Bruce Cohn sells Trestle Glen Vineyard in Glen Ellen
Last summer, Brian Wheeler and his family wanted to get away from their home and their “small, small yard” in San Francisco to immerse themselves in the sweeping views of the Mayacamas Mountains from Trestle Glen Vineyard, near Sonoma Valley Regional Park.
A year-and-a-half later, the Wheelers own that vineyard and the wine label associated with it, which they bought from longtime Glen Ellen resident Bruce Cohn, the founder of BR Cohn Winery. Cohn held on to Trestle Glen after selling his namesake winery to Vintage Wine Estates in 2015.
“I didn’t realize it was for sale,” Wheeler said, “But I approached him and I said, ‘Hey, Bruce. Look, if you’re not AirBnB-ing this, and you’re not living here, what would you think about doing a long-term lease?”
Cohn, the longtime manager of the 1970s rock band the Doobie Brothers, agreed to the deal. But he cautioned Wheeler that the house was on the market. And if he found a buyer, Wheeler and his family would have to leave.
Wheeler wasn’t concerned at first, he said. He figured he had bought himself some time with a long-term lease, so he could gather up the money needed to make an offer on the property in the coming years.
“That was the original plan,” Wheeler said. “I started seeing people (prospective buyers) coming back a second and third time while we were staying there. And we’re going, ‘Crap, we're not going to get it.’”
Cohn was drafting his own plans for the future.
“When I started, there were 35 wineries in Napa and Sonoma, and now there's thousands. And over the years, it's become increasingly difficult to get distribution for your wines nationally,” Cohn said. “If you're lucky enough to be able to sell all your wine, the margins are not that great.”
His history in Sonoma Valley begins in 1974 with the founding of Volatile Vineyards. A decade later he founded BR Cohn Winery, which went on to be a national wine brand, selling 85,000 cases per year in 46 states, Cohn said.
But as wineries were bought out by companies, larger wine groups took precedent over privately-owned wineries with many retailers, Cohn said. Mom-and-pop vineyards were bought out by corporate bottles. It became more difficult with each passing year to get the attention of distributors for “your small winery,” Cohn said.
“These are big conglomerates that are taking over because family run wineries are difficult,” Cohn said. “They’re all owned by corporations now.”
As Cohn looked to sell his beloved vineyard to a private owner or a family, Wheeler was organizing with his father to buy the property. Wheeler’s father, Mike, also stayed at Trestle Glen during the initial six-week vacation. Both father and son recognized the rare opportunity before them.
“My dad said, ‘We can’t let somebody else get it,’” Wheeler said. “This is just too awesome, we have to do it.’”
They decided to split the $5 million price tag, and entered their bid. Cohn chose their offer, making the vineyard deal official Oct. 15, 2020. The property includes a 3,175-square-foot main residence with 4 bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms, along with a 3,400-square-foot converted dairy barn with 3 en-suit bedrooms and a multi-car garage.
“Rental income for 2018 totaled approximately $120,000 without incorporating the apartment or additional outbuildings,” the marketing material stated. “The vineyard generates roughly $100,000 in gross income per year just from fruit sales to BR Cohn Winery.”
But the Wheelers are not vineyard managers nor winemakers. They plan to allow Cohn to continue to run his wine business.
“We would just lease the land and he would continue to run it and then we would eventually take over the wine business from him,” Wheeler said. “But then he just decided that he was ready to retire... I guess we’re doing this a little quicker than anticipated.”
Trestle Glen Vineyard is known for its cabernet, merlot and zinfandels varietals, fueled by its microclimate and a hot spring located beneath the ground. The first vintage that Cohn grew in the Glen Ellen vineyard scored 96 and 97 points, he said.
“I'd made three vintages in ‘17, ‘18 and ‘19. And I just decided, you know what? I don't want to work this hard anymore,” Cohn said. “It's too much work for a guy that's turning 75 in a week.”
Wheeler came back to Cohn and offered to buy the vineyard’s wine label, which Cohn agreed to “because it should stay with the vineyard.” That sale was finalized this month for an undisclosed amount.
It’s not just the label that’s staying with this vineyard. So is a family, even if it’s one under a different name, which is becoming more rare in Sonoma Valley.
“I really enjoyed doing winemaker dinners and events at the winery. My four kids all worked there, and it was a real family winery,” Cohn said. “It was a good way of life. It wasn't economically the greatest thing, but we had 45 years there.”