Make wine and kill the king: The legendary vineyard at the heart of a grand European conspiracy

How the world's greatest bottle of wine was swept up in the plot to overthrow the French monarchy

Published July 26, 2014 10:00PM (EDT)

Louis XV      (Wikimedia)
Louis XV (Wikimedia)

Excerpted from “Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine.”

As he stepped into a Paris night late in the summer of 1755, Louis-​François de Bourbon presumed he was under surveillance. He figured spies had eyes on him that very moment. He had no doubt they had been intercepting and inspecting his mail. Someone had been clumsy about removing the seals on his letters. Melting away wax marques by candle heat and then replicating and reapplying counterfeit seals was an art that required surgical attention to detail. It was a task that needed to be assigned to the steady hands of a master; whoever had been slicing into his correspondence was no master.

Louis-​François was an expert on such matters. That was why he rarely committed compromising words to ink. Instead, if he had to write such a note, he did so only by pinpricks. Furthermore, he took steps to ensure the recipient understood in advance to immediately destroy the correspondence after reading. Having noticed that his mail had been breached gave Louis-​François a counterintelligence advantage: the opportunity to disseminate disinformation to throw them off his trail. He was quite good at that sort of thing, too.

No matter, he was confident they had no idea of his exact plans. Despite what some at Versailles thought of him, the prince was not so full of himself to believe he was infallible. The prudent course of action was to move under the cover of night and to not underestimate his adversaries. And so he considered the possibility of operatives lurking nearby.

Espionage was a game Louis-​François played better than anyone. Really, it was his game. He was the French spymaster, by virtue of practice and by occupation. There would have been no Secret du Roi without him. He was the architect of that spy network of mid-​eighteenth-​century France. He was the one who oversaw the Secret du Roi’s recruiting and managing of the Crown’s agents throughout Europe.

There weren’t many, if any, tactics Louis-François had not seen or employed. Now that he himself was the subject of intense surveillance it concerned him, of course, but it most certainly did not unnerve him. Part of him found the irony of it, the personal challenge— and indeed he viewed it as a personal challenge—rather delicious. He carried on just as he would have advised his own agents to do: cautiously, but with typical Parisian, aristocratic composure, as if nothing at all were out of the norm.

Which was not the case. Moments that set in motion seismic historical events, that compel men to take up arms and kill, that change the balance of world power, that overthrow kings— this, he thought, was one of those. He had to believe that. Or else, what point was there in all of the risk.

It was August, the month of his forty-​first birthday, and Monsieur Louis-​François de Bourbon, the Prince de Conti— a royal-​blood cousin of King Louis XV, and also His Majesty’s de facto chief of staff— climbed into a carriage bound for a clandestine rendezvous that by definition of the king’s law constituted conspiracy to commit the highest treason.


More than anyone else it was the Prince de Conti who had the ear of King Louis XV. Their relationship was a subject of great interest within the corrupt and catty royal court. The nobles and their servants whispered about it, and noted it in their memoirs and correspondence thusly: “People are always astonished by the intervention of the Prince de Conti in affairs of the state.” His “intimacy” with the king, his access to His Majesty, and influence upon him are “quite remarkable.” The Prince de Conti, alone, would daily enter the king’s private study “by the backdoor carrying great portfolios.” Often not emerging until hours later.

There was no doubt the two men talked strategy for France’s foreign affairs, which were rapidly escalating into military conflicts. France’s claims in North America were being challenged. The previous spring, in 1754, over in America, a local British militia under the control of a Lieutenant Colonel George Washington had ambushed a contingent of French forces.

It was one in a steady stream of ongoing guerrilla battles between the two countries in that foreign land. This one, though, occurred in the critical Ohio Territory and became a spark for what was now, more than a year later, all-​out war. This “French-​Indian” battle exacerbated tensions between the two powers, already fighting over shipping routes; it contributed to their taking opposing sides in a war between Prussia and Austria, in which Russia and Spain were also invested. All of it one big, bloody international mess that was turning into a Seven Years War.

A testament to the truly top-​secret nature of the meetings between the prince and the king, no one at the court had any gossip about the specific discussions of their meetings. Due to the mystery shrouding their sessions, as one member of the royal court wrote, “people had difficulty understanding what can be the nature of their work.” That is not to say that Conti was someone who otherwise kept a low profile.

He distinguished himself as a character among characters. A pre revolutionary James Bond. The prince left such an impression on Madame de Genlis, a noted contemporary writer and noblewoman from Burgundy, that she mused on him in her diary:

“The Monsieur le Prince de Conti was the only prince of the blood who had a taste for the sciences and for literature, and who knew how to speak well in public. He was strikingly handsome, with an imposing figure and manners. No one was able to pay a compliment with more finesse and graciousness and, despite his success with women, it was impossible to discern in him the slightest nuance of fatuity. He was the most magnificent of our princes.”

Born on August 13, 1717, into a family with Burgundian roots, and one of the most noble of France’s families, Louis-​François studied philosophy and the arts, having a particular fondness for Mozart. Most notably, perhaps, he was a lover of love, and, as was common for the noblemen of the times, more often than not with women other than his wife. Louis-​François had been fourteen years old when he wed his cousin, the fifteen-​year-​old Louise-​Diane d’Orléans, the youngest daughter of the duc d’Orléans, Philippe II.

Louis-​François had married into quite a family. When King Louis XIV died in 1715, he had already buried his son and the grandson who would have been next in line for the throne. The monarchy, then, had to wait for his great-​grandson, Louis XV, who was only five years old at the time of his grandfather’s death. Until Louis XV was old enough to wear the responsibilities that came with the crown, the duc d’Orléans, Philippe II, served as the Regent of the Kingdom. The union of his daughter, Diane, and Louis-​François was celebrated in grand fashion at Versailles and, of course, had been arranged for purposes of bloodline politics. The marriage did nothing to discourage the teenage Louis-​François from promptly beginning an affair with a mistress inherited from his uncle. (Louis-​François’s uncle was moving on to a Parisian dancer.)

The Prince de Conti was the type of renaissance man who continued to engage in picaresque, libidinous adventures, relishing every opportunity to insert himself into affairs of all sorts. Along with the women, there was the wine. At parties, whether at his cousin-​king’s palace of Versailles, or at one of his own residences—the Palais du Temple, where he had a rank among the Knights Templar, or at his private residence, Hôtel de Conti in Paris, or at his retreat at the L’Isle-​Adam, a couple of hours’ carriage ride south of the city—no soirée was complete without the prince filling a beautiful woman’s ear with charm and her glass with exquisite wine.

Not long after the covert business of that summer in 1755, the “inviolable secret,” as Conti himself had begun referring to it, would reach its stunning, almost inexplicable dénouement: The prince would commission a painter to memorialize one of his own dinner parties.

In the scene that Michel-​Barthélemy Ollivier would paint, a dozen white-​wigged nobles sit around a long table, amid the warm glow of candlelight. In a nearby corner, a harpist strums. In the room so vividly alive with the buzz of intimate conversation and cascading string music, Conti looks into the eyes of a woman on his right, his mistress du jour, while his left hand seductively caresses the neck of a bottle of his private reserve, which was then known as La Romanée.

By the time the prince would acquire the Burgundian vineyard its Pinot Noir would already have a reputation for being sensationally smooth, stunningly complex, the perfect balance of seductive and powerful—much like Conti himself. However, legend would have it there were other reasons the prince would go to the great lengths he would to acquire the vineyard—also involving surreptitious maneuvering. Reasons that were only now in his present secret matter beginning to take shape. Before there would be Burgundy, there would be Paris, and if the prince had his way, there would be revolution.

That Conti was so openly dashing yet so politically discreet was one of his many dichotomies. The image of the bespoke, silver-​tongued playboy belied the prince in full. He was a decorated war hero several times over, a murderer, a spy—a double, maybe even a triple, agent. He was a fiercely intelligent operator, and generally speaking, an illusive chameleon.

One of the prince’s fellow noblemen astutely sized him up as “a composite of twenty or thirty men. He is proud, he is affable, ambitious and a philosopher, at the same time; rebel, gourmand, lazy, noble, debauched, the idol and example of good company, not liking bad company except by a spirit of libertinage, but caught up in much self-​love.” Considering the prince’s shrewdness, he may have sustained such a colorful and charismatic dandy-​man persona to distract from his covert and most grave sleights of hand. A misdirection by façade. By that August of 1755, Conti was someone whom his cousin-​king and Louis XV’s omnipotent mistress, the Madame de Pompadour, had come to fear and mistrust. The king and Pompadour, Conti had no doubt, were the ones who had ordered the postmaster to intercept his mail. They had put him under the surveillance of the French police.

The mission was overseen by Lieutenant Nicholas-​René Berryer and a contract agent, Soulier de Puechmaille, aka Lagarde. Lagarde had been recommended for the task by none other than the archbishop of Avignon. The Crown, the church, just about everyone benefiting from the monarchy’s stranglehold on the people, considered Conti a threat to all that was royal and holy. Their suspicions were warranted.

That night, as the prince made his way to his clandestine meeting, if one of the spies would have found a way to casually emerge from the shadows and inquire the prince about his destination, Conti might have offered an explanation that he was en route to conduct official business of the king, a mission for the good of France. For it was exactly the sort of politically deft response for which Conti had such a gift: a shred of fact that provided just enough cover for the whole treasonous truth.


Rattling over the cobblestones, navigating Paris’s narrow rues, the carriage almost could not avoid jolting to starts and jerking to stops, twisting with expected unpredictability into the abrupt turns of the capital city. It would have been prudent of Conti to instruct his driver to make a few unnecessary turns along the way to make the route all the more circuitous and harder to follow. During the day, the urban labyrinth teemed with the activity; a mosh pit of nobles and peasants, where it was difficult to discern vice from virtue. In the words of a writer of the time, the city was “a rapid and noisy whirlwind.”

With a population approaching 25 million, France was three times the size of its mighty and increasingly nervous neighbor England. Nobles and clergymen together—the First and Second Estates—formed the 2 percent of the population that controlled most of the country’s wealth. The poorest of everyone else, the Third Estate, labored to buy the bread they could already barely afford. Peasants had petitioned their aristocratic landowners to invest in agricultural improvements or, at least, to tax them less so that they themselves could modernize and more efficiently harvest grains and wheat, thus producing more bread and making it more affordable. Such requests had been met with indifference.

With the Catholic Church’s blessing, nobles openly scoffed at labor as something only bourgeoisie did, in order to earn the taxes aristocrats could “invest” in the church and their own leisurely pursuits: patronizing the arts, which were often odes to themselves or packed with messages to reinforce the necessity of classism; and building their grand palaces, like Versailles, where the Prince de Conti himself kept an apartment; and throwing decadent parties. In the tradition of the late King Louis XIV, every nobleman worth his unearned livres peacocked on the dance floor. Small fortunes were spent trying to outdo the Italians in the latest fashions.

Among the masses squeezed into the poorly defined Parisian city limits, wigged noblemen wore splendid collar-​band waistcoats and polished, buckled, high-​heel shoes; the powdered noblewomen were tightly corseted inside brightly colored hooped skirts of the finest imported fabrics, and many of them wore their hair styled in a tower like fashion— the gravity-​defying pompadour style made popular by the madame above all madames, Madame de Pompadour. Aristocrats promenaded on their way to doing positively nothing at all, doing their best to gracefully pass untouched through the masses.

The petites gens—the small people: workers, servants, artisans shopkeepers—hurried about, fortunate to have jobs. Pickpockets, whores, and beggars in their tattered clothes, often infested with lice, ill and in some cases deformed by disease, assertively targeted their marks. Many nobles traveled in decorative, phone-​booth-​like sedans carried by servants or in carriages that rolled through the streets with footmen jumping from the carriage rails to shoo off the glut of commoners to make way.

As the rich and poor rubbed against one another, economic and religious friction sparked tensions that the media had lately fanned into flames. Reading had become more than the fad that French aristocracy thought it would be, or rather hoped it would be. For reading meant education and thought, and thereby enlightened challenges to the status quo. In the cafés and salons literate members of the Third Estate drank the “common” wine made from the Gamay grape, and read the papers and pamphlets and works by the likes of Jean-​Jacques Rousseau.

Only a year earlier, in 1754, Rousseau had published his essay “What Is the Origin of Inequality Among Men? And Is It Authorized by Natural Law?” In it Rousseau wrote what those who had no voice longed to have heard:

Such was, or may well have been, the origin of society and law, which bound new fetters on the poor, and gave new powers to the rich; which irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, eternally fixed the law of property and inequality, converted clever usurpation into unalterable right, and, for the advantage of a few ambitious individuals, subjected all mankind to perpetual labor, slavery, and wretchedness.

It wasn’t just economic oppression—and oppression was now the word—it was also religious oppression. It was the Catholic state’s oppression of Protestants. On his deathbed, Louis XV’s predecessor had reaffirmed that Catholicism was the only religion in France. All subjects must kneel before Christ or else be regarded as traitors, and, as was the case for some Protestant pastors, be put to death. Protestant churches routinely were burned to the ground.

Rendered pariahs, the country’s community of Protestants peppered about the country gathered in open secret to worship and rallied one another in their treasonous conviction that they had a right to worship as they saw fit. Meanwhile, priests steadfastly preached the divine right of kings, now the authority of King Louis XV, who not surprisingly held the view that the Huguenots were a lesser species in need of conversion. Louis XV issued laws reinforcing Catholic hegemony, reiterating that only Catholic births, marriages, and deaths were legitimate—legislative genocide.

The Huguenots were not the only religious group feeling persecuted. Nudged by the church, Louis XV launched a political crusade against a Catholic splinter group. The Jansenists believed that God alone, through his mysterious and divine ways, determined who had grace, and that no man, no clergyman, not even the king himself could determine who was forgiven in the eyes of the Lord. As far as the establishment was concerned this was both religious and political heresy. Louis XV supported his bishops who banned Jansenists from receiving Catholic sacraments.

Protestant and Jansenist leaders appealed to their king and more directly to the magistrates of the French law courts, the parlements, and in particular, to the most influential of all the law courts, the Parlement of Paris, for equality, or at least some compromise that would allow them to live free, as citoyens. Parlementary magistrates wanted to provide a degree of what amounted to civil rights to accommodate the religious sects. To ease the tensions, the procureur général to the Parlement of Paris, Guillaume-François Joly de Fleury, suggested that the king consider recognizing Protestant marriages as civil unions. The reality denied by the monarchy was that Catholics lived quite nicely among Huguenots and Jansenists. Not only that, the Protestants were integral to the day‑to‑day French economy.

If the king would not reconsider his views for altruistic purposes or for reasons of economic necessity, the magistrates pointed out, there was the growing fear that the disenfranchised groups would coalesce into an uprising. Bloody riots already flared around the country. Passions were especially volatile in the south of France, where Protestant leaders like Crown-​defined enemies of the state Pastor Paul Rabaut and Jean-​Louis Gibert preached with rhetoric that was becoming more and more militant. Rabaut was of the mind that “the persecution is becoming stronger from day to day; and for quite a while, we have had so many reasons to cry, Lord, save us, for we are perishing.” Gibert was brazenly defiant. He proclaimed that his flock was prepared to “break the bonds of our captivity and uphold our liberty and that of our religion, even at the cost of our lives.”

Outside the echo chamber of the royal court, the reality had become so intense that in that spring of 1755 the Parlement of Paris refused to ratify Louis XV’s decision to allow the church to ban Jansenists from receiving the sacraments. Taking the position that the king’s policies required the approval of the parlement, the magistrates simply packed up and went on strike. In shutting down government business, the magistrates thumbed their noses at the king, also tabled approving his funds, putting a crimp in his debauchery. Louis XV dispatched musketeers to arrest four of the most vocal opposing magistrates, and he sent two hundred magistrates into exile.

The more steps Louis XV took to centralize his power, the more it fractured. While the French military was at war in several international theaters, by that summer of 1755 he feared a domestic revolt. Louis XV began to hear the protesting voices in his head like a relentless monastic chant, the vibrations of which began to shake his throne and his mental stability.

The king saw traitors where there were none, and trusted aides were there were traitors. As Pompadour’s personal handmaid wrote in her diary, the king had long been “habitually melancholy”; now he began to sense threats from all directions. While some members of the court whispered about paranoia, death was indeed coming for the king. Perhaps at that very moment it was choosing its weapon and path. A plot for assassination was under way.

In his private study, just as he had on matters of foreign affairs, the king turned to the man who had been his friend since they were children; the one person he trusted and respected more than any other; a man who was equally trusted and respected by the parlement, by the Protestants and Jansenists, by the French military, and for that matter, by the French people—his cousin, seven years his junior, the Prince de Conti.


During the day, when Conti’s carriage would travel through Paris, pushing through the crowds, his street-​level perspective afforded him an intimate view of the volatility of the times. Everyone, everything, it was all right there in the streets of Paris: the people together before him, around him, so tightly mashed together, yet divided. Such that the country maybe could not stand. The inequity, the resentment, the hate: All of it was seething. He could smell it as plainly as he could smell the raw sewage dumped into the streets. The operative in Louis-​François knew that such dissension could be a valuable tool. It could be harnessed; it was a power. He carried these observations with him into the darkness and his secret rendezvous.

The secret meeting had been facilitated by Conti’s aide, Nicolas Monin. Monin had served in the army under Conti and remained by his side when the prince returned to the royal court in the mid-​1740s. It was as King Louis XV’s trusted chief of staff that Conti had been empowered to pursue delicate diplomatic missions and persuaded the king to agree that a network of spies was necessary to gather and relay intelligence throughout Europe via codes and other means. Monin had been an integral part of helping Conti build that infrastructure and managing reconnaissance assignments.

Recognizing the extraordinary nature of what was to be discussed that summer evening, Monin arranged for the treasonous appointment to take place down on the waterfront, in an abandoned building on one of the anonymous quays that wind along the banks of the Seine. Inside Conti greeted his visitor, none other than the Protestant pastor and wanted enemy of the state, Paul Rabaut.

It was the second meeting for the two, the first having occurred just a few weeks earlier. There was less of a need for small talk before getting to business. It would have been typically gracious of the prince to thank Rabaut for once again making the long trip from Nîmes to Paris. Rabaut, a man of devout faith and with immense respect for the prince, was always expressing his gratitude to Conti for his continued interest in the Protestant cause.

Because the meeting occurred around the prince’s August birthday, Conti would have had his age and mortality on his mind. Considering the endeavor in which the two of them were engaged, it was reasonable for Conti to wonder if he would live to see his next birthday.

Rabaut had contacted Conti months earlier, at first writing to him care of intermediaries, and then, having been assured that the prince sympathized with the Huguenots, to the prince directly. He had asked the prince if he would lobby the king to reconsider his policies regarding the Protestants. The prince had agreed.

The ostensible reason for the secret discussion now was a status report. The prince shared with Rabaut whatever progress he was making in his private sessions with the king. Rabaut briefed the prince on the state of affairs of the Protestants down south. In short, none of it was going very well. King Louis was unwilling to budge in any meaningful way and the Huguenots only grew more restless.

Before long, Conti began ever so softly exploring Rabaut’s interest in an armed uprising. The prince wanted to know just how united Rabaut’s parishioners were. He asked if they had access to arms. They did. He asked if they would they be willing to use them. Rabaut suspected they would. The prince wondered how often Rabaut or any of his colleagues communicated with their Huguenot brethren in England. More specifically, the prince was keenly interested in whether the Protestant leadership had any communication with the British military or government.

Indeed, the Protestants were communicating with England. It was likely that Conti already had some knowledge of this, as he had his own well-​established lines of communication to London courtesy of the Secret du Roi network. The prince also had an idea, which he was now softly floating to his Protestant contacts like Rabaut: a nationwide Protestant uprising triggered by an English invasion on the southwestern coast of France.

Agents involved on both sides of the English Channel had begun to call the plan the “Secret Expedition.”

Excerpted from “Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of a Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine” by Maximillian Potter. Copyright © 2014 by Maximillian Potter. Reprinted by arrangement with Twelve Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved.

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