March 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Jeff Cohn Cellars

Fire, water and electricity complicate opening of new urban cellar

 
by Andrew Adams
 
 

It was supposed to be a simple move into an urban winery located in a commercial neighborhood.
     In early 2017, winemaker Jeff Cohn moved production of his eponymous brand into its own production space, a warehouse winery that already had been used for winemaking for years. Cohn wouldn’t even have to add drains to the concrete floors.
     He knew there wouldn’t be any hot water, but he had purchased an AaquaTools HotCart (a portable, propane-powered water heater) that worked quite well to give the place a thorough power wash and scrub down.
     After moving in Feb. 1, 2017, Cohn repainted the walls and got down to the business of winemaking, but he soon discovered that other equipment such as a small, Pall cross-flow filter wasn’t working the way it should. It turned out that, rather than 240-volt power, the facility had 208 volts. Cohn figures the previous occupant had been using some type of transformer.
     “There are certain things you don’t discover until you start using the building” he said when Wines & Vines visited in December. “We knew there wasn’t any hot water, so that was not such a shock to us, but the electrical was.”
     Then, in October, as Cohn’s first harvest in the new winery was starting in earnest, disaster struck. The winery is located off of Coffey Lane in northern Santa Rosa, Calif.—less than 2 miles away from the Coffey Park neighborhood that was completely destroyed in the fast-moving and violent October 2017 firestorm.

A smoky first harvest
Cohn and his wife, Alexandra, who is co-owner and the winery’s chief financial officer, live in Alameda, Calif., but Cohn has an apartment in Santa Rosa that he uses during harvest. Nearly all of the vineyards Cohn buys grapes from are in Sonoma County.
     The winemaker remembers hearing strong winds and smelling smoke the night of Oct. 8, when he went to bed at 10:30 p.m., but he didn’t think much of it. By 1:30 a.m., he was being ordered to evacuate.
     As Cohn begins to talk about that first night and week of the fires, Alexandra shouts from across the winery and joins the conversation. It’s a scene likely to be repeated in Northern California’s wine industry for years to come, the commiserative sharing of each person’s experience during the fires.
     Alexandra had jumped in to explain how a friend whom they hadn’t heard from in years called to offer to help, because he knew they had moved their business to Sonoma County. At that moment, Cohn was stranded at the evacuation center at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, because his car had a burst radiator.
     The friend was able to get Cohn and his car back to Alameda, and the winemaker was able to return to Santa Rosa by 4 p.m. the next day. While Cohn could get into his winery, he didn’t have any power, and the entire neighborhood (including the winery) was filled with a thick, noxious smoke. Cohn said he was lucky to have a batch of sanitizer and cleaner prepared, so he did a quick round of punchdowns by the light of his propane-powered forklift and quickly left. The fermenting wine was in half-ton MacroBins and 2- and 3-ton portable, stainless-steel TranStore tanks by Custom Metalcraft.

     Cohn was able to do punchdowns once per day for the next few days, but he didn’t linger long because of the smoke. “It was ugly,” he said. “It was not pretty here and very stressful.”
     Eventually he was able to rent a generator and started to get back into a regular harvest routine before power was fully restored. Cohn figures he wasn’t able to use 13 tons of grapes due to excessive smoke or because the fires made harvest impossible.
     Prior to the fires, Cohn had been settling into the new facility. The space is essentially a large, open square with roll-up doors on one end. During harvest, the crush pad is set up in front of those doors, leading directly into the cellar. Helping Cohn in the winery is assistant winemaker Garret Cosenza, who is a native of New Jersey and holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry with an enology certificate from California State University, Fresno.
     Cohn buys grapes from a variety of growers who deliver them in half-ton bins. One of his major purchases for the new location was a vibratory sorting table from P&L Specialties. “This was fantastic,” he said of the table. “Easy to clean, no worries, never had a problem with it.”

     Bins are dumped into the hopper of the sorting table that leads directly to a Bucher Vaslin Delta E4 destemmer. The grapes are never crushed, and Cohn also doesn’t use a must pump. “It’s just gentler,” he said. “Why beat the grapes up one more time?”
     Sorted and destemmed berries are dropped directly into small tanks or bins that get dumped into larger stainless-steel tanks. The four large tanks were made by now-defunct Modern Stainless Steel and came with Cohn to the new winery space from his former operation in the East Bay area.
     A metal catwalk, installed after the 2017 vintage, provides access to tops of the tanks, and Cohn uses a punch-down device by RS Randall and Co. for cap management when the tanks are being used for fermentation. Prior to the catwalk and punch-down device, Cohn foot-tread all the red wines, which already would have been a bit of a challenge, and was more so based on the percent of whole clusters used. Depending on the vineyard, Cohn said Zinfandel can range from 10% to 20% whole clusters, Syrah can be up to 60% whole cluster, and Mourvedre is typically 100% whole-cluster fermented.
     Cohn framed out a corner of the winery to use as a cold room. During harvest, he’ll use it to cold-soak destemmed red grapes in bins and also use it cool-fermenting white juice, which he likes to ferment around 60° to 65° F.
     All of Cohn’s wines are pressed with a Willmes membrane press he purchased for the winery second-hand through Revolution Equipment Sales. Cohn plans to retrofit the press with a fixed hopper that can be moved back and forth over the press doors.

Variety of tanks and casks
Tanks and bins are not the only options Cohn has at his disposal for fermentation. The winery is filled with a variety of aging and fermentation vessels of varying shapes and sizes.
     Cohn has two terracotta amphorae as well as several different concrete tanks and many large-format oak casks.
     One of the most unusual is what Cohn called “the crow’s nest,” which is a concrete tank cylinder that looks a bit like the conning tower of a submarine or a very short guard tower from a prison. Cohn uses the crow’s nest for fermentation and aging, but he wasn’t able to use it in 2017. “We couldn’t even do that this year, because my yields were down, and I didn’t bring the fruit in,” he said.

     Next to that is a squat, elongated oval of a concrete tank the manufacturer aptly calls “the hippo,” and which Cohn uses for Grenache. Both the crow’s nest and hippo are by Paso Robles, Calif.-based tank supplier Vino Vessel.
     Cohn says his concrete egg by French supplier Nomblot, which he uses for Grenache Blanc, was one of the first in California. “It’s one of the originals,” he said. “When I went to visit (Rhône Valley producer) Chapoutier, he had just started using them. I was like, ‘Damn, that sounds like a cool idea.’ So as soon as I was able to get one, I bought one.”
     A specialist in Rhône varieties and Zinfandel, Cohn prizes concrete for the texture it lends to the wine.
     An early career in hospitality got Cohn hooked on wine, and his first winemaking job was an internship at Boordy Vineyards in his home state of Maryland. Jeff and Alexandra took the leap in 1993 and moved to California, where he attended Fresno State, and she worked in finance. His first taste of a Chateauneuf-du-Pape while at Fresno State inspired a love for Rhône wines that has stayed with Cohn ever since.
     After graduation, Cohn landed a job as enologist at Rosenblum Cellars, where he eventually would become head winemaker and then vice president of winemaking in 2004. Two years later, Cohn left to focus on his own label, which initially was called JC Cellars.
     Cohn’s first production space was in a shared facility with Dashe Cellars in downtown Oakland. He then moved into another custom-crush space called R&B Cellars in Point Richmond, Calif.
With the move to Santa Rosa, Cohn is getting close to the source of his grapes and has his own facility. In 2017, the Cohns also opened a tasting room located on the historic plaza of the city of Sonoma. The tasting room also means a new sales strategy focused on building direct-to-consumer sales that now account for about 40% of total wine sales. “Having the new tasting room in downtown Sonoma has really changed the playing field for us,” Cohn said.
     While the Oakland location did draw good traffic, the visitors were generally just dropping in or planning only to spend a tasting fee. Tourists strolling the Sonoma Plaza are typically in the area for wine tasting and are open and eager to pay. Cohn said traffic has dropped, but per-person spending has gone way up. “I only see things getting better as we keep building name recognition,” he added.
     About half of Cohn’s production is Rhône varietals, and the rest are single-vineyard Zinfandels from noted vineyards in the Rockpile AVA, Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley and the Sierra Foothills.

Preserving freshness
As Cohn’s winemaking, palate and style has evolved, he said he’s become more focused on producing wines with “freshness.” Key to this has been using large-format oak. While he continues to purchase new barrels, much more of his oak budget is getting used for French puncheons or larger casks. “We’re slowly but surely going away from using a lot of 228-liter barrels,” he said. “Most of my production is going into larger formats.”
     He has used a 600-gallon cask by Tonnellerie Rousseau for more than 15 years, and that longevity is another reason he likes the larger oak formats. Larger barrels mean less evaporation and less oxygen because of the larger volume of wine. “I find that in Northern California, we don’t make very tannic wines; we make very rich wines, and I think they stay fresher in larger format barrels,” he said.
     Cohn said he doesn’t rack after pressing but lets the wine rest undisturbed. When it’s time to top, he lays all of the barrels down one high, washes the exteriors and gives them an ozone rinse before topping. Another new piece of equipment for the winery was a Carlsen & Associates ozone machine.
     When Cohn was starting at Rosenblum, he convinced the owner and founder, Kent Rosenblum, to purchase two 500-liter puncheons for a trial. “We put some Rockpile Zin in and separated them from all the 228s,” Cohn said. “I’d always find (the puncheons) were the lowest barrel, the lowest filled barrel, and I thought that doesn’t make sense, why is it so low?”
     It turned out that Rosenblum liked the puncheons, and whenever he was giving a tour, he made sure to sample from the puncheons. The next year, Rosenblum invested in 80 puncheons.
     Back at Rosenblum, Cohn said he’d buy from “a million different cooperages,” but that list of suppliers has since been narrowed down to about a dozen, as he’s using larger barrels from fewer coopers. He said he also has dialed back the oak impact in general as a way to preserve freshness, but also to help let the fruit shine. “I think a lot of my vineyards don’t need as much new wood now that the vineyards have gotten older, and they’re really showcasing more of their terroir,” he said. “I don’t want the wood to be the makeup that’s covering the fruit up.”

     During his career, Cohn has collaborated with several French winemakers, and currently he produces a Napa County Viognier with Condrieu winemaker Yves Gangloff. Cohn also has worked with Rhône Valley winemakers Pierre Gaillard, Francois Villard and Yves Cuilleron.
     Cohn acknowledges that his style and palate have matured as a winemaker, and the collaborations were instrumental in that growth toward more finesse and elegance in his wines. “I think our palates change as we get older, I think we’re looking for things that are different,” he said. “When we’re young, bigger is always better.”
The move into the new winery may not have been as easy as Cohn would have wanted, but he now has his own space, with plenty of room for large, oak casks to further hone his style.

 
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