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He seeks grapes here, he seeks ’em there

In search of the all-important "terroir," Jeff Cohn and Rosenblum Cellars comb California for extraordinary vineyard fruit.

Listening to Jeff Cohn list the vineyards he uses to source his wines is like a geography lesson on fast-forward.

One moment, Cohn is reveling in his Rhodes Vineyard zinfandel from Mendocino County. The next he’s eyeing his syrah from the Fess Parker Vineyards outside Santa Barbara. “This is outrageous,” he says, taking a sip of the syrah — and hopping more than 400 miles in a single gulp.

Cohn has mastered the art of making wine on both large and small scales. He produces just 3,000 cases of his own bottlings under the JC Cellars label and in his day job as winemaker at Rosenblum Cellars, he helps turn out 140,000 cases of California zinfandel and other varieties.

But what really sets him apart is that in both cases the wines are made with an astonishing selection of fruit from nearly every corner of the Golden State, each showing off the unique characteristics of its own little slice of the nation’s largest wine-producer. Rather than staking claim on just one small patch, Cohn and his boss, Kent Rosenblum, have both established themselves as wizards of terroir, the term that describes the unique taste imparted to the wine by soil, topography and climate.

“I don’t like being limited to one vineyard,” Cohn says. “There are so many great pieces of land.”

The backdrop against which Cohn makes his wine underscores this unwillingness to set down roots. Housed in 62,000 square feet of a massive warehouse, Rosenblum Cellars’ Alameda-based winemaking facilities aren’t about landscaped villas and sleek retail outlets (though they have a well-appointed tasting room in the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg).

Rather, it’s the sort of place where you’re likely to dodge forklifts or pick up a whiff of chile verde cooking in a makeshift kitchen. (Cohn’s warehouse setup for JC Cellars, just across the tidal canal in Oakland, is even less glam.)

In 1996, Rosenblum gave Cohn, previously a food and beverage manager for Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, the chance of a lifetime: to help hunt down top-notch California grapes and let each batch express itself. The formula has worked: Back then, the winery produced 30,000 cases, but its reputation — and a good dose of humility — has helped it grow more than four-fold, with 15,000 customers currently on its mailing list. Napa-sized numbers, if not a Napa-like winery.

If the shipyards and warehouses of the East Bay don’t at first glance seem the perfect place to make wine, there is logic to the location. It is a quick hop south from Napa, and just a few hours north from Paso Robles, the hub of the fast-growing Central Coast wine region. And interstates and three major airports are close at hand. If Alameda lacks a certain wine-country charm, it’s far more convenient to a city-dwelling winemaker.

Or as Kent Rosenblum puts it: “It doesn’t matter where you make the wine. It matters where the grapes grow.”

And the winemakers have very firm ideas about where they should come from. Rosenblum wines are most often sourced from temperate hilltop sites such as the Richard Sauret Vineyard in Paso Robles, and frequently from old vines on sites such as Carla's Vineyard, located in nearby Contra Costa County, where original vines are more than a century old.

"To some degree, the immigrants 100 years ago did the work for us," Rosenblum says.

The fruit may not be as pedigreed as some in California, but it compensates in finesse and an unassuming power. Both Rosenblum and JC Cellars wines are thick, textured and tooth-staining — "Hey, you should see your teeth," Cohn says to a fellow taster as his photo is snapped — driven by big fruit flavors and high alcohol (from grapes that growers get paid a bonus to leave on the vine for a few more crucial days).

The alcohol levels might overwhelm some wines, but Cohn has a knack for drawing heady scents out of his fruit, notably the characteristics of the . From the Rockpile vineyards in Sonoma, he offers his own jump-in-and-swim syrah, but is also crafting a zinfandel for Rosenblum that, despite zin's very American roots, has all the notes of a southern French wine.

Still, don’t get the impression that all this picking and choosing is going to cause havoc in your bank account. Although you may have to pay a pretty penny for the hard-to-find JC Cellars wine, Rosenblum wines are available in every state and across a broad price range. Its popular entry-level "Vintners Cuvee" zinfandel, for instance, retails for a very reasonable $10 to $11, and though it's a blend made with bulk grapes from all over the state, it still exhibits an assured winemaker's skill.

While most wineries have fewer than 10 wines in their lineup, Rosenblum is currently bottling 44 — yes, chardonnay and Cabernet sauvignon are among them — and it has offered as many as 66, including an Australian shiraz shipped over and bottled in the shipyards' shadow.

So don't be surprised if you find a bottle such as Rosenblum's 2003 Rominger Vineyard syrah, made with grapes from little-known Yolo County, tucked quietly between Napa and Sacramento.

After all, Cohn says, "I am a true believer in terroir."

TASTING NOTES

Rosenblum "Vintners Cuvee XXVII" Zinfandel ($10)This non-vintage zin is mixed from grapes all over California. It's meant as an everyday drinking wine, but its big fruit and balance are a great introduction to Rosenblum's more serious wines.

JC Cellars 2002 California Cuvee syrah ($25)A good introduction to Jeff Cohn's own line of wines, the Cuvee is more driven by fruit than some of his single-vineyard selections, but it's a syrah big enough to swim in, with just a tiny dash of white grapes to balance out that big, dark fruit.

JC Cellars 2002 Frediani petite syrah ($30)
The fruit is from Monterey, and it's not quite the powerhouse that Cohn turns out in some of his more expensive offerings. (On the other hand, you might actually find it on the shelf of your local wine store.) But it's refined, with fruit and briny tastes that reveal more than a hint of fondness for the French mastery of this grape.

Rosenblum 2003 Dry Creek Valley Rockpile Road Vineyard zinfandel ($22)
You can't help but notice the Rhone-like notes amid huge black fruit and some peppery aromatics. (There's almost a hint of dustiness in there, but maybe it's just the name.) The syrah resemblance shouldn't be a huge surprise: Cohn also makes his own Rockpile syrah. The fruit is from the northern end of Sonoma, and it's a big, brawny wine for a big meal.