After 41 years, Bruce Cohn is leaving the wine industry — for the time being — with a deal announced Wednesday to sell his namesake Sonoma Valley winery and approximately 70 acres of vineyards to Santa Rosa-based Vintage Wine Estates.
It is the latest in a series of local family-owned wineries selling to larger companies this year in an increasingly competitive and consolidated market, following deals by The Wine Group to buy Benziger Family Winery in June and E&J Gallo to purchase Judy Jordan’s J Vineyards and Winery in March.
Cohn, 68, said he was essentially forced by Bank of the West to sell his winery to Vintage Wine Estates as his debts mounted to about $25 million.
“It’s a really tough business. … It’s the most cash-intensive business I have ever seen,” Cohn said.
Bank of the West did not respond to emails seeking comment.
The winery became a high-profile destination in 1987 when Cohn began staging classic rock festivals that benefited local charities and drew up to 3,000 people, introducing Wine Country to a new segment of visitors. It was a natural move for Cohn, who has managed the Grammy-winning rock band The Doobie Brothers since 1970.
Cohn entered the wine business in 1974 when he purchased an old dairy farm in Glen Ellen and began growing grapes on the property, which later evolved into the Olive Hill Estate vineyard.
He started making wine in 1984 and eventually bought a total of 91 acres of vineyards to compete nationally, becoming known for his estate cabernet sauvignon. Annual sales surpassed 75,000 cases in recent years.
The terroir of its Olive Hill Estate vineyard is warmer than many spots in Sonoma County, and winemaker Tom Montgomery has compared it to the great growing regions in Napa Valley across the Mayacmas. Many vintages of the cabernet have been rated in the 90s at prestigious competitions.
In the 1990s, Cohn ventured into making olive oil, vinegars and gourmet specialty food products to help bolster profits. Olive oil generated as much as 9 percent of his business, Cohn said.
The winery is licensed by the county to hold up to 48 events per year with a maximum of 3,000 people, making the acquisition very advantageous for Vintage Wine Estates, given an environment in which officials are under public pressure to cut back on such events.
Cohn, however, was dismissive of critics who want to limit events. “It’s just going to hurt hotels and restaurants and car rentals and everybody,” he said.
Ultimately, Cohn, who was able to keep his winery through two divorces, said it was difficult to compete “in this new environment where bigger entities with more resources are taking over.”
In an interview, Cohn described a vicious cycle where he had to pour too much money back into paying off the interest on the loans, even as he had refinanced at least five times. He tried bringing in buyers on his own to no avail.
“We got to the end of (the bank’s) rope,” Cohn said. “It takes much deeper pockets to maintain and grow brands like this that are in the premium (market).”
In January 2014, Cohn retired and put his son, Dan, in charge as he grew tired of all the administrative duties. Dan reduced production to about 50,000 cases and focused on more profitable upscale wines, but it was not enough to get out of debt.