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Friday, October 01, 1999

Talking, Thinking and Drinking Wine

Joe Wender reaches under a restaurant table with the air of a conjurer and, to the utter delight of most of the assembled guests, pulls out a bottle of 1966 Château Palmer. Across the table, Ann Colgin offers up a quiet smile but nothing more.

She has her reasons. As a consultant for Sotheby's West Coast wine division — she served as director until earlier this year — Colgin travels throughout North America from her Los Angeles home, appraising the contents of private cellars. She regularly tastes wines older and rarer than Wender's third-growth Margaux, fine though it is. And she happens to know Wender's wines well because the two have developed a collection together.

But more than that, as the proprietress of America's most exalted wine, a single case of which was auctioned in Los Angeles last year for more than $16,000, Colgin already knows what she's drinking with her dinner. As soon as main courses start arriving, she uncorks a bottle. Before long, her guests have the instantly legendary 1995 Colgin Cellars Cabernet - described by Robert Parker, as a quintessential example of Cabernet Sauvignon-side by side with the maturely elegant Palmer, not to mention a '95 Clos du Marquis from St. Julien and the 1996 release from a little-known but impressive Russian River Valley Pinot Noir producer called Lynmar.

For anyone fortunate enough to be seated there with her at Brentwood's Vincenti, where the food is ethereally good to begin with, it is the kind of meal that makes a memory. For Colgin, it's another Monday night.

Colgin's wine country is a state of mind. It transcends Colgin Cellars, her Sotheby's work, and the charity auctions in which she participates with such zeal. Although she divides her time between L.A. and the road and can go weeks without visiting her fermentation tanks in Napa, she finds herself talking, thinking, and drinking wine at least as often as her vinous colleagues upstate. "Every night of my life, I drink wine," she says, with the music of her Texas upbringing in every word. "And it isn't just the drinking of it, either, but the whole process of picking out the wine, at my cellar or at a restaurant. I couldn't imagine having dinner without a bottle of wine."

Colgin doesn't want to give the impression that she always enjoys wine as rarefied as those on the table at Vincenti. On the other hand, she doesn't have to suffer through too much. Between her Sotheby's duties, her entrée as the owner of Colgin Cellars, her burgeoning collection, and Wender's stash, she manages almost always to have an interesting bottle in front of her. When, for example, she flew to New York for dinner and a friend's Armistice Day party last November, all the wines were vintage 1918.

"I drink more collectible wines than the average person, certainly, " she admits. "I drink every California Cabernet I can get my hands on just to see what everybody else is doing. And Joe has some terrific wines. We met at an Henri Jayer tasting at Spago in August of '97, so wine has been a part of our relationship from the start. At this point, if I didn't have wine in my life, it would be totally different."

Colgin's short, reddish hair frames a resolute face that can make her seem uncommonly serious. In truth, her life has been a trail through her passions. Born in Waco, she attended Vanderbilt University, then studied art and antiques in London, where she discovered wine as the beverage one politely sips when friends' parents breeze through town. She worked for Christie's in New York, married, then met the famously opinionated and successful winemaker Helen Turley through Turley's husband, John Wetlaufer, who managed a wine shop in Calistoga.

Today, Turley makes some of the most highly regarded wines in California, including Pahlmeyer Merlot, her own Marcassin Chardonnay, Martinelli's Jackass Vineyard Zinfandel, and Bryant Family Vineyards' Cabernet. When Colgin met her, however, she was still looking to make her name. "At the time, in the early '90s, Helen was making great wines, but she wasn't the star winemaker of the world that she is now," Colgin says. "We decided to work together because we both wanted to make the best possible Cabernet we could."

Before long, Colgin and then husband Fred Schrader were buying grapes from Napa's Herb Lamb Vineyard on Howell Mountain, and Turley was making Colgin-Schrader wine in a rented warehouse. When Colgin and Schrader divorced, he kept their antiques business. She, showing great prescience, took the tanks and tubing and grape-buying contracts that passed for a winery.

This year, Turley and Colgin agreed to part company, and the mantle of making one of California's great wines passed to Mark Aubert, formerly of Peter Michael. But in the Colgin Cellars' Cabernets of 1995 and 1996, Turley may have achieved her greatest winemaking successes to date, and two of the most serious California wines extant. The 1995 in particular is an impeccably balanced wine — redolent of black cherries and spice — that could pass for a Leoville Las Cases if not for its early approachability, although it undoubtedly has two decades of evolution ahead. It has been fiercely coveted by oenophiles and-no surprise-by collectors. Colgin Cellars releases are sold off a mailing list to about 1,100 people, normally in three-and six-bottle allotments; for the '96 vintage, allotments are smaller and the price is $110 a bottle. Resold to retail stores or at auction, they could finance a Bordeaux-buying habit for a year.

That idea distresses Colgin. "You should buy wine — my wine or any wine — because you have a great desire to have that bottle and eventually drink it," she says. "I think far too much attention is paid to how much wine is worth. I have the market perspective that comes with the Sotheby's job, but also an appreciation of what goes into the bottle and how happy it can make people. That's my gratification, the calls and letters I get describing a special night with a bottle of Colgin, not just how much someone thinks it's worth. I'll open a bottle of Colgin Cellars with my friend to have with cheeseburgers if the moment is right."

Still, at about five hundred cases of production, the '95 Colgin isn't an everyday wine for anyone. The glasses are lifted with the solemnity of a sacrament, for how often does anyone have a wine valued at as much as $1,200 a bottle pass between their lips? But Colgin, who has convened allow such deference for a wine conceived in the pursuit of pleasure. "Let's see," she says, then inhales without a bit of pomposity and takes a sip. When she swallows, she offers up a smile from a place halfway between embarrassment and pride.

"It is pretty good," she says.

 By Bruce Schoenfeld