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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.

Financial terms of the sale were not disclosed, though Sonoma Valley vineyards can range in price from $70,000 to $90,000 per acre. Cohn and his wife, Laurie, will continue to live on 21 acres of the Trestle Glen property adjacent to the winery’s Olive Hill vineyards.

Based in Santa Rosa, Vintage Wine Estates now owns 10 wine companies in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, including Clos Pegase, Girard, Viansa, Windsor Vineyards, Wine Sisterhood, Cosentino, Cartlidge & Browne, Sonoma Coast Vineyards and Ray’s Station. It sold 1.2 million cases in 2014, making it the 11th largest wine company on the North Coast, according to the North Bay Business Journal.

“Vintage Wine Estates is a family-owned wine company and stewardship is a core value,” Vintage Wine Estates President Pat Roney said in a statement issued by B.R. Cohn. “As we build our collection of iconic wineries, vineyards and brands, our goal is to enhance what makes each one unique and offer resources and investment for the future. We are extremely pleased to add this landmark estate to our collection.”

Roney was unavailable for comment Wednesday, a spokeswoman said.

About 35 employees work at the winery, and Cohn said most would be let go as Vintage has greater staffing resources and can make the wine at its other facilities. The outside growers are expected to stay aboard, he said.

In the interview, Cohn was rueful as he said the wine business had changed dramatically since he entered it four decades ago. The best chance for survival, he said, is to be a small boutique winery that sells directly to consumers, unless one has the vast financial resources of someone like Bill Foley of Foley Family Wines in Healdsburg or Leslie Rudd of Rudd Oakville Estate.

“These guys have billions and can toy around with these things to buy,” he said.

Cohn noted the high costs of production, with expenses for French oak barrels and glass bottles as well as the intensive replanting that he did with his vineyards. While he was able to get his wines into retailers such as Trader Joe’s and restaurants such as Ruth’s Chris Steak House, the cutthroat nature of the distribution market was a daunting challenge, he said. Big wineries such as Gallo and Foley have their own distribution companies.

Even though Cohn had a great working relationship with the country’s largest wine and spirits distributor, Southern Wine and Spirits, he still had to hire four people at a cost of $1 million to help push his product into the retail market in 46 states.

“So many people are cutting their margins just to get on the shelf,” he said. “It’s hard to compete (in) the higher-end level.”

B.R. Cohn probably couldn’t get off the ground in today’s environment, noted Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division.

“From the start it was a bootstrap operation — making do with the bare essentials, just enough to make wine and then back-filling with dreams,” McMillan noted in an email. “Bruce did what he could, reinvested and stretched — begged, borrowed and pushed the boundaries to create his vision.”

Cohn said he has offered to help Vintage Wine Estates in an advisory role going forward to help maintain the quality of his wine, especially as his name is on the label and Montgomery will no longer be the winemaker. He has not heard back yet.

“I’m hoping they are not going to homogenize B.R. Cohn,” he said. “My name’s on it.”

He didn’t rule out getting back in the business on a much smaller scale using the grapes from the vineyard that he still owns.

Cohn said he intends to focus his energy on managing The Doobie Brothers and producing the annual Sonoma Music Festival through B.R. Cohn Charity Events. He noted the similarities of the music and wine business as both have become increasingly consolidated in a changing marketplace — but with one major distinction.

“In music, there is no inventory,” he noted. “You don’t have $10 million of wine aging somewhere.”

The charity concert, which will be held Oct. 2-4, is moving to Sonoma this year and will feature Chicago, Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band, The Doobie Brothers, Gregg Allman and others. Cohn said about 70 percent of the tickets have been sold.

Since its inception 29 years ago, the festival has raised more than $6 million for various charities, according to the winery.

Staff Writer Peg Melnik contributed to this article. You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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