Petite Sirah for the 99 Percent

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Eric Cohen, Shoe Shine Wine
Eric Cohen, Shoe Shine Wine. Photo: Michael Straus

Eric Cohen's vineyard designated Petite Sirah has soul -- lots of it. You can taste it in his 2007 Solano County vintage. I picked up a vibrancy and mustiness I associate with wines made with less chemical manipulation. It was clean and spicy. Whether it's about additives in wine or fighting for the working poor, Cohen's passions run deep and he doesn’t take the easy road. He has chosen to explore the possibilities of a grape that typically has been overshadowed by more popular varietals. Cohen sources from high quality, but lesser known, vineyards and he has infused his wine making, and his marketing, with a quest for social justice.

Ironically, Cohen worked briefly in the financial world of New York City where he was turned on to good wine. But he was turned off to what he calls, “corporate greed.” His thoughts of the experience were best summed up in an answer he gave to his then three year old son. The question was, "Dad, what's money?" To which Cohen replied, "A bummer and a drag."

Cohen headed west to commune with like-minded individuals and chase his dream of wine making in a highly competitive arena. For four years, he volunteered working harvest at several wineries including White Rock and Luna Vineyards in Napa. Despite the high quality of his wines, which he makes in a shared facility in Napa, Cohen is still making cold calls to get into local restaurants and wine shops.

Tasting wines at Mission Beach Cafe
Photo: Naomi Starkman


So, you could care less about the political pedigree of who makes your wine? Well, you still might want to pay attention to Eric Cohen. I caught up with him at Mission Beach Café in San Francisco where I tasted three of his vintages: a 2007 Petite Sirah from Tenbrink Vineyard in Solano County ($25), a 2008 Petite Sirah from Wolff Vineyards in Edna Valley ($35) and a 2007 Petite Sirah from Golden Vineyards in Mendocino ($35). My favorites were the Solano County and the Mendocino wines. The first had red fruits and spice while the other was lip smacking, bright and peppery.

Cohen's Take on Natural Wine Making
The first thing Cohen does when I sit down at a table is hand me a small bottle that reads, 'Copper Sulfates,' "Poison," Cohen says. "It is one of 200 additives often found in wine and one that I will not use." I see a big notebook on wine additives and know where this is going so I try to change the topic to wine tasting. Natural wine makers are very committed to their pure style of wine making but one thing about Cohen is, as obsessed as he is about some things, he is not dogmatic.

"While I am deeply committed to the overall methods of 'natural wine making,' as transparently shown by my short ingredient list on all of my back labels, the choice of yeast is not something that I agonize over. I don't believe there is truly much difference, in fact. All of my fermentations get started with native yeasts. Nothing added. I let them thrive as long as they can. If, and when, I need to step in and pitch in a small amount of commercial yeast, I will."

Back label of Shoe Shine Wine

Shoe Shine Wine
Cohen has named his wine, Shoe Shine Wine. He explains,

"Wine is a luxury good. Never in a million years did I imagine that I would be devoting myself towards making something that would be enjoyed mostly by the wealthy. Once I knew that my passion for wine was irrepressible, I tried to find a way to satisfy my equal need for social justice. I wanted to make the strongest possible statement that, more than most, the working poor need to be celebrated and supported. 'Shoe Shine Wine' is the embodiment of that statement."

Shoe Shine Wine, gay label

LGBT Labels
Cohen is one of few folks in the industry that includes gay and lesbian themed labels. He stated, "I wanted to represent all loving relationships." I got the feeling Cohen is not trying to cater to a gay clientele but is deeply committed to inclusion. And he doesn’t stop with his labels, his bottle tops are unique, too. Instead of metallic, cork coverings, he uses vintage fabric.

Shoe Shine Wine fabric bottle tops
Photo: Eric Cohen

Choosing Petite Sirah
“I am drawn to the underdog by nature,” says Cohen in describing why he has chosen to work with Petite Sirah.

“It’s ageworthy. I love the idea someone can drink this 25 years down the road. It’s been mostly used as a blending grape but I want to help bring it back as a stand alone varietal."

For those who are starting to scratch their heads over the spelling of Sirah just a quick note to say Petite Sirah and Syrah are two different grapes that both make big red wines and are both Rhone varietals. Petite Sirah has a long history in California, is typically blended with Zinfandel and its tannins may be more intense than Syrah. I found Cohen's wines much more drinkable then many Syrahs I have tried. But don't let me tell you, try them for yourself. You can find Cohen's wine at Bi-Rite in San Francisco or online at Shoe Shine Wine.