Celebrity wine is easy to dismiss. Wine is hard work, so what business do the fabulously famous have flogging their vinous vanities?
John Malkovich—the edgy, dry-witted, charmingly devilish interpreter of a gallery of roguish characters—agrees.
“Nobody cares if your name is on it,” says the American film and theater actor, who turns 66 in December. “It’s the wine that sells.”
I traveled to the Luberon mountains in the French region of Provence around September’s harvest to meet Malkovich at his small farmhouse and estate. His Les Quelles de la Coste (LQLC) sits on the floor of a small valley below the tiny picturesque village of Lacoste and its ruins of a castle that once belonged to the infamous libertine writer the Marquis de Sade.
I was eager to meet Malkovich partly because I knew his wine wouldn’t be quite normal. I wasn’t disappointed.
Some background: A decade ago, Malkovich planted 9 acres to Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir here with his longtime partner, Italian-born film director Nicoletta Peyran.
Since 2011, the couple—with the help of a local vintner, and with more or less seriousness—has produced about 1,300 cases a year, including two single-variety reds and a Cabernet rosé. Now Malkovich and Peyran believe their LQLC wines are ready for showtime. Last year, they relaunched the estate and now they are aiming their export plan at American shores; they just reached agreements with two small importers so that the wines will be available in early 2020 along the Eastern seaboard and in Los Angeles.
Now for the Malkovichian twists: Pinot Noir? Cabernet? The grapes are pretty rare in this southern Rhône region of Syrah and Grenache. But not only that, LQLC’s just-released new flagship, 14 Quelles, and its new entry-level bottling called 7 Quelles, are—quelle horreur!—blends of Cab and Pinot.
To many in France and beyond, this is heresy. Not only are the varieties stars from the very different terroirs of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but the wines they produce are also opposites. Such blends are very rare in the rest of Europe and even rarer in France.
Was the wine some sort of provocation? He swears it wasn’t.
Years ago, he says, “Our original winemaker suggested we blend Pinot Noir and Cabernet and call the wine ‘Liaisons Dangereuses’ [Dangerous Liaisons].” Malkovich snickers and adds, “Surtout pas!’”
Malkovich took the suggestion as a joke, a reference to one of his famous early films. But Malkovich thought about the potential pairing: “I was afraid Pinot Noir and Cabernet would be like two horses pulling in different directions.”
Then last year, his new winemaker, Languedoc veteran Jean Natoli, seriously suggested a blend with the freshness and fruit of Pinot Noir combined with the more structured Cabernet.
“After tasting all the different mixes, I thought, and still think, it has the potential to be terrific,” Malkovich says.
Robert Camuto Meets… is a regular column by Italy-based contributing editor Robert Camuto. Explore more of his posts!
Malkovich is sitting on the shaded terrace behind his centuries-old farm house. Assembled around a long oval stone table are Peyran, Natoli, consulting agronomist Christophe Chouvet and Les Quelles general manager Ralf Hogger, who left Sting’s Il Palagio in Tuscany to work here and on other projects.
Malkovich’s face and crown are covered with short, gray stubble. He wears a kind of hipster–gentleman farmer denim shirt-jacket. As the group tastes through vintages and barrel samples, he holds a glass to his nose and cocks his head quizzically as he sniffs.
He speaks in a surprisingly soft voice, displaying his trademark toothy grin as he alternates between English and fluent French.
Very obviously absent are the handlers you’d expect a star to have. He drives his own car to the local markets. At one point, he brings out a cutting board and slices veggies for an improvised lunchtime tart.
Malkovich and Peyran arrived here in 1994 with their two infant children and, for most of the following decade, made Les Quelles a family base. After the French government tried to make Malkovich pay French income taxes on his global income, the couple returned to the United States but kept Les Quelles as a vacation home.
“Nicole had the idea that we would plant vines as a way to keep the land, and because probably it seemed to make economic sense,” says Malkovich, “even if 16,000 bottles are a lot to get through for me and my friends.”
Malkovich is not a planner. In the kitchen, he cooks without recipes. And in the vineyard, the early decisions were made by feel.
“I’d always liked Cabernet and I’d always liked Pinot, and something about this area always reminds me of Northern California, and Oregon too,” Malkovich says. “For Pinot, I like the kind of Russian River Valley, Willamette Valley style. I find the European ones a bit acidic and light. They say it’s refined, and yeah, I can accept that, but I don’t perceive it as refined. I just perceive it as acidic.”
He was encouraged when a theater colleague in Paris gave him an article about Pinot Noir flourishing here centuries ago. Another friend, French publisher Jean-Claude Lattès, grew Pinot nearby.
“Jean-Claude came to dinner one night, and he brought a couple of bottles of his Pinot Noir, which we loved,” Malkovich recalls.
Lattès warned: “Never make wine. You’ll lose a fortune. You’re nuts if you do it.”
“And I thought,” Malkovich purrs dryly, “that sounds good.”
The couple says their goal has always been to make a good wine and break even, though the second part has eluded them.
For their first vintage, 2011, they produced two wines, a Cabernet and a Pinot that surprised Malkovich with its quality: “When you do something like this you kind of expect it to be undrinkable.”
For that vintage, they neglected the formalities that would have allowed them to sell the wine. So they gave much of it away and stored the rest.
By last year, the couple had grown disenchanted with their winemaker, who was busy with his own domaine. They considered selling the estate. But then Peyran found Hogger through a mutual friend and put together a new team. Winemaking was moved to the 100-year-old local cooperative Cave du Luberon in Maubec. This year they are beginning the process of organic certification.
After tasting options for the 2017 vintage, the debut of 14 Quelles (with a mere 67 cases), Malkovich and Peyran decided to blend 60 percent Cabernet with 40 percent Pinot Noir. “There’s a sort of roundness in the Pinot Noir.” Malkovich says. “The Cab and the Pinot are both quite boom boom on their own.”
My impression was that both the varieties made lively and complex wines. The debut 14 Quelles blend is bound to be controversial as it evolves in bottle. Do these two ageworthy varieties ultimately complement each other or compete? Time will tell.
Now the couple is talking about planting more vineyards on another 12 vacant acres on their land. They are also considering building a winery next to the house, but are waiting to see if their son and daughter, both in their late twenties, will commit to the business.
In 2016, Malkovich and Peyran planted a little over an acre of Carmenère vines after Malkovich worked in Chile and became captivated by that variety. “The color is crazy—it has none of this orange-brown stuff, none of the earth colors in it,” says Malkovich. “It’s just red—but beautifully so.”
“I thought maybe it would do well here too,” Malkovich enthuses. “I’m kind of interested in doing it as an experiment as a rosé.”
I don’t know what John Malkovich will mean to the wine world. But I was curious: What does wine mean to being John Malkovich?
“It’s like any other form of self-expression,” he says. “I have very specific taste in wine. These are reflections of what I like.”
Dec. 3: Robert Camuto chats with John Malkovich about his life as a wine lover.