By Granate Sosnoff
A winery with a passion for social justice and support for a national living wage seems like a lovely valentine to Berkeley and perfect addition to its burgeoning Drinks District. With his award-winning petite sirah, Eric Cohen is the newest tenant at 805 Camelia St., the former home of Broc Cellars, where he joins Eno Wines and Lusu Cellars.
At Justice Grace Vineyards Cohen “roots for the underdog,” as he puts it, both socially and with his choice of petite sirah in winemaking, a grape varietal which, he says, has long been misunderstood. However, while it has been somewhat under the radar for the past few decades, petite sirah has been staging a bit of a comeback in recent years with more elegant wines made by both new and existing winemakers. Cohen feels happy to be part of the renaissance of this “noble” Rhone grape.
Justice Grace Vineyards is all about making premier petite sirahs, the only wines they produce under their Shoe Shine label. And the winery uses its labels to express dedication to social justice and equality.
Since 2011, and before marriage equality was a done deal in California, the labels have featured a choice of images of same-sex couples as well as male and female dance partners in support of the LGBT community. The backs of the labels make a bold statement in support of a living wage.
A former New Yorker, Cohen would rather not talk about his former career in the financial industry. Suffice it to say, the experience left him wanting a simpler life, dedicated to hands-on work related to human-based commerce. That’s why he started making wine in the Bay Area in a values-based way.
The Shoe Shine suite of petite sirah is crafted from a number of vineyards, including several who plant organics and are biodynamically farmed. These include Ten Brink Vineyards in Solano County, York Creek Vineyards in Spring Mountain, and Gustafson Vineyard in the hills above Dry Creek Valley. Shoe Shine’s 2010 Gustafson Vineyard Petite Sirah is a 2014 Gold Medal winner in the San Francisco Chronicle wine competition. It was Cohen’s only entry, and the award is no small shakes for a micro-winery like Justice Grace that makes only several hundred cases a year.
Cohen got his start in 2000 as a volunteer at a few Napa wineries, including White Rock Vineyards and Luna Vineyards. Once he was ready to begin making wine on his own, it took Cohen many tries to get well-regarded growers of petite sirah to sell him grapes. Apparently some places are concerned a newbie winemaker might churn out some poor product with their esteemed vines.
Petite sirah is a powerful, deep-colored, tannic wine often grown for mass production and primarily in blends to help strengthen wines that are lacking. It’s not an easy grape to grow, according to Cohen who said when other grapes like cabernet, chardonnay and merlot became popular many growers pulled out petite sirah and planted those instead.
Shoe Shine petite sirahs have a mellower taste to me than most petite sirah, yet retain plenty of fruit and balance. The wines have low and (with two of his wines) “near zero” added sulphur, which might explain their smoothness. Along with his neighboring urban wineries in Berkeley, like Broc, Urbano and Donkey & Goat, Shoe Shine wines are low-intervention and “natural” with few additives. In fact Justice Grace is one of only a handful of wineries that lists all its additives on its labels.
In keeping with the winery’s commitment to sustainability, each of its wines is hand wrapped with a vintage fabric capsule to avoid using aluminum, tin, or PVC plastic, all of which can have negative environmental impacts.
Cohen has been making Shoe Shine Wine for the past ten years, but it was only in 2011 that he formally launched the brand. Justice Grace Vineyards will soon be introducing a new label called “Solidarity” in addition to Shoe Shine which will feature new varieties of wines and have a broader commitment to social justice — so stay tuned.
Until then, you can get Shoe Shine wine at local retailers and restaurants, such as Bi-Rite Market and Yoshi’s in San Francisco, or schedule a tasting by calling or emailing the winery. They do free deliveries in the Bay Area, as well as free shipping in California. Wines run from $25-$40.
Granate Sosnoff is a nonprofit communications consultant and Mugsy pop up wine bar producer frequently in need of a good glass of wine and trying to grow her twitter @granate.
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