JC Cellars, Oakland: Current Releases

In the Silicon Valley, business incubation is quite common — larger companies often provide financial, operations, and moral support to smaller companies that they themselves have started, or outside start-ups that they believe have a good potential for success. This practice has become so normal that some companies have established entire business models based on incubation.

Incubation has also become common in the wine industry, where the costs of all the equipment and supplies required to make wine can be an extreme barrier to entry, and a source of extremely high overhead for those who do take the plunge. Just like a larger company might rent out some cubes and offer guidance to a smaller company, so to do wineries offer the use of their equipment to smaller producers using the fees from such services to defray the costs of their capital investments.

But incubation in the wine industry does not only happen as a matter of economic convenience, it often happens simply because, frankly, most folks in the wine industry can’t help themselves — they love making wine.

Jeff Cohn comes to winemaking from the world of food and hospitality. He fell in love with eating and drinking in his twenties and decided that he was going to make them his career, heading off for a degree in culinary arts, which was followed by a degree in hospitality management.

His early career saw him as the food and beverage director for Windjammer Barefoot Cruises and then later the manager of a Washington, D.C gourmet store.

During the ten years of his hospitality career, Cohn fell deeper and deeper in love with wine, and by 1993 he couldn’t take it any longer. Enrolling in a masters program in agricultural chemistry, Cohn emerged with a degree emphasizing enology, and was promptly hired by Rosenblum Cellars as its staff enologist.

That same year, Kent Rosenblum allowed Cohn to make a little of his own wine on the side — around 70 cases of Zinfandel — and JC Cellars was born.

You’d think that winemakers would be pretty busy folks — lots to worry about as grapes come piling into the winery by the truckload, dozens of fermentation tanks, hundreds of barrels — and that they wouldn’t exactly have time for dabbling here and there. But I don’t know a single winemaker that doesn’t have some small side project going, whether it’s a little experiment with a new cooperage, a new source of grapes, a consulting project for a little extra cash, or their own private label.

Such activities make for a lot of late nights for winemakers around harvest time, but somehow they manage to pull it off, and Cohn was no exception. He gradually built up a small business on the side, thanks to Rosenblum’s help, and Rosenblum customers got used to shopping at J.C. Cellars after they arrived to pick up their wines at Rosenblum.

By 2000, Jeff was Rosenblum’s winemaker and he had convinced owner Kent Rosenblum to add Rhone style wines (Syrah, Viognier, and Marsanne) to the portfolio, and J.C. Cellars was a steadily growing success. In 2004 Cohn was named vice president of winemaking and production, but in 2006, the time had come to focus all his efforts on J.C. Cellars.

Managed by himself and his wife Alexandra, the winery now produces about 5000 cases of wine and is the poster child for “in-winery” incubation of a new brand. The fledgling winery got its start in the protective shadow of Rosenblum but is now a completely independent entity, and one of America’s most highly regarded small wineries, with an unusual amount of critical acclaim for the wines.

The J.C. Cellars portfolio consists of mostly single vineyard wines, with an emphasis on the Rhone varietals — Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Viognier — plus some Zinfandel thrown in for good measure. Cohn sources grapes from small producers throughout Northern California with long term contracts that allow him to work closely with growers to tailor the fruit to his specific liking.

The wines are made in small batches that are carefully crafted to showcase each specific grape source, from the yeasts to the barrels, to the durations of time that the wines spend in contact with the skins.

Cohn’s wines have a reputation for power and brawn, richness and opulence. They have conjured the adjective “hedonistic” from many. These are accurate characterizations, but I find the wines somewhat more restrained on the whole than other producers that elicit similar descriptions. Cohn’s wines are nothing if not carefully and lovingly made, and this is easy to taste.

Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.


2007 JC Cellars Rockpile Vineyard Rose, Rockpile, Sonoma
Pale ruby in color, this rose of Syrah smells of alpine strawberries and rosehips. On the palate it is bright and silky with bouncy flavors of strawberry and cherry that remain firmly (thank god) in the territory of dryness, making this an excellent, refreshing wine of which to drink many glasses. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $18. Where to buy?

2005 JC Cellars “Rockpile Vineyard” Syrah, Rockpile, Sonoma
Nearly opaque garnet in the glass this wine has a rich sultry nose of earth and black cherry aromas. In the mouth it is silky and thick with flavors of black cherry, leather, earth, and black currant. Dusty tannins emerge as the wine heads to a long finish. Big and brawny, this wine will please lovers of big Syrahs to no end. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $45. Not yet released.

2005 JC Cellars “Ventana Vineyard” Syrah, Monterey
A cloudy medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of white pepper, cassis, and black cherry. In the mouth it comes across as spicy, with continued flavors of white pepper, blackberry, and mixed spices. Lean and less bombastic than some of the other wines from this producer, but no less pleasant for it. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $45. Not yet released.

2006 J.C. Cellars “California Cuvee” Syrah, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of homemade blackberry jam and rose petals. In the mouth it offers flavors of cassis, blackberry, cola, and caramel notes, that head towards a finish with some heat on it. Decent acid, and imperceptible tannins, but the wine doesn’t quite hold together as much as you might like. Feels a bit disjointed. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $25. Where to buy?

2005 J.C. Cellars “Caldwell Vineyards” Syrah, Napa
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of well oiled leather, black cherry, and earth. In the mouth it offers black cherry, blackberry, and deeper woodier flavors. Good acidity and silky texture make for a very pleasant feeling in the mouth and a long finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. Where to buy?