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Second-generation Dan Cohn winemaker nurtures vines, reputation

Dave DeSimone
| Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

In 1968, during the hippy-dippy days in San Francisco, recent college graduate Bruce Cohn worked nights as a television technician and, during the days, managed a rehearsal studio. He signed a fledging local band that eventually became The Doobie Brothers, and from there he has travelled a path of rock 'n' roll success.

While experiencing the hectic pace of touring, Cohn thought back on his childhood spent on a goat dairy farm in northern California. For respite from the road, in 1974 he purchased an old dairy farm in the small town of Glen Ellen in the heart of Sonoma Valley.

The property featured 100-year-old French Picholine olive trees, but grape-growing quickly became Cohn's passion. He sold fruit from his Olive Hill Estate Vineyard to some of Northern California's leading producers, including Charlie Wagner at Caymus.

A turning point occurred in 1982. President Reagan presented an Olive Hill Estate Vineyard Cabernet produced by Gundlach-Bundschu Winery as a state gift in China. The reason was simple, Cohn later found. Experts at the prestigious University of California-Davis wine program dubbed the Olive Hill Estate Vineyard wine as the best example of California Cabernets.

In 1984, Cohn took the plunge for himself by founding B.R. Cohn Winery. His initial winemaker, Helen Turley, turned out critically acclaimed wines as a firm foundation for the winery's reputation.

Today, Bruce Cohn's son, Dan Cohn, takes a leading role. He recently visited Pittsburgh to host several wine dinners.

The first floor of the old family house where Dan Cohn grew up serves as the winery tasting room. “The office upstairs is in my old bedroom,” he says with a laugh. “I don't think I'm ever getting out of that room.”

The younger Cohn started by developing the family's olive-oil business out of an old tool shed on the property. “I used to deliver olive oil in the trunk of my car to a retailer who also sold our wine,” he says.

Growing conditions salubrious for olive trees prove agreeable for grape vines, too, he says. He especially hails B.R. Cohn Winery's unique terroir at its Olive Hill Estate Vineyard.

“We're located about 45 miles north of San Francisco, sandwiched between the Mayacamas Mountains and the Sonoma Mountains,” Cohn says. “We're a little warmer than Carneros directly to the South and our alluvial volcanic soils off the Mayacamas Mountains resemble Napa Valley.”

“Coming up Sonoma Valley, the floor is flat,” he says. “But, beginning literally at our winery's driveway, the Glen Ellen foothills begin.”

The slopes allow the grapes to catch afternoon breezes to even out ripening. A thermal spring running directly under the property also influences the vines.

“The hot springs keep the soils 7 to 9 degrees warmer than other Sonoma Valley vineyards,” Cohn says. “The warmth eliminates any chance of damaging frosts and also prevents fogs from locking in the vineyards every night.”

The added warmth and cool, yet not too cold, nights give something distinctly extra to the aromas and flavors of the Olive Hill Estate Vineyard grapes.

“We are one the few wineries to produce a single vineyard Sonoma Valley Cabernet,” Cohn says. “When you visit and try our Olive Hill Estate Vineyard wine, you're tasting wine from where you're standing.”

By definition, the estate wines have limited supply. So B.R. Cohn Winery also makes wines from fruit purchased off the estate. The purchased grapes come from established, long-term relationships, Cohn says, instead of from bulk wholesale purchases.

“We aim for consistent quality and value to nurture our reputation as a small, family-run brand,” Cohn says. “Besides, I don't want anybody to come up to my father and say they had a bad bottle of B.R. Cohn wine.”

Try the 2011 B.R. Cohn Winery “Silver Label” Cabernet Sauvignon, North Coast, California (5226; $26.99) made primarily from Mendocino County cabernet. Cohn blends in declassified Olive Hill Estate Vineyard cabernet to enhance the wine's character.

Bright blackberry, cassis and spice aromas open to tasty dark fruit with herbal and spice notes. Refreshing acidity and ultra smooth tannins from aging in older French oak barrels frame the fruity, yet dry, finish. Pair it with grilled flank steak. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone writes about wine for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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