San Francisco Chronicle

May 25th, 2006

The brains behind Scarecrow

Linda Murphy

…When Bret Lopez considered names for his new Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the choice was a no-brainer: Scarecrow. It paid homage to his grandfather, Joseph Judson Cohn, who oversaw production of “The Wizard of Oz” as an executive at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, and who planted the vineyard that supplies the grapes for the wine.

Lopez also saw the scarecrow as an unforgettable icon of agriculture, visually striking on a label and on the branded wood boxes in which his $100-per-bottle 2003 Scarecrow Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon would be presented.

And like the supportive relationship Dorothy and her Yellow Brick Road warriors formed, Lopez recruited to make, package and sell Scarecrow wine a team that he says is more resourceful together than as individuals.

One is Celia Welch Masyczek (ma-CHESS-key), one of Napa Valley’s most talented consulting winemakers, known for her gems made for Staglin Family Vineyard, Hartwell Vineyards and others.

“I’ve never been part of a project like this one, where there is a connection between all of the parts,” says Masyczek, who was hired a year before the 2003 Scarecrow grapes were harvested. “The cohesiveness and the personalities click here; there is a synergy where we all pull in the same direction. “The flavors of the wine are of the vineyard, but also all the interpersonal connections make Scarecrow bigger than the sum of its parts.”

Does the world need another expensive Cabernet from Napa Valley…It does if the Cabernet Sauvignon is as good as the 2003 Scarecrow is (see “Scarecrow’s debut,” below), if the wine has history behind it, and if the brand connects with consumers on a level deeper than merely how the wine smells and tastes.

Lopez owns the J.J. Cohn Estate in Rutherford, which he purchased in a package deal with another moviemaker, Francis Ford Coppola, in 2002. In Lopez’s portion of the divided vineyard, one is struck by how much the “old men,” as he calls the vines…With their massively thick, lichen-covered trunks and gnarled, arthritic arms, the “old men” seem poised to pitch a cluster at anyone who offends. And like Cohn, who was still sharp of mind when he died in 1996 at 100, the 61-year-old vines show only a few signs of senility, slowing down in yield yet still producing intense, concentrated grapes that are the backbone of the 2003 Scarecrow wine, of which 470 cases were released April 15.

Respect for the vines

“Everyone here has a mutual respect for these vines,” says Lopez. “We’re caretakers, and every vintage is unique, every row has its own issues, its own personalities. There is no way you can write a recipe for wine from this vineyard.”

Vineyard manager Michael Wolf attends marketing meetings, and sales and marketing director Nancy Andrus walks the vineyard. All the members of the Scarecrow team, including the vineyard crew, graphic designer Michael Vanderbyl, family members and pets, had their participation photographically documented by Lopez, with the black-and-white images bound in a book that is given to those buying a three-pack of Scarecrow. Lopez, 57, an accomplished Los Angeles commercial photographer who moved to the J.J. Cohn Estate in 2003, snapped the images against a stark white backdrop, using props found in the barn. The only lighting came from the open barn door.

Three of the portraits were taken by Lopez’s partner, Mimi DeBlasio, also 57 — including one of Lopez wearing a wide-brimmed hat that hides his face as he slumps on a stool, like a scarecrow freed from its post.

Cohn was MGM’s vice president and head of production during the golden age of motion pictures, the 1920s through the 1950s. He was one of the most low-profile yet powerful executives in Hollywood, earning his stripes, as film historians have written, by saving the 1925 silent version of “Ben Hur.” Filming began in Europe, but Cohn looked at the huge cost overruns and advised that the movie be reshot in Culver City, thus averting financial disaster on an otherwise successful picture.

His career also included overseeing production — and reeling in often-extravagant producers and directors — on “Mutiny on the Bounty,” “Mrs. Miniver,” “National Velvet,” “Gigi” and more.

Cohn rarely accepted a film credit, yet was responsible for keeping MGM movies on or under budget, using his frugal financial sense and ability to work easily with Hollywood egos, including Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Mickey Rooney, Lana Turner and “Dorothy,” Judy Garland. Rutherford was a pastoral getaway from Beverly Hills for Cohn and his wife, Bessie. He purchased the property in 1942, when its 195 acres bordered what was then the famed Inglenook estate of Gustave Niebaum. The Cohns’ Victorian house was built by the first chief justice of the California Supreme Court, Serranus Clinton Hastings, in 1875.

In 1945, John Daniel Jr., who had taken over Inglenook, convinced Cohn to plant Cabernet Sauvignon on St. George rootstock, and agreed to buy the grapes. When the higher-yielding AXR-1 rootstock gained favor in the 1960s, Cohn kept his vines on St. George; when the root louse phylloxera destroyed AXR-1 vines 20 years later, the resistant St. George vines remained healthy and are today among the oldest Cabernet plantings in North America. Lopez and his two sisters were heirs to the J.J. Cohn Estate, but with time after “Grandpa Joe’s” death, the sisters wanted to sell. So Lopez and Coppola joined forces to buy the property for a reported $31.5 million. Lopez got 24 of the 85 vineyard acres in the deal, all of his planted in Cabernet Sauvignon, including 2 acres of the “old men.”

Coppola, who had purchased the Inglenook property after two corporate entities, United Vintners and Heublein, left the historic site and brand in shambles, got 61 planted Cohn acres.

The word from Coppola

“We view the Cohn property vineyards as inside the region of Rutherford that made Inglenook great,” said Coppola via e-mail from Europe. “It shares the same exposure (and) position on the same mountain.

“I am excited about the new Bret Lopez wine, Scarecrow, and expect it to be of the very highest level. Bret has diligently worked to make a great wine and I am sure he will achieve it.”

Before the making of the 2003 Scarecrow wine, J.J. Cohn Estate grapes were sold to Opus One, Duckhorn Vineyards, Etude Wines, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Niebaum-Coppola and Robert Mondavi Winery. Today, fruit goes to Rubicon Estate (formerly Niebaum-Coppola), Etude and Lail Vineyards, owned by John Daniel Jr.’s daughter, Robin Lail.

“I didn’t know the quality of the fruit at first,” Lopez says. “I just wanted to keep the homestead going. This was my safe port. Every single year of my life, I came back here.

“Before my grandfather died, he talked of selling, and I gently convinced him to keep it. In a sense, I’ve been working on this for 10 years. But this property has been deserving of its own wine for more than 50 years.”

Lopez describes his grandfather, born in Harlem in 1895 to Russian immigrants, as “a tiny man with giant hands.” Grandpa Joe would walk the Rutherford property wearing a plaid shirt, old boots and jeans with a handkerchief hanging out of the back pocket, as he enjoyed the geese and turtles on the pond, the red-winged blackbirds and the reeds fanning in the wind.

At age 82, Cohn insisted on repairing his home’s chimney himself.

“Joe was a real dynamo, a powerhouse,” says DeBlasio, whose official title with Scarecrow Wines is “muse.” “He didn’t need fancy stuff like chairs, because he rarely sat down.”

Showing the small, spartan room with the single bed in which Cohn slept, she says, “To him, a bedroom was for sleeping and nothing else. He had other things to do.”

The house is largely unchanged from the way Bessie Cohn decorated it in 1942.

“The carpet is older than me,” Lopez says as he tours the Victorian. “My grandmother had amazing taste — she was in the antiques business — so she bought everything in the house, with a few exceptions, and had studio trucks deliver it. Within four hours, the house was decorated, and it essentially hasn’t changed since.”

As a photographer in Los Angeles, Lopez specialized in print advertising and album covers. DeBlasio was a stylist to the stars and also a photographer, and remains a jewelry designer.

Lopez sold his first photo at 15, and at 16 was hired by Contemporary Records to shoot portraits of jazz greats Ray Brown, Ornette Coleman and Chick Corea. While still in high school, he hit the road to shoot an album cover for the pop group Blood, Sweat & Tears. Despite being in the same business for years, Lopez and DeBlasio didn’t meet until 1986, “on the only blind date I had in my life,” Lopez says. He was a widower and she was divorced from talent agent Ron DeBlasio, whose clients included Donna Summer, Tiny Tim, the punk group X, Jay Leno, George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

When they met, Lopez and DeBlasio discovered that they lived just five blocks apart, in Brentwood. Rock ‘n’ roll central

“Her house was rock ‘n’ roll central,” Lopez remembers. “That house had energy, and I always wondered what was going on there.” It turned out that “Mimi was cutting everyone’s hair, doing their wardrobe, helping Dave Mason improve his lyrics for ‘Alone Together.’ She styled Bette Midler’s life, as a friend.” Lopez and DeBlasio became partners in life and business, sharing in the raising of each other’s daughters — Coco Lopez and Katherine DeBlasio, both born in 1975 — and working together as photographer and stylist.

In addition to shooting advertising campaigns for Honda, Coca-Cola, Chevrolet and others, Lopez also photographed album covers, including Alice Cooper’s “Alice Cooper Goes to Hell” and “Welcome to My Nightmare,” and “The Essential Chet Atkins: The Columbia Years.”

Together, he and DeBlasio styled and shot covers for Tower of Power’s “Rhythm & Business” and Collin Raye’s “Extremes.” They walked out of a photo shoot with Prince when the mercurial rock star became too difficult.

Lopez became disenchanted with commercial photography in 1998 and put his camera aside. Only after he and DeBlasio moved from Brentwood to the Rutherford house in 2003 did he find the desire to take pictures again.

The couple also made friends with many of the Napa Valley residents who had befriended Grandpa Joe.

“Joe Cohn was one of the most incredible people I’ve met,” says Molly Chappellet of Chappellet Winery. “He was so interested in life and in other people, and he was totally selfless. He was the one person who got along with everyone and always did the decent thing.

“He would invite people to his house for dinner, and he had lists of people — 10 or 15 each. He had his bridge-playing friends, his Hollywood friends, his farmer friends and his winery friends. He got along with everyone.

“The dinners weren’t fancy, but the food was good and fresh, prepared by his niece Joan, or a caterer. We always marveled at the bread Joe served — just-baked, crusty country bread that you couldn’t get everywhere, like you can now.”

Some like it stale

Lopez and DeBlasio laugh about that bread, because, they say, in growing up poor as a Russian Jew in Harlem, Cohn was accustomed to stale bread. While he served his Napa Valley guests fresh bread, he always ate it stale, likely the leftovers from a dinner party three nights before. Chappellet and her husband, Donn, relocated from Beverly Hills to start their winery in 1967. They didn’t know Cohn in Beverly Hills, yet were thrilled that their paths crossed in Napa Valley.

“He was a wonderful raconteur, but not in a name-dropping way. He told wonderful stories,” Molly Chappellet says. “And he pinched pennies. He wasn’t an extravagant spender.”

She remembers that at the time of the first Napa Valley Wine Auction, in 1981, Cohn was unable to attend but wanted to contribute to the charitable effort. “He asked me to bid on an auction lot for him,” Chappellet recalls. “I asked him how much he was willing to spend and he said, ‘Anything up to $10.’ The only thing I could get him was a $5 mud bath in Calistoga, and that’s what he got. But his heart was in the right place.” Grandson Lopez says he’s now in the right place. He’s not in Kansas, nor Hollywood, anymore. “I hope this is still the J.J. Cohn ranch 100 years from now, 200 years from now,” he says. “I’ve been coming here all my life. I had my career, and now my baby is this.”

Scarecrow’s debut

The April 15 launch of the Scarecrow brand was a low-key affair, yet the wine is selling fast, mostly by word of mouth and on With just 470 cases made of the 2003 Rutherford Scarecrow Cabernet Sauvignon and with the lustrous history of the vineyard, Bret Lopez and Mimi DeBlasio are having no trouble selling their wine, even at $100 per bottle.

Scarecrow is 100 percent Cabernet from the J.J. Cohn Estate. Five and a half tons of fruit came from the “house block,” 2 tons from the “hillside block” and 1.5 tons from the “old men block,” planted in 1945.

The wine is supple and smooth, with juicy plum and black raspberry fruit plus hints of smoke, spice, vanilla and cedar. It’s rich and opulent, yet its solid tannins and crisp natural acidity give it great balance. For a first effort, it’s outstanding.

Winemaker Celia Welch Masyczek fermented the grapes in small lots, with the “old men block” receiving three-times-a-day, Pinot Noir-like punch-down handling to gently extract the right amount of skin tannins and flavor. The other two blocks were given the more traditional Cabernet Sauvignon pump-over treatment, to keep the skins in contact with the fermenting wine.

The individual lots were aged for 12 months in small French oak barrels, then blended and returned to barrels for another 10 months. Nine months in bottle completed the aging.