Part I: B.R. Cohn Winery

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Bruce-Cohn-Photo-tn.jpgOne Man's Rocking Wine Country Odyssey

By Robert P. Farmer

For Bruce Cohn, life has been harmonious. Sitting with him over a casual lunch not long ago, on a poolside patio next to his winery's tasting room and just a few steps away from his own gracious abode, it was clear even to the casual observer that Cohn is a man at peace with life. He speaks easily and eagerly about things related to wine--this year's production, progress on this year's crush, getting new barrels delivered. And he speaks just as easily, if sometimes wistfully, about the interesting road he traveled to get to this comfortable poolside place. It's a story about wine that involves music. It's a story unlike any in Wine Country, which is saying a lot considering the myriad unique storylines in this part of the world.
Though the music of the Doobie Brothers may not be a vital part of the current popular music lexicon, it is nevertheless an important part of it overall. And Bruce Cohn is an important part of the Doobie Brothers story. This backstory is much in evidence at the winery. The collection of classically American buildings, including a main house that once served as a stagecoach stop for Wells Fargo and, once upon a time, as Bruce's own house, is flanked by more recent structures comprising the Cohn compound.

Tasting-Room-Inside.jpgThe main house contains the tasting room, where the long, mahogany tasting bar has the sort of welcoming presence that beckons guests to ease in onto their elbows and get to know the wines and the people pouring them.  The bar is surrounded by memorabilia; much of it is music themed, lots of it is food and wine-related, and all of it is an acknowledgement of the things that Bruce and the people around him treasure. These are artifacts of a good life. Indeed everything on the BR Cohn property is the representation of one man's life. From the collection of classic hotrods parked out front to the tasting room continuously bathed in a classic-rock soundtrack, it all bears the stamp of a life's work and passion. And the fastidious eye Mr. Cohn fixes on every part of the operation belies the prevailing casual atmosphere.

But none of it would have been possible without the Doobie Brothers (and what winery in the world can claim such a raison d'etre), the seminal rock band whose success in the 1970s was an integral part of what many call the best decade ever for American rock. The arc of success the band in enjoyed was helped along in no small part by Mr. Cohn, who managed the band starting back in 1969 when they were a little known group of musicians on the Bay Area scene. He was with the band as they rode to fame--adding to the airwaves such hits as "Listen to the Music," "China Grove," and "Black Water." Cohn managed, in spite of craziness associated with rock and roll life in the 1970s - "everything you think it is, and then some," says Cohn without a trace of hyperbole -- to provide a sense of responsibility to the band's success. In short, he provided the business in the back for the party in the front.

Showing prescient business acumen, he Cohn set up a pension plan for the band, and helped them invest the dollars that were tumbling during the most high-riding years. He helped ensure that the band members remained successful even after the success had faded.

Cohn's business management proved so successful, that he remains the band's manager today--some four decades after first signing on. It's the sort of career longevity rarely seen in the music business. But it's exactly the kind of foresight and tenacity required to become a successful winemaker.

Though he moved in the rarefied air of rock stardom--tour buses, arena concerts, all-night-after parties and, yes, groupies--Cohn's roots were firmly planted in the earth. He grew up milking goats and tending the land of his family's goat farm in the Russian River Valley. But after studying at the College of San Mateo and at Colorado Boulder, he returned to the Bay Area for a taste of city life in San Francisco. Initially, Cohn had thoughts of leaving the agrarian lifestyle behind for a career in broadcast journalism, a path on which he was well down when the opportunity to manage the Doobie Brother came his way. "I loved the land, and working outside," says Cohn, "and I knew that someday I would have to return to that. But this was a chance to do something that seemed pretty exciting, and I was just young enough where I could take a chance and see where it would lead."

Tasting-Room.jpgWell it went, as the Doobie's hit indicated, "Rockin' Down the Highway," and Cohn was soon far away from his goat-milking roots and enjoying the kind of life that people usually only fantasize about or read about in magazines as part of a cautionary tale. But thanks in part to an uncanny knack for focus and for seeing life beyond the immediate, Cohn kept his wits about him and managed to secure a bit of his own future along with those of the bandmates. In 1974 he returned, a little richer and wiser, to Sonoma County and purchased an old dairy farm in Glen Ellen. The land was shot through with a natural aquifer, and dotted with 140-year-old Picholine olive trees, so its new owner understood it had potential. But just how successful it could become was still not entirely clear to Cohn. But true to his spirit of self-teaching, he was determined to find out.

"I bought books on viticulture and farming and read them while we were on the road," he says. "The guys thought I was crazy and I got a lot of ribbing on the bus. But the more I learned, the more engrossing it became to me. I knew this was what I wanted to be doing." 

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2 Comments

Learn something new every day, great bio on the management, & I love them cabs!!

My husband and I vacationed in Sonoma/Napa this past September and absolutely fell in love with Sonoma and the Russian River Valley. B.R. Cohn Winery was one of our favorites. It is a must visit winery for anyone planning a vacation to wine county. Great wine, a wonderfully relaxing atmosphere and such friendly and gracious wine staff. We even met Moose, the winery dog, who had his own bottle of wine for sale with some of the proceeds benefiting local animals. What more could you ask for!!

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