What does a $4,000 bottle of wine taste like?

That’s the question a friend posed last weekend after a Los Angeles retailer/restaurateur paid $260,000 for five cases of 2012 Scarecrow cabernet sauvignon at the annual winter trade auction staged by Napa Valley Vintners at CIA Greystone in St. Helena.

“Pretty damn good,” was my initial response, as this year I’d made sure to get a taste while winemaker Celia Welch was offering pours at her barrel station on Greystone’s second floor last Saturday morning.

Winemaker Celia Welch was on hand to chat up this particular auction lot. She was quick to note the offering — labeled “Toto’s Opium Dream: Scene III” — was made from cabernet sauvignon harvested from the original 1945 vine planting on the Rutherford estate. Those vines were planted on St. George rootstock and are still dry-farmed.

As I sniffed and swirled and tasted — jockeying for space in the room crowded with at least a thousand restaurateurs, retailers, wholesalers and media — I could tell this wine had a lot going on. It was complex, had great length, finesse and pedigree. It displayed gorgeous black fruit, with a black cherry note on the finish. I noted that it was a wine that would age well — but then who could wait, knowing such a delicious wine was sleeping in the cellar. My notebook notation: a big yum!

The fact that it sold for such a high price means that a lot of wine people wanted it. The opening bid for the five case lot was $75,000. Last person standing was Glen Knight, partner with his father, Bill, in Los Angeles’ The Wine House. Knight won’t get the wine until spring of next year. Wonder what the markup will be.

Just in case the brand doesn’t ring any bells, Scarecrow can be traced to Hollywood filmmakers. The late Joseph Judson (J.J.) Cohn, former head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and producer of “The Wizard of Oz,” purchased the 200-acre Rutherford property in 1942. Cohn spent most of his time in Hollywood, but he maintained friendships with Napa vintners, planting his first vines in 1945 at the urging of Inglenook’s John Daniel Jr., who saw the property as an extension of Inglenook (now the purview of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola). Fruit from the Cohn estate was sold to Inglenook, then, in later years, to Opus One, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Robert Mondavi Winery and Beaulieu Vineyard.

Cohn died in 1996 at the age of 100, and the heirs put the property up for sale to resolve an inheritance dispute. The estimated value of the property, $4 million in 1996, rose to $33.6 million by 2002, when Francis Ford Coppola, owner of the Inglenook estate, eventually purchased the property in a package deal with Cohn’s grandson Bret Lopez. Coppola got about 140 acres, which included the lion’s share of the vineyard — some 60 acres — while Lopez and his partner Mimi DeBlasio received the Victorian home plus 25 partially planted acres along with two acres of the original 1945 cabernet sauvignon vines that Lopez refers to as “the old men.”

Lopez and DeBlasio chose the name Scarecrow in honor of Cohn. The pair invited Celia Welch to make Scarecrow wines. The debut 2003 vintage was a hit and the brand quickly gained favor as a cult wine.

At Premiere Napa Valley in 2009, a lot of five cases sold for $80,000. At the February 2011 Premiere Napa Valley auction, a lot of five cases of Scarecrow Wine was sold for $125,000, breaking previous PNV records. The lot was purchased by Ichizo Nakagawa, owner of Tokyo-based Nakagawa Wine Company.

On average, Scarecrow releases 800 cases each harvest, a blend of vineyard sites. It sells retail for $150.

The wine that sold at Saturday’s auction came from the “Old Men” block, planted at the end of World War II. Yield from this vineyard averages slightly more than one ton per acre.

New kids on the block

Leafing through the catalog for this year’s futures auction, I encountered brand after brand that I hadn’t heard about. So I decided to learn a little something from as many as possible by tasting the wines.

Memento Mori — A wine founded by three wine geeks, Adriel Lares, Adam Craun and Hayes Drumwright, the partners get great fruit from Andy Beckstoffer’s Las Piedras vineyard, with the quality of the 2012 harvest so high that they put together their first vineyard-designated wine. This blend begins with black and blue fruit aromas and flavors, finishing with a pop of lovely cassis. It’s an elegant cab — a WOW wine.

Fairchild Napa Valley — Another outstanding wine from Las Piedras vineyard. Stones is the inaugural release from Lawrence Fairchild’s new cellar, crafted by the savvy Frenchman, Philippe Melka. It’s big, brawny but beautiful. The velvety texture of this debut wine shows off its ripe, dark fruit, leading to the lush, juicy finish.

Mira Winery — Using fruit from 17-year-old vines harvested on the Schweizer Vineyard in Stags Leap District, Gustavo Gonzalez was pouring another WOW wine he calls Stags Leap Dream. It is a dreamy blend, displaying expected silky Stags Leap Dream tannins, prompting a velvety mouthfeel from this big red. There’s lots of black fruit and spice. Stags Leap Dream pioneer Nathan Fay would have approved. A partnership with Jim “Bear” Dyke Jr. that had its first release from the 2009 harvest, this is a brand to watch.

Pulido-Walker — After releasing their first wine from the 2010 crush, Mark Pulido and Donna Walker asked Thomas Rivers Brown to craft a distinctive lot from the Melanson Vineyard on Pritchard Hill. That he did in spades. It’s a super cabernet sauvignon, ripe, lush, complex, well structured. It’s a young wine, sure, but it exhibits the pedigree of both vineyard and winemaker.

Stone The Crows — Thomas Rivers Brown is the winemaker for this project, too, which had its first release in 2010. The Three Twins Vineyard, planted in 2005, is in Conn Valley overlooking Lake Hennessey at an elevation of 700 feet. This 2012 cabernet sauvignon displayed silky tannins and ripe black fruit with a heft of blackberry and cassis on the finish.

Dos Lagos Vineyards — Robert Foley took the best cabernet sauvignon from the Bumble-Bee block of this Atlas Peak vineyard property for the well-balanced 2011 lot. It displayed lovely mountain fruit, an inviting palate of blackberries, with a sensual mouthfeel and a lush finish of cassis and spice.

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Pellet Estate — A lovely 2012 petit verdot from a St. Helena heritage vineyard. Nils Venge blended 12 percent cabernet sauvignon and 3 percent merlot with this powerhouse peevee — bright red fruit, a seductive, juicy finish. A knock-your-socks-off expression of this blending grape from Bordeaux. Another yum!

Wallis Family Estate — Big, bold and beautiful was my initial reaction to Thomas Rivers Brown’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon from Ed Wallis’ Diamond Mountain vineyard. Lots of spice and blackberries in this well-structured wine — ripe, easy drinking now, an attention grabber.

Metaphora Wines — Winemaker Mark Herold blended 2012 cabernet sauvignon mostly from the Stagecoach Vineyard with a little from Oakville Ranch and Coombsville for this red with distinctive depth and length. Juicy red and black fruit marry on the mid-palate and continue through to the lush finish.

Vellum Wine Craft — Karl Lehmann is winemaker and Jeffrey Mathy proprietor of this Coombsville estate that launched eight years ago. For their debut Premiere lot — “our response to Pauillac and Saint-Julien” — the wine from Hagen Road cabernet sauvignon is big and bright and juicy, a lot of blackberries on the mid-palate and finish. A super cab from cool climate Coombsville.

Lateral — A wine that seemed to get bigger and bigger after you had a couple of sips. It’s a lush 100 percent cabernet franc from the Mill Race Vineyard in Yountville. Winemaker Chris Condos presented a lush expression of cab franc with oodles of black fruit on both palate and finish.

Croze — It’s hard to believe that this brand first released a wine from the 1998 harvest and I hadn’t tasted any of its wines prior to the recent winter trade auction. Winemaker/general manager Daniel Benton said he produces at most 2,500 cases every year. Grapes for his lot came from Money Road in Oakville, a blend of 90 percent cabernet sauvignon and the rest petit verdot and cabernet franc. It’s a nice, rich cab from the heart of the valley, a medium-bodied wine with a big finish.

A few established favorites

Austin Peterson is producing some outstanding wines up on Pritchard Hill. His blend of 2012 cabernet sauvignon lots for Ovid Napa Valley’s lot exhibited deep, dark burgundy hues, intense fruit, finesse finish — another lush dilly from mountain fruit.

Had an early preview of 2012 Double Horseshoe lot from Ed Fitts’ Brand, a lovely blend of cabernet sauvignon (65 percent) and cabernet franc (35 percent) from the red and rocky volcanic soils of Pritchard Hill. It’s an elegant cab with lots of personality, made to age by the dynamic winemaker Philippe Melka.

Coyote’s Howl is rich, ripe Atlas Peak cabernet sauvignon from 2012. Michael Parmenter and Kiky Lee’s VinRoc Wine Caves lot displayed juicy blackberries and lots of mountain spice — a killer wine.

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