Visiting B.R. Cohn Winery in Sonoma Valley
It’s hard to say what this Sonoma Valley winery is most famous for: the Charity Fall Music Festival founded by rock and roll impresario Bruce Cohn in 1987, the coveted Olive Hill estate Cabernet Sauvignon grown here, or the trend-starting olive oil company.
Make the short drive through a grove of 140-year-old Picholine olive trees to the top of little Olive Hill, however, and it’s easy to see that for all that’s going on up here, visiting this family run winery remains the kind of casual, laid-back experience for which Sonoma County is famous.
It all began with a few Doobies
The story of B.R. Cohn Winery does remind me a little of that New Yorker cartoon that depicts a group of hippies relaxing in a “hot tub” of grapes, puffs of smoke rising above them, while other vintners furiously stomp grapes nearby. One onlooker says to another, “Haven’t you ever seen California wine being made before?”
Indeed, founder Bruce Cohn has managed the Doobie Brothers rock band since 1970. With hits like “Black Water,” the band was so successful that Cohn purchased 90-acre Olive Hill Estate in 1974.
When Cohn at first approached local winemakers to buy his grapes, they thought the big-haired rock manager was a little wild in appearance, said his son Dan Cohn, who took over duties as president of the winery in 2013. But Cohn also had agricultural roots in Sonoma County — in the 1950s, his family ran the region’s first Grade-A goat dairy in the Russian River Valley. Eventually, wineries won so much recognition with Cohn’s Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, he started his own winery in 1984.
Pass the decanter
In the tasting room, where gold records are displayed above an L-shaped bar (with more memorabilia in an adjacent sitting room), there’s a wine for everyone on the extensive menu, from Carneros Chardonnay ($35) to Sonoma Valley Zinfandel ($28) and Malbec ($45).
There’s even a kosher version of the estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($50). The top choices are the surprisingly soft and plushly fruited 2010 Olive Hill Cabernet Sauvignon ($56), and the 2010 Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon ($100), equally plush with plum fruit underlying enticing chocolate mint cookie spice.
But how do these tasty numbers stand up to the test of time? Recently, I was invited to a 20-year retrospective tasting of Olive Hill and Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon, some of which are now for sale from the tasting room’s library.
From the fruitcake and thyme scents and sweet tannin of the 1997 Olive Hill ($120) to the savory and potpourri notes and chewy, raspberry Newton palate of the 2001 Special Selection ($150), even the wines that were not still outright vibrant and fruity did not display the tired bouquet of downhill Bordeaux. These Cabs are still rocking and rolling.
Winemaker at B.R. Cohn since 2001, Tom Montgomery spent the first part of his career in, well, some other, hotter valley a little to the east of here, he admits. And he doesn’t much care for those mornings when Sonoma Valley’s bone-chilling fog sticks to the ground, so he’s especially happy when he arrives at work, where Olive Hill sits in a halo of sunlight.
The reason, he said, is that underneath the vineyard hot springs warm the soil, helping to make this vineyard warmer than any in Sonoma County outside of Cloverdale. Geothermic hot springs were historically important to the resort towns of Boyes Hot Springs and Agua Caliente just down the road from here.
Stop in the separate Gourmet Shop for estate-grown and California olive oil, vinegar, Cabernet fudge and more; picnic in the shade of olive trees.
New for summer 2014, Dan Cohn has stepped up the music program, offering more frequent weekend concerts on the olive grove lawn (the fall festival takes place on a grassy amphitheater looking onto the vineyards and Sonoma Mountain). On Saturday, July 26, Sonoma County favorite Djinn plays their upbeat blend of French-gypsy-funk from 6 to 8 p.m.
B.R. Cohn’s big Fall Music Festival Charity Fall Music Festival will be held September 19–22, kicking off with a Charity Auction dinner with Chef Mark Stark, and will include a Celebrity Golf Classic as part of the festivities. The 2014 band lineup will include Peter Frampton, Huey Lewis and the News, Los Lonely Boys, Fred Tackett & Kenny Gradney of Little Feat and more.
15000 Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen. Open daily, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tasting fee, $10.
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