Eric Cohen is more than a hands-on winemaker. He’s hands in. When he works a vat of fermenting petite sirah grapes, Cohen goes elbow-deep into the fruit.
Cohen’s Shoe Shine Wine stands out from other Napa Valley microwineries. For starters, he doesn’t date around when it comes to grapes. He’s married to the venerable workhorse petite sirah, and his entire product line is based on it.
Moreover, Cohen, 44, is ecofriendly and a dedicated social activist — so serious about the cause of a living wage for all that he made it part of his winemaking credo.
With those bona fides, Cohen was a natural to lead a workshop at the Hazon Jewish Food Festival. His topic is “Behind the scenes of the wine industry: Becoming a more conscientious consumer.”
Raised in Baltimore, Cohen wasn’t exactly born into the industry. But as the son of longtime JCC executive director Hal Cohen — “the most selfless and generous man I’ve ever known” — he was instilled with a love of social justice.
A love of wine, not so much.
“My parents used to have a jug bottle of Riunite in the garage,” he recalled. “They used to pull it out when anyone would come over. I think it was the same bottle for 10 years.”
He discovered the joys of wine after moving to New York in his 20s. Before turning 30, Cohen had toured wineries in Tuscany, worked in U.S. vineyards at harvest time, and set about learning everything he could about the art and science of winemaking.
“The connection to history is part of the allure,” he said. “It’s been made for thousands of years with very few ingredients.” History has produced millions of wines all over the world, “yet you can still create something innovative.”
After moving to San Francisco in 1998, Cohen turned his avocation into a vocation. But with thousands of new wines introduced into the U.S. market every year, Cohen figured he had to do something unique.
That’s when he turned his eye toward petite sirah, a grape first grown in California more than 130 years ago, and one that became a staple of blended jug wines. Its rustic and hardy qualities meant it was often shipped by train back East for sacramental wines.
The grape began to fall out of favor 50 years ago, with many old vines ripped out to make room for more fashionable varieties. But Cohen had tried spectacular petite sirahs, and he had fallen in love with notes ranging from toffee and raspberry to violets and licorice.
“Petite sirah is that rare varietal where the challenge is to be delicate, to stay on top of it and extract less,” he said. “Most restaurants don’t have it on the wine list, and most consumers confuse it with syrah. It’s undiscovered, for the most part, even though it has a 130-year legacy in California. But it’s coming back, one person at a time.”
Cohen found growers willing to sell to him. So the Mission District resident rented a space in the city of Napa and bought his own equipment, and his first yield in 2007 sold out.
With production now topping out at 300 cases a year, Shoe Shine Wine and its umbrella corporate entity, Justice Grace Vineyards, are tiny. But Shoe Shine has fans, some who buy it through the mail and others at eateries such as Mission Beach Café, Millennium and Universal Café in San Francisco. The wines are not kosher.
Cohen chooses to fully list all ingredients on the bottle, whereas most winemakers do not — hiding the fact that they include sulfites, sugars, coloring agents and other additives.
He also hand-wraps the top of his corked bottles with colorful fabrics, rather than using the capsules he says others do: PVC-laden plastics, or metal or foil sourced from environmentally ruinous mines.
Cohen is not afraid to call out the wine industry for its sins. For example, he cited a recent study that shows three wine companies control 70 percent of the international wine market. He also thinks the quality of commercial wine is in a downward spiral, and that its production is contributing to the “exploitation of the planet.”
Despite his complaints, Cohen believes consumers can change things for the better. “They do not always understand the immediate power they have to affect change,” he said. “It matters every time they buy something.”
Meanwhile, he will continue trying to sell people on Shoe Shine Wines one restaurateur, wine drinker and sommelier at a time.
“I can make the wine, but I need outlets to reach consumers,” Cohen said. “There’s no iTunes for wine.”