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Scarecrow: Extraordinary Cabernet From Napa's Oldest Vines

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I take a dim view of the term "cult Cab." For one thing, I think it's widely overused and misapplied, mainly in a hyperbolic and aspirational sense, by wine publicists, distributors and retailers.

The term was coined to refer to the buying frenzy following "perfect" or near perfect ratings from Robert Parker, Jr., for Napa wines like Screaming Eagle, Harlan Estate and Bryant Family.

Some of these wines are quite good -- in a ripe, low yield, super concentrated style. Yes, I enjoyed a complete vertical of Screaming Eagle several years back, admiring the purity of the fruit and the wines' relative complexity. How can a bottle of this stuff possibly be worth over $1,500 on release, though?

I also believe the great majority of wines in this category are hardly deserving of the stratospheric prices and disproportionate attention they have received over the years. There are a lot more interesting, characterful and compelling wines out there that receive a fraction of the kind of attention that so-called cult Cabs received in the years when Parker's palate dictated the collectors' market.

That said, there is one California Cabernet, based largely on very old vines, that has truly impressed me this year. Its first release, the 2003 vintage, also received 98 points from Parker in 2006 (he rated the '07 100 points) and quickly became a sought after collectible. So it's definitely in the "cult Cab" category. It is also, however, a very impressive and delicious wine.

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The label is Scarecrow. I got to experience a complete vertical of this wine at a tasting with the proprietor and winemaker at Pebble Beach Food & Wine this year--only the second time they've poured a complete vertical. I subsequently checked my results from this tasting with bottles that a couple of my well heeled friends had collected. Yup, no question, this is darned good stuff.

The story behind these wines helps explain what makes them so amazing.

The Cabernet grapes were originally planted in 1945 on St. George rootstock by legendary Inglenook winemaker John Daniel, Jr., on land purchased in 1943 by MGM production chief Joseph Judson Cohn immediately adjacent to Gustave Niebaum's Inglenook estate. This is on the southeastern edge of the area now known as the Rutherford Bench.

Cohn was a major factor in MGM's success in Hollywood's golden years, overseeing productions from the 1920s through the 1950s, including such classics as the original "Ben Hur," "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "The Wizard of Oz." Cohn served as executive producer for the latter film. Cohn bought the Napa property, including the Victorian house built in 1875 by California's first Supreme Court Chief Justice Serranus Clinton Hastings, as a summer vacation home, on the advice of Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini.

John Daniel, Jr., managed the vineyard; Cohn just received revenue from the sale of its grapes. Over the years, those grapes went into such superlative Cabernets as the Inglenooks of the John Daniel era, the original Opus One, Robert Mondavi Reserve, Joseph Phelps' Insignia and Beaulieu's Georges de Latour Private Reserve.

When new Cabernet clones were planted in Napa beginning in the '60s on the higher yielding AxR1 rootstock recommended by U.C. Davis, Cohn stayed with what he already had planted. AxR1, of course, turned out not to be phylloxera resistant after all, so a great many vineyards had to be replanted after phylloxera hit in the '80s. As a result, the original Cohn vines are thought to be the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon plantings in Napa.

When Cohn died in 1996 at age 100, his heirs were his grandson Brett Lopez, a successful commercial photographer, and Brett's two sisters. The sisters, ultimately, decided to sell the Napa property, so Brett joined with Francis Ford Coppola in 2002 to buy the estate. The bidding, reportedly against the Rothschilds of Mouton Rothschild and Bob McDonnell of KKR & Co., resulted in a purchase price of $33.6 million for 85 planted acres -- at the time the highest ever paid for agricultural land.

Scarecrow's Celia Welch and Brett Lopez
Scarecrow's Celia Welch and Brett Lopez, flanked by panel moderator Jon Bonné

Coppola and Brett divided the vineyard, with Brett getting the house and 25 of the vineyard acres, including the two acres of vines planted in 1945. Those vines, with their gnarly, thick trunks, are referred to by Brett and his team as "the old men." Other plantings in Brett's portion of the vineyard are more recent, from 15 to 20 years old.

Brett told us he originally thought he would just move up to the estate and continue to sell the grapes. When he received his first property tax bill, however, he realized he needed to maximize income from the property by making his own wine.

Brett asked the sommelier at La Toque, Scott Tracy, who were the area's best winemakers. Scott gave him Celia Welch's name and number. Celia had come to fame making the Staglin wines, and was also consulting winemaker for Hartwell, D.R. Stephens, Keever and Hollywood & Vine, among others. When Brett called her up, she asked who gave him the number. Since she was already consulting winemaker to eight clients, she didn't feel she could handle any more.

When Brett told her he now owned the J.J. Cohn estate, Celia exclaimed, "You're the man with the magic grapes!" She said that, for him, she would drop a client.

Celia told us she has never pushed for "the outer boundaries of ripeness." Her aim is complexity, and she finds that by combining usually 20 to 22 different lots, from different clones, soils, rootstocks and trellising, to create the "texture and suppleness" she is looking for.

The individual lots are aged for 12 months in French oak, "about 90 percent new," then blended and returned to barrel for another 10 months. The wine spends a further nine months or so in bottle before release.

Celia herself seemed surprised at the consistency of the eight wines we tasted -- vintages 2003 through 2010 -- since "every year seems so wildly different when you are in the middle of it."

I found the wines from each of the vintages distinctive, with particular black fruit, herb and spice qualities that vary from year to year. What they have in common are stunning aromatics, richness, velvety texture, sweet tannins, structure, and layers of delicious fruit. All of the vintages are impressive, but my favorite of all was the 2005, followed by the 2008 and 2003. For my tasting notes on all the wines, see the complete version of this report on my blog here.

Brett named the wine in his grandfather's honor after the iconic character, with heart but "no brain," from his grandfather's beloved "Oz" film. The packaging includes a piece of straw wrapped around the bottle's neck.

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While Scarecrow is undoubtedly a cult Cab, albeit one selling for a fraction of the price of Screaming Eagle, it is also based on grapes with an unusually distinguished pedigree. Add to that Ms. Welch's thoughtful and sensitive decisions and the result is, I believe, one of the great achievements of California winemaking over the past decade.