The naked and the red

Times Staff Writer

Patricia KLUGE has led a most interesting life. Born in Baghdad. Grew to adulthood in London. Married three times, the second to a billionaire communications magnate. Once courted by the governor of Virginia, whose use of the state helicopter to visit her 1,300-acre estate in the green, rolling hills of central Virginia triggered both an ethics controversy and a country and western song. Recently opened the first of what she says will be a nationwide chain of 100 combination gas station-restaurants -- each called Fuel, each specializing in “American regional food” and each selling her own brand of gasoline.

But Kluge doesn’t want to talk about her life. She wants to talk about her wines. Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard makes a red wine, a fortified white and a sparkling wine from vineyards in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, just seven miles from Monticello, where America’s first famous wine lover, Thomas Jefferson, once lived.

Kluge is ambitious. She made only 1,200 cases of her first vintage, the 2001 New World Red, but she expects to make 2,500 cases of the 2002 and to grow rapidly from there. Only 50 of her 1,300 acres are now planted with grapes, but she plans to plant 50 more this summer en route to 400 total.


“We have great terroir,” she says, “and we’re going to develop it to the max. Michel Rolland from France is our consultant. We’re already on the list in some of the best restaurants in New York -- Alain Ducasse, Gotham Bar & Grill, Gramercy Tavern. You’ll have to try our fortified white. It’s an aperitif wine, but it also goes great with cheese, foie gras and dessert -- and it’s especially good by itself, at 11 o’clock in the morning.”

She says all this in a rush, breathlessly, as we stand at the bar at Capo in Santa Monica, waiting for our table for dinner, and when she comes up for air, I tell her I’d love to try her white wine. But she hasn’t brought a bottle with her. In fact, her passion for her wine notwithstanding, she hasn’t brought any of it to dinner. I’ve never had a meal with a vineyard owner who didn’t insist on bringing wine for me to taste. After all, that’s usually why they want to meet -- so they can try to persuade me that their wine (and the story behind it) is worth writing about.

But this is only the first surprise during my evening with her.

Actually, my first Kluge surprise came the day before we met. Steve Wallace, owner of Wally’s wine shop in Westwood, had alerted me to her Los Angeles visit, invited me to have dinner with them and told me she had an interesting story to tell. So I’d Googled her on the Internet, eager to see what made her so interesting.

The first two sites that came up promised nude photos of Kluge.

I didn’t click on either link, knowing that once you visit such sites, your e-mail inbox will be forever bombarded with offers for sexual products and services. But I did wonder why the Internet had nude photos of this respectable, now middle-aged woman, this pillar of Virginia society, the founder of the Kluge Children’s Rehabilitation Center, the benefactor of many local and national charities, including several for underprivileged children.

I also wondered how I would manage to ask her that question over dinner without embarrassing or offending her.

One vintage

My first thought when we meet the next evening is -- well, she has a nice smile and an intelligent face and she’s well coiffed and well tailored. She’s also endearingly annoyed with herself about having forgotten to bring her wine.

Fortunately, Capo has her 2001 New World Red on its list -- at $115, about double the $58 retail price. The party at the table next to ours is drinking a bottle and clearly enjoying it -- as they tell us when they find out Kluge is there. We order a bottle and drink it slowly, with three different dishes, and we agree; it goes well with all three -- including, to my surprise, the risotto with white truffles.

The wine is 50% merlot, 25% cabernet sauvignon, 25% cabernet franc, and when I tell Kluge how much I like the wine and how light and smooth and accessible it is, she nods vigorously and says, “We grow great cabernet franc in Virginia -- and we want our wines to be food-friendly.”

Because I don’t write a wine-tasting notes kind of column -- and because Kluge isn’t the actual winemaker -- I’m not terribly interested in asking her technical questions about what brix level her grapes are picked at or how old her barrels are. I’m more interested in how she became the person she is and how she came to own a vineyard. So after a little more wine and food talk, I do what I do in any such interview: I ask her a series of routine questions about her life -- “What did your parents do?” “Why were you born in Baghdad?” “What did you do in London?”

As I do so, she suddenly grows testy.

“I don’t want to talk about any of that,” she snaps. “Let’s talk about my wine.”

“I’m happy to talk about your wine,” I say. “But you’ve only had one vintage so far, and we only have one of your wines here now. There isn’t really that much to say yet that we haven’t already covered.”

Although I haven’t mentioned her marriage to (and divorce from) John Kluge, the wealthy founder of Metromedia International Group, she seems worried that I’m going to write a column that says she parlayed a huge divorce settlement from Kluge into ownership of her vineyards and other business interests. That’s apparently happened to her before, so tonight she simply refuses to talk about those things.

“I’m not interested in any human interest story,” she says. “I’m very rich. I’m very well known. I’m not lucky. There’s no such thing as luck. I’ve worked my butt off. I’ve invested and bought and sold businesses and made money on my own since my divorce. Anyone who counts in Los Angeles knows who I am. They’re the people who’ll buy my wine. I don’t need a story in the Los Angeles Times. Put your notebook away. Just enjoy your dinner and drink my wine.”

Taken aback, I point out that The Times has almost 1 million subscribers, most of whom have never heard of her and many of whom might want to buy her wine once they know about it -- and about her.

“I don’t need a million people,” she says. “I only have a limited number of cases, and I can sell all of them to my friends.”

OK. I back off and ask about her fortified wine (500 cases, $26 a bottle) and her sparkling wine (400 cases, $38 a bottle).

Her prices may seem a little high for wines from a winery and a region with no real track record, but they’re not outrageously priced in today’s marketplace.

“Wally’s carries our wines,” she says, “and they’re on the list here and at Grace.”

Wallace interjects: “And at Brentwood [Restaurant & Lounge] too.”

Why does Wallace -- a co-owner of Capo -- carry them?

“I thought they were pretty good for a first effort,” he says. “I thought it would be worthwhile to offer a wine from that part of the country.”

I will later hear similar explanations from other restaurants. At the moment, though, I’m glad that we appear to be back on an amicable track.

Kluge is smiling again. She talks about how she’s always enjoyed drinking wine and how she dreamed of having her own vineyard for years before planting her first grapes in 1999 on her Albemarle House estate, 10 miles south of Charlottesville.

I decide to take a chance and gently shift the conversation back to her life story. I begin by asking her age -- a routine question in most interviews but chancy with someone who seems both touchy and vain.

“Fifty-five,” she says instantly. “Surprised I told you?”

I nod, take a deep breath and ask about the nude photos.

She surprises me again -- with a big grin.

“Why not?” she says. “I have a great body.”

I don’t challenge her choice of tenses.

“My [first] husband thought so,” she says, “and he took a lot of nude pictures of me.”

How did they find their way to the Internet? Well, one of the websites I checked sent me to a 1992 issue of Penthouse magazine, which said that -- under another name -- she had been “an erotic model and sex-advice columnist” for Knave, a British men’s magazine owned by her first husband. I assume the photos emerged from that world. But I don’t know for sure because she shrugs off the question, and after our dinner, she didn’t return any of my calls or respond to any of my e-mails -- although she did direct her winemaker and her publicist to call with answers to questions about wine, charity work and her gas station-restaurants ... and “a big ‘no comment’ ” on her Knave days in London.

When I had asked about the photos at dinner, though, I had the distinct impression that she was not displeased by their presence in cyberspace.

Maybe that shouldn’t have surprised me. Patricia Kluge is not a modest woman, in any sense of the word. She has her own photo, cameo style, on the necks of her wine bottles, and after only one vintage, the address of her winery says it all:

100 Grand Cru Drive.

David Shaw can be reached at