Daniel Cohn was on his second espresso at 9 a.m., his legs restlessly bouncing like an anxious teen on his first date. He will drink six more before noon just to sustain a boundless energy that will get him through a grueling schedule of 14 account visits before sundown.
“I try to keep it under 20 espressos a day,” he quips. He’s not joking.
Cohn is the genius behind Bellacosa, perhaps the best $25 cabernet sauvignon on the market today and one that has sparked a wave of reviews, awards, and magazine splashes in just a couple of years. His first vintage of 25,000 cases sold out in 10 months.
Cohn’s success is due in part to a business-based model: “the wine has to look like it is in a $100 bottle, it has to drink like a $50 bottle and it has to sell at $25.” But the success is also due to an engaging personality -- he could convince a priest to buy a case of his wine for Sunday communion.
Cohn grew up working for his father, Bruce Cohn, at the family winery in Sonoma County. B.R. Cohn Winery made iconic cabernet sauvignons and olive oil for decades. His dad also launched bands, such as Bruce Hornsby, and managed the Doobie Brothers for more than 40 years.
His father sold the winery in 2015, leaving Dan to choose music or wine as a career path.
“I managed a reggae band in Hawaii for a while, but that didn’t work,” he laughs.
He leveraged $1.7 million and launched Bellacosa, drawing grapes from long-time friendships he made with his father. Then he assembled more friends – legendary names from California’s most prestigious wines – for a blind tasting.
“I gave them 10 cabernets of the same price and six that cost twice as much,” he says. His wine excelled and the elite panel of advisers affirmed he had a winning recipe.
“I will not deter from balance,” he says in defiance of a popular trend to make sweet, extracted fruit bombs.
He says his debt put him on the edge of a cliff, but it also propelled him to work all that much harder to persuade people to buy his wine in a market overloaded with competition. Since 2016, he visits about 250 cities a year, hand-selling his only wine like he was Willy Loman peddling shoes in “Death of a Salesman.” He stayed in cheap hotels or with friends and ate at Taco Bell to cut expenses.
“I knew I had to sell Bellacosa one person, one bottle at a time,” he says.
He became so familiar with restaurants around the country that, on several occasions, he identified them by the background in cellphone photos shared by sales reps.
“I pride myself in being accessible,” he says.
When he approaches a doubtful restaurant manager who has pricey cabernet sauvignons on the wine list, he lays down the “Bellacosa Bet.” If his wine wins a blind tasting of cabernets selling for as much as $30 a glass, the restaurant promises to put Bellacosa on the wine list. He hasn’t lost yet.
When we met with Cohn for breakfast, the Boca Raton resident was “lapping the state” with a four-day binge tour of five Florida cities.
The hand-selling, personal touch has paid off. He has added a $100 reserve cabernet sauvignon and its 500 cases sell out too. It is an extraordinary wine with depth, character and, of course, balance. It tastes like $100, but the regular cab tastes like $50 and sells for $24.
“What’s cool is that this is a brand that didn’t exist three years ago,” he says.
There have been many instant successes in wine, but few of them have had staying power in a competitive, fickle market. Bellacosa seems to be different. In 2016, Wine Business named Bellacosa one of the top 10 wine brands. Last year, Cohn formed a joint venture with Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits to give him distribution help, but he hasn’t stopped his espresso-fueled, cross-country marketing blitz.
We want to root for Cohn and Bellacosa, because they represent honest wine. While so many other producers are blending whatever grape varieties they have on hand, adding cups of sugar, and slapping on the bottle some cute label, Cohn is making a balanced cabernet sauvignon that reminds us of what has made cabernet sauvignon so great but not so gimmicky.
Don’t be surprised to see Bellacosa by the glass in your favorite restaurants – Cohn was probably there – and if you don’t find it, ask why. This is the best $25 cabernet sauvignon we’ve tasted this year.
Steele Bien Nacido Block N Pinot Noir 2015 ($36). This was a favorite in a flight of California pinot noirs we recently tasted. Well balanced and richly textured, it has generous strawberry and clove aromas with cherry, spice, tobacco and earthy flavors.
The Butler Butler Ranch Vineyards 2013 ($50). Made by Bontara Organic Vineyards, this rich and harmonious gem blends syrah, mourvedre, grenache and zinfandel. Generous blackberry and plum aromas with a dash of espresso. Black fruit, licorice, and spice flavors with dense tannins.
Left Coast “The Orchard” Pinot Gris Estate 2017 ($18). This is one of the better pinot gris from Oregon that we have tasted recently. It has a bold style with delicious green apple and citrus nose and flavors with a slight hint of floral notes. Try this beauty with bold fish and poultry recipes.
Feudi Di Sa Gregorio Rubrato Aglianico Campania 2015 ($20). From the Irpina region in Campania hard hit by Mt. Vesuvius, this delicious red wine is made from the widely planted aglianico grape. Berries, licorice and strawberries dominate this wine that is aged in only stainless steel. Good by itself but really comes alive with southern Italian tomato sauce dishes, and cheese.