Wine Spectator

May, 15th, 2008

A Scarecrow with a soul

By James Laube

Napa’s latest Cabernet star has roots that run deep in both Rutherford dust and Hollywood glamour. Like its kindly namesake from The Wizard of Oz, Scarecrow has helped its new partners find a way home.

Many local vintners consider Scarecrow one of the crown jewels of Napa Valley. Rising up against the western hills of Ruther-ford, adjacent to Francis Ford Coppola’s prestigious Rubicon Estate, the property is graced with a majestic Victorian mansion and landscaped with stumpy old vines in a vineyard rooted in deep loamy soils, whose grapes have contributed to many of Napa’s greatest Cabernets. The 2004 vintage (96 points, $125 on release) is amazingly rich and complex, with tiers of flavor and impeccable balance, demonstrating why this is such a treasured site.

But not long ago, the estate was in turmoil. A disputed inheritance and a family feud had deep-pocketed wolves circling the door. A historic property was in danger of disappearing, until Coppola stepped in. The famed filmmaker and owner of Rubicon put up the money to buy the property and help install its current owners, Bret Lopez and Mimi DeBlasio.

Scarecrow has its origins in Hollywood; the late Joseph Judson (J.J.) Cohn, former head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and producer of The Wizard of Oz, purchased the 200-acre property in 1942. Cohn spent most of his time in Hollywood, overseeing the making of classics such as Mutiny on the Bounty, Gigi and National Velvet. But he maintained close connections with Napa vintners, planting his first vines in 1945 at the urging of Inglenook’s John Daniel Jr., who saw the property as an extension of Inglenook (now Coppola’s Rubicon Estate).

The J.J. Cohn Ranch has a rich heritage. It has ties to the grand Inglenook Cabernets of the Daniel era that have come to define Napa Cabernet at its zenith. Over the years, the grapes have gone into wines made by Joseph Phelps (Insignia), Robert Mondavi Winery (Reserve) and Etude. It has also been a part of Beaulieu Vineyard’s Georges de Latour bottling.

After Cohn died at age 100 in 1996, his heirs were forced to put the property, then with 85 acres in mostly Cabernet, up for sale to settle a family dispute over inheritance. Once word got out that the Cohn Ranch would be offered to the highest bidder, many of Napa’s big-money Cabernet players tendered offers, including the Rothschilds of Opus One, Phelps, and Andy Beckstoffer of Beckstoffer Vineyards.

Lopez wanted the property too—or at least a piece of it—for different reasons. Lopez was one of Cohn’s grandchildren and had a bond with the ranch, having spent carefree summers there as a child and later with DeBlasio and their children.

But Lopez and DeBlasio, both now 59, didn’t have the money to buy out Lopez’s two sisters. The property had been assessed at $4 million in 1996, Lopez recalls, so he was stunned when, in 2002, bidding escalated to nearly $34 million. Coppola didn’t flinch. “Francis had reasons [to buy it] that were obvious and that no one else had,” says Lopez. “He wanted it above and beyond business reasons.” Coppola had a deep appreciation for Cohn, the old home, the history and vineyard. He also didn’t want a chic McMansion built next to his estate, Lopez says.

In the end, Coppola paid $33.6 million for Cohn Ranch. He divided the property with Lopez and DeBlasio. Coppola got roughly 140 acres overall, including most of the vineyard, with 60 planted acres. Lopez and DeBlasio took the Victorian house (built in 1875 by California’s first Supreme Court Chief Justice, Serranus Clinton Hastings) and its environs, as well as 25 partially plant-ed acres and 2 acres of stumpy old vines that Lopez calls the “old men,” Cohn’s original plantings.

Neither Lopez nor DeBlasio knew anything about grapegrowing or winemaking. Lopez grew up in Los Angeles, often around his grandfather and his troupe of stars. Doris Day taught him how to swim. A highly respected photographer, his clients ranged from Levi’s to Honda to Alice Cooper (he shot album covers for the mercurial rocker). DeBlasio also grew up in Los Angeles, in a home where celebrities from Charlie Parker to Jimi Hendrix hung out. Her work as a stylist included preparing Bette Midler’s hair and wardrobe for a cover of Time magazine. When Lopez and DeBlasio met on a blind date in 1986, they learned that for years they had lived six blocks from one another.

The shift from Hollywood and their careers to Napa winegrowing was huge. “There was a lot of bad blood [in the family] after grandpa died,” Lopez recalls. “No one had taken care of the property.” The lack of attention to the vines reached a boiling point when in 2002 one-third of the crop was lost to sunburn. “The more I learned, the madder I got,” he says.

Then Lopez met Gary Morisoli, who whipped the vineyard into shape, and Celia Welch Masyczek, one of Napa’s top hired-gun winemakers. Lopez’s interview with Masyczek included a tasting of one of her client’s Cabernets, the Hollywood & Vine Cellars Cabernet 2480. Lopez took one sip of the barrel sample and proclaimed, “Wow, that’s exactly what I want my wine to taste like.”

The vineyard is a work in progress, with all 25 acres under vine since 2005. The “old men”—now in their 60s—give Scarecrow “an intensity and balance that’s just amazing,” says Masyczek, who makes Cabernet under her own Corra label as well as for Rocca Family Vineyard and D.R. Stephens. The range in the vines’ ages provide a challenge in the vineyard and in assembling the wine, which Masyczek says achieves a level of complexity unlike any of her other Cabernets’. “The old vines have an intensity of aroma and flavor that’s remarkable—it’s an important part of the wine. [The old vines] contribute to the wine. They’re not a novelty.”

The debut vintage, 2003, was extremely tight and almost Shiraz-like in its mintiness (88, $100 on release and now nearly $500 at auction). The 2004 is a tour de force of Rutherford Cabernet—dark, plush, layered with flavors, supple in texture and long on the finish. The 2005 (NR, $150, 800 cases) is a shade more elegant, exquisitely balanced, with a silky texture and hints of currant, mint and bay leaf, a trait that comes from one of the vineyard blocks.

The 2006, tasted from barrel, is bigger and riper than the 2005, and more in line with the 2004, ex-hibiting intense, complex grapey currant, plum and spice. Masyczek also poured samples of the 2007, which had just finished malolactic, to demonstrate how the different vineyard blocks contribute to the final blend. The old-vines sample was dark, rich and balanced, with excellent concentration. Other blocks showed a distinct herbal quality, a savory edge and the loamy earth flavors that give the wine its depth.

In full production, Scarecrow could produce 4,000 cases, which would please -Lopez if quality can be maintained. He is intent on holding the price at $150. “I don’t want this to be a wine that no one can afford to drink,” he says. “The thing that’s so re-markable about this project is I didn’t know anything about anything, and it’s only lately that I’ve come to appreciate how this came together.” Grandpa would probably be just as amazed.