LOS ANGELES (CN) — Once the most famous married couple of their generation, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, formerly Brangelina, head to court — or rather, their lawyers do — on Wednesday for the first major hearing in their legal dispute over Miraval, an estate in the south of France that was their home and the base of their lucrative winemaking operation.
An LA County Superior Court judge will hear arguments on a demurrer filed by Nouvel, a holding company created by Jolie and sold to the SPI group, an alcohol distributor which owns Stoli Vodka and is owned by Yuri Shefler, a Russian-born billionaire living in Geneva. Pitt claims the sale was never valid.
In many ways, the legal dispute is an aftershock of their bitterly contested divorce, filed in 2016, just two years after the stars were married in Miraval's stone chapel. The proceedings dragged on for years, in large measure due to disagreements over custody of their children.
"It's one of the longest cases that I have watched pan out," said matrimonial attorney Nancy Chemtob, who is not working for either side. "I think one of the factors in a nasty, nasty divorce is when there is somebody who was wronged. And I feel like they both feel that they were wronged here."
As their relationship hit its lowest ebb, Jolie sent Pitt an email.
"I have reached a painful decision, with a heavy heart, that I want to share with you," she wrote in the email. "You know how much I wanted to buy Miraval, as a family business, as a place for us to visit together, and as a place to hold diplomatic and humanitarian meetings. Above all, it is the place we brought the twins home to, and where we were married over a plaque in my mother’s memory."
The painful decision was that Jolie wanted to sell her half of Miraval, their once-beloved home retreat and headquarters of their lucrative rosé winemaking business, which Pitt had poured time, money and energy into.
“For better or worse, given my compulsive nature, if we are going to be in the wine business, let’s make the best wine we can," Pitt told Wine Spectator magazine in 2014, adding with a straight face: “I’m a farmer now.”
But his efforts paid off. Revenues from the company grew from $3 million in 2013 to more than $50 million in 2021.
When Jolie and Pitt purchased Miraval in 2008 for $37.5 million, they did so through separate holding companies. His was Mondo Bongo, after a Joe Strummer song that plays in the film "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," the movie set where the couple met. Hers was Nouvel. Initially, Mondo Bongo owned 60% of Miraval, but a few months before their wedding, he handed over 10%, making them equal partners. Pitt is now challenging the validity of that transfer in a Luxembourg court.
At first, Jolie was going to sell her half of Miraval to Pitt for $54.5 million. But at the eleventh hour, the deal fell apart over Pitt's demand that Jolie sign a “non-disparagement clause that would prohibit Jolie from discussing outside of court any of Pitt’s personal conduct toward her or the family," according to Jolie's cross complaint. Jolie balked and turned around and sold Nouvel to the SPI Group for $67 million.
In February 2022, Pitt sued Jolie and her holding company to stop the sale, claiming that the two had a private agreement not to sell their half of the estate without the other's permission.
"Jolie’s breach, if allowed to stand, will deprive Pitt of his right to enjoy his private home — without sharing ownership with a stranger — and to secure his position in the business he built from scratch for the long-term benefit of his family," Pitt's lawyers said in his suit.
The "purported sale," he claimed, had wreaked havoc on the business: "Nouvel has sought to seize operational control of the wine business, contacting Miraval’s distributors to discuss contract terms, without authority and without Miraval’s knowledge or consent. It is seeking to transfer 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 its assets."
Nouvel, now owned by the SPI group, filed a cross-complaint against Pitt.
"Pitt is an actor, not a winemaker," lawyers wrote in the cross-complaint. "He deals in illusions, not dirt and grapes. During the years that he allegedly 'built' the business, he filmed and appeared in dozens of movies, not to mention making countless promotional appearances, jetting-setting around the world for movie premieres, and attending Hollywood parties."
In the brief, the lawyers accused Pitt and his business partners of acting "in a hostile, destructive, and illegal manner," misappropriating Miraval's trademarks, attempting to shut the SPI Group out of the company, and diverting Miraval profits into a series of "wasteful vanity projects" — 4 million euros on a new house on the estate, 1 million euros on a new swimming pool, and nearly 3 million euros on "garment works," the meaning of which is unclear.
Nouvel also filed a demurrer to Pitt's lawsuit, seeking to throw out most of its causes of action.
"None of Pitt’s alleged conduct, either individually or collectively, objectively constitutes an offer from Jolie to give Pitt his alleged expansive consent right over her ability to sell her home in perpetuity," her lawyers wrote in the demurrer. "Jolie never told Pitt she would not sell without plaintiff's consent."
The hearing on the demurrer is scheduled for Nov. 15. The judge could make a decision on the motion that day, or any time after. A victory for Nouvel wouldn't mean the end of Pitt's complaint, but it would strike a serious blow to it.Follow @hillelaron
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.