Handcrafted Wine with a Conscience

Eric Cohen ditched Wall Street for Northern California, and combines dual passions for winemaking and social justice.

Eric Cohen (Galen Babb)

Looking for another way to channel your despair over the looming Trump presidency? You’ve already joined the protests and reaffirmed your support for people and organizations caught in the alt-right’s crosshairs.

Well, here’s another way to make a statement: Have a glass of wine.

Justice Grace Vineyards is equal parts business and social justice advocacy. Mission District resident Eric Cohen, the Sonoma County winery’s founder, owner, and sole employee, uses his handcrafted natural wines to support and express solidarity with various causes and people he feels have suffered — and who are unlikely to get much relief now that Trump and his merry band of haters have seized the reigns of power.

For more than a decade, Cohen has used his wines to shine a light on social injustice and to encourage his customers to join the fight. In 2003, in response to growing income inequality, Cohen launched Justice Grace’s Shoe Shine Wine label to raise awareness for the living-wage movement.

“I wanted to do something,” Cohen said, “but I realized that to change the system, you need to change the values and false beliefs that allow these perverse conditions to grow.”

Cohen’s activism also embraced groups he felt were marginalized or demonized. His recently launched Compassion Series of labels includes Petite Sirah, Mourvedre, and Grenache blends with names like We Are: Palestinian, We Are: Transgender, and We Are: Immigrants. Proceeds from each wine support local organizations that fight on behalf of each group.

“The brands I have chosen for my wines are very personal, and are public symbols of my values,” says Cohen. “In as direct a way as possible, I am trying to open people’s hearts to help tear down the ‘Us vs. Them’ paradigm that has manipulated us and kept us divided. It is my hope and belief that my customers will be moved to join the movements behind these causes.”

(Galen Babb)
(Galen Babb)

 

Cohen himself is one of the converted. Armed with a business degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he was “drawn to the excitement of New York’s financial industry” upon graduation but quickly came to despise it.

“When the dot-com bubble burst, it sickened me to see the loss of $5 trillion in savings and retirement money from average people,” Cohen says. “And it sickens me today to know that some of the people largely responsible for enabling the shameful transfer of wealth from the middle class to the already super-rich are still in the industry, creating vast wealth for themselves while causing so much harm.”

Cohen was glad to leave that world behind and eager to do something to correct its injustices, but he didn’t know where to begin. While casting about for answers, he began following up on a growing interest in wine, with no thought that his two passions might one day merge.

“I never had fine wine until my early 20s — my parents were Riunite jug-wine folks — but I immediately pursued this new passion by reading voraciously — magazines, books, and even winemaking textbooks from UC Davis.”

Still, Cohen had no vision or intention of getting into the wine industry — until “serendipity struck,” he says, in the form of a chance encounter on a cross-country flight in 1999. Seated next to a Napa Valley winemaker, Cohen poured out every question he had about the winemaking process. “By the end of the flight, he graciously invited me to help during the next harvest.” A few months later Cohen found himself working the crush for legendary Napa winemaker John Kongsgaard as well.

Before long, Cohen blended his passions by establishing his own winery, originally in the Napa Valley and now in Sonoma County. He founded Justice Grace Vineyards with the notion that wine consumers, especially those drawn to his brand of natural wines, are an ideal clientele for outreach and activism because, generally speaking, they have disposable income, valuable connections, and perhaps some valuable time to contribute to grassroots social justice work.

(Galen Babb)
(Galen Babb)

 

“Above all else, my customers know that they are getting a beautiful wine, made by hand with few ingredients,” says Cohen, who personally sources his grapes from Northern California organic and biodynamic vineyards and crafts his wines at a historic former creamery in Penngrove. “But I am very upfront that Justice Grace Vineyards is about far more than wine. My labels are very clear in their intent to highlight and support various groups and causes. In my own small way, I can broaden the current reach of a movement beyond its existing supporters. I want to be a vehicle for non-traditional outreach for the causes that I’m passionate about.”

But Cohen wants his customers to do more than just donate to a cause. “By engaging with my wine, I’m hoping you might slow down and consider what’s happening and how you might truly help in a more tangible way.”

Cohen likens the noble work of social justice organizations to pushing a boulder up a mountain. But he too faces obstacles in his chosen work.

“The wine industry is at a critical juncture,” Cohen says, “and doors are being closed for small independent wineries like myself. The industry is consolidating around mega-wineries with multiple small-ish looking brands that conceal what’s happening behind the scenes in the vineyards and wineries. Small wineries like mine need the support of conscientious consumers who value independent risk-takers who challenge convention and try to do things a little differently.”

 

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