Jeff Cohn, the winemaker, got his start in the industry almost 20 years ago. As an intern at Boordy Vineyards in Maryland, he drove an hour and half each way to prune vines in frigid weather, pick grapes in stifling heat, and scrub everything from barrels to floors.
Long before he began his winemaking career he received an associate degree in culinary arts from Johnson & Wales University, and a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management from Florida International University.
Cohn had always loved the hospitality industry, and as he worked through several high profile positions after college he found his passion for wine steadily growing. The more he learned, the more he wanted to learn, until he realized that becoming a winemaker was his ultimate goal. The job at Boordy was a deciding factor in the trajectory of his career -- in spite of all the scrubbing.
With the encouragement and support of his family, Cohn moved to California in 1993 to follow his dream. He earned his master’s degree in agriculture chemistry, with an emphasis on enology, from California State University, Fresno in 1996. It was here that Cohn discovered French winemaking techniques and the concept of terroir. "The flavor profile was so different than anything else I had ever tried," he says of the first Chateauneuf-du-Pape he tried in school. "It was a shocker. To go from tasting only single varietals to a blend really opened my eyes."
Upon graduation, Cohn joined Rosenblum Cellars as an enologist. He rapidly moved beyond lab work and soon found himself in charge of the entire white wine program. In 2000, Cohn was officially promoted to winemaker, and in 2004 was named vice president of winemaking and production at Rosenblum. He was instrumental in creating cutting-edge barrel and yeast programs at the winery. It was through experimentation at Rosenblum that Cohn perfected the technique of using different types of yeast to create even more subtle, specific characteristics in the wine he was crafting.
He began his own label, JC Cellars, in 1996. JC's first vintage was the 1996 Rhodes Vineyard Zinfandel. 75 cases were made. Over time, case production at JC slowly increased from that small, intimate introduction to over 5,000 cases annually. In January 2006 Cohn finally parted ways with Rosenblum to focus exclusively on his own winery, but not before crafting the 2003 Rockpile Road Zinfandel, which placed 3rd on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list that year. This was a coup for not only Cohn but all of California’s winemaking industry, as no Zinfandel had ever appeared so high on the list before. In fact, no Zinfandel from California had ever even cracked the top ten.
Cohn goes to great lengths to marry California fruit to the aspects of terroir and minerality you'd find in France's oldest winemaking regions. He does so by travelling all over California, from Santa Barbara to Mendocino, in search of the finest fruit and the best vineyards. Among some of Cohn's most important discoveries include the Rockpile region in Sonoma, where nine years ago he began sourcing the Syrah grapes that are now the main component of his most elegant and complex wines; the Buffalo Hill Syrah, Haley's Reserve Syrah, and the stunning2008 So Serine Syrah, to name a few. The craggy soil of the aptly named Rockpile produces some of the most complex and distinctive minerality in all of California.
Throughout the years JC Cellars has taken on a life of its own. Located in downtown Oakland in a 15,000 sq. ft. warehouse, JC's unlikely location is part of its charm. It was also a conscious decision, as Cohn is a resident of Alameda. "Being in Napa and Sonoma, the world of winemaking surrounds you all the time," says Cohn. "I like being where I am because I like a private life. I'm close to the winery without being immersed in the endless competition of that environment…and I like living here," he jokes, "because I've always wanted to live on an island."
Being housed in downtown Oakland also gives the community a first-hand glimpse at what really goes on behind the scenes, especially during harvest. The most hectic time of year, it's during harvest that you can really experience all that goes into the craft of winemaking. "Harvest is my absolute favorite time of year," says Cohn, “and it’s also nerve-wracking because there is just so much to do. We easily put in 12 to 14 hour days for weeks on end. But fermentation...I love the aroma. I love the smell.”
When he's not running JC, driving all over California in search of the perfect grapes, or spending time with his family, Cohn is also a consultant for several wineries including Prospect 772 and the Valdez Family Winery. "Consulting is something that I really like," he says, "I go through the whole process, from discussing the goals of the winemaker to designing their program.” Of the whole process he notes, "I help give them the guidelines and point them in the right direction."
The future of JC involves exacting even more attention on the quality of the fruit. "The Rhône stuff is the passion," Cohn says, "but right now we are looking at some Zin vineyards including Dusi Ranch, Sweetwater Springs, Iron Hill, and the remarkable St. Peter’s Church. The goal is to become a bit more focused and work with some really small vineyards and growers that we know are the best of the best."
Jeff Cohn is JC Cellars -- a winery where you'll find remarkably crafted wine, a production team with decades of experience, and staff with an unparalleled passion for food, drink, and hospitality.
2005 Old Bridge Cellars Syrah Shootout
Hospice du Rhone
JC Cellars – 2002 Rockpile Syrah
2004 Old Bridge Cellars Syrah Shootout
Hospice du Rhone
JC Cellars – 2001 Rockpile Syrah
2007 Sweetwater Springs Vineyard Petite Sirah – Russian River Valley - Wine Spectator, 92 Points
2007 Sweetwater Springs Vineyard Zinfandel – Russian River Valley - Wine Spectator, 92 Points
2007 ‘The Impostor’ Zinfandel Blend – California - Wine Spectator, 90 Points
2007 Fess Parker’s Vineyard Syrah – Santa Barbara - Wine Spectator, 93 points
2006 Stagecoach Vineyard Marsanne – Napa Valley - Wine Spectator, 92 Points
2006 Caldwell Vineyards Syrah – Napa Valley - Wine Advocate, 92 Points & Wine Spectator, 91 Points
2006 Fess Parker’s Vineyard Syrah – Santa Barbara - Wine Spectator, 91 Points & Wine Advocate, 92 Points
2006 Rockpile Vineyard Syrah – Rockpile - Wine Spectator, 95 Points & Wine Advocate, 93 Points, & Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine, 91 Points
2006 ‘Buffalo Hill’ Rockpile Vineyard Syrah – Rockpile - Wine Spectator, 92 Points & Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine, 94 Points
2006 Eaglepoint Ranch Vineyard Petite Sirah – Mendocino - Wine Spectator, 94 Points, Wine Advocate, 90 Points & Wine Enthusiast, 90 Points
2006 Ventana Vineyards Syrah – Arroyo Seco - Wine Spectator, 93 Points
2005 Rockpile Vineyard Syrah – Rockpile - Wine Spectator, 93 Points
2005 Frediani Vineyard Petite Sirah – Napa Valley - Wine Advocate, 92 Points