Scarecrow: Hollywood’s star Californian ‘Cult Wine’

There is some history of ‘Hollywood aristocracy’ acquiring wine interests in Napa Valley which continues today. The origins of Scarecrow, one of the five wines included in Liv-ex’s recently launched California 50 index, traces back to the late Joseph Judson Cohn, former MGM vice-president and executive producer of ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

J.J. Cohn’s time at MGM during Hollywood’s ‘golden age of motion pictures’, between the 1920s and 1950s, saw him oversee the production of classics including ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’, ‘Gigi’ and ‘National Velvet’, working with stars such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and Judy Garland.

In 1943  Cohn acquired 195 acres of land in Rutherford AVA, which bordered the historic Inglenook Vineyard, as a family retreat away from the ‘Hollywood hustle’. Inglenook’s then owner, John Daniel, encouraged Cohn to plant 80 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vines on St George’s roots stock in 1945 on the basis of an agreement that he would acquire the grapes for the Inglenook wine production. This arrangement continued for decades and grapes were also provided to other top Napa estates including Opus One and the Robert Mondavi Winery.

After Cohn died aged 100 in 1996 his grandchildren jointly inherited the estate, which at that time was valued at about US$4million. Grandson and renowned photographer, Bret Lopez wanted to retain the estate but his two sisters wished to sell it. Lopez agreed a joint acquisition, with Francis Ford Coppola, of their share in 2002, valuing the estate then at US$33.6million. The resultant restructuring led to Coppola’s Rubicon Estate, since renamed to the original Inglenook Estate, owning 140 acres of which 60 acres were vine planted. This territory included some of the original Cabernet Sauvignon vines planted by Cohn in 1945. Coppola is quoted “We view the Cohn property vineyards as inside the region of Rutherford that made Inglenook great.”

Meanwhile, Bret Lopez retained the Cohn estate buildings and 24 acres of land including 2 acres of the original 1945 Cohn planted Cabernet vines, which he refers to as ‘the old men’ and likens them to the tree men in his Grandfather’s Wizard of Oz film. These vines are now thought to be amongst the oldest Cabernet plantings in North America. Lopez has commented that “Everyone has a mutual respect for these vines. 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 this vineyard.”

Lopez renamed the vineyard in honour of his Grandfather’s ‘landmark’ film and, with his team, including partner Mimi DeBlasio and wine maker, Cecilia Welch Masyczek, produced the first Scarecrow vintage in 2003. The 1945 Cabernet vines are the backbone of the estate’s wine production and 470 cases were created in that first vintage and released at US$100 per bottle in 2006.

Key facts:

Location:         Rutherford AVA, Napa, California

Founded:         1945

Varietal:          100% Cabernet Sauvignon

First vintage:   2003

Annual Production:     400 – 800 cases

Second wine: M. Etain

The Scarecrow Estate now reserves the best of its fruit for the Scarecrow wine, which is generally aged in small French oak barrels for 12 months. It is then blended and returned to barrel for an extra 10 months with another 9 months ageing in bottle before distribution. 

Scarecrow is offered by invitation only to an ‘eligible list’ of members each Spring. The estate’s second wine, M. Etain, which is also generally highly scored by critics, is normally offered to the entire list of registered Scarecrow Estate subscribers.

Key industry critic, Robert Parker Jnr, awarded the 2013 vintage the perfect 100 points and noted that it “includes fruits from some of the oldest Cabernet vines still in existence in Napa” and  “should age effortlessly for 30 years”. He also scored M. Etain 95 points that vintage and commented; “hardly a second wine by any means”.

His Wine Advocate successor, Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW rated the 2015 Scarecrow at 99 points and a drinking window 2020 to 2050.

In terms of the values achieved, the famed Napa Valley Auction, modelled on Burgundy’s Hospices de Beaune Auction, sheds light on these extremely hard to find wines. The annual sale which took place in April 2017 saw  Scarecrow’s ‘Toto’s Opium Dream, Scene 4’ as the top lot of the event raising US$260,000.

Scarecrow, like the other Californian ‘cult wines’, is produced in very small supply  and is primarily sold into a ‘registered network’ of US based buyers. There is, therefore, very limited availability on the secondary market. In 2015, twelve years on from the first vintage production, Scarecrow joined fellow Napa wine, Screaming Eagle as the two top price performers year on year on Liv-ex, with 15.1% and 19.9% growth respectively, and Scarecrow made its debut in the Liv-ex Power 100 ranking at number 83.

For more information on Scarecrow and including Californian wines in your wine investment portfolio contact us now on 0203 384 2262 or email enquiries@vin-x.com.