A few weeks ago, at the height of the Johnny Depp trial, a legal world source reached out to turn my attention to another, perhaps even more litigious celebrity split. “Take a look at Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie,” this person suggested. “The Depp stuff is child’s play compared to that.”
Bold words, but after doing some digging, it’s somewhat shocking that the Pitt-Jolie drama, featuring two of Hollywood’s highest profile stars, hasn’t generated more media interest. Indeed, the litigation stemming from their separation now spans at least three countries, includes shadowy cases under the cover of pseudonyms, and involves some of the largest and most powerful Big Law firms in the industry: Gibson Dunn, Cravath Swaine & Moore, Wachtell Lipton, and Covington & Burling. The Pitt-Jolie decoupling has even managed, believe it or not, to intersect with the Russia-Ukraine war.
For the purposes of this story, I’m going to leave aside the main divorce proceedings, which began way back in 2016, the subsequent custody feud and ugly domestic abuse allegations. (The latter controversy appears to be the subject of an ongoing “Jane Doe” suit against the Department of Justice seeking information about an F.B.I. investigation into Pitt that resulted in no charges.)
Instead, I want to focus on Château Miraval S.A., Pitt’s sprawling 35-room manor house and vineyard in the south of France. The estate, which has been called the “Mecca of romance,” hosted the Pitt-Jolie wedding back in 2014, a decade or so after the couple fell in love on the set of Mr. & Mrs. Smith. As for the Provençal wine, well, its Miraval Rosé has been an incredible, international success. In fact, according to Pitt, the business is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But the ownership of the business is now mired in controversy. In 2008, Pitt and Jolie bought Château Miraval—or, in a very Hollywood move, their LLCs did. Pitt’s Mondo Bongo bought 60 percent while Jolie’s Nouvel put up 40 percent. Five years later, just before the wedding, Pitt sold 10 percent to Jolie for €1 to make them even owners. Why? Maybe as a gesture of love, but since the answer might have legal consequences, I shouldn’t speculate.
Since then, Pitt has become pretty passionate about Château Miraval, teaming up with French winemaker Marc Perrin to build a major global brand. But, of course, he’s also in the midst of a divorce from Jolie, who, last October, shocked him by abandoning negotiations to have him buy out her half of the business. Instead, Jolie sold her interest to Tenute del Mondo, controlled by Stoli Group founder Yuri Shefler, who has been hunting for Château Miraval ever since word got out that Pitt and Jolie were getting divorced. Back in 2016, the Russian billionaire offered €60 million plus a heavily discounted private jet for the winery. The proposal was rejected, but Shefler eventually got his way, at least partially, thanks to Jolie.
What has ensued is nothing less than a corporate war. According to Pitt’s legal papers, “Since nominally acquiring Nouvel, Stoli Group has launched a hostile takeover of Château Miraval’s wine business, imposing gridlock in the enterprise’s governance while contacting the joint venture’s distributors to discuss contract terms without authority and without the joint venture’s knowledge or consent. Stoli Group has sought to transfer Château Miraval’s intellectual property to Cyprus as part of an unsound and legally questionable tax strategy. And it has demanded that Château Miraval’s bank freeze the company’s assets.”
Now Pitt is getting personal in his battle with Shefler. Last month, in a lawsuit in Los Angeles against Jolie that challenges his ex-wife’s transaction, Pitt alleges that Shefler’s “ill-reputed professional associates threatens lasting harm to Miraval’s reputation,” including how the Stoli king “maintains personal and professional relationships with individuals in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle,” and that the geopolitical risk to Pitt’s winery is real. Pitt’s complaint explains: “Since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Miraval’s insurer has sought assurances that Shefler is not aligned with Putin and that affiliation with Stoli would not create commercial risk. That inquiry is no surprise; in the wake of Russia’s invasion, discarding bottles of Stolichnaya vodka, Stoli’s signature product, has come to signify solidarity with Ukraine, and boycotts of Stoli-affiliated products became widespread.” (Shefler insists he was exiled from Russia for opposing Putin.)
Meanwhile, Pitt’s lawsuit in Los Angeles is hardly the only legal action occurring right now. On Pitt’s side, he’s also pursuing litigation in Luxembourg that aims to nullify the 10 percent transfer from Pitt to Jolie back in 2013. Pitt says he never got the €1, and regardless, he alleges, there was an understanding between the two that neither could independently sell out. In turn, Pitt is facing legal ramifications in France for his attempts to hold back the hostile takeover.
Miraval’s board has five members—and while giving two seats to Pitt and two to Shefler is an easy call, that last appointment is consequential. Shefler has suggested an independent director, but Pitt has instead tapped his business manager, Warren Grant, which has Shefler’s company boycotting and complaining that the star actor is violating Château Miraval’s bylaws which prohibit a non-shareholder from acting as a director.
“Chateau Miraval’s board can no longer act in a legally effective way because French law requires a minimum of three directors for the board to act,” states Shefler’s team in court papers suggesting a forthcoming new lawsuit will be brought against Pitt. His company adds elsewhere that the wine brand’s current slate of directors, allegedly in thrall to Pitt, are repeatedly making decisions that are harming the business, and that “Mr. Pitt’s real motivation appears to be his desire to lash out at his ex-wife, Ms. Jolie.”
Oh, and it hardly ends there. There are lots of discovery demands in Europe in this latest war of the roses, which has triggered yet another action to commence in California federal court to deal with all the related subpoenas. A judge there must now decide whether to give assistance to these foreign judicial proceedings, which is pretty ironic given this overseas fight involves two Americans.
Meanwhile, in the battle over discovery, Pitt and Jolie have been tapping all sorts of international legal experts for support—everyone from law school professors in France who are versed in the country’s corporate law to the former chief of Luxembourg’s Supreme Court. That’s right. It’s like if David and Victoria Beckham were getting divorced, and in the sixth year, John Roberts was hired as a consultant. That’s how outlandishly crazy this whole saga has become. Last month, a magistrate judge recommended that Pitt be ordered to comply with a subpoena. He’s objecting and may be about to chart a new appellate journey that will surely explode this fight even further.