Wednesday, December 01, 2010
The Private Cellar of Ann Colgin Brings Knowledge and Enjoyment Together in a Compact Library of Vintages.
If you think of wine as liquid history, you can understand why Ann Barry Colgin and her husband and business partner, Joe Wender, take the cellaring of their extensive wine collection very seriously. It stands to reason: they have a cellar that houses centuries of wine and a big reputation to uphold.
Colgin Cellars, founded in 1992, is the most lauded and powerful of Napa Valley estates, producing ultra-premium handcrafted wines that have a worldwide reputation for excellence and a following that without hyperbole could be described as cult. Waiting lists for vintages only available through the winery - which is not open to the public - go back to patrons who signed up for offerings in 2007. And more than two thousand are still waiting.
But as personal wine collections go, this cellar is extraordinary. It houses fifteen thousand bottles from fourteen countries and wine regions as obscure as Israel, in a long narrow space with fourteen-feet-high ceilings and only six hundred square feet of storage.
Why so many wines from so many different areas? "Joe and I both believe that in order to make great wine, you have to taste great wine," commented Colgin when I recently caught up with her at the IX Estate, perched on a hillside overlooking Lake Hennessey in St. Helena. "The variety within our collection is incredibly important for our winemaking team, because we often open bottles for comparative tastings. For instance, we make a Syrah at Colgin, so we like to taste Northern Rhone wines. We analyze the nuances of young and old Bordeaux vintages. There is so much to be learned from our wines."
As a former wine auctioneer at Sotheby's (something she still does as a volunteer for high-profile charity auctions), Colgin has a strong background in wines with fine historical provenance. The contents of the couple's cellar dates back to the late-nineteenth century, with a prized bottle of 1887 Bouchard Père & Fils, Nuits-Saint-Georges that was purchased at auction.
That's a bottle to be saved and treasured, but on very special occasions, they'll selectively pull older vintages to contribute to an annual wine dinner where each attendee contributes two bottles or one magnum of a specific vintage to share. Recently, a rare 1945 Vieux Chateau Certan was gently transported to the party, where it "showed beautifully in comparison with other wines of the same year," says Colgin, adding, "It was a perfect opportunity to bring out a very carefully cellared bottle and showcase it for the enjoyment of our friends."
Colgin and Wender engaged Sausalito-based wine cellar designer Thomas E. Warner, who has thirty-five years of wood-working experience and designed four cellars of varying size at the winery and in the couple's homes in Los Angeles, Malibu, and Napa. Warner travels the globe to work with architects and interior designers on residential cellars that are each custom-built to their unique environment. He almost exclusively uses reclaimed timber in his projects.
These racks were fabricated from clear heart redwood, a soft wood that darkens and takes on a "beautiful musty aroma" after it is exposed to the cellar environment.
The Los Angeles-based interior design firm Hendrix Allardyce specified colors and design details including lighting, but Warner designed the framework. One of his biggest challenges was maximizing the confined space and providing adequate racking that was strong enough to hold literally tons of wine.
"The cellar is like the skeleton of an airplane," notes Warner. "The components, a series of redwood one by ones and one by twos, are lightweight and yet are incredibly strong. Every joint was glued and nailed. The racks are fastened to the walls in a way that you could literally climb them like a library ladder."
In fact, says Warner, a "library of wine" is not a bad analogy. "Great wines are like books. They tell you stories about the history of a region, a culture, or a period of time. You could never get through Ann and Joe's cellar, because ten bottles into a tour, you'd know all about the history of the south of France!"
"When you enter the cellar," Warner comments, "I want it to feel like you're in church. Even the Gothic-style fixtures, made of iron and amber milk glass, are a petite version of what you might see in a cathedral. The lighting glows and reflects in a very ancient way."
Although the atmosphere may be ancient in tone, modern technology keeps record of the huge collection, so Colgin and Wender can easily locate a specific bottle through a proprietary bar coding system hinged to a computerized bit map of the cellar and its inventory.
"This is not a browsing cellar," says Colgin. "The racks were originally organized by region and varietal, but as wine is consumed, there are random spaces to fill. I am a firm believer that wine should be moved as little as possible until it is removed from the rack to open and enjoy."
Each time they enter their cellar through its studded, two-hundred-year-old, four-inch-thick Indonesian door, Colgin and Wender never know what bottle will call to them. But as a couple who relish gathering close friends and colleagues around the table, the joy of their cellar is expressed in the fun of sharing the wine. "A great collection is only great when you open the bottles," laughs Colgin.
With a heart as big as her laugh, Colgin reflects on the pleasure that she and her husband take in donating large-format bottles to charities across the country, including the Napa Valley Wine Auction. Recently a million dollars was raised in bidding on four lots of Colgin Cellars wines.
"I never dreamed we could do something like that in a single hour," she says. "And that's what our cellar is all about: bringing people together through the enjoyment of wine."