He crushes grapes, she crunches numbers. He reaches for Grenache, she reaches for Guinness. JC Cellars is a tale of blending wine, marriage, business, and two distinct personalities. Winemaker Jeff Cohn and his wife, CFO Alexandra, formed JC Cellars in 1996, making vineyard-designated Syrahs, Petite Sirahs, Viogniers and Zinfandels. They both agree it's a successful partnership. "If my wife wasn't helping with this, it couldn't happen," says Jeff.
The couple, who met in 1982 and have been married for 13 years, have a witty repartee about their relationship. "Happy wife, happy life," Jeff says, feigning marital exhaustion. And while Alexandra is sympathetic to Jeff's long hours, she makes sure he pulls his weight around the house, right down to taking out the trash every week.
But if Jeff shirks his chores, he's got a good excuse -- he's winemaker at Rosenblum Cellars, a Zinfandel specialist in the bayside city of Alameda, also home to JC Cellars.
For 40-year-old Jeff, JC is about partnerships beyond family, too, most notably those with grapegrowers. "You stick with them through the good years and bad years," he says. With no vineyards of their own, the Cohns purchase all their grapes. They've found growers by word of mouth, by thumbing through a grape buyer's guide and by reading the back labels from other wines.
The Cohns work mostly with independent growers, of whom Jeff speaks with warmth and respect, occasionally slipping into an impersonation of one or relating an anecdote about another. Alexandra, 44, is a CPA who worked for Ernst and Young. In addition to keeping the books for JC Cellars, she cares for two infant daughters, and her friends say she rivals Martha Stewart for her handicrafts and baking endeavors. A self-confessed beer-drinker, Alexandra deadpans, "I really wouldn't care if I never drank a glass of wine again," sounding perfectly serious.
Jeff cracks jokes yet comes across as sincere. His curious nature leads to experimentation in the cellar, as he constantly explores the winemaking variables of yeast and barrels. At Rosenblum, he works with 50 different barrels from 40 different cooperages -- some Rosenblum wines have 20 to 30 different barrels represented in a single bottling. He once blended Syrah from St.-Joseph in France's Rhône region with Monterey Syrah. The JC Cellars Cuve Gaillard NV (86 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, $40, 100 cases) is named after St.-Joseph and Côte-Rôtie producer Pierre Gaillard, whom Cohn met while visiting the Rhône Valley.
Cohn's repertoire at JC Cellars is a bit more limited, but he's still creative, even using a yeast specific to Brunello to accentuate darker, richer flavors in his Syrahs. "I'm not manipulating the grapes," he insists. "I'm working with the grapes to bring out different components."
Beyond Syrah, it can be difficult to promote Rhône-variety wines to American consumers. "People can say 'Mars Bar' but they can't say 'Marsanne,'" Cohn laughs. His vineyard-designated wines, such as the Syrah Santa Barbara County Rodney's Vineyard 1999 (93, $25, 185 cases) and the Petite Syrah Napa Valley Frediani Vineyard 2001 (91, $36, 122 cases), are delicious, offering amazing concentration and depth.
Cohn also shows a deft hand with Viognier, one of the Rhône's more difficult grapes; his Lodi Ripken Vineyard Late Harvest 2001 (93, $18, 100 cases) is an opulent wine that he says is Alexandra's favorite. Still, she's likely to call for a beer with her steak, while Jeff undoubtedly thirsts for something red, rich and robust.
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