Besides its wines and olive oils, B.R. Cohn Winery is perhaps best known for its annual fall music festival that attracts thousands of concertgoers to the Sonoma Valley vineyard estate. Many big-name old-time rock ‘n’ rollers have performed there, including Jackson Browne, Journey, Peter Frampton and the band most associated with the festival and winery, the Doobie Brothers.
The Doobie Brothers are managed by Bruce Cohn, the founder of B.R. Cohn who lives in Idaho. While he continues to manage the Doobies—who still record and play up to 100 concert dates a year—he no longer runs the winery, leaving its daily operations in the hands of his son Dan Cohn, the president and CEO, and other members of the family.
The building that greets visitors as they drive up the B.R. Cohn driveway is a charming white former ranch house that was once the Cohn family home. It has since been converted into offices, a tasting room and a rock music photo gallery. Given the winery’s rock ‘n’ roll lineage, this gallery seems a natural start to a tour of the estate.
The Rock Room is on your right when you enter the main building. It consists mainly of posters and photos of festival performers, including a smiling Willie Nelson in sunglasses and cowboy hat. There are gold albums and guitars signed by the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Duane Allman, as well as photos from Bruce Cohn’s personal collection taken during the 1970s when the Doobie Brothers were releasing chart-topping hits such as “China Grove” and “What a Fool Believes” and selling millions of records. One 1975 picture shows the Doobies on tour, posed in front of their private jet “The Doobieliner.” One corner of the room has a sweet tribute to the Cohn family tree, with pictures of Bruce’s parents and grandparents.
The tasting room is right next to the rock room. Music is a theme here too, but its prime focus is on B.R. Cohn’s prime product. The tasting bar begins in the front and extends down the length of the room towards the patio door. Behind the counter are racks of wine bottles and framed gold records awarded to Bruce for his work with the Doobies. The fireplace has a contemporary wood finish that is in keeping with the casual, easy listening vibe of the room, indeed the entire winery. Vintage rock and blues plays lightly on a sound system; Toto’s “Hold the Line! Love Isn’t Always on Time” was on when we were there. And you can hear the music outside on the patio too. The $10 tasting menu is a choice of four wines, most notably B.R. Cohn’s signature Olive Hill Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, made from grapes grown on site.
Olive oils and vinegars
B.R. Cohn makes olive oils and wine vinegars in addition to wine. The Olive Hill Estate derives its name from the Picholine olive trees that were imported to the property from France in the mid-1800s, and olive trees add a grace note to the landscape. A few short steps from the tasting room is the Gourmet Shop, which sells the winery’s olive oils and vinegars. B.R. Cohn makes its own wine vinegars; the balsamic vinegars are mostly imported from Italy. Its extra virgin olive oils feature both unflavored and flavored oils such as lime, Meyer lemon and blood orange. There is a tasting bar here with bread and toothpicks for dipping. One interesting technique we had never done before was to use a sugar cube as a way to taste the vinegar and neutralize its acidity. Our favorite oil was B.R. Cohn’s own Estate Picholine; it had a light, fresh taste.
The festival site
The most picturesque part of the estate is the outdoor amphitheater which, not coincidentally, is the site of the music festival (and many a wedding as well). Behind the Gourmet Shop, past the winery and other buildings, there is a sloping grass hillside and a flat dirt area at the bottom where they set up the stage. It is framed beautifully by oak trees and a rolling vineyard with Sonoma Valley’s hills and mountains in the background. Over its nearly 30 years the B.R. Cohn Charity Fall Music Festival has raised more than $6 million for the American Legion, Boys and Girls Clubs and other nonprofit groups. Many festivalgoers come every year and some travel from around the U.S. to be there. Dates for the 2015 event are expected to be announced soon.
B.R. Cohn Winery, 15000 Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen. About ten minutes from Sonoma and one hour from San Francisco. Tasting room open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tours with tasting $20 per person, by appointment only. Call 800-330-4064.