By Celia Strong
One of the great things about drinking wine and really liking it — with all its weirdness and charisma and snobbiness and everything else that’s part of its mystique — is there’s always a new one. And, I clearly remember saying that many times. The flip side of that coin is there’s always an old favorite to go back to and remember and reclaim as a current favorite. This week I think we can do both — re-find an old favorite and embrace a new one.
Our two wines this week come from a Sonoma County winery. More accurately, they come from a Sonoma County icon: the B.R. Cohn Winery. This is a not-so-big, family owned winery in Sonoma Valley. The story of this winery is completely intertwined with the story of the Cohn family, a story that is one of the most interesting and memorable of all the wine and winery stories we’ve ever heard.
Bruce Cohn has lived in Sonoma County since early childhood. His family moved to Sonoma, the Russian River Valley, from Chicago to open the first grade-A goat dairy in northern California. He grew up on his family’s dairy farm. Like most farm families, everyone helped out. When Bruce was 10 years old, he milked the goats, picked grapes and played in old wine vats. During his high school years, the Cohns moved to San Francisco and Bruce became involved in the 1960’s Bay Area music world. At the College of San Mateo, he majored in broadcasting and communications and graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder. In 1968, he moved back to San Francisco and got a day job running a music rehearsal studio and a night job as a television engineer. In 1969, he began managing a local band, the Doobie Brothers. (He still is the band’s manager!)
As great as that life was, Bruce was still pulled back to his agricultural roots. In 1974, he purchased an old dairy in Glen Ellen, a town in Sonoma. This became known as the Olive Hill Estate Vineyard, named for all the 140-year-old French Picholine olive trees on the property. Bruce bought books on viticulture (grape growing) which he read when he was on the road with the band. For a decade after buying his 90 acre property, he worked and learned everything he could on grape growing, all the while selling what he grew to California wineries. August Sebastiani was one customer, and Chuck Wagner at Caymus in Napa was a friend and customer too. After using some of Bruce’s grapes in 1978, Wagner encouraged Bruce to push for vineyard designation on the labels of wines made from his grapes. Ravenswood and Gundlach-Bundschu both produced wines with Olive Hill Vineyard wines. (The 1980 Gundlach-Bundschu Olive Hill Cabernet was given by the White House to China as a stellar example of California red wine.) More friends encouraged Bruce, and, in 1984, he founded the B.R. Cohn Winery at Olive Hill. The reputation of both Olive Hill grapes and Bruce’s commitment to quality and consistency made the winery a success. They also attracted some of the best wine making talent in California. Just to drop a few names, Helen Turley was part of the original wine making team at B.R. Cohn, followed by Merry Edwards and Steve MacRostie. In 2004, Tom Montgomery joined Bruce and took charge of the wine making operations.
A few more special tidbits about this winery and family. The tasting room now used at the winery was the family home. The original house was a stagecoach stop for Wells Fargo, a rest and horse-watering stop, on the route from Santa Rosa to Sonoma. A fire, in 1919, destroyed the house, but it was rebuilt in 1920. Bruce’s eldest son, Dan, has worked with the winery since 1993. He’s worked the Beaufort market many times. One of the showrooms at the winery is his childhood bedroom. The Doobie Brothers and the winery hold concerts and music festivals at the Olive Hill Estate to raise money for the National Veterans Foundation and local children’s charities. Some of the wines made have Doobie Brothers labels and sell only at the winery with the proceeds going to charity. The winery and family dogs are also featured on some special labels. These sell to benefit Sonoma County animals. The olive trees are still producing and are the basis for the B.R. Cohn Olive Oil Company. (Great oils and vinegars that are available nationally, including Beaufort.) Just so you can remember part of their story, the wine labels show olive tree branches.
But, let’s get a step closer to our wines. The estate is still 90 acres, about 61 of them planted. The majority of the vineyards are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon. The micro-climate of Olive Hill is ideal for Cab and the grapes have a great intensity. There are natural underground hot springs under the estate and these keep the soil warm and act as a natural frost deterrent.
In addition to their estate wines, B.R. Cohn produces a “Silver Label” tier of wines. The Silver Label Cabernet has been a longtime friend. Depending on the flavors and ripeness of grapes from Sonoma and the North Coast areas, this wine is a blend from various sources. Not only does the blending get us a great affordable Cab, but a great Cab period. The wine is full with rich flavors of berry, cassis and black cherry. There are vanilla hints in the background. The wine is aged in French oak barrels for added complexities. The 2009 Silver Label Cabernet is 76.6% Cab, 13.9% Merlot and 9.5% Cabernet Franc and was aged in its French oak barrels for 18 months. Once you taste this Cab, you’ll know why it is such a good and long lasting friend.
In the last several years, B.R. Cohn Winery expanded their “Silver Label” tier to include a Chardonnay. Spectacular! Special! Unique! Just like a brand new friend. It also has a North Coast appellation. And, what’s it like? This wine is full of apple, pear and citrus aromas. Flavors of green apple, pear, lemon zest are all packed into your glass. And, then, the toasty hint on the finish. Half this wine is barrel fermented, half in stainless steel. It’s aged in French oak barrels for seven months, hence the hint of toast and not the hit you in the face thing. It is 100% chardonnay. Seafood and poultry, grilled, broiled, or baked, couldn’t ask for a better partner. Nor could I as I tell you about it! So, there they are. An old friend to get re-acquainted with, if you’ve lost touch, and a new one to move into the future with. The cab is $16.99 and the chard is $14.99 — and both way better than most wines at that price range. Enjoy.