from The Hollywood Reporter
Beverly Hills’ $1 Billion “Vineyard”: The Bizarre Saga Behind L.A.’s Last Real Estate Trophy
By Scott Johnson
The 157 acres atop the city has traded hands from the Shah of Iran’s sister to Merv Griffin to the mogul behind Herbalife. Then came unknown Chip Dickens, who managed to procure the property for no money at all. Now, The Vineyard is on the market, and the strange, stressful story behind the $1 billion property can be told.
Standing atop a verdant summit near Benedict Canyon, Brad Pitt smoked a cigarette and gazed toward the ocean. A gentle afternoon sun played over the chaparral and sage below. It was 2002, and Pitt had come to Beverly Hills to take stock of a coveted piece of real estate. From the San Gabriel Mountains to Malibu, Los Angeles stretched out in a quiet, glittery panorama. It was the highest peak for miles, a true king’s plot. He turned to Gary Morris, a developer and friend. “So?” mused Pitt. “You think I should buy this?”
Morris told Pitt that if he “made another movie or two,” he could probably afford it. An L.A. native with salt-and-pepper hair and a wiry frame born of years of ultra-marathons, Morris knew better than to be more than a sounding board. He had watched as one figure after another became entranced with the property known as The Vineyard Beverly Hills before moving on. A few years after Pitt’s visit, Tom Cruise placed about 3 percent of the $25 million sale price for one lot in escrow. But on the last day before the transaction went “hard,” locking the actor’s money in, Cruise’s business manager canceled the order, according to multiple people familiar with the transaction. There had been other offers, and yet two decades after Morris first got involved, a single house never had been built.
Perched on a summit ridgeline with huge views looking down on the homes of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, The Vineyard is one of the last undeveloped plots in Beverly Hills, and arguably the most impressive. Visitors can peer down on estates belonging to Warren Beatty, Seth MacFarlane and the rooftop mansions of Beverly Park. For decades, the 157-acre property has bewitched some of Hollywood’s most illustrious residents, from Merv Griffin to the Shah of Iran’s sister. With little money, no real estate license and a lot of gumption, the de facto owner for the past 11 years has been Charles “Chip” Dickens. “I’m the most improbable character in this whole thing,” Dickens, 54, tells The Hollywood Reporter. His main partner is an amiable convicted felon named Victorino Noval; together, the two now are marketing The Vineyard for $1 billion.
The saga behind one of the most pedigreed and controversial pieces of property in L.A. could be torn from the pages of a Coen brothers script. After 15 years of intense legal drama over ownership, family squabbling and an inheritance, The Vineyard might be changing hands again. And what once was no more than a dusty mountaintop has been transformed into an exquisite plateau with a helicopter pad and ample room for any architect’s wildest fantasies. “It’s the most spectacular property anywhere in Los Angeles,” says Robert Mann, an attorney who is familiar with The Vineyard. Now, with real estate prices soaring in Los Angeles and foreign buyers pouring in, The Vineyard is poised to be the most talked-about trophy property in years. “This is one of the most exceptional properties I’ve ever seen in my 30-year career,” says Jeff Hyland, whose agency, Hilton & Hyland, has exclusive rights to The Vineyard. “This is as good as it gets.”
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