50 years of Cohn Vineyard

Celebrating its 50-year milestone, this vineyard predominantly planted to pinot at the northern edge of Russian River Valley has a storied past.|

Do you recall 1973?

It was the year the United States signed the Paris Peace Accords, officially ending the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade and Secretariat won the Triple Crown.

It was also the year the Cohn Vineyard was planted.

Celebrating its 50-year milestone, this vineyard predominantly planted to pinot at the northern edge of Russian River Valley has a storied past. Several of Sonoma County’s most esteemed boutique wineries have bottled its fruit, including Kosta Browne and Williams Selyem. But the vineyard could have met with an entirely different fate.

Benovia Winery vintners Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane bought the vineyard in 2002. A consultant from a vineyard management company suggested they should moonscape it, sterilize it and start over with other varietals.

But the vintners did the opposite. Trusting in the vineyard’s potential and with their winemaker Mike Sullivan at the helm, they revived the vineyard that was worn out from conventional farming. With organic farming over nearly a decade, the vineyard has thrived, Sullivan said.

Nowadays, Dewane walks her Tibetan terrier, Maddy, through the vineyard most mornings and afternoons. It’s her favorite trail to walk.

“You begin to look at each and every row, certainly the blocks, to see what’s going on — the rabbits, the foxes, the mountain lion prints,” Dewane said. “It just becomes part of your daily life. It’s very peaceful and pastoral.”

With great pride in the vineyard, the couple recently threw a party for it. Benovia club members, family and friends gathered to toast its longevity and its cachet. They sat down to four-course meal with Benovia Winery showcasing Cohn Vineyard pinots with pheasant and filet mignon.

Anderson told the crowd he first learned about the Cohn Vineyard by tasting its fruit in a Williams Selyem 1993 pinot noir.

He was volunteering with harvest, sorting fruit at Healdsburg’s Brogan Cellars back in 2002 when he crossed paths with the late Burt Williams. The co-founder of Williams Selyem uncorked the 1993 bottling and offered Anderson a taste.

“That pinot was really something that knocked me off my feet,” Anderson said.

Williams could see Anderson enjoyed harvest. He told Anderson the Cohn Vineyard had been up for sale for three years. Later, Anderson and Dewane went to check it out. They bought the vineyard and surrounding property that fall.

The couple moved onto the property in 2003, immersing themselves in a neighborhood of vines.

“It was raining pretty hard the first day we saw the vineyard,” Anderson said. “But it was stunning.”

Old vines with cachet

Smitten with the taste of Cohn Vineyard’s fruit from the onset, Anderson said, he was also impressed with the esteemed winemakers who gave it a single-vineyard designation on their label.

Williams Selyem began buying fruit from it in the 1980s, with Cohn Vineyard on its labels from 1987 to 1993, and again from 2016 on.

“Old vines are precious,” explained Jeff Mangahas, vice president director of winemaking of Williams Selyem. “I like to think that after many years, wines adapt to the site, the soil and the microclimate. In that regard, they are true expressions of a particular place.”

His boutique winery focuses on single-vineyard, site-specific wines, which makes the Cohn Vineyard a perfect match for it, Mangahas said.

“Pinot noir being so nuanced as a variety translates the sense of place the best, and so these old vines at Cohn epitomize something singular and unique,” he said.

Kosta Browne, another highly esteemed boutique winery, first began buying fruit from the Cohn Vineyard in 2000. The winery credited Cohn with a vineyard designation from that vintage through 2004 on those labels.

“I wanted to vineyard-designate it since it had a bit of pedigree,” said Michael Browne, co-founder of Kosta Browne and CEO/founder of Cirq Wines and Chev Wines.

“I like it that the vineyard had some age on it,” Browne said. “Old vines give less fruit but more complexity if the vines are healthy.”

Kosta Browne became an overnight success in 2011 when the boutique winery was named the number No. 1 wine in the Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines in the world. The following year, Kosta Browne bought Cohn fruit again for a vineyard designated bottling to mark the 15-year anniversary of its first vintage.

“(From the beginning) we were huge fans of everything that Burt Williams was making, but Cohn Vineyard stood out for (producing wines with) exotic, sexy mouthfeel and complexity,” said Dan Kosta, co-founder of Kosta Browne and president of DK Wine Group. “The fruit was concentrated, juicy and complex, with a rustic edge to it. The vineyard offered a bold departure from what we perceived as green and linear pinot noirs that were pervasive at the time.”

The Cohn Vineyard, among the oldest pinot vineyards in Sonoma County, also indicates how age serves wine well, according to Kosta.

“It’s a working experiment when it comes to how much age affects quality,” he explained. “If we look at what Benovia has done, after Williams Selyem and Kosta Browne and others, the answer is very clear. Age, with all of its challenges, has treated the Cohn Vineyard extremely well.”

Preserving Cohn Vineyard

It seems fitting that the vineyard was planted by the late Enid Sales, a celebrated preservationist. As chief of residential rehabilitation for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency from 1966 to 1976, she saved as many Victorian homes as she could from the wrecking ball. Later, when she lived in Carmel, she sought to preserve Carmel’s Victorians as well.

Anderson said when Sales visited the Cohn Vineyard before she died in 2008, she was grateful to see it thriving under winemaker Mike Sullivan’s care.

Hired in 2005, Sullivan made his diagnoses. He said while the vines were still strong, conventional farming had reduced the vineyard’s vigor. Organic farming was the best medicine, he said.

“We began putting about 15 tons per acre of compost into the vineyard in the fall and another 15 tons per acre in the spring to really get some organic matter in the vineyard,” he said. “Then we began to plant cover crops to (replenish) the nitrogen and break up the soil. Those multiple compost applications really fed upon themselves, and within a couple of years the cover crops of just a couple of inches grew to 6 or 7 feet.”

The vineyard team mowed the cover crop, Sullivan said, and put that back into the soil, a regenerative practice to restore the soil’s health.

Today the 17-acre vineyard still has more than half its vines from the original planting. Sullivan said quality has been his fundamental focus because with old vines, less is more. The vineyard has 622 vines per acre compared to most vineyards with 2,000 vines per acre.

“Vines, as they get older, tend to be less productive,” the winemaker said. “I think of the analogy of ourselves. When we’re young, we can do a lot but the quality of our work is not as great as when we’re older. So, the work the vines do in producing every small little cluster is incredible.”

The result of their restorative efforts is that the vines are more resilient to heat through summer and more resilient to water stress, Sullivan explained.

“The wines have better energy, better wine chemistry, better acidity, better color development,” he said. “We started with the soil. It worked its way into the vines and eventually into the wine.”

The vintners’ North Star

Before Anderson and Dewane set eyes on the Cohn Vineyard, they never imagined becoming vintners. Now they regard the old-vine vineyard as their North Star.

Two years after moving to the property in 2003, they learned Cecil DeLoach, founder of DeLoach Vineyards, had a property to sell. That set them on the path to becoming vintners. They bought the Hartman Lane Vineyards property in the Russian River Valley and eventually left their careers in the health care industry.

Dewane was the CEO of health plan CalOptima, one of the largest Medicaid managed-care organizations in the country.

Dewane grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. So making a home on their vineyard property west of Healdsburg was like “coming home. For me, it was an easy transition to live rurally.”

Anderson was the co-founder and CEO of Schaller Anderson, a health care management and consulting company based in Phoenix, Arizona. He sold Schaller Anderson to health care company Aetna in 2007 and stepped down as CEO in 2008.

The transition, Anderson said, was not seamless for him.

“When you’re running a large company with a large staff — and I’m a Type-A personality — it’s very different because when you’re farming, you’re not in charge,” Anderson said. “You can’t go out there and tell the vines what to do, that we’ve got plans to go to France.”

Yet living a stone’s throw from the vineyard for the past 20 years, Anderson and Dewane have both become attuned to the rhythms of the vines. Their seasons, they say, follow the vineyard’s life cycle: bare vines in the winter; bud break in the spring; grapes bulging on the vine in the summer, with the madcap race of harvest in the fall.

“Having lived in Phoenix since 1962,” Anderson said, “which has no seasons except hot…”

“And hotter,” Dewane interjected with a laugh.

“It’s so great to have four seasons here and watch the vines go through their full year,” Anderson said. “It’s such a unique property that you get a different view and perspective. It never gets old to me.”

You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at 707-521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pegmelnik.

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