Bret Lopez became a professional photographer at age fifteen. At age sixteen, a staff assignment with Contemporary Records led to portraits of jazz greats Ray Brown, Ornette Coleman, Art Pepper, Chick Corea and many others. Twenty years later, at the height of his career, with a roster of clients that included Levis, Harley Davidson, and Coca-Cola, Bret abruptly quit. In a business requiring constant travel, Bret never felt that he established a strong sense of place. The one constant reminder of his roots was his grandfather J.J. Cohn’s summer home in Rutherford, Napa Valley, California, where he vacationed every year with his family. Bret moved to the estate in 2003 and with his wife and creative partner, Mimi DeBlasio, launched Scarecrow wines. He is also taking photographs again, in a studio he set up on the property.
Karen interviewed Bret Lopez for WineSpeed in July 2019.
Karen MacNeil: Describe how you became a famous photographer.
Bret Lopez: I don’t know how famous I was, but when I was 15 years old, I took photography as an elective class in high school. The teacher said: “just remember, it’s all light.” (It took me 25 years to find out how profound that statement was.) Within a week I was hooked. I started walking around with a camera in my hand, all day, every day, taking pictures. A friend in my rock-and-roll band introduced me to his father, who owned a record company. He was looking for someone to shoot recording sessions, and being the unbelievably magnanimous gentleman that he was, he hired me. By 16, I was shooting covers for his company. Two years later, in the summer of 1976 I was on the road with the rock band Blood, Sweat and Tears. My portfolio was completely different from every other photographer in the world because I didn’t go to art school and everyone else did. They all came out with the same portfolio, and then there was me. It was like seven crickets and a toad. That got me work in advertising, where I shot campaigns for Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, Levi’s, Milk (“It Does a Body Good”).
KM: Photography teaches you about looking at the world in a certain way. Did photography change how you looked at life in general?
BL: To a degree, yeah. When I was about 12 years old, I could look at a picture in Vogue magazine and tell you who shot it: ‘Oh, that’s an Avedon, that’s an Irving Penn, or that’s a Scavullo.’ I am totally right brain, and as a result, pictures were everything. At the age of 16, when I was just starting out, I was learning how to compose [a photo] so I didn’t just look at the world anymore, I looked at it in terms of potential compositions. It used to be that I was either looking at the world or looking through a camera. I’ve gotten to the point now that I can look at the world through a camera and still have the experience of being in the world. That’s something that took me a long time to do, but it really matters.
KM: Did you know your grandfather? Tell us about him.
BL: My grandfather was an absolutely remarkable man. He was born in Harlem in 1895 and lived to be 100 years old. At age 18, he answered an employment ad in the paper, and found himself headed to Los Angeles, CA as the assistant to Louis B Mayer. Together they built the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation that would ultimately become MGM. By the time my grandfather was 22 he was Jr. Head of Production at Mayer Pictures, and by 26 he was Head of Production, until he retired in 1968. I had a very formal relationship with my grandfather. When I went to visit him, it was almost always for dinner—I would put on a suit and tie—and we would learn etiquette. He never took me to where he worked or told me anything about moviemaking. I wish that over the years I had been able to break through that shell and become closer to him as a friend. I did learn a lot from him about integrity. I remember I was doing a job once and I was at my wits end, because I had no direction. He said, “well, the way I see things is that if you do the very best you can, no one can take that away from you. They might not like what you did but they can’t say you didn’t try.” That changed my life. It allowed me to stay in the business a good 20 more years. I became known as a photographer who was pushing boundaries, and I owe it to my grandfather.
KM: Why did he establish the famous JJ Cohn estate?
BL: He actually didn’t establish the estate—he simply bought a summer retreat for his family. Around 1938, his wife told him, ”I love being a Hollywood doyenne but I do miss the place we had in the Hamptons and I would love to have something like that.” A friend of my grandfather’s, Bank of America founder and CEO A.P. Giannini, mentioned to him that the bank had recently foreclosed on a house in the Napa Valley, and my grandfather bought it. It was about 10,000 sq ft, spread over three floors, and sat on 180 acres. John Daniel, visionary owner of Inglenook, was his neighbor. In 1942, he asked my grandfather if he would plant cabernet sauvignon on his land at John’s expense and then John would pay him the market rate for the grapes once harvested. My grandfather, who had no ambitions to become a winemaker himself, said, “why not?”
KM: How did Scarecrow come about?
BL: By the mid-1980s, my grandfather was in his 90s and I proposed to him that he leave the property to me and my siblings because we spent a part of every summer there and I wanted to keep it. In 2002, I offered to buy out my sister (our other sister had passed away), but I had no idea how to value the property. I thought it might be worth about $3 million but the fellow who had been selling the grapes for us alerted me that the grapes were special and that if the place was listed it would be bid up close to $15M. Francis Ford Coppola had purchased Inglenook and was open to partnering with me to purchase it on the open market. Grape grower Andy Beckstoffer and the Rothchilds from Bordeau were bidding against us, and the price quickly went to $33M. At that point, Andy and the Rothchilds bowed out, and Francis and I got it for $33.6M.
I retained 25 acres that are now the J.J. Cohn Estate, producer of Scarecrow Wines. I was ecstatic until I remembered—property taxes! I realized that I needed to make wine to make that work. I knew nothing about wine. So I went to the best restaurant in the valley, La Toque, and asked the sommelier, Scott Tracy, who were the best winemakers in the valley, and his list included Celia Welch. She initially declined. “If I took on another client, it would be to the detriment of the others.” And then she asked the name of the property. After a long pause she said, “My god, you’re the man with the magic fruit. For you, I’ll drop a client.” She was already making wine for a client with grapes purchased from J.J. Cohn. She offered to let me taste some in order to get to know her winemaking. That was the first time I understood why people spent money on wine. I took a sip of that wine, still in the barrel, and the trumpets went off, the heavens opened, and beams of light came down. I’d never experienced anything like it before. We first came up with Scarecrow as the name because we couldn’t put my grandfather’s name on the bottle. He was J.J. Cohn and there was already B.R. Cohn Winery and the names were too similar. So we picked the most viewed movie in the world—The Wizard of Oz, which my grandfather produced—picked a character and called our wine Scarecrow.
“I took a sip of that wine, still in the barrel, and the trumpets went off, the heavens opened, and beams of light came down. I’d never experienced anything like it before.”
KM: Let’s talk about the vineyard itself. It was planted at the end of World War II. How large is it and how old are the vines?
BL: In 1945, John Daniel planted 80 acres of cabernet sauvignon on St. George rootstock in front of the house. In the 1950s, scientists in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at U.C. Davis introduced a new rootstock they’d created called AXR that they claimed would be better for planting cabernet sauvignon than St. George, and throughout the next several decades, everyone but my grandfather (and then owners of the To Kalon vineyard) pulled out their St. George-rooted cabernet and replanted to AxR. U.C. Davis hadn’t bothered to be sure that AxR was tolerant of phylloxera, because everyone thought the problem was solved 200 years ago and forgot about it. But phylloxera was still alive in the soil, and AxR proved not to be tolerant. In the 1980s, all of the vineyards replanted to AxR were decimated. The J.J. Cohn estate (and To Kalon) ended up with the oldest cabernet sauvignon vines in the state and likely the U.S. In order to keep the DNA in the family, I took budwood from the original vines and planted another 10 acres on St. George right next to them so that when the ‘Old Men” give up the ghost, there will be another whole block to replace them.
KM: Scarecrow is in such demand as a Napa Valley cabernet. How do you allocate it? Afterall, there aren’t many cases, right?
BL: In the beginning there were very few—480 cases the first year. We called up everyone we knew who drank wine and said, “please buy some wine.” It took about five months, and we were sold out by Thanksgiving. In the meantime, someone had slipped wine critic Robert Parker a bottle to taste and he published a review of it on November 23. At 5 o’clock that morning the phone rang. My wife Mimi answered and a voice asked how to “get on the Scarecrow list.” Mimi told the caller he was welcome to visit the website, then asked why he was calling so early. He said, “So I guess you don’t know—about the Parker score? He just gave you 98 points, the highest score he’s ever given for a first release. I just wanted to make sure I got on the list to buy wine next year.” Mimi ran down the hall to wake me and excitedly reported the Parker score. I said, “Wow, that sounds amazing. Who’s Robert Parker?” She said, “I don’t know, but this caller was really excited so he must be important.” By the end of that day, our customer list had grown from 625 people to over 6,000. The second release sold out in 16 hours.
We decided we would sell three bottles per person (at most six)—not one—because we wanted people to drink one now, drink another in 10 years, and still have one for a special occasion. The first 100 people on the list had 10 days to buy wine, then the next 100 had another 10 days, and so on. Even now, when we produce 2,000 cases of Scarecrow in a good year, the demand is absurd. We try to make it semi-achievable to those who will enjoy it rather than flip it. The whole point from the beginning was to make a wine that was relatively affordable though now it’s quite expensive compared to your average bottle of wine. At this point, we are selling it for $390 per bottle but we could be selling it for over $1000. We always keep some back for special charities, but most of the Scarecrow goes directly to our mailing list.
KM: You and your partner/wife Mimi DeBlasio have worked together since 1986. You are both creative people. Is it a 1 + 1 = 3 kind of relationship?
BL: Absolutely. No question. We became greater than the separate parts almost instantly. From the time I first hired her, I never worked with another stylist. She hit the road running and was irreplaceable. We collaborated on every step of Scarecrow. From picking out the bottle to picking out the label designer, Michael Vanderbyl, one of the greatest designers in the world. We didn’t talk with him about what we were trying to achieve with the label. Rather, we showed him things we had accumulated, a collection of anything we found visually compelling over the course of our life. To this day, I think of me and Mimi as almost one person when it comes to creating visual situations. Whether it’s picking out a chair or taking a photograph. I probably would be totally lost without her. It’s like the Beatles; they all happened to fit together better than anyone else could have possibly fit. For me, Mimi is Ringo.
KM: Tell us about M. [Monsieur] Étain, your second label.
BL: Initially we created M. Étain—which in French means Mr. Tin or The Tinman—with wine lots that were left over after we made Scarecrow. After the team blind tastes different test blends of the various blocks on the property, one of them just jumps up and screams, “I’m Scarecrow!”—and it’s real obvious. (Incidentally, at that point I was no longer drinking. I’ve never actually tasted Scarecrow. I have Hepatitus C and found out about it just before our first release.) I told Celia that I don’t want to be influenced by money, so only after we’ve created the final blend, does she tell us what percentage of the juice that we harvested, made it into the blend that year. Some years it’s 80% of the vintage, and some years it’s as little as 35-40%. After four years of selling the remainder in bulk, I asked Celia if perhaps it was good enough to make another wine. She said, “Well, yes!” and plunked a bottle on the table right in front of me—“Funny you should ask!” With M. Étain, Celia has managed to make the perfect restaurant wine—it’s absolutely spectacular. With Scarecrow, especially if its younger, you want to decant it for several hours before you’re even going to experience how amazing that wine is. Whereas when you pop the cork on M. Étain, within 15 minutes that wine is ready to drink.
KM: When it comes to this special piece of ground, what are you most proud of?
BL: I’m most proud of the fact that I managed to keep the property in the family. One of my daughters moved here and is now the VP of this company. I think that my grandfather, if he’s looking down, would be very, very proud of us. I love that this place is still here and it hasn’t changed. You look at the Valley and everything is getting corporate. All the big vineyards are now owned by some company like Constellation. This place was built in 1850. It has character. It’s a living entity—a huge house that likes having lots of people in it. I’m so happy that I’m in a position to leave the estate as a place where all the family can go, when I’m here and when I’m no longer here.