One of the things I find most exciting about the wine and restaurant industry is introducing a guest to a wine or winery they have not yet experienced or possibly even heard of.
I've spent most of my career singing the praises of these smaller production, family owned and operated wineries and the niche they fill into in the vast wine world. Wines from these producers tend to be a labor of love.
There is an old adage in the wine business (and it's the same for many other industries): What's the best way to make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large fortune!
The wine industry is a complicated and perilous business, and if it weren't for these risk-takers, we would not have the myriad of options that we find on our favorite wine shop's shelves and restaurant wine lists.
Jeff Cohn, owner and wine maker of JC Cellars in California, is one of these people. Jeff started his wine career in 1993, when he moved his family and his life across the country to study wine and grape growing at California State University.
After graduation, he started working with Rosenblum cellars as an enologist and worked his way through the labs to become a winemaker in 2000.
During his time at Rosenblum, he started his own winery, JC Cellars, in 1996, making a mere 75 cases of Zinfandel.
He left Rosenblum in 2006 to fully pursue his own winery but not before creating a Zinfandel at Rosenblum that rose to the No. 3 spot on the Wine Spectator top 100 list in 2003. This was the first time a Zinfandel had ever cracked the top 10 on the list. Quite an accomplishment!
JC Cellars makes 20 or so wines and has a total production of about 5,000 cases annually. Most of these wines focus on Rhone Valley varietals such as Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Rousanne and Marsanne. He also continues to make Zinfandels.
JC Cellars does not own any vineyards; instead they develop long-term relationships and contracts with some of California's premier vineyards for these grapes.
Interestingly, Jeff and JC Cellars make their home in a warehouse in Oakland, Calif. JC's unlikely location is part of its charm. It was also a conscious decision.
"Being in Napa and Sonoma, the world of winemaking surrounds you all the time," Jeff says. "I like being where I am because I like a private life.
"I'm close to the winery without being immersed in the endless competition of that environment ... and I like living here, because I've always wanted to live on an island."
My first introduction to these wines was in 2004 at a small wine shop in Atlanta, with that Rosenblum Zinfandel that made its way to the No. 3 spot. There was a feeding frenzy going on for this wine when the rankings came out, and I had to see what all the hype was about.
After tasting this wine, I decided to learn more about Jeff and his wines. Although I always say I care way more about what's in the bottle than what's on the label, the first JC Cellars bottle I ever laid eyes on immediately appealed to me.
It had a quirky drawing on it that reminded me of the Grateful Dead's Stagger Lee character from the Shakedown Street album, and being the Deadhead that I was (and still am today) I was instantly drawn to it.
In looking back at that label today, it was tenuous connection at best, but at the time, it spoke to me.
Although JC Cellars has changed its labels, the quality of the wine inside is just as good as it was back then.
Jeff will be traveling to Savannah in mid-May to visit the area. He will be hosting a wine dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Savannah at 7 p.m. May 14. Please call 912-721-4800 to reserve your spot, as space is limited.
Douglas Snyder is a certified sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers. Before relocating to Savannah, he was the import and pacific northwest manager for Juice Wine Purveyors, a wine wholesaler in North Carolina. He has more than 20 years' experience in the wine, spirits and hospitality industries. He is the wine director and general manager at Ruth's Chris Steak House in Savannah. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.