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Reign of the Scarecrow

At this year’s Premiere Napa Valley wine auction, the cult favorite continued its dominance

Auctioneer Fritz Hatton at Premiere Napa Valley 2017. Photo courtesy of Napa Valley Vintners

By late February, the grass covering the hills surrounding Napa Valley has turned from golden brown to vibrant green, and local vintners are starting to evaluate how their wines have aged in barrel over the winter. It’s also when the Napa Valley Vintners hosts its annual Premiere Napa Valley auction, featuring barrel lots and smaller offerings of wine. Just as winemakers get a sense of how their wines are developing, so too do the buyers searching for the best wines. And this year again a hard-to-find beauty—Scarecrow wine—showed that wine buyers are continuing to pay huge sums for cult favorites.

Held Feb. 25 at the Culinary Institute of America’s St. Helena, Calif. campus, this year’s auction raised $4.2 million on 217 lots that ranged in size from five cases (60 bottles) to 20 cases, or nearly an entire barrel of wine. Proceeds from the auction are used by the Vintners in its mission to promote and protect Napa County viticulture and winemaking. The auction’s top lot was five cases of cult favorite Scarecrow from the famed J.J. Cohn Estate—its founder was head of production for MGM in the 1940s—and produced by winemaker Celia Welch. The estate is now owned by Cohn’s grandson, Bret Lopez, and the Scarecrow name honors Cohn’s work as producer on The Wizard of Oz.

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Dubbed Toto’s Opium Dream Scene 4, in a further reference to the surreal world of Oz, the wine is one hundred percent Cabernet Sauvignon and was a barrel selection from a small vineyard block of 72-year-old vines called the “Old Men.” Within the world of cabernet connoisseurs, these are legendary grape producers: Not only are they renowned for the caliber of their fruit, but when in the 1990s an outbreak of the vine pest Phylloxera led to most vineyards in Napa getting replanted, their root stock proved resilient.

Scarecrow’s first vintage was a 2003 cabernet to which critic Robert Parker gave a score of 98, his highest ever for a new release. Ever since, Scarecrow has become a wine that provokes an almost cult-like ardor; in theory, it sells for about $300 a bottle, but it has long since only been available to members of the Scarecrow mailing list and some retailers and restaurants. You can buy Scarecrow online at significant markups; a magnum of the 2014 cabernet is currently selling on Vinfolio for $3000.

The Premier lot drew furious bidding that drove the sale price up to $200,000. The winning bid came from Melissa Devore, vice president of the national retail chain Total Wine & More. “This is a wine that is highly sought after but is not available for purchase beyond its mailing list,” she said after the auction. “These are exactly the experiences our customer base”—including national retailers, wine clubs and restaurants—“is looking for.”

The wine was the top lot in the 2014 auction, selling for $260,000 and no other wine has yet to surpass that price. The winning bid came from a buyer with The Wine House, which sells it for $5,400 per bottle on its website.

The Scarecrow production is allocated but one can join the winery waiting list at scarecrowwine.com or find bottles through fine wine retailers. The wines auctioned during the Premiere Napa Valley can be found through an online database where users can search for specific wines, or by retailer, city and state at premierenapavalley.com/wines/locations_list.asp.

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