I read several articles about the cult status of Colgin wines, one of the newer and most highly acclaimed wines in the world. I also learned from the Colgin website that the estate is actually closed to the public. So you can imagine how excited I am when I actually get an appointment to meet the woman behind the brand, Ann Colgin, a graduate from the Arts Administration Program at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.
On the day of my visit, I feel a mixture of nerves and privilege for the fact that I am going to introduce myself to one of Napa Valley's most lauded vintners. Research indicates that a legion of wine collectors would bribe, trade valuables, or simply pay to be in my position. To say that Colgin is a powerful brand in Napa Valley and in the wine world would be an understatement. But reading about this premiere estate is still significantly different from actually visiting. So my quest is to learn not just about Ann Colgin, but also what it is that makes Colgin wine so highly sought after.
At Ann's IX estate ("number nine estate"), the most recent vineyard planted in 2000 is perched at the summit of a hilltop that overlooks Lake Hennessy. It is storybook picturesque, reminiscent of hilly regions in the South of France, and on this summer day, the sun is vibrant, illuminating the earthy colors of the landscape. The allure of the Colgin estate is heightened by the long winding (if not slightly dangerous) drive to the top of the mountain. One would not fare well in this environ without the assistance of exact directions to the ultimate destination.
The entrance to the IX estate is very unassuming: a dirt road with a simple wooden mechanized gate and one voice box with buzzer to announce who is visiting at the left hand side of the road. No signage indicates that this is a Colgin vineyard. However, the unassuming nature of the entrance is quickly shattered upon entering. I cannot help but immediately notice the elegance with one visual sweep of the grounds: this is a very special place. Only four parking spaces are available on the foreground, and I am more than thrilled to occupy one. In the background, the heart of the estate – the vines – are significantly sloped along the mountainside at a steep angle. I learn later in my visit that Ann has chosen this specific plot of land on the hill specifically for that reason. The sun hits the vines in an exact angle throughout the growing season, perfect for producing the highest quality crops. To the right stands the main house and the grape sorting room adjacent – the site of the state-of-the-art gravity fed winery. In addition to IX (written with roman numerals since the copyright to "number 9" in Arabic was already taken), Colgin has two other vineyards: Tychson Hill which is named after Josephine Tychson, the first female vintner of Napa, and Herb Lamb Vineyard which is owned by Herb and Jennifer Lamb (Ann purchased their grapes for the first vintage of Colgin wine in 1992).
VIEW OF THE COLGIN WINERY
After parking, I am greeted at the front of the main house by Ann and Corton Charlemagne, her dog. Ann is dressed in a sun bright yellow cotton button down shirt, white pants, hot pink flat pointy shoes, and on that brilliantly sunny day, oversized dark sunglasses. I read about her reputation as sort of a fashion maven in Napa and had anticipated nothing less before my arrival. She looks chic and cool, but most importantly very precisely put together. I drop off my bag just inside the foyer of the main house and we immediately proceed to take a tour of the estate, beginning with the grape sorting room. She begins by explaining the type of wine they produce: only red with a special interest in cabernet sauvignon. Upon entering the great circular room where the grapes first arrive, one understands what Colgin means when she says that everything at the estate is about quality control. She emphasizes the small quantities of wine produced each year in order to focus on making the best quality wine possible. The IX vineyard produces 1500 cases per year and the total case production is 2500 for all of the Colgin wines. The wooden room is impeccably clean, so much so that it is hard to imagine red grapes spilling into the metal sorter in the middle of the room. She describes the facility as a festive atmosphere with the workers intensely sorting the crop during the harvest and loud music playing in the background.
From there, we move on to the cellar with the previous year's vintage barrels In the cellar, she shows me her research and development room stocked with wines from all over the world, however, with a heavy collection of Bordeaux and Burgundy wines. Ann travels frequently to France and has developed special relationships with many of the vintners in the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions. In the research cellar room, I cannot help but be astounded by the double magnums of Colgin wine that occupy the centerpiece on the rack. Ann is very committed to local and national causes through auctions of her wines. The Napa Valley Annual auction sponsors health programs, women's causes, boys and girls clubs, and is now trying to assist with housing issues in the area. At the most recent auction, a dinner for 8 with Chef Thomas Keller (French Laundry, Per Se) featuring double magnums of Colgin wine went for $650,000. At a previous auction, Colgin auctioned off a special magnum of wine in a handcrafted wooden case by England's Princess Margaret's son Lord Linley. It was purchased for $200,000. These high auction prices are only small examples of just how coveted Colgin wine is to collectors. She once was offered a Mercedes SUV from an east coast dealer for a case of Colgin cabernet. And as we travel upstairs from the cellar into the main house, she shows me a frame with an enlarged cover of Robb Report Magazine that featured a bottle of Colgin wine in the center with hands raised all around it – overtly signifying the cult status of the Colgin cellars.
Though winemaking is clearly Ann's passion, as we travel throughout the main house, we see the foundations of this current passion-- art and antique collecting. Ann points out the artwork displayed in the foyer, great room and dining rooms, all that have been acquired through Sotheby's and other auctions from around the world. Included in her collection is the Thomas Hill painting of Napa Valley, which for years was kept in corporate collection. When it came up for auction, Ann did not hesitate to bring the painting back to its "rightful" place, and more specifically, in the region it so beautifully depicts. In the great room, a WPA mural adorns the entirety of one of the walls depicting laborers of The California Wine Industry of the Great Depression era. In the dining room are original paintings of the Four Seasons, so appropriately hung to accentuate the views of the gorgeous landscape and mountainside. Much of the furniture in the main house, including the wooden chairs and the grand dining table are also auction treasures, transforming this space not only into the main office of a new grand wine estate, but also an art collector's dream. All of the art pieces blend harmoniously, contributing to the earthy feel of the place – comfortable, elegant, and meaningful. However, the piece-de-resistance has yet to arrive. Ann informs me that just recently, through a friendly tip in the wee hours of one morning, she acquired a 13th-century French Shelly Limestone relief with winemaking scene tablet themed with winemaking at a Sotheby's London auction. Being surrounded by art, I begin to understand what this place is all about for Ann: creating art. From the estate she has created to all the details she has included in it, Ann is an artist who I would guess, is exacting in her process and critical with her edits.
Ending the tour, we finally arrive at what I personally have been looking forward to – the tasting of a Colgin wine. Being the non-aficionado, I am curious not only of what a highly fine wine would taste like, but also if my palette is sophisticated enough to even begin understanding what makes a Colgin so special. Ann uncorks a bottle of her 2003 IX Estate vintage wine. She gives me a brief lesson on tasting wine, protocol that I in fact am aware of: swirling the glass to release the aromas, tipping it to inspect the color, smelling it and thinking of the variety of scents that are present, and then finally sipping the wine. This last and most anticipated act of sipping, however, I learn must be done while taking in air – hence, the otherwise rude noise that one makes when drinking a hot beverage. This enhances the experience of the wine as it enters the mouth.
Upon tasting the wine, this particular Colgin is robust and powerful. Even to my untrained palette, I can tell that it is young. It is easy to understand why this would not be an everyday wine. It is complex and as I swoosh it around my mouth, it becomes even more explosive and alive. To my dismay, however, I take notice that Ann spits her sampling out and so I reluctantly follow suit, wanting to experience the finish. I give Ann a very satisfied look, but am too ashamed to start asking questions or even offering my opinion in fear that I might insult the art that I have just taken in. But the experience does leave me wanting to taste more Colgin. It also becomes very evident why Ann has chosen to focus on "big" red wines. Connoisseurs and laymen alike no doubt have heard of the powerhouse brands of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and Chateaux Margaux, among the most expensive and celebrated brands throughout the world. Often difficult to produce, intensely exacting and delicate, these red wines of the Bordeaux region of France are among the most well constructed and complex And as an artist and winemaker, Ann Colgin has the passion to follow in this grand tradition, but with her own distinguishable mark.
The limited production at the IX estate each year contributes to the current three year waiting list (yes, only now are those that signed up in 2003 allowed the opportunity to purchase Colgin wines). The estate provides bottles to select restaurants across the country, and as one can well imagine, these restaurants are of the same caliber as the wine itself. My own investigation finds a bottle of Colgin cabernet sauvignon selling for over $500 at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City.
After our tasting, we take some time to sit down on the terrace overlooking the mountainside to talk about her experiences at NYU and her career that led to winemaking. Ann says she enjoyed her experience at the Steinhardt School and that the skills she acquired are still important for her today. She felt it was important to obtain a master's degree and valued the many art internships she obtained while in school. Shortly after, she went to London for the Decorative Works of Art Course at Sotheby's and for a time she owned an art and antiques business in Florida with her first husband. Early on, however, Sotheby's really fostered her interest in wine and soon, she started to rent a house in Napa each summer to learn from the local vintners. Ann created the Colgin brand before joining Sotheby's wine department in the mid- 90's and started small. At first she purchased grapes from the Herb Lamb Vineyard and made the wine at the co-op facility in Napa. The earliest vintages of Colgin wine were made in this very restricted fashion (1992-1997). Then she bought the Tychson estate whose vines were ripped out during Prohibition. She remodeled the house and began growing grapes at that estate in 1997.
I ask her if she was always entrepreneurial. Not surprisingly, she answers yes. She states that if she had such a narrow focus in school, she probably would not have branched out from art to wine. She's always kept a wide scope and interest in many areas. An early entrepreneurial venture she shares is when she was still an undergrad in college. American Airlines was offering vouchers which would allow you to fly for free after booking one trip. Seizing the opportunity and knowing that many of her friends would be looking for cheap flights home, she stood at the airport and collected vouchers from passengers who did not want them and went back to school and sold them to fellow students.
I also tell her that I recognize and appreciate her great attention to detail and that upon entering IX, I could see how thoughtful she is in maintaining this estate, from the grounds to the layout, and that it is a very well put together production. She smiles and says that she is glad that I noticed, admitting that she is indeed an extremely meticulous person.
Afterwards, we decide to take a short walk to the vines to take some pictures. We find a vine and Ann positions herself for the shot, a pose that I'm sure she has been taken several times before. But as is no surprise, after we take the picture, she notices a few brown leaves on the vine and proceeds to remove them. "Well, I can't come here and not do a little tending." And then I come closer to answering the question that I came with: what makes Colgin wine so special and worthy of cult status? While there may be many answers, I am satisfied for the moment with a simple one: the wine as well as the estate itself is a reflection of its creator- refined, complex, meticulous, and even in a more deeply metaphorical way, artistic and stylish.
As I leave the estate, I am left feeling just as I had when I arrived – privileged and awestruck as a newbie to this world of uber-fine wine. The differences: I am a bit wiser to the wine making process and of course, instantly converted into a Colgin cult follower. In vino veritas!