North Coast AVA
The heart and soul of California's new wave of winemaking
His career started in the unlikely winemaking state of Maryland and the reason he came to California was because it was a warmer place. His story is not unlike a number of passionate winemakers that have thrived in the Golden State over the past few decades.
His name is Jeff Cohn, originally from Bowie, Maryland. Cohn became interested in the wine business and began his career with the well-respected Boordy Vineyards. Boordy is Maryland’s oldest surviving winery (1965) and is nestled in the Long Green Valley of northeastern Baltimore County. Cohn learned the basics of winery work and winemaking but sought a warmer venue for his winemaking ambitions.
“I had a degree in culinary arts from Johnson & Wales as well as a BS in Hospitality Management from Florida International,” he explained. I knew I wanted to be in the wine industry so I got another degree in Agricultural Chemistry and Enology from Fresno State.”
Cohn was also introduced to the inner workings of numerous California wineries and decided to make California his new home.
“I had an opportunity after graduation to interview with a number of wineries about a job,” Cohn recently recalled. “The wineries I met with were mostly well-respected and fully-established entities. Then, I had an interview with Kent Rosenblum (Rosenblum Cellars) and the meeting lasted more than three hours. I also brought a pair of Zins I had made while I was a student at Fresno State. Afterwards, the winery staff and I all sat around and enjoyed the wines. I was delighted that I was offered the job a short time later.”
Rosenblum Cellars was at the time a major player in Zinfandel circles and has remained so until this day. A close relationship soon developed between Cohn and Kent Rosenblum that has helped Cohn in the formative years of his own JC Cellars. Cohn calls Rosenblum his “mentor” and frequently confers with him on winery matters.
In 1997, JC Cellars became a reality with the introduction of a microscopic 75 cases of initial release. Like Rosenblum, JC Cellars has followed the innovative approach to industrial winemaking. Both wineries are located in industrial areas of Northern California’s sprawling East Bay, with JC Cellars located in Oakland and Rosenblum Cellars in nearby Alameda.
“The fact that we put all our profits into buying better grapes, barrels and equipment, and, not into vineyard land and intangibles, makes our wines that much better,” commented Jeff Cohn. “We are able to focus on the terroir of the vineyards and everyone knows that the aspect of terroir is most important in making really fine wines.”
JC Cellars’ production has risen steadily since its inception in 1996 and will top out around 6,000 cases in 2012. Cohn’s ongoing ambition is to continue increasing production to some 30-35,000 cases in the future, an accomplishment that would necessitate moving his operation or adding on to its present capacity.
Most of his focus is on single vineyard wines, carefully chosen from various parts of California for their specific character and complexity.
“I prefer fruit that is hillside, with the more rocks the better,” he added. “It seems that the rockier the soil, the more complex and intense the fruit becomes. That combination in the right winemaker’s hands can produce incredibly wonderful wines.”
Cohn’s wife Alex, whom he refers to as his “best half,” plays an integral part in the JC Cellars operation. “She does everything around the winery but make the wine,” he firmly declared. “She is also a CPA and makes sure that our business is run smoothly in many different areas.”
Cohn now consults for a number of other wineries. His passion for the business carries forth on his pet project, one that he calls his Imposter Brand. “I feel our Imposter wines are emblematic of the terroir that can be expressed in California wines. They are the best possible examples that I, as a winemaker, can strive to achieve. I hope to be able to continue making them for a long time to come.”
Jeff Cohn is in many ways, the heart and soul of California’s new wave of winemaking. He produces wines without great fanfare and a glittering environment. He is completely open about his products and gives abundant credit to his growers and others who participate in his winery’s efforts.
We need more Jeff Cohns around who are completely passionate about their businesses. They inject a freshness and approach that keeps more established wineries on their toes.
A Message from Jeff
Dear Platinum Series Members,
During my first year at Rosenblum Cellars, and just a few short months after graduating from Fresno State with an Enology degree, Kent Rosenblum asked me if I was interested in starting my own label. At first, I thought this to be a pipe dream, but I figured what the hell and went for it. We started with 75 cases of 2006 Zinfandel from the Rhodes Vineyard in Redwood Valley. To my surprise, my wine came in first place in the weekly San Francisco Times Panel Tasting and also garnered a 91 point score from the Wine Spectator. Not bad. This incredible start set the stage for what would soon become an amazing adventure.
First and foremost, I worked for Rosenblum Cellars for 10 years, starting as an intern then working my way to Vice President of Production and Winemaking. During those 10 years, my 75 case winery grew so much so that we needed to move to a larger space. As time went on, my focus was less on Zinfandel and more on Northern Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. These were the wines that made my heart pound and are my passion. Yet, you never forget your first love so we continued to make Zinfandel.
As the saying goes, what goes around comes around and this is true for winemaking as well. In 2009 our Zinfandel program increased; so much so that we are now up to seven Zinfandels. In addition to varietal selection, we also started working with larger format barrels (between 300 to 600 liter barrels) and cement tanks. What these barrels and tanks bring to the wine is a different layer of complexity that cannot be achieved in the use of a traditional 60 gallon barrel. Combining these different formats allows us to take our wines to a level we had not achieved before.
In 2005 we started focusing on two new signature blends; Smoke and Mirrors and The Impostor. The first is a blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel aged in large format barrels ranging from 300 to 500 liters in size. The second is a blend of predominately Zinfandel with Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier and 150 year-old Carignane and Alicante Bouschet. Fruit from twenty different vineyards are used to create these blends. We use a mixture of 600 gallon barrels, cement tanks, stainless steel tanks and large format barrels to age this blend. Our signature wines allow me to express myself and not be held to one specific aroma or flavor profile.
The adventure continues.....our little 75 case winery has gone through many changes over the years, but one thing has stayed the course, the wine always comes first.