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News: 08/01/2015

B.R. Cohn – Back to the music

Iconic winery sold to meet bank demands

BR Cohn’s 67-acre vineyard and winery off Sonoma Hwy. near Madrone Road has been purchased by Santa Rosa-based Vintage Wine Estates (VWE) for an undisclosed price. Cohn is adamant that he would have preferred to keep the business after 41 years, but that his bankers refused to extend his $25 million in loans any longer.

“Bank of the West wanted their money back that they loaned me,” Cohn said. “We grew the business so much from what it was to what it is. It took millions to grow from 10,000 to 80,000 cases a year. I’m not a big corporation or a billionaire; I couldn’t afford to do it without borrowing.”

Cohn was able to refinance five or six times, but the last time proved too much, even though his son Dan was trying to make the business leaner. “Dan was trying to turn the business around and cut down on the quantity for more high end and a higher margin.”

Bank of the West declined to comment on the story.

The sale has left a bittersweet taste. “After 41 years I’m walking away with nothing but a $2 million Federal tax bill,” Cohn said.

VWE is a privately held, family-owned company with a collection of winery estates and brands based in Santa Rosa.

“I think B.R. Cohn is a fantastic winery that has made great wines that we can add to our luxury portfolio,” VWE president Pat Roney said. “As a family-owned wine company, Vintage Wine Estates is particularly interested in preserving heritage wineries such as B.R. Cohn, and taking them into the future. We are looking forward to carrying on the legacy of B.R. Cohn which we consider one of the crown jewels of Sonoma Valley.”

Cohn said that none of his family members are staying on at the business.

Roney said that VWE has brought in an executive team led by General Manager Debra Eagle, but that 30 of Cohn’s employees are staying on, including winemaker Tom Montgomery, who will have a consulting role “for the foreseeable future.”

While the existing facilities will continue to be used, Roney said that some upkeep will be required. “There’s a lot of deferred maintenance to do and a new barrel room needs to go in.” Roney said all current contracts to purchase grapes will be honored. “Each of those is unique and all will be paid on time.”

Roney said the deal is complete, with escrow closing on Friday, July 24.

VWE has a collection of wineries: Clos Pegase Winery, Girard Winery, Cosentino Winery, Viansa Winery and Sonoma Coast Vineyards, among others.

But Cohn’s future isn’t entirely without rewards. He and his wife Laurie have retained their nearby 21-acre personal vineyard and home and he’s seriously considering starting a private label from those premium grapes.

He will also continue managing the Doobie Brothers as he has for so many years. “I work in the winter, booking them around the country and internationally, and then use their performing road time for my own projects.”

Raised on a Forestville dairy farm, Cohn bought the Sonoma Valley property in 1974, flush with success as a rock band manager and promoter handling the Doobie Brothers.

“I was raised on a dairy, getting up at 4:30 in the morning and working to 4:30 at night,” Cohn remembered. “That work ethic followed me in everything I have done since then. I’m not afraid of work.”

The Cohn family lived for a while on Porter Creek near the Petrified Forest, and his parents had a cottage next to the Golden Bear Lodge on Adobe Canyon Road.

“We used to go fishing for trout, take ‘em home to eat,” he recalled.

Although he moved to Idaho a few years ago, he has returned to the Valley of the Moon.

“It’s a beautiful spot and the whole valley is special, the county is special.”

Cohn is proud of the wines he produced, remembering two national champions, and once being rated in the top 50 wines worldwide. “We established a small brand on the national scene, and distributed in 46 states. That says something.”

He also produced medal-winning olive oils from French piccolini olive trees growing at the vineyard. “These trees produce some of the finest (olive oil) in the country. We had success and that was fun.”

Cohn’s success also includes raising $6.5 million for local charities at an annual two-day music festival formerly held at the vineyard. This year’s concert, however, will be held in the City of Sonoma, with an extra day added.

“I will continue with the concerts,” Cohn said. “I moved it off site because I knew something was coming down, but we also outgrew the winery facility. It’s a heavy impact to have 6,000 people in two days; it impacts the property and is expensive to build out. We’re saving $100,000 in costs, which will go to charity instead of building costs.”

Cohn was leaving for some overdue fishing and hiking in Montana.

“This has been stressful and it’s been hard for the last four years,” Cohn said. “I’m glad it’s over, but sad how it ended.”

He quickly added, “But I’m not stopping.”


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