John Malkovich has worked across a number of different industries – film, theatre, fashion, restaurants, clubs – and brought to each his singular vision and modus operandi. At the UK launch of his new wine label Les Quelles de la Coste, it was clear that this idiosyncratic approach is also being applied to winemaking, planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir in the Luberon and blending the two grapes together – both varieties coming from the same five hectares. Peter Dean met Malkovich for a long lunch at which he didn’t eat or drink a thing but waxed lyrical about why this latest project is so close to his heart.
There are currently five Les Quelles de la Coste wines with a sixth soon to be made from newly-planted Carménère.
“The only review I remember really in my life, a play opened on Broadway, and in the New York Times there was a review of a play called The Moose Murders,” John Malkovich recalls, “and I’ll never forget the first line ‘From now on there will only be two kinds of theatregoers those who saw Moose Murders and those who did not’ And then he went on to compare it unfavourably with the sinking of the Titanic in terms of human cost, he just blew it up and everybody in it and everything in it, completely hilariously, I barely got through the review and I immediately called the box office and said I’d like to reserve 10 tickets for tonight cause reading this review I know my friends would have paid a thousand dollars to see this play. But when I called to get 10 tickets it had already closed, it didn’t even have a second show.”
John Malkovich is talking about the savagery of critics and the power they hold – in film, theatre and the various other industries he’s worked in: fashion, restaurants, classical music and now wine.
And the most savage of critics?
“I think the public are much worse. The democratisation of opinion – the good news is that there is deomcratisation of opinion and the bad news is also that there is.”
Malkovich relates this to how savage bad reviews can be on a restaurant’s business – he still has interests in one Lisbon restaurant.
“And now with the internet they say don’t eat at that restaurant, or we hate your guts and you have no proof whatsoever they were even there, and then restaurants have to find out if they are real, were they there or are they just trolling for fun or for profit? and it becomes very tough.”
We are having lunch in the Macintosh Room at The Groucho Club in London’s Soho, a stone’s throw from the Garrick where Malkovich is currently starring in Bitter Wheat, David Mamet’s thinly-disguised harpooning of Harvey Weinstein, in a satire of power and corruption in Hollywood.
“The play I’m in now was obliterated before it was written, just on the announcement… how could an old white Jewish man write a play about an old, white Jewish man? These people don’t have normal human civility even to people in their own field.”
Malkovich comes across as a tad world-weary, although seeing as he doesn’t eat during the day of a performance and the fact that he’s continuously on stage for 80 minutes, 8 times a week “speaking like an auctioneer” it’s hardly surprising. But he’s genial, gentle and generous – the lunch lasts three hours, which face it is a long time to watch other people eat and assess your wine, when you yourself must be starving. He’s also almost unsettlingly meek – not seeming to harbour any of that violent anger that lies just beneath the surface of so many of the characters he portrays.
There are five wines (IGP Vaucluse) we are tasting over lunch which come from Les Quelles de la Coste, Malkovich’s 10 hectare estate in the Luberon in France, an hour’s drive north of Marseilles. With just 4.85 hectares planted to vines, this is a boutique winery with the actor playing a part in the choice pf grapes, blending and the look and feel of the brand, but whose grinding work schedule prevents him from doing much more. The label, which he designed, almost looks like a fashion brand, with LQLC more visible than the full name of the estate.
Malkovich admits that there are projects he does for money, Johnny English comes to mind, but it is clear from the idiosyncratic films and plays he acts in and directs that his heart does not lie in the mainstream of mass consumerism.
“It’s almost impossible to make a living on the stage any more. But movies pay for your children to go to school,” he says, referring to the state of the films made these days as “movies with capes”.
Les Quelles de la Coste is similar then to one of his stage pet projects – a passion play that he consummately believes in and will do entirely according to his own set of rules.
“With the Pinot Nwah,” he drawls, “I personally prefer Russian River Valley to the more European style, so we make it in that style. I know what I like – like really with anything I do I do what I like.”
If his neighbours threw their hands up at that suggestion of ‘going all Napa’ in the Luberon, that is nothing compared to two of the wines which are blends of Pinot Noir and, wait for it, Cabernet Sauvignon. Sacre bleu.
“The original suggestion was to blend the two and call it Dangerous Liaisons which I thought about for two seconds,” he laughs.
What Malkovich does like, though, aside from the quality of the finished wines is the irreverence of blending the two – he almost revels in being heretical at the high altar of Pinot Noir.
“I decided what to plant, in fact the idea for growing grapes came from an article given to me by a wine connoisseur that said in Louis XV’s day in our region, only Pinot Noir should be grown, that interested me a lot and I like Pinot and I like Cabernet, more than say Grenache or Syrah which they generally grow there and I didn’t really see the point in doing that.”
You don’t come across a Pinot Noir/ Cabernet Sauvignon blend very often. This is because, there is a lack of tradition of blending the two – on account of each variety making excellent single varietal wines in their own right. The other main reason is that the two grapes prefer different climatic conditions in the vineyard. The blends that do exist on the market largely come from Romania, Hungary, Austria and Italy and often are a result of blending fruit from different vineyards that can be some distance from one another. If there is an example of a French wine producer making this blend from the same vineyard then I haven’t heard of it.
This uniqueness is something which Malkovich revels in and says is particular to the specific location – the unique microclimate of the Les Quelles estate (‘Quelles’ translates roughly as ‘source’ or ‘well’) and the depth of the clay and silt soils that allows the Pinot Noir to develop without suffering from heat stress.
“Where Les Quelles is, is several degrees colder than up the hill at La Coste… they call it ‘Little Siberia’ – so I thought that Pinot and Cabernet could do well there and I thought it would be interesting to grow both. Let’s see what happens.”
“The Cabernet shot out of the ground like it had been exposed to a nuclear flash, it had always been rich farmland, but both this and the Pinot have done very well.”
Although Malkovich and his long-term partner the film director Nicoletta Peyran have owned the estate since the mid-1980s as a permanent base in which to raise their two children, it was only in 2008 that they planted vines. The first harvest of Les Quelles de la Coste was in 2011, the wine given to friends and family, and it wasn’t until 2018 when Ralf Hoegger joined the team after working for Sting’s winery Tenuta il Palagio for eight years that new consultant winemaker Jean Natoli was drafted in and changes made in the vineyard – a recent conversion to organics being a case in point.
So it is only now that Malkovich and team are in a position to ‘play to’ a wider audience with the wines.
Three years ago, before the wines were made commercially available, Malkovich told The Guardian (when asked whether making wine was hard work) “My wife does the organisation, I just drink, and that is not hard. I thought our wine would be terrible, but not at all. We make Cabernet Sauvignon and a Rosé from the same grape; wines not ordinarily made in the Luberon.”
Malkovich was a latecomer to alcohol, being teetotal until his mid 30s. He now confesses to enjoying his wine but, like food, never during a theatrical run. The only real association he has with the drinks business other than Les Quelles de la Coste was the remarkable project he did with Remy Martin, whose daughter he met through fashion.
“The family does a cognac, Louis XIII, which takes 100 years to make. They approached me with this fantastic idea to do a film that would not be seen for 100 years. I wrote it and it is – blessedly – directed by Robert Rodriguez. It is now in a vault in Cognac. We even have tickets to pass on to our grandchildren,” he said.
Malkovich laughs long and loud when I ask if the Les Quelles de la Coste winery is commercially viable. “It’s like every business I’ve been involved in – the fastest way to lose millions!” He is clearly not in it for the money – and Jeroboams who are importing the wines into the UK are under no illusions that this is going to be a cash cow. Because Les Quelles is only a 4.85 ha estate it will probably only be available to the on-trade and Jeroboams’ London stores.
So are the wines any good?
The Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2018 (RRP £14.95) is a very pale pink as a result of early picking and short maceration. There is a terrific backbone of laser-like acidity, terrific texture and tension in the wine that lasts long on the palate with a little lick of cream on the finish. This is very good Rosé with great intensity, mouthfeel, concentration, depth and character; distinctive too from Rosés in nearby Provence both in the grape used and the style of winemaking.
The Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 (RRP £24.95), like the Rosé, is 100% Cab Sauv and was also a star of the tasting. Matured in a mixture of barrel and vat it behaves exactly like a Bordeaux of good pedigree with a pretty red fruit nose and a beautiful freshness and clarity. Nice grip, dry, slightly citrus edge on the finish. Delicious.
The Pinot Noir 2014 (RRP £24.95) was very rural from the nose, which was part sous bois and part farmyard, through to the slightly bitter edge on the fruit. It did have a Russian River roundness and slight richness, keen acidity, but it wasn’t my style. Having said that there were others in the room who were more keen – try and sample first I would.
Les 7 Quelles NV (RRP £14.95) is the cheaper of the two Cab Sauv/ Pinot bends on account of it being from fruit harvested on second pass. It is 65% Pinot Noir 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, the blend having 19 days maceration and matured in 225l French oak for eight months. There is a bit of undergrowth, stalk and raspberry syrup on the nose, the palate is elegant, slightly thin, with a touch of cream. The acidity is keen.
Les 14 Quelles 2017 (RRP £45) is the winery’s flagship wine with only 800 bottles made, each coming in a fancy wooden case. The blend is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon 40% Pinot Noir which has had 23 days maceration and 12 months maturation in 225l new French barrels. Clearly a step up in quality over the 7 Quelles – richer and more complex.It has an inviting nose of black fruits, chocolate with a wisp of smokiness, the palate is concentrated and powerful with mocha notes, the keen acidity gives the wine a fine balance. There is elegance and complexity here and real interest in the way the grapes work together – it’s not quite the iron fist in a velvet glove but it’s in that ballpark.
What we have here is a niche range from a boutique winery in a lesser known IGP, with a decent story to tell with obviously Malkovich’s name attached. In the same way that his partners changed the name of his fashion lines from Uncle Kimono and Technobohemian to John Malkovich, shows there is equity in his name and connotations of quality and intellect.
If I was buying I would plump for the Rosé and the Cabernet Sauvignon which are both excellent and well priced. I would also dip my toe in the water of the Pinot/ Cab blend and buy the Les 7 Quelles which is less of an outlay and probably try it by-the-glass and with a tasting menu. If I was paying £45 retail for the Les 14 Quelles, I would want a wine I was sure could age well and I’d be interested to try an older vintage or the 2017 in a few years time.
Calling a wine “interesting” is usually a wine writer’s ‘get-out’ when asked by the winemaker what you think of a wine you don’t like. But I’d conclude by saying that the Pinot/ Cab Sauv blend is genuinely interesting – the Pinot bringing a red fruit perfume to the grip and structure of the Cab. Full marks for them sticking to their guns and it will be a wine to keep an eye on as Jean Natoli has more and more of an influence.