The Glob and Mail

April 10th, 2009

The $1,300 bottle: Petrus? Nope, it’s a Scarecrow: California Cult Cabs

By Beppi Crosariol

Perhaps you’ve known people who’ve spent $80,000 on a car. This past Saturday, I watched someone spend $80,000 (U.S.) on five cases of wine. New wine; not a dusty, ultra-rare stash exhumed from the long-forgotten cellar of a Scottish castle.

That works out to slightly more than $1,300 a bottle, $50 an ounce, $20 a sip. Crazy juice. If the recession has made you resent rich people or bemoan the fact you’re no longer one of them, consider twice before reading on.

True, the transaction transpired in Napa Valley, so my horror (call it envy if you must) was tempered by the fact that I’ve grown accustomed during my many Napa jaunts to cult-cabernet sticker shock, the way I’ve strangely come to expect limo gridlock in the winery parking lots. But surprisingly the liquid in question was not Screaming Eagle or Opus One or any of the usual wallet-emptying suspects. I’ll bet most Canadian connoisseurs haven’t even heard of the wine. Does the name Scarecrow ring a bell?

Barely into its fourth year of sales, Scarecrow was co-founded by former commercial photographer Bret Lopez and stylist-photographer Mimi DeBlasio, who decided that tending gnarly old cabernet sauvignon vines in California would be more satisfying than shooting lucrative campaigns for Honda motorcycles and Levi jeans. At $1,300 a bottle, it could turn out to be as lucrative, but I doubt that was the goal.

Mr. Lopez also happens to be grandson of Joseph Judson Cohn, the late Metro-GoldwynMayer executive who supervised production of The Wizard of Oz and a host of other classics, including Gigi, Mutiny on the Bounty and National Velvet. Get the scarecrow reference yet?It was Mr. Cohn who planted the cabernet sauvignon vines more than 60 years ago, just after

Wizard (with its famous brainless scarecrow) was released. Mr. Cohn himself lived to the ripe age of 100, staying well preserved until 1996 with the help of all those antioxidant cabernet tannins. Mr. Lopez, wistful about his days on “Grandpa Joe’s” ranch (which his grandfather had sold), bought the Rutherford-district property with director Francis Ford Coppola, and the pair later divided the vineyard into two parts.

The 60-bottle lot of Scarecrow that sold for 80 Gs last week was the top auction item at Premiere Napa Valley, a sort of annual “bake sale” held by top wineries, which donate small batches of still-maturing wine, in this case from the 2007 vintage, as part of a fundraising drive for Napa Valley Vintners, their non-profit trade association. Waving the winning paddle was Ichizo Nakagawa of Nakagawa Wine Company, a wine broker in Tokyo. The Scarecrow lot, a special bottling from just one barrel, as opposed to the usual blend from numerous barrels made for the marketplace, will spend another year evolving its rich fruit and spice flavours at the winery, and will carry a special label designating the wine as “Toto’s Opium Dream.” You won’t find whimsy like that on a blueblood bottle of Bordeaux. And that clearly is part of the draw, and the fun, of the Premiere event.

Like most winning bidders at the trade-only event, Mr. Nakagawa will likely sell the bottles one by one, at a modest markup, to special clients looking for the ultimate in wine-snob bragging rights—one of only 60 bottles of a micro cuvée from a cult winery. In other words, at retail, a bottle will sell for even more than $1,300.

While there may be Hollywood stardust in the wine, the Scarecrow name resonates with some cheeky, if unintended, irony for cult cabernet collectors. Many Napa watchers believe that if one label can scare off Screaming Eagle from its high perch as the most rarefied and expensive Napa red, this is it. The normal retail for Scarecrow, sold exclusively to winery members (the list stands at about 8,000) is $150, still well below $500 for Screaming Eagle. Mr. Nakagawa also will take delivery of the second-most-expensive lot from the Premiere auction: five cases of Ovid, another new cult cab made, like Screaming Eagle, in the eyedropper-quantity of less than 500 cases. The lot sold for $42,000.

With a name and price like that, it had better taste like poetry.Both wines made their debut this year at the 13-year-old auction, so comparable figures from last year’s event aren’t applicable. But the next two top sellers tell a timely story, and this is where recession victims can take a modicum of solace. Silver Oak Cellars, a blue-chip California label, raised $27,000 for a full barrel of wine, or 20 cases, down from $45,000 last year. Off considerably more was Shafer Vineyards, one of my favorite Napa reds, which sold five cases for $24,000, down from last year’s seismic $62,000.

One of the auction’s biggest bidders each year, the Calgary-based Willow Park Wines & Spirits, paid $8,000 for 60 bottles of Cakebread Cellars Syrah, among other lots.

Over all, the auction take was $1.5-million, down from $2.2-million in 2008. I’m frankly surprised the $1.5-million figure would cover the cost of the auction party, which took place at the local Culinary Institute of America campus and featured a lunch buffet for 500 in the old-stone facility’s sprawling, gymnasium-sized kitchen. Because it’s only open to the wine trade, it tends to lack the paparazzi buzz of the annual Auction Napa Valley, hosted by Jay Leno and attended by such luminaries as Oprah Winfrey. But one celebrity, NBA player Scot Pollard, managed to sneak in, all six feet, 11 inches of him.

The buffet featured cauldrons of saffron risotto and braised chicken and countertops crowded with cookies. Yes, a self-serve kitchen party. This is a recession, after all.