Sonoma Winemaker Explains Difficulties Facing Family Wineries

October 16, 2018

“Go get ’em, Bruno!” winemaker Bruce Cohn calls to his old black lab as the dog chases a rubber bung (a stopper for a wine barrel) across the olive tree-shaded courtyard at the B.R. Cohn winery in Glen Ellen. “He’s 14 and he thinks he’s 3!” Cohn exclaims. “He drank red wine all his life, that’s why.” Bruno barks excitedly when he hears the word “wine” as Cohn notes that the dog has his own wine, called Bruno’s Blend.

These are good days for Cohn, 69, a Chicago native who has had two successful careers, the first as the manager of the rock band The Doobie Brothers and later Night Ranger, the second as a winery owner in Sonoma County. Cohn’s family relocated to San Francisco when he was 10 and a year later moved an hour north to rural Forestville where his father, who had been in the shoe business in Chicago, started a goat dairy. The family lived in an old farm- house, and Bruce had to get up at 4:30 every morning to milk the goats—he also picked grapes on a neighbor’s vineyard.

But he never imagined that one day he’d be a winemaker. It happened almost by accident. He’d become the manager of The Doobie Brothers in 1970 when he was just 22. “We had 38 guys on the road, two planes and four semis, it was a lot of responsibility for somebody that young.” The Doobie Brothers “were pretty crazy, wild guys at that time. Now they’re just crazy,” he says with a laugh, “boring and crazy.”

Cohn also worked as the sound mixer at the Doobies’ shows. After four years of incessant touring he decided to buy some land in the Valley of the Moon, a crescent of paradise in eastern Sonoma County. The idea was to have a place to decompress. “I was on the road with the band about 250 days a year,” he says, “and I just wanted a place where I could raise my kids like I was raised.”

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“I call this the center of the earth,” Cohn says. “This is like Tuscany. I tell people, don’t go to Italy, just come to B.R. Cohn. We have better wines; we have great olive oils.” That sounds boastful, but Cohn seems like a down-to-earth guy who can’t quite believe his luck and is grateful for how well his life turned out. When he acquired the property, some of the land was planted with grapes that were sold to Sebastiani, a nearby family winery. The patriarch, August Sebastiani, sagely told Cohn he wouldn’t make much money on the grapes, but that he’d do well with the land. “When I got my first check for the grapes,” Cohn says, “I understood what he meant.”

In the early 1970s, Cohn read thick books about viticulture on flights with the Doobies. Not long afterward, he was introduced to Charlie Wagner of Caymus Vineyards, and asked the veteran winemaker to mentor him, but Wagner was taken aback by Cohn’s appearance. “I sure didn’t look like a farmer,” Cohn says. “I had an afro up to here, leather pants, high-heeled boots.” Cohn soon won him over, and Wagner, who died in 2002, tutored Cohn for four years. “In 1978, I’d brought him three tons of pinot and three tons of cab grapes,” Cohn says. “I drove a ’48 Dodge over the mountain” to Caymus in Rutherford, in the heart of Napa’s wine country. “I burned the brakes up going down the Oakville Grade.”

Six months later Wagner called Cohn and said: “Get over here, you gotta try this wine.” So Cohn drove back over the Mayacamas Mountains, and Wagner poured him some pinot. “I didn’t know anything about red wine. I was drinking tequila and Dos Equis with the band,” Cohn says.

“So, I tried the pinot and said, ‘oh that’s good.’ He said ‘yeah, it’s pretty good. Now try this cab of yours.’ He poured me a glass of the cab. I said, ‘Oh, that’s real good.’ He said, ‘No, that’s not real good. That’s the best cab I’ve ever had from Sonoma County.’” Wagner advised Cohn to have Sebastiani make the wine under Cohn’s Olive Hill name, “but August laughed and said, ‘Bruce, I don’t even have a tank small enough to put your grapes in.’” So Cohn had other local wineries do it and started winning gold medals.

In 1982 The Doobie Brothers broke up; the next year Cohn began managing the band Night Ranger. In 1984, he decided to launch his own winery and named it B.R. Cohn. “It was my second chance with enough money to do it,” he says. “But it takes a lot more money than I thought.”

His first year, Cohn made 900 cases of cabernet and 2,000 cases of chardonnay. “The chard you could take the paint off your car with, literally. I couldn’t sell it,” he says. “And the cab got a 94 rating from Wine Spectator. Nobody in Sonoma had gotten a rating that high for cab.” Cohn says he’s fortunate to have purchased land in an area that’s perfect for cabernet, not the just warm days and cool nights but where frost is rare. He has hired talented wine- makers but says, “The vineyards make the wine. If you don’t have great grapes, you’re not going to have a great wine.”

Dan Weiner, a booking agent for the Doobies, Foreigner and other bands, has known Cohn since 1972 and says, “He has laser vision. He looks out at the horizon and sees a future that no one else can even imagine. He bought a farm, but in his eyes he could see the grapes, the vines; he was seeing it all. That’s just the way he is.”

Cohn inspires intense loyalty in people with whom he works. “I love the man. I’d take a bullet for him,” says Tom Montgomery, B.R. Cohn’s chief winemaker from 2003 until last year. “He does practice what he preaches. He believes in rock ’n’ roll music, truth, justice and the American way. I don’t know of any- body who better describes the lifestyle I’d call the good life.”

In 1990, Cohn decided to use the olives that were dropping off his eight acres of 140-year-old French Picholine trees. “The kids were staining the carpet with black olives in the house over there,” he says pointing to what is now the tasting room. “It was pick up the olives or buy new carpet. So I picked up the olives and shipped them to Modesto to the only guy making extra-virgin olive oil in California.”

He didn’t have enough olives on his property to distribute nationally so he began buying from throughout California to make a blend of oil, vinegar and spices for dipping. He launched an olive oil festival in his grove that initially attracted about 10 producers but soon grew so large that it’s now held in downtown Sonoma. The 15th annual Sonoma Valley Olive Festival was held last January.

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Cohn’s success is “no freaking accident,” says Herbie Herbert, who managed Steve Miller and Journey in the 1970s and ’80s. “It’s a marriage of determination, talent, organizational skills and management skills. There are a lot of people who may not realize it, but Bruce Cohn is the most important person they’ve ever met in their life. The guy is a seriously gifted entrepreneur.” Starting in the 1970s when Cohn was still in his 20s, he wanted to share his good fortune. He held a golf tournament to benefit the United Way and had members of The Doobie Brothers sing Christmas carols for gravely ill kids at Stanford Children’s Hospital.

In 1987, Doobies drummer Keith Knudsen wanted to help Vietnam veterans so Cohn suggested he try to reunite the band, which had split up five years before. Cohn says the Doobies felt their time had passed, but they agreed to do one show at the Hollywood Bowl. “It sold out in two hours,” Cohn says. “So they said maybe we should do one for Stanford Children’s Hospital. So I booked Shoreline (in nearby Mountain View, California), and it sold out, 19,000 seats.” They ended up doing 10 shows, all benefits, raising millions of dollars. The band played on, going back into the studio to record and continuing to tour; they now play about 85 shows a year.

Cohn next wanted to do something closer to home. He rented the field at Sonoma High School and held a benefit with Graham Nash and Little Feat. But there was “no ambiance,” so Cohn built an amphitheater on a gently sloping hill at his winery and got permits for 3,000 people to come onto his land one weekend a year. The B.R. Cohn Charity Sonoma Music Festival has attracted such legends as Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Chicago and Gregg Allman, and naturally The Doobie Brothers. Last year Ringo Starr performed. “We had a Beatle in Sonoma!” Cohn says.

In 2015, the Sonoma Music Festival moved to downtown Sonoma. Toby Keith will play at this year’s festival, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Over the years, the festival has raised almost $7 million for veterans, food banks and other worthy causes. Today, though the winery still bears his name, Cohn no longer owns it. He sold 70 acres of vine- yards and the rights to his name last year to Vintage Wine Estates, but he retained 21 acres and still lives in a home on the property. “I grew the winery from 500 cases a year to almost 85,000. That took a lot of money that I didn’t have so you take on a lot of debt,” he says. “Pretty soon you got a great lifestyle, but you’re working for the bank. There isn’t that much profit in wine.”

Costs were “going through the roof,” he says. “Dollar-wise, it was just too much pressure. I was like the hamster on the wheel and never knew from one year to the next if I was going to be able to make it. Family wineries are selling out. Corporations are coming in and buying market share. It makes it hard on the little family guys; we couldn’t compete.” So now Cohn is a consultant paid by Vintage. “I am the spokesman, the figurehead. I’m on the payroll, but I have almost no responsibilities,” he says, surveying the land he owned for 41 years. “It’s kind of wonderful,” he says with a laugh, “kind of great.”