Owners: Jeff and Alexandra Cohn
Patch spoke with founder and wine maker, Jeff Cohn.
How did you get started in wine making? My first job in the wine industry was with Boordy Vineyards in Maryland. I did everything — picked fruit, cleaned barrels, bottled wine, cleaned toilets — whatever they needed done.
You really started from the bottom up. Oh, I started below the bottom! But I learned. It gave me great opportunities.
Going to was the greatest opportunity. After I got a masters in agricultural chemistry with an emphasis on oenology from Fresno State, I took a job with Rosenblum where I had worked as a harvest intern. I started as a lab assistant, then I became head of lab, then I was in charge of white wine, then red, then both. Finally I became the vice president of winemaking.
I can’t say enough nice things about Kent Rosenblum. As with every wine maker, we wanted to make the greatest wines possible. So we discussed how were going to get to the next level with our wines.
He gave me room to create and play. I thought we should go in a certain direction and Kent was very open to it. We spent a fortune on barrels, did a lot of research and experimentation with yeast and fermentation styles. We achieved some great things. The wines we created were wow! wines — with explosive flavors and aromatics that no one else was doing at the time. It was an adventure! I feel blessed that I had the chance to do it.
What special skills do you need to be a wine maker? I had a pretty decent palate, but I don’t think it’s just your palate. It’s partially your palate, but it’s the ideas in your head.
I think anybody can make wine. To make great wine, there’s something else going on. Here’s an analogy: anybody can play the piano but only a few can make music. Or remember the movie, Ratatouille? Anybody can cook but only a few can make something special.
So what happens when you blend a new wine? It’s not a formula — 75 percent Zin plus this should make this wine great.
In my head, I have a vision of what I’m trying to achieve. I don’t consider myself the most creative person in the world, but I know what I’m trying to achieve. I know what this particular vineyard should be bringing to the table. It’s the potential of that particular fruit, whether it’s got more brambly notes or more chocolate overtones. It’s about combining textures and flavors.
The wine is hitting the front palate, then building in the mid-palate and then flowing to the finish. But maybe something’s missing. It’s my job to make that bridge happen — to make the flavors explode.
After you started JC Cellars in 1996, how long did it take you to establish the brand? About a year. In 1996, there weren’t so many wineries. There are too many out there now. So many of the wines taste the same.
Wine should have a personality. It’s something that should come from the wine maker’s heart.
What wines is JC Cellars best known for? I’m known for my Rhone wines and zinfandels.
When did you open the tasting room? In 2007. I really wanted people to come taste my wines. Also, I wanted people to see us working, to be part of the wine-making experience. In addition to this one here in Oakland, we have one in Napa that we share with ten other wineries.
Most people don’t think of Alameda as the heart of the California wine industry. Why did you choose to stay in the area when you launched JC Cellars? I had many choices of places where we could have gone after I left Rosenblum. Even though there’s lots of people on the Island, it’s a very small-feeling community. Everybody knows everybody. I wanted to raise my family in a place that felt small and safe. I wanted my daughters to have a sense of community.
The JC Cellars tasting room at 55 4th Street in Oakland. It is open Thursday-Sunday, 12 - 5 p.m. Cost: $5. Alamedans are invited to the Spring Fling on April 21, 2012, where wines from JC Cellars will be served during the fundraising event.