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B.R. Cohn

A rock 'n' roll winemaker harvests olives from 100-year-old trees

Tim Fish
Posted: June 24, 2003

The olive trees on Bruce Cohn's ranch inspired the name of his vineyard, Olive Hill.
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Bruce Cohn tugs a few black olives off a tree outside his winery and shakes them around in his palm. "You see how tiny these things are?" Cohn asks. "You don't get a lot of oil from these. That's Picholine for you."

Cohn's olives may be stingy, but they produce an elegant, yet rich and deeply flavorful oil -- one of the best oils in California. Today, B.R. Cohn Winery is considered one of the pioneers of artisanal olive oil in California, not to mention one of the top Cabernet Sauvignon producers in Sonoma County. But back in the early 1970s, when Cohn bought his ranch near Glen Ellen, he had no idea what he had on his hands.

Raised on a goat dairy in Russian River Valley, Cohn felt at home on the ranch. There were a few vines, so in the first few years, and in between tours, he concentrated on growing grapes. Although the crown of olive trees at the center of the ranch inspired the name of his vineyard, Olive Hill, Cohn paid scant attention to the trees until the late 1980s, after the release of his debut vintage, the 1984.

"The olive trees were all over and they were like huge bushes. The suckers (branches) coming off the trunks were this big," Cohn says, curling his thumbs and fingers to indicate a 6-inch circle. "You couldn't even see the trunks. The first thing I did was clean them up."

Once he started researching them, Cohn realized there was something distinctive about the trees. By his estimate, they were planted in the 1870s, and while almost all the olive trees from that era are the so-called Mission variety, Cohn says his are Picholine, the key olive used in French oil. Paul Vossen, cooperative extension farm adviser for the University of California, Davis, argues that the trees aren't true French Picholine but a variety that has been dubbed Redding Picholine, which was planted more than 100 years ago around Sonoma and parts of Napa Valley.

Cohn's olives produce a graceful, light-bodied yet still peppery oil not unlike that of true Picholine. A 500ml bottle of Cohn's Sonoma Estate Extra Virgin Olive Oil retails for $50. He also makes a California blend and a California organic oil; both are produced onto a larger scale and are made from olives purchased from around the state.

Cohn's wife, Sharon, is in charge of the olive oils as well as the vinegars that they produce. Oil represents less than 20 percent of their business -- but it's growing. The oil is sold through the winery, and national availability is expanding.

Olive oil may never pay the bills, but as he tosses his handful of olives onto the ground and pats one of the 130-year-old trees, Cohn says, "Well, it's a labor of love."

B.R. Cohn Winery
15000 Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen, CA 95442
Telephone (707) 938-4064
Fax (707) 938-4585
Web site www.brcohn.com

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