Poison Threat Against France's Top Vineyard

Blackmailer allegedly threatened to poison world's most expensive wine harvest.

PARIS, May 7, 2010 — -- A French blackmail suspect has been sleeping in a French jail for the past few weeks after he allegedly threatened to poison one of the world's most expensive wine vineyards, the Romanee-Conti, located in Vosne-Romanee, the heart of the prestigious wine region of Burgundy, southwest of Paris.

The 57-year-old man, whose name has not been released, is accused of trying to extort one million euros ($1.27 million) from the estate of Romanee-Conti by threatening to poison the vines.

"We received a first letter in January saying that we would be getting a second letter with some bad news in it," Aubert de Villaine, co-manager of the estate, told ABC News.

Two weeks later, the second letter arrived in the mail.

"The letter was saying that our vine stocks would be poisoned if we did not pay a ransom of 1 million euros," Villaine said.

With the second letter came a very precise map of the 4.5 acres vineyard showing two marked vines that the blackmailer claimed already had been poisoned.

"In order to show how serious he was, he had made a hole in each of the two vines and injected a liquid into them, some sort of weed-killer, like Roundup," Villaine said.

"We immediately alerted French police," he said. "At the time, we did not know if we were dealing with an individual or an organized group of people."

One of the vines was pulled out and handed over to French investigators. The second vine was growing normally but remains under surveillance.

"We replied to the blackmailer that for such a large sum, which we did not have, we needed to get the approval from the board to take a loan out," he said. "Curiously, the man considered our reply as if we had more or less agreed to pay the ransom."

The blackmailer allegedly asked for the ransom to be dropped a week later in the cemetery of Chambolle-Musigny, not far from the vineyard.

Meanwhile, French police placed a night-vision video camera in an attic overlooking the vineyard to watch it.

The Ambush at the Cemetery

A suitcase full of pieces of paper subsequently was dropped off at the cemetery. The suspect came during the night to pick it up and immediately was apprehended by French police who were surrounding the cemetery.

The man, who has already spent the major part of his life behind bars for other crimes, is facing charges of attempted extortion. He is due to go on trial within a year.

Meanwhile, life at the Romanee-Conti estate has returned to normal. But Villaine admitted he went through frightening moments.

"What worried us the most is that the man was using technical terms in his letters which showed that the man had a certain knowledge of the wine-growing circle," Villaine said.

Villaine later learned that the man had studied at the Lycee Viticole of Beaune, which teaches its students how to be wine growers, and had retained the memory of the prestigious vineyards of Burgundy and the reputation of some of its estates.

"This blackmailing attempt is rather incredible. Fortunately for us, it ended well," Villaine said.

Romanee-Conti is the pride of France's Burgundy region. It is a Grand Cru made entirely from the Pinot Noir grape, and an average of 5,000 to 6,000 bottles are produced each year. The average price of a bottle sold at the estate is between 700 and 800 euros (between $900 and $1,000).

A set of eight bottles of Romanee-Conti 1990 "considered by many wine connoisseurs to be a mythical vintage," according to Villaine, fetched $224,900 at an auction at Sotheby's London in 1996.