named Ben Wallace who wrote The Billionaire’s Vinegar. I saw every stage of that book happen, along with Ben’s entry into wine. We were both staff writers together at Philadelphia Magazine a long, long time ago. He was one of the first calls I made while trying to figure out what my map would be into this world. Ben informed me about the existence of Becky Wasserman, who I’m guessing is someone you’re familiar with.
David: Yes, she’s a well-known exporter of Burgundy throughout the industry.
Max: I didn’t know her, but I did a bit of quick research on her and as you probably know she’s essentially the godmother of Burgundy, and has been described as such by many folks who I would eventually become friendly with over the years. So I reached out to Becky. Her husband is a fellow named Russell Hone, and Russell is a huge guy, six foot five, built like an offensive tackle, and absolutely brilliant. Also a guy who, when he wants to, can speak like a drunken sailor from the south of London. They agreed to host me on my first visit and we quickly became friends. I more or less confessed my ignorance of wine to these folks and there were a lot of commonalities there. First of all, Becky is not French. She’s from the United States, lived a huge chunk of her life in Philadelphia before moving to France, and very organically and naturally we had a lot of common threads to discuss. So a rapport was established and I think a trust as well over the next two to three years. I felt equally comfortable around Russell, who’s just one hell of a nice guy. His background in wine is also extraordinary. He’s truly an expert, and I told him that I didn’t know any wine terms, nor did the tasting notes really speak to me. He said to me, “It’s not really that difficult.”
David: It certainly doesn’t have to be, right?
Max: I’m not going to be able to do justice to just how funny he was in that moment, but he said, “You read these tasting notes where people say it has a barnyard aroma and it reminds me of a wet saddle with mushrooms. But no one ever says it tastes like fucking grapes! It’s wine! When you drink a wine, does it speak to you? Do you like the way it tastes? That’s all you need to know.” And that was extraordinarily empowering to me. That was me dipping my toe in the pool of what would become a two year odyssey through Burgundy, and it put me at ease—it took all the pretense out of it. You’re right, though. I think that with a lot of critics and reviewers wine is what matters to them. And it should. And they want to get access to the best wines, and they want to keep that access. A lot of people don’t get access, so part of that access means they have to create an aura—which much of the time is legitimate—of their expertise to show that their palate is more informed than the majority of human beings.
David: You think that’s what continues to drive reviewers towards long-winded tasting notes?
Max: I think they write in these terms, speaking to an audience of high-end buyers—which is necessary—but they do so in a way that I think is exclusive. It keeps people out, and—to be really candid about it—I think the winemakers like this because it creates a system of control in disseminating views about their wines. It works in their favor, too. But what you’ve astutely tuned in on is the opportunity cost of that formal/informal system of exclusion, which excludes a huge population of not just consumers, but people who simply don’t have the opportunity to be lured into the world and the wines of Burgundy in a way that speaks to them. It doesn’t mean they’re any less able to appreciate Burgundy, it doesn’t mean they’re any less worthy of appreciating it, and that’s why I wrote the book. What brought me into Burgundy had nothing to do with the wine—it was the crime. It’s what we call in the magazine world a bait and switch. Somebody comes to the story expecting one thing, but when they get there what they discover is a whole world that they never saw coming, and hopefully one they feel really good that they walked into.
David: Let’s tie that into your initial encounter with Monsieur Villaine—the head of DRC—who you said at first didn’t really want to cooperate.
Max: I went over there to report about crime, which I’d been doing for the better part of twenty years at that point, either as a writer or as an editor. As most journalists know, if you’re assigned to do a story and the subjects don’t want to cooperate, I’d like to think—if the story’s worth doing and has larger transcendent value—that the journalist is going to do it whether the sources cooperate or not. What happens is that you get in there and you only find one or two people who are gonna talk, and then you flush people out of the brush, and then they talk. Often times, you talk to enough people around the primary sources and then word gets back to them that this guy is serious about doing a story here, he’s not the antichrist, and more often than not I’ve found the people who originally chose not to speak do end up speaking. That’s the context under which I went over there. I figured if Aubert doesn’t talk, then so be it.
David: What time period are we at here? When did you first go over?
Max: This is the summer of 2010. My wife and I happened to be in Napa for a long weekend to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and a good friend of mine from college who had just started a winery there offered to drive us around. He’s the guy who said to me, “Hey, I just read about a story you might be interested in on a wine blog: some bad guys might have tried to poison some or all of the vines at Romanée-Conti.” So I said, “What’s Romanée-Conti?” He replied, “You’re a bonehead,” to which I said, “Well, you used to be a bonehead too before you started with all this fancy wine stuff, so why don’t you enlighten me, genius?” So he gave me the history and context of Romanée-Conti, and sure enough it did sound like quite an interesting subject. I talked to my editor at Vanity Fair and he agreed. My first call was to try and track down Aubert for his cooperation, who is an investor and partner in a winery called Hyde de Villaine in California. I figured if I could speak to someone who spoke English who also knew what Vanity Fair was, I might have a better chance.
David: And how did that go?
Max: At first I got a call back from Aubert a few weeks later. He has this wonderful gravelly and baritone voice, and he says, “What is it you want to do?” I told him, and then he said he would get back to me in two weeks. He even gave me the exact day right then that he would call me (laughs).
David: Did he call you back on that exact day?
Max: I did get a call on that day, but it wasn’t from him, it was from one of his publicists who told me I was wasting my time, and that Aubert wasn’t interested in talking about it. I told this person that I already had my ticket booked and that I’d be heading over anyway, and to please let Aubert know so that he didn’t feel like I was tip-toeing around his backyard. So I went over, met up with Becky, and started doing some reporting—talking to other sources, trying to bring myself up to speed on what Burgundy is and the people who live there. Working with me was an old friend from the magazine world who happened to be living in France, was fluent in the language, and more importantly fluent in the culture. She said, “We should try knocking on his door!”
David: At the actual DRC office?
Max: Right, and as you probably know, the Domaine is in a small town called Vosne-Romanée, and Vosne-Romanée is in the heart of Burgundy—it’s at the center point between Beaune and Dijon. It’s where arguably the best Burgundies in the world are grown. The majority of grand crus are right in that sweet spot. But the town itself is remarkably small. Quaint doesn’t do it justice. The town square is basically a well, a post office, and that’s pretty much it. There’s nothing else there. If you were to add it all up it would probably amount to four city blocks of cobblestone streets, very narrow, obviously built originally for carriages. So when my friend said “knock on the door” she meant it literally. We walked over from our hotel to the office. They’ve since opened a new office that’s much easier to find, but the original one is tucked on this little side street, so if you don’t know where it is you’re probably not going to find it. And even if you do find it, you’ll be so stunned at how unremarkable it is that you’ll probably go right past it. The only identifying sign are two red steel gates that have a very tiny R and C at the top.
David: So you knocked?
Max: My friend says to me, “Why don’t you let me go up and represent you as your assistant and we’ll see what happens.” I asked if she would be comfortable doing that, and she said, “Trust me, that’s how it works here.” So she goes up and rings the bell, I go and wait around the corner, it’s pouring rain—it’s like a scene from a really bad comedy. I’m out of sight, while my friend is gone for about thirty minutes, and at this point I’m thinking she must have come out of the Domaine and got lost. So I come to the front of this alley where the Domaine is, I poke my head around the corner, and she’s standing there with Aubert, to which I say, “Oh shit!” and they both hear me and laugh. He then waved for me to come over and we ended up in the tasting room inside. I told him again what I was there to do and he told me that he had two reservations to having the crime reported: one being that he didn’t want to inspire copycats, which is significant. If you think about the great vineyards—not just in France, but around the world—these beautiful vineyards that are pretty much the gooses that lay the golden eggs. Even if they don’t charge ten thousand dollars a bottle like DRC, they’re very meaningful plots of land to their respective owners and families that have been—in many cases—holdings for generations and generations, regardless of which country we’re talking about. They’re just open and exposed.
David: Did that surprise you?
Max: What occurred to me—and this is when I started to think there was a book here—is that there’s an unspoken pact between man and nature, and between vignerons and the rest of us, where, yes, these plots of earth are open. We can go, and we can visit them, and we can stand at the wall at DRC—the little two foot high stone wall—and we can look in, but we don’t go in there. We don’t cause trauma or stress, or think about doing anything that would ruin or destroy these exposed, vulnerable pieces of earth. But what happened here was exactly that, and it was unprecedented. Somebody threw a leg over that wall and attempted to destroy the Domaine’s prized vineyard. So Aubert didn’t want to inspire other copycats. The second reason was that he was concerned the historical context and the story of the Domaine itself—all the stewards of the Domaine and it’s storied history—would be given short shrift. In good faith, without hesitation, I told him there was no way I could write a piece about this crime and ignore the history and the care that has been applied to this Domaine and that vineyard for thousands of years. That’s imbedded in the point of the story.
David: What was your answer concerning other copycats?
Max: I said it was a valid concern, and maybe there wasn’t a way for us to get past that, but I explained to him that when my friend first told me about the crime, he did so out of a rather self-serving motive. He too has vineyards, and remember that this was at a time when no one was really sure what had happened over there. There were rumors circulating around the world about what may have happened at the most prestigious vineyard in the world, and this struck fear throughout the global winemaking community. Because if it could happen at the DRC, then it could happen anywhere. And because there was so little information provided, a lot of rumor and innuendo began to fill the vacuum of actual information, and there started to become a paranoia. So I told Aubert, “Look, you can keep this closed for the good reasons that you have, or we could be candid and talk about what really happened—dispel the myths—and then just deal with reasonable concerns.”
David: And what did he say to that?
Max: He looked at me, David, and he said: “So you’re going to do this story whether I cooperate or not.” And I told him that was accurate. So he said, “Well, then let’s talk.” And that’s what happened.
David: And all of the topics that he’s afraid you won’t do justice to, you explain them so poetically that I have to think anyone who’s even remotely interested in Burgundy will be compelled further. I was so inspired, reading your book while in Paris, that I logged into K&L remotely and started ordering bottles myself! But perhaps what surprised me the most was how humble, soft, and down-to-earth Aubert comes across in your narrative. You would think with DRC being the most prestigious winery on the entire planet that Monsieur Villaine might be a bit snooty or hoity-toity, but as you get to know him it seems like you really liked him. You painted a very flattering portrait, let’s say.
Max: Yes, I did, and I’m not one of those authors who doesn’t read the critics reviews. I do read them because I want to learn from them, see where I may have made mistakes and how I can be mindful moving forward. And if people, like yourself, are inspired by the book, well heck I want to feel good about that too because that’s why I wrote it. So one of the criticisms I read said that I was too nice to Aubert—that it was too much of a rosy picture. I’ve written plenty of unflattering portraits of folks over the years because they were true—that’s what my reporting has born out. With Aubert, I wrote what I did because it was true! And I find it telling—and in a weird way validating—that this was a criticism. I went over there at a time when I had been covering crime and pretty unsavory characters for pretty much my entire professional career. What made going to Burgundy so appealing to me was I thought I would at least get a break from the normal bullshit. I’ll be in Burgundy, I hear the people are pretty nice, and I was feeling a bit burnt out, so it sounded great. I was expecting Aubert to be exactly how you said. I had even joked with friends about how I pictured this guy, sitting in his mansion, far removed from where the actual work gets done, with a glass of pinot and a scarf, his legs crossed by the fireplace, never having worked a day in his life, being aloof and snotty. And that’s the exact opposite of who this man is.
David: He seems incredibly endearing from what you describe in the book.
Max: What I found was a guy who calls the Domaine a farm. He wears basically the French equivalent of Dickie work clothes. He drives a station wagon every day. He’s the first person in and the last to leave. He’s out in the vineyards all the time. He’s personally invested and genuinely cares about his employees, and he speaks of the vineyards not as an acquisition or a revenue engine, but rather as a trust that has been handed down through generations—a trust that his father and grandfather were charged with taking care of, just as many historical figures before them have done, not just for their family, but for France. He also speaks of the vineyard as a place of extraordinary spirituality. Burgundy, as you know, was cultivated by Catholic monks and this was at a time in the medieval period when there are no vines there. It was basically wild forest, and these guys go in by hand and cultivate it. There’s no market pressure driving them. They’re simply trying to grow and birth the best wines to serve as the blood of Christ. They’re not trying to sell this stuff. They want to create something worthy of the divine and this is how Aubert speaks of it.
David: There’s a spirituality there that I think speaks to thousands of years of tradition that Americans can never really understand. There’s something awesome about that.
Max: The cherry on top of the sundae of Aubert’s awesomeness is bittersweet though. He and his wife were unable to have children. A lot of the vignerons in Burgundy speak of their vines as les enfants—which means children—but many of these folks, with Burgundy being as Catholic as it is, they go home and they have actual children, but Aubert didn’t have that. For him, the vines are surrogates almost. He poured into them all of the love and care in his heart, for all the reasons we just kicked around, but also because he didn’t have anywhere else to put it. I watched him one day, David, and—as I write about in the book, the opening scene—I hope it speaks to just how sincere and genuine his care is. I was watching him walk through the vines at Romanée-St. Vivant and he was trying to decide when to harvest. His arms were outstretched and his palms were down flat on the canopy leaves, and he was running his hands across them. Then he got to this certain spot, smack dab in the middle, and he got down and moved aside a canopy to pluck some of the grapes and taste them. As he did that, immediately in my head, I thought of my two boys—who are now thirteen and fourteen, so I don’t tuck them in as much as I used to. When they were kids though, I’d go in while they were sleeping and move aside the lock of hair on their forehead to give them a kiss goodnight. This was exactly the same love and tenderness that he applied to the vines in that moment, moving aside the canopy of leaves. So when his vines are threatened and he started getting notes from the bad guys, the threat was indeed dire because the wines made from those grapes are worth tens of thousands of dollars a bottle. There was also the pressure of knowing that Romanée-Conti vineyard is a part of French history. But it was also that his children that were being threatened—so these guys were toying with everything that was dear to his heart. So, yes, I fell for this guy a bit. He personifies a grace, a humility, a kindness, and a care that I think there’s a dearth of in the world.
David: Maybe that’s why I was so moved by his character. Because I’m starting to believe that people like him no longer exist—at least not authentically.
Max: Right, and I was given the opportunity to meet this person and celebrate that, so I wasn’t going to pull any punches on how wonderful he is, just like if he had turned out to be someone dastardly, I wouldn’t have pulled the punches on that. But—you’re right—it is emblematic of where we are globally, as a society we don’t believe people like him exist! I think that’s sad. For me, that was all the more reason to put a spotlight on him—even though he didn’t want one—as evidence that we’re all capable of being this tender, loving person. So that’s my long-winded answer for: yeah, I really like this guy (laughs).
David: You and I write the same way—at least in this case—in that we both look for the story in the people participating in the act. I find that when I go abroad and meet many of these small, humble producers, it’s easy to fall in love with them because their motivations for making these products have little to do with many of the motivators driving today’s consumer market. They’re not making wine and spirits for the purpose of one-upping their neighbor or their colleague at work. They’re not manipulating the flavors in order to get the 100 point score and impress their friends at their fancy dinner party. These motives never even enter their minds. And if they are indeed motivated by these factors, I can usually smell it from a mile away and it’s off-putting. But, like you said, when you find someone with pure intentions and humility concerning their work and their responsibilities, I’m so unaccustomed to meeting people like that, that when I do meet them, I want to get up on a soapbox and tell the world about them. I want us to take a lesson from them.
Max: Absolutely, and during my time in Burgundy—and even since then promoting a book—I feel like an outsider/interloper in the fine wine world when I go. I’m far from an expert on wine, but I do have a baseline now for what a good pinot tastes like. In fact, thanks to Aubert, I have a baseline for what the best pinots in the world taste like. It’s like when you read a good book or see a fantastic film, you have a baseline for what excellence is and that then becomes your standard. Maybe you don’t know the right words to describe it, but you know what’s good, and you know what isn’t, and you know why. I think then when you make recommendations they become more valuable. But when you talk about what motivates people to make wine in Burgundy, I want to circle back to this concept of terroir—which you obviously know about. Terroir is a concept that’s a hybrid of science and mysticism. What it means is that this vineyard—Romanée-Conti for example—is its own self-contained climat, or parcel of earth. And what the monks believed, and what they found from hundreds of years of research free of market pressures, strictly in pursuit of trying to cultivate the most divine wines on the planet, was terroir. They knew that each climat had its own unique characteristics of slope, sun, soil, geology, and rain. In their mind, these were all God-given gifts—pieces of a divine puzzle. Then their task became to find out what the best vines were to marry to this earth. Over time, they determined that the pinot noir vine—for the most part—married better to the terrain in the north, and that chardonnay married better to the soil in the south.
David: And it’s their job to simply get out of the way of that—to shepherd it, so to speak.
Max: Right, then you have the vigneron—who is the steward. They don’t believe in winemakers in Burgundy. They believe the best producer is a farmer who harnesses this philosophy of terroir. You want to get out of the way, to marry the vine to the earth, and to cultivate and support that God-given magic. You want to birth the grapes and let the wine almost pour itself into the bottle. Burgundy is unique in that the reason those vines were cultivated—whether you’re religious or not, whether you’re spiritual or not—not to sell, but to produce wine to please God. That’s not nothing. You can’t ignore that.
David: So you walk into this mystical, mythical terroir, a down-home Pennsylvania beer guy with your own preconceived notions of what the wine world is, and you get to taste not only the wines of Burgundy, but the very best wines of Burgundy. What’s your reaction in the face of all this?
Max: I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. My neighbors were cops, roofers, and firemen. There was almost never any wine in my house. There was either Schlitz or Rolling Rock, or maybe some Heineken if we were having a Champagne-style celebration. Even growing into adulthood, I was put off by a lot of the pretense surrounding wine. I was put off by the Frenchy names. It seemed enigmatic by contrivance. I thought of it was marketing hocus-pocus, like it was all stuff these folks did, somewhere in some room, to jack up the prices and overcharge people for fermented grape juice. But when I got over there, I quickly learned all of the things that we’ve discussed and I quickly realized the cliched ugly American I had been (laughs).
David: And even doing that is cliched! (laughs)
Max: So when Aubert and I first started to talk—we talked that first day for about four hours—he asked me if I had everything that I needed. I said no. No journalist is ever going to say, “Yes, I have everything I need.” So I went back the next day and we talked for another four or five hours, and at the end of it I met a guy named Jean-Charles, Aubert’s right-hand man who manages the Domaine and features prominently in the book. Jean-Charles, like you and me, has more of a proletariat, lunch box view of the universe, which was one of the reasons Aubert hired him, I think. He was in the room for most of the time while we were talking and at the end of that day Aubert asked me if I’d like to take taste some of the wines. I said, “Sure, why not?” So we go through the courtyard and walk down into the cellar—which whatever you’re picturing in your mind’s eye is probably exactly it. It’s straight out of central casting. You go down into the cellar, it’s a labyrinth, it’s full of old dusty bottles, like you’re walking through a catacomb almost. We get to the back room of the cellar and there’s an overturned cask with a candle on it, which seemed so appropriate, so it’s me, Aubert, Jean-Charles, and my translator. Aubert pulls out one of these dusty bottles that’s not labeled, uncorks it, and pours it in a glass. By this point I had done enough due diligence to know that whatever he’s pouring is one of world’s best wines and probably sells for thousands of dollars. But I’d never had one before. I’d never even had a Burgundy yet. I’m completely ignorant of how to taste. I don’t know the terms or the etiquette. So what I’m thinking in my head is: “I like this guy already, but what happens if I don’t like his wine? What do I say?” So as he’s pouring it I’m getting a little stressed, and when he was done we just sort of stood their quietly. I'm wondering: is there a starter pistol? How do I know when it’s time to drink? I wasn’t sure, so I just took a drink. I’m telling you, David: it blew my mind. It was amazing.
David: That’s exactly what people don’t want you to say! They want to continue thinking it’s all just a bunch of phooey!
Max: It gave me a huge sense of relief because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. I looked at him with this huge smile on my face. He asked, “So what do you think?” and I gave him what was probably the most unsophisticated review in the history of wine. I told him about how when I was a kid growing up we had this candy called Pop Rocks and it was a packet of sugar that, when you put it on your tongue, would start to explode like Mexican jumping beans. It was just delightful and it made you happy. It was more of an experience and a sensation than it was just eating candy. So I said, “That’s what this was like, but it feels like it’s been sprinkled from Heaven.” So he smiled and said, “Well that’s good then, right?”
David: What was the wine? Did you get to see?
Max: It turned out that it was a 2008 La Tache. Later that day I ended up going across the road to and talking to Louis-Michel Liger Belair, whose domaine is literally across the street. He and I have become good friends—he ended up becoming my landlord for the two years that I lived there. But the next Burgundy I had was with him: the same vintage from La Romanée vineyard, which as you probably know is the vineyard adjacent to Romanée-Conti. There are historical reasons to believe that at one point La Romanée was actually a part of Romanée-Conti, but people have debated that. The argument would be now that they’re two very different climats. Both of those wines kick ass, if you ask me.
David: That sounds like a pretty good day.
Max: It was a very good day, especially now in retrospect. Later that night actually my translator and I were back at the hotel, sitting in the bar, and we had purchased a bottle of Nuits-St. George. Before we drank it we just looked at one another and we were both thinking exactly the same thing. I said to her: “Are you still thinking about those wines?” and she said yes. “Those were just fucking unbelievable, right?” and again she said yes (laughs). Later on—like months later—Jean-Charles would tell me about the first time he tasted the wines of the Domaine, and this is a guy who grew up in France. The guy was a school teacher for most of his life, but he certainly grew up in the wine culture and appreciated wine in a way that I didn’t at that time. He told me the first time he tasted wines from the Domaine, “they stayed in his mouth for decades.” That’s how I feel about that La Tache and the La Romanée. It wasn’t until a year later that I first tried Romanée-Conti—the 2009 vintage—and to a certain extent I get why tasting notes sound so bananas because eventually you just run out of ways to describe something that tastes otherworldly. When I drank the Romanée-Conti—and this sounds so cheesy; if you would have talked to me five years ago I never would have said this—it tasted like love.
David: Something you never thought you would ever say.
Max: I was looking for reasons to think all of this was bullshit. But it’s not. It’s real, and that’s what I think makes that place so special. The point of the book was to take someone by the hand and say: “Hey, you might not like wine. You might not give a shit about wine, or care about France and Burgundy, but here’s this really cool crime—come with me.” So we step into the crime and then we meet Aubert, and we meet the people of Burgundy, and we meet the Prince de Conti who is basically the James Bond double-agent of his time in pre-Revolutionary France, who had these wines and served them to people like Mozart and Voltaire, and essentially was antagonizing for the French Revolution before there was a French Revolution. He buys the vineyard for himself, takes the wine off the market. It was his own quiet way I think of protesting all the noble, aristocratic waste and abuse—all of the one-percenters essentially. You’re not going to drink it, it’s mine. I’m going to serve it to artists, and thinkers, and revolutionaries. So come with me, meet all these people—these are all the ghosts in the glass, as one vigneron told me. When I wrote the book one of my primary goals was that when you taste these wines, you'll know this history. You'll know all of the ghosts in the glass and you will recognize how special they are.
David: That's a great note to end on. Is there anything else you want to add?
Max: You know, here's something else I never dreamed I'd ever say, but it's true. One of the things I like most about Burgundy pinot noir is that if we go back to the beginning, Burgundy and the pinot vine were not a logical match. The terrain was uncultivated, rugged and rocky, and the pinot vine is fickle, and as a planting, quite vulnerable. Yet fate intervened and coupled this lovely little vine to this rugged, rocky earth and this remarkable union has endured everything from dramatic weather to wars, and even this attack; and this unlikely and enduring marriage has birthed this wonderful fruit and magnificent wines. In the end, in all makes perfect poetic sense. I think there is something so wonderfully romantic about that, in and of itself.