B.R. Cohn Winery: From father to son

He gave up the wine, but not the women and song.

When Bruce Cohn announced, earlier this month, that he would be stepping down as head of B.R. Cohn Winery, the press release said he “intends to focus his energy on the management of Grammy Award-winning band, the Doobie Brothers, and on the production of the B.R. Cohn Charity Fall Music Festival.”

It also said that Bruce’s son, Dan Cohn, would be taking over as CEO of the winery – a family legacy described as rare and enviable in the wine industry.

What it did not say is that the elder Cohn, now 67, is making strides in his personal life as well, due to his recent marriage to Laurie Molinaro. Nor did it mention that Dan Cohn’s young family has moved into the pool house, with his wife, Ashley, helping out in the wine tasting room, their 4-year-old daughter Kendall running around the grounds, and the other Cohn siblings continuing to lend their services.

“It’s an exciting time for the family,” Dan said Thursday, squinting in the sun as he stood on the front drive of the property, located at the south end of Glen Ellen, a stone’s throw from Highway 12. The space between is guarded by a grove of ancient picholine olive trees – the largest and oldest such grove in California, according to Dan.

The new CEO turns 40 this year, making him precisely as old as the family estate itself, which Bruce – already highly successful as the first-and-only manager of the Doobie Brothers – bought as a place to raise his own young family. In fact, Dan said, his new office is the very room in which he was born.

For four decades, “I’ve been doing the music right along with the wine,” Bruce said, talking while overseeing a remodel job at the back of the 90-acre property, where workers are fixing up a place for him and his new bride to settle down. “I’m just backing off from the wine, and letting Dan take it.”

The change, he said, “gives me more time to work on the music, and gives them a chance to really dig in to the wine business and learn it and do it. My son’s got a plan for streamlining and upgrading some of the product wines.”

That plan includes “getting back to what this estate was founded on,” Dan said, “which was high-end, single-estate Sonoma Valley cabernet.” He sums up the strategy as “small production, quality not quantity.”

The younger Cohn spoke at length about the quality of the land on which he grew up – the unique features that make it perfect for grape growing. The estate sits directly in the lee of Sonoma Mountain, protecting it from cool Pacific breezes. And the hot springs underfoot keep the ground warmer by several degrees, preventing frost from harming the vines.

“Nowhere else in Sonoma Valley is it hot enough” to grow the grapes they grow, Dan Cohn says.

But wine is only part of what B.R. Cohn does, and as Dan shifts suddenly into talking about music – revealing plans for a “summer music series” on the estate – it becomes clear that he never stops thinking about the big picture, music included.

Similarly, his father might shift suddenly into the finer points of winemaking, even when he’s describing the Doobie Brothers’ latest album. Bruce has guided the Doobies since his early 20s, and these days the iconic band is signed with Sony Nashville, with a new album coming out this spring.

For this album, the band picked 12 of its hits, and had a major country artist record each one with the Doobies. So Zac Brown is doing “Black Water,” he said, while Toby Keith does “Long Train Running” and Blake Shelton does “Listen to the Music.”

And of course, the fabled Fall Music Festival, a local treasure that has made north of $6 million during its 28 years in existence, will continue on under Bruce’s guidance – and perhaps with a growing country influence.

“Bruce put in 40 years, and was able to work a succession plan,” said his longtime friend, confidante and PR man, Michael Coats.

“I think in a lot of cases, the families that had to sell, they did so because there was nobody in the family interested in taking over the business. Fortunately for Bruce, he had Dan.”