When the Doobie Brothers hit the stage on July 12 at Chastain Amphitheater, naturally, many bottles of wine will be uncorked. More than few will have the B.R. Cohn label on them. The Sonoma Valley winery has a special connection to the Brothers Doobie that has lasted almost as long as they have been takin’ it to the streets as a rock band.
You’d think the long-time manager and self-described compatriot of the Doobie Brothers would find a second career making tequila or, perhaps, running a medical marijuana dispensary. But, nope, Bruce Cohn, proprietor of B.R. Cohn Winery, has been in the wine business since the early 1970s.
“We started looking for property in 1973,” said Cohn during his swing through Atlanta in May. “I wanted to recreate my childhood for my family.” Cohn’s family moved from Chicago to Sonoma in 1956 when Cohn was 10. Both parents were serious part-time musicians and Cohn’s father designed shoes for Florsheim, but the family traded the grind of the city for the life bucolic in Sonoma. They ran a goat dairy in the Russian River (not far from Cohn’s current estate), which included milking 115 goats twice a day.
Flush with cash from the Doobie’s hit album Toulouse Street (Listen to the Music and Jesus is Just Alright), Cohn was able to acquire Olive Hill Estate’s 61 acres in 1974 and more or less stumbled into the grape growing business. For years, he sold all his grapes to Sebastiani Vineyards. With help and encouragement from Charlie Wagner of Caymus Vineyards, however, Cohn started making his own wines.
“Charlie really didn’t know what to make of me at first,” Cohn said of his late friend and winemaking mentor. “You sure he’s not growing something else up there besides grapes,” Cohn recalls Wagner asking members of Sonoma’s insular farming community of the 1970s.
After cautious and small steps into the winemaking field, which would have voided his contract with Sebastiani if discovered, Cohn gained the confidence to keep all his grapes in 1982 when Gundlach Bundschu’s Olive Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (made with Cohn’s grapes) was so highly thought of that it was given to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping during a state visit by President Ronald Reagan. In 1984, Cohn hired Helen Turley, the yet-to-be-crowned California winemaking diva, who made a splash with Cohn’s cabernet sauvignons.
It would seem that B.R.Cohn Winery’s reputation as a quality producer was set. That is until 1992, when a fortuitous disaster occurred.
“My winemaker was putting all the barrels of wine into the [blending] tanks,” said Cohn, referring to the winemaker following Turley, who he refused to name. “He cooked the cabs when he forgot to turn on the chillers on the tanks.”
Stuck with thousands of gallons of wine that did not meet the standards for an ultra-premium label, Cohn decided to produce his Silver Label line. He sold it for $15 a bottle, half the price of the Olive Hill label.
“The wine was hit,” Cohn said. “It was sold by the glass in many restaurants and was also picked up by Trader Joe’s.” Cohn continued the label with purchased grapes and it remains as the workhorse for the winery’s finances.
With the exception of singer/guitarist Patrick Simmons and drummer Michael Hossack, the current line-up of Doobies doesn’t partake in wine (or any other substances) anymore. But the band has lent its name to a wine made by Cohn called Doobie Red.
Doobie Red is made in memory of drummer Keith Knudsen, who died of pneumonia in 2005. An ardent support of veterans’ organizations, Knudsen, got the Doobies back together in 1987 after a five-year hiatus for a charity concert to support veterans and their families. The Bordeaux-style wine has raised more than $2.2 million for veterans’ charities since its release. It is available in limited supply at select Atlanta retailers, but can be ordered on line for $18 plus shipping at www.BRCohn.com.
So when you (oh-oh-oooh) listen to the music under the stars later this month at Chastain, lift a glass of Doobie Red or one of Cohn’s other wines to salute the music that made the wine.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator with the Society of Wine Educators and teaches in-home wine classes. You can reach him at Gil.Kulers@WineKulers.com.
(Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from thumbs down, one thumb mostly up, one thumb up, two thumbs up, two thumbs way up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.)