Winemaker Jeff Cohn started life in the planned community of Levittown, N.Y. When he was 8, his family moved to another Levitt community, in Bowie, Md. And while he may have grown up in manicured, intentional places where every other house looked the same, his life since then has been full of moving and changing and growing. Just like his winemaking.
Cohn, 55, got the bug early on to get into the culinary world working at a relative’s ice cream shop in College Park, Md., where his mother decorated cakes. During the week he would scoop ice cream, and on the weekends he would make it. After high school he headed to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., for culinary school, but after two New England winters, he decided to finish his degree in Miami.
“Anytime you’re in the culinary experience you’re exposed to wine, and I think that’s where it started,” he said of his desire to pursue winemaking as a career. “I took a wine class when I went to Florida International University, and the first wines that we had an opportunity to learn about and discuss were Chateauneuf du Papes and Zinfandel.”
After school, he moved to Rockville, Md., and met his future wife, Alexandra, at the Crystal City Hyatt in Virginia. When she was offered a job in Florida, Cohn returned to the South, this time working for Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, where he continued his wine education during stops in the Caribbean.
“I worked on the tall ships sailing to the Caribbean,” he said. “I had a good friend who had a wine shop in Martinique. So I would spend part of my day off hanging out and drinking the wines in her shop.”
But when the accounting firm Alexandra worked for eliminated its hospitality branch, the couple decided to return to Maryland, where Cohn landed a job at Boordy Vineyards in Hydes. At the same time, he was taking prerequisites at Montgomery College with an eye to pursuing his master’s at California State University in Fresno. “I did my time, and I had fun,” he said of his years at Windjammer. “But after being home and getting married I decided if I’m going to be happy, I want to do what I really want to do. I have a pretty good palate, and I’m pretty passionate. So I decided to go back to school and get my master’s in oenology.”
From 1991 to 1993 he commuted from home and college in Rockville to Boordy in Northern Baltimore County. It was the first time he had worked at a vineyard and winery.
“It was very eye-opening. I really loved it,” Cohn said. “I did everything at that winery, from cleaning toilets to cleaning tanks to pruning to picking fruit.”
He gives credit to owner and winemaker Rob Deford, from whom he learned every aspect of the wine industry.
“What a super guy. Very generous and easygoing,” Cohn said.
“I did everything at that winery, from cleaning toilets to cleaning tanks to pruning to picking fruit.” — Jeff Cohn on Boordy Vineyards
In 1993, the Cohns moved again, this time to California, where Jeff finished his masters at Fresno and then started working with the King of Zin, Kent Rosenblum, in Alameda — an island between San Francisco and Oakland.
“I wanted to make Zin,” Cohn said. “What an opportunity to really learn. And he worked with so many different vineyards – I knew I was going to get exposure.”
He started with Rosenblum in 1996, and in that same year, Rosenblum asked if Cohn wanted to start his own label.
“I remember the day. I was like, ‘Why not?’ I started with 75 cases of Zinfandel,” he said of his new label, JC Cellars.
As Rosenblum grew to producing 70 different wines and more than 175,000 cases a year, Cohn’s production grew as well. By the time he left in 2006 to find his own facility, Cohn was vice president of production.
“I actually had to kick myself out of the facility and move to another facility, because I was getting bigger and he was getting bigger,” he said.
Cohn began producing wines at other wineries and in March of this year finally, after much searching, acquired his own facility in Santa Rosa, Calif.
“I felt like I was a wandering Jew, because I couldn’t find anything,” he said. “It’s a 10,000-square-foot warehouse. It’s perfect. It’s going to be great once everything is done.”
He and Alexandra opened the Jeff Cohn Cellars tasting room in downtown Sonoma in May, where visitors can taste and purchase the couple’s 24 wines from more than a dozen vineyards across California, many of which are highly rated by Monkton, Md., native and well-known wine critic Robert M. Parker.
“I want them to be very distinctive,” Cohn said of his wines. “Vineyards have to speak to you. Has my winemaking style changed over the years? I think everybody’s does. You can’t keep doing things the same way; otherwise, you don’t get better.”
In late September, Cohn was on pins and needles, waiting for this year’s harvest to be ready after a weird summer of very hot weather followed by cool temperatures.
And then the wild fires hit Santa Rosa in early October.
“We’ve had some hellish weeks, but we are fine. We are fine,” he said earlier this week as the fires near his winery in Santa Rosa had finally come under control leaving behind billions of dollars of destruction to homes, businesses and wineries and more than 40 dead.
Although he and his wife and children, who live in Alameda, Calif. near Oakland, his workers, vineyards and buildings escaped the fires, the flames came within blocks of the winery and his apartment in Santa Rosa. He had to evacuate one night at 3:30 a.m.
“It was insane. It was a total emotional roller coaster,” Cohn said.
And while the vineyards from which he sources his grapes were not burned, the grapes that had not been harvested may be tainted by the heavy smoke.
“I sent samples into the lab, they’re taking 10 days to analyze the grape samples,” he said. “I’m hoping there wasn’t any smoke taint in it. It’s all the way up there on the mountain, so I don’t think we have a problem.”
In the meantime, he has harvested two of the vineyards and is making the wine. If the analysis comes back that the grapes are smoke-tainted, the wine will be disposed of.
“We’ve handled this whole thing very slowly and meticulously and with lots of thought,” he said. “And it was hard.
“But I’m happy. The harvest was great. It was interesting. It was challenging. I am hoping not to have that again. That’s all I can tell you,” he added, then laughed. “I think I’ve eaten more ice cream over the harvest and drank more alcoholic beverages during this harvest than I’ve done in a long time. Ice cream and pizza. I think that’s everybody’s comfort food.”