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by Cyril Penn | January 7, 2014 | 3:00 PM
Bruce Cohn

B.R. Cohn Winery founder Bruce Cohn announced yesterday that his eldest son Daniel Cohn has been appointed chief executive and will share ownership of the Sonoma Valley estate winery, allowing the 40-year-old family winery to make the generational change necessary for the future.

“I’m excited about my new life,” Bruce Cohn, 67, told winebusiness.com. “I’m keeping my sleeves rolled up and my nose to the grindstone, but I’m going to have a different life than I’ve had for the last 40 years.”

Dan Cohn, 39, grew up at the winery and worked at Young’s Market before eventually returning as senior vice president and national sales manager, a position he held for 12 years. Based in Florida, Dan Cohn has been spending most of his time on the road building relationships. He moves back to Sonoma Valley with his family this week.

“Every family business comes to those crossroads,” Dan Cohn said. “You pass the baton or you drop it. We are very fortunate we were able to pass the baton.”

The announcement doesn’t just signal a generational change, though: it comes amid changes in direction at the winery.

“I didn’t want to sell,” Bruce Cohn said. “The whole reason I bought this property was the family. I wanted to keep it for the family - not sell to Constellation or some big entity. That meant I had to make some changes to keep going.”

B.R. Cohn started as a small, high-end boutique Cabernet Sauvignon producer that received high ratings. The first winemaker was Helen Turley, followed by Merry Edwards, and Steve MacRostie, prior to long-time winemaker Tom Montgomery.

In the early days it was tough to make a living with Olive Hill’s limited production but Cohn, who manages the Doobie Brothers, said the music business helped fund the winery.

In the 1990s, Cohn decided to produce a Silver Label Cabernet and Chardonnay, going to Mendocino and Lake counties, as well as other areas in Sonoma County to buy grapes to make wine at a more affordable price while blending with fruit from Olive Hill. Some 55,000 cases of the Silver Label are now produced.

The Silver label was a success that helped a small boutique brand known by wine collectors gain much broader recognition. B.R. Cohn became a brand one could buy at Trader Joes or Safeway or at fine restaurants by the glass. Building up millions of dollars in inventory created an economic strain, though. One might say B.R. Cohn was making too good a wine for the price.

“It got to be where we were like a hamster on the wheel, selling a lot of cases, but there wasn’t enough margin,” Cohn said. “It’s very hard for a small winery to make money in the three–tier system. If you’re a big winery selling 300,000 or 500,000 cases and making $5 a box that’s one thing. If you are doing 50,000 cases and making $5 a box, it doesn’t make sense.”

Moving forward, B.R. Cohn has plans to add tiers of estate wines from Olive Hill that will sell for less than Olive Hill Cabernet -- wines that are still relatively inexpensive but of higher quality than the Silver label. Under Dan Cohn’s direction, the Silver Label, previously priced at about $20, will move up to $25; The winery will introduce a new Gold Label Cabernet for about $40 while Olive Hill will remain at $60; while two single estate block wines will be part of a special selection tier priced at about $100.

“The plan is to be able to create enough income for my family to continue to hold onto this winery and make it viable for my kids to live working it in the future instead of having to sell it,” Cohn said.

“This is not like the Mondavis, where it blew up,” Cohn said. “We get along – it’s not like that. It’s all working in the same direction. I’m just glad I have kids to leave it to.”

“It’s like Charlie Wagner gave it to Chuck Wagner,” Cohn continued. “Luckily Charlie Wagner at Caymus was my mentor when I started selling grapes to August Sebastiani in 1974. Charlie got me to start my own label. He was the guy I’m trying to fashion myself after. I’m trying to do the same thing. I don’t want to own four or five wineries but I do want it to go on.”

“I’m going to be watching from the sidelines,” Cohn said. “I’m there to help, I’m not totally retired.”

Cohn will continue with his charity work, particularly in producing the annual B.R. Cohn Music Festival which has raised nearly $6.5 million for local charities. Meanwhile the Doobie Brothers, who play about 85 shows a year, will soon release an album with guest country artists such as Zac Brown, Toby Keith and Miranda Lambert – all singing Doobie’s hits.

“I’ve been working my ass off for 40 years and it didn’t leave a lot of time for a life outside of business,” Cohn said. “I managed to raise four kids, got divorced twice, and it’s not been a cakewalk by any means. It’s been a lot of hard work and dedication. I’m now happily married for the last time. I have four grown children. I decided that besides staying full-time with the Doobie Brothers – which I will always do until there is no more Doobie Brothers or we’re too old to get to the gig – I want to get a better balance in life than I’ve had most of my life. That’s the story and I want everyone to know that.”
 

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