John Malkovich's Double Life in Wine

The actor-vintner, a late-blooming enophile, shares favorite wines, memorable moments and his fascination with fakes

John Malkovich's Double Life in Wine
John Malkovich shares a glass with his winemaker, Jean Natoli (left). (Robert Camuto)
Dec 3, 2019

Growing up in the mining town of Benton, Ill., John Malkovich says, he “never even heard” of wine.

“My parents would have a kind of spiked eggnog once every 20 years and that was about it,” he quips dryly. “In college, my friends were drunk 24/7 or they were on acid or something else. I was just never a drug taker or drinker.”

In 1986, at the age of 33, he was introduced to Cognac in Los Angeles while rehearsing the character of Pale (nicknamed for the Cognac designation Very Special Old Pale) for the original 1987 theatrical production of Burn This.

But it wasn’t until his forties that Malkovich dove into the fine-wine world while spending more and more time in London and Paris, and at the Provence estate he bought in 1994. He later planted the property to Pinot Noir and Cabernet, starting a boutique wine label, Les Quelles de la Coste, with his partner, film director Nicoletta Peyran. (Read part 1 of this interview, "Making John Malkovich Wine.")

“I have had the fortune, or misfortune, to work with English writers who only woke up after three bottles,” Malkovich jokes.

Among those who helped fuel his enthusiasm for wine was novelist and screenwriter David Ambrose, who lived just a few hundred yards from Malkovich in the Luberon mountains, below the picturesque village of Lacoste.

Malkovich stands up from the table on his back terrace at Les Quelles, where we have been chatting on a bright, breezy September day, and walks to the edge of his vineyard, where he points out Ambrose’s house.

Malkovich is surprisingly soft-spoken, his voice a measured near-whisper. But when he tells a story, his face lights up and his voice shifts into higher gear.

“Boy, when you went over there for dinner,” Malkovich remembers of Ambrose’s parties, “they had those sort of goblets you had to put on your shoulder [to lift] that held like 30 pounds of wine.”


Going Native in Europe is a regular column by Italy-based contributing editor Robert Camuto. Explore more Going Native columns.


Though Malkovich says he’s tapered his wine drinking in his sixties—a function of his need for a great memory and to be running at 100 percent during theater performances—he has stuck to his preferences for an eclectic range of big, bold reds.

“I’m a sucker for super Tuscans,” he throws out. He is also a fan of the famous but hard-to-find red Buçaco (a blend of wines from Barraida and Dão), the “house wine” from central Portugal’s Bussaco Palace Hotel, a romantic 19th-century fanciful take on Portuguese Gothic. “It’s a place frozen in time, and the wine is fantastic.”

Malkovich’s tastes also run to California Cabernets, Pinot Noirs from Northern California and Oregon, and Tempranillo-based wines from Spain’s Ribera del Duero.

He says he doesn’t like Grenache or Syrah—“too licoricey”—but makes exceptions, respectively, for wines from Priorat in Spain and Hermitage in France’s Rhône Valley.

He recalls a bottle of M. Chapoutier Ermitage from the 1990s that he drank more than 20 years ago. “It was like a hallucinogen. It put you on another planet,” he raves. “There was the taste, but then the effect: It was like a magic mushroom!”

With his innate curiosity, Malkovich is drawn to the wine world’s interconnected histories. He was fascinated on a trip to South Africa to discover how Western Cape winemaking was influenced by the French, a result of the 17th-century exodus of the Huguenots, with many experienced farmers settling in Franschoek.

“The more you’re around [wine] and immersed in it, the more you know. But the more you know, the more you don’t know,” he says. “It’s an incredible mystery.”

He gets animated again when he tells the story of the start of Les Quelles de la Coste, where the first three vintages—2011 through 2013—produced quality Cabernet but were followed by the disappointing 2014.

“The 2014 was like from a different world. Why? It doesn’t make sense. Same earth. Same place. And not at all the same taste or anything close. The climate was maybe a little bit different. It was not a great year. But the Pinot, which was 100 meters away, was fantastic.”

In addition to wine, Malkovich dove into Cognac culture in 2015, cowriting and acting in the short sci-fi film 100 Years, sponsored by Rémy Martin and to be released in 2115—corresponding to the time it takes to make a bottle of the company’s Louis XIII Cognac.

Malkovich’s eccentric, devil-may-care persona seems to go deeper than an image fueled by his edgy roles.

He just finished a polarizing summer performance of Bitter Wheat, David Mamet’s dark comedy, in which he played a thinly veiled Harvey Weinstein.

“Some people loved it. Some people hated it. Some people thought it was shocking. Some people thought it was shockingly bad and a terrible thing to do. And how dare we. And some people thought, ‘Thank God you did it,” Malkovich says. “Such is life. And wine’s not dissimilar: Some people swear by this or love this or that wine, or this or that variety, or this or that thing. But in the end, it’s all deeply personal.”

At dinner that evening at a lively bistro in the village of Bonnieux, the kind of place Malkovich prefers to more staid white-tablecloth restaurants, the conversation turned to wine fraud. Malkovich has played more cunning villains than there are grape varieties in the Rhône, so I figured he’d have insight into the con artist’s mind.

Malkovich becomes nearly breathless as he tells a small group, including a Canadian importer and a French distributor, how he became fascinated with the famously faked “Thomas Jefferson bottles” auctioned by Christie’s and sourced from German wine collector Hardy Rodenstock, who died last year.

“The guy was an asshole, but so smart,” Malkovich says, relating details of Rodenstock’s improbable life in small-town Germany. After reading a 2007 New Yorker article about the bottles that were auctioned off as originals belonging to the U.S. president and wine connoisseur, Malkovich unsuccessfully bid for the film rights.

“Both of my grandfathers were the world’s biggest bullshitters, and I spent a lot of time with them as a kid,” Malkovich says. “So when I read something like that, I have great affection for it—it’s a kind of genius.”

It’s not difficult to imagine him portraying Rodenstock’s genius. Few wine producers would have any affection for it, but this is John Malkovich speaking.

“I would have loved,” he says gleefully, “to hire him as my winemaker.”


Les Quelles de la Coste has recently reached agreements with two small U.S. importers, and the wines will be available in early 2020 along the Eastern seaboard and at Monsieur Marcel Gourmet Market in Los Angeles.

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