In 1979, Michael McCarty was getting ready to open his inaugural restaurant, Michael's, in Santa Monica, Calif. It would become a beacon of the California cuisine movement. (If McCarty flies under the radar as a founder of the genre, his pioneering influence is nonetheless unmistakable; Wolfgang Puck notably opened Spago three years later, in 1982.)
1979 was a busy year for Michael: He and his girlfriend, artist Kim Lieberman, were also renovating their Douglas Rucker–designed post-and-beam house in Malibu. With the help of Rucker himself, they knocked down the walls between the dining room, living room and kitchen to create one big free-flowing space. Today, open floor plans, much like farm-to-table cuisine, enjoy great cachet. But not so in 1979. "I just wanted it open," Michael, 65, shrugs. "Drove me crazy. It was so beautiful."
Five years on, Kim and Michael were married on their tennis court, cantilevered over the ocean. In 1985, they added a vineyard. "We were having a wild party at my house, and I had just received the sixth notice from the L.A. County Fire Department saying, ‘You must clear the obnoxious weeds that are surrounding your property,' because we had fire problems," Michael says. "So I said to Dick [Graff, of Chalone Vineyard], I said, ‘This is killing me, this is costing me thousands of dollars.' He said, ‘Why don't we plant a vineyard?' I said, ‘Done! We're doing it!' "
They cleared an acre and planted cuttings of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon from Mount Eden Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from Joseph Phelps in Napa. When the McCartys' daughter, Clancy, was born in 1986, the neighbors strung the vineyard posts with pink streamers. Son Chas followed in 1989, the year of the vineyard's first vintage.
But in 1993, disaster struck. The Old Topanga Fire leveled much of the area, including the McCartys' home. Michael had just landed in New York to visit his satellite Manhattan restaurant when he got the call. "It was the winds that changed; that's what always happens," he says. "We got nailed." Vines often act as a firebreak because of their water content, but located downwind from the house, they couldn't save it.
The McCartys called on Rucker again, this time to rebuild the house in its former image, only larger, stretching the noted Malibu architect's typical proportions. "He made beautiful little Craftsman-style houses, more what you would think about as a California bungalow," Michael explains. The home shot up from 3,000 square feet to 5,000, mostly thanks to the additions of a big deck and an upstairs master bedroom suite.
But the footprint of the rest of the house expanded too. Pitched over the living space, Rucker's tongue-and-groove Douglas fir ceilings were done using wider-than-usual beams—6 inches across rather than 4—to better suit the room's amplified, 1,500-square-foot scale.
Though it wasn't destroyed, "The vineyard was shocked," Michael says. It didn't produce fruit for three years. In 1999, the team, led by winemaker Bruno D'Alfonso, decided it just wasn't working—"so we took the whole goddamn thing out," Michael says. They had seen the most consistent success with Pinot Noir, so they added a second acre and replanted the land to three Dijon clones of the grape and updated the trellising. The wine was labeled The Malibu Vineyard. Since its first vintage in 2005, it has produced 100 to 200 cases a year, sold at Michael's Wine Spectator Award of Excellence-winning flagship restaurant in L.A. and his Best of Award of Excellence winner in New York, as well as at a few Malibu and Santa Monica restaurants and shops.
At home, Michael often goes for Minuty rosé or a big Barolo; Kim favors Sancerre. They keep four or five cases at home—"and it gets consumed rapidly!" Michael says. "We always entertain on Sundays. We always cook." The patio can hold up to 80 people, as it does for their annual day-after-Thanksgiving get-together featuring Michael's turkey BLTs. Beyond the main house, two guest houses, one with a pool, provide ample hangout space. "We're not precious," Kim, 62, says. "People come by with thousands of dogs, and our kids still come and destroy our pool house many times a year with all their friends."
After four decades—including multiple renovations, a full-scale rebuilding, a home wedding, the growing-up of two kids, and the planting and replanting of an estate vineyard—Kim and Michael's place has endured. "Building something takes a long time," Kim reflects. "But we got to build the house we wanted."
A version of this story appeared in the Dec. 31, 2018, issue of Wine Spectator, which went to press in early November. Shortly thereafter, the Woolsey fire ravaged parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties, including Malibu, displacing tens of thousands of residents and scorching local vineyards. Michael and Kim McCarty gratefully report that the fire did not directly affect their home or vineyard. However, relief efforts are ongoing. The McCartys encourage you to help by donating to the Malibu Foundation.
Photos by Joe Schmelzer; click any image to enlarge