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"Our philosophy has been to go to the best vineyard in the region and look at the oldest mountaintop vineyard that produces the smallest berries with the thickest skins," Rosenblum says. "To buy those vineyards would be a problem. To plant a vineyard and wait one hundred years to get the same kinds of grapes would be impossible."
Rosenblum's local influence is indisputable. Just as veteran Chez Panisse staffers have fanned out to establish their own culinary homesteads, Rosenblum Cellars has nurtured a variety of smaller East Bay wineries. From the 1990s up until 2004, it shared warehouse space and equipment with a number of startups, including Dashe Cellars, Cohn's JC Cellars, and St. George Spirits. When Rosenblum Cellars grew too big, it pushed out its warehousemates, who found new spaces in Oakland and Alameda and are now thriving.
But as a spotlight for national acclaim, Rosenblum has served another function: to help mark the East Bay as a winemaking scene to rival its rural counterparts. Two of its vintages made Wine Spectator's annual list of "Top 100 Wines for 2005" its 2003 Rockpile Road Vineyard Zinfandel (from Sonoma's Rockpile appellation) took the No. 3 slot, while its 2003 Richard Sauret Vineyards Zinfandel (from Paso Robles) came in at No. 30. In the accompanying photo, Rosenblum smiles out from the magazine's glossy pages as though he's just won the Tour de France. Cohn stands in the rear, arms akimbo, a cocky challenge gleaming through his sunglasses. In the background, replacing the standard quaint stacks of barrels or trellised grapevines, are the Port of Oakland's shipping cranes.
Take that, Napa.
In the offices of JC Cellars' new Jack London Square facility, Jeff Cohn has gathered a bunch of lumpy gray rocks. They come from the different vineyards that supply his grapes, and serve as a talisman for his worship of terroir, that indefinable but all-important ability of a wine to express its soil, its sky, its people. "They're what makes the wine," he says.
After a decade at Rosenblum, Cohn cast out to focus on the label he's slowly built with his wife, Alexandra, since 1996. JC Cellars' style emulates that of the Northern Rhône Valley, appellations like Côte-Rotie, Condrieu, and Hermitage. "Those wines will take you places you never thought you can go," Cohn says, eyes glazing at the thought. "The lavender, and the game, and the violets, and smells you don't know. You think, 'I would love to make wines like that.' But we're in California. We can't make French wines. God was a Frenchman who loved to vacation in California."
Despite his reputation for playing mad scientist with wood and microbes, Cohn says he's just doing all he can to help the grapes express their terroir: "I just babysit these barrels. I coax everything along to make the wine the way I want it to be. If it's not on the vines when I pick it, though, it'll never be there."
Yet for a man obsessed with the provenance of his grapes, Cohn doesn't think it matters where you make the wine. Building a winery next to the vineyard doesn't guarantee a better product, he says. He can truck in grapes from Mendocino, Santa Barbara, and Napa, then tend to their fermentation in Oakland. "Napa and Sonoma are very pretty, but I think everyone who lives there wants to move here," he says.
That sentiment is unanimous among members of the East Bay Vintners Association. "A winery is still a warehouse, whether here or in Santa Rosa," says Mike Dashe, who shares space with JC Cellars, "so why not here?"
Indeed, apart from the obvious marketing advantages, why should wineries be located on vineyard estates? The California Wine Institute counts around two thousand commercial wineries in the state, most of which have their own vineyards. But they don't own all 522,000 acres of vineyard land. Far from it. A majority of California wine is made from grapes purchased from independent farmers, says Bill Turrentine, president of Turrentine Brokerage, the nation's largest wine-grape brokerage firm. "There are more than four thousand independent grape growers who sell their grapes to wineries, including some of the most famous vineyards in the state," he says.
Meanwhile, dozens, if not hundreds, of landless wineries are scattered throughout the West Coast wine country. With vineyard land running more than $100,000 an acre in Napa and Sonoma not to mention the exorbitant cost to plant top-quality vines land is a prohibitive investment for a startup.
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