Sunday, November 30, 1997
With a dual career as Napa Valley vinter and Sotheby's wine auctioneer, Ann Colgin's life is imersed in wine
Most auctioneers mark a sale with the sharp crack of a gavel. Ann Colgin, who heads Sotheby's Los Angeles wine department, raps the podium with a wooden barrel bung. The symbolism is not lost on those who have drunk Colgin's plush, dense and intensely flavored Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon. The barrel bung, normally used to seal the hole on top of a wine barrel, links this auctioneer to her parallel life as the owner of one of Napa Valley's new cult Cabernets. (Colgin Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Herb Lamb Vineyard 1994, the currently available vintage, rates 95 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, $50.)
The lady loves red, not only in wine, but also in her wardrobe. At a recent luncheon, the trim 39-year-old Colgin wore a bright, cherry-toned suit, black pumps embossed with two tiny red devils, and a crimson shade of lipstick. "I've never signed a bottle of my wine without lipstick," she said with a grin, before autographing a Colgin Cabernet label with a kiss.
With her job at Sotheby's, which began last summer, Colgin has come full circle. Born in Waco, Texas ("before it was famous," she reminds us), the auctioneer finished her undergraduate studies in art history at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn. She then went to London for a year in 1981 to study the art business at Sotheby's headquarters there.
Curiously, her first real job in the auction world was with Sotheby's rival Christie's, where Colgin landed a position the following year in the company's New York customer relations department. "I hired Ursula [Hermacinski] in the mid'80s," she says, "as a cataloger — not an auctioneer." Hermacinski is now one of Christie's leading wine auctioneers. She, too, has recently moved to Los Angeles, where these two formidable women are now in direct competition, each vying for a share of Hollywood's buried wine treasure — legions of overstocked private cellars ripe for the auction block.
While working at Christie's, Colgin earned an MBA in arts administration from New York University. She also met an art and antiques buyer named Fred Schrader, whom she married in 1985. Soon thereafter, the two started their own art and antiques dealership outside Naples, Fla., which remained Colgin's primary residence until early this year. Although she was never a Christie's auctioneer, Colgin developed her own chatty, peppery podium-style while pre, siding over regional art and antique auctions in Florida.
In 1988, a West Coast vacation brought Ann and Fred to the Napa Valley Wine Auction. "We fell in love with the region and its wines," Colgin recalls. At the auction, where Napa vintners mingle freely with attending bidders and wine lovers, the Florida couple met numerous winemakers. "They invited us to their homes and wineries to taste their wines," Colgin says, still savoring the vintners' gracious hospitality.
By the following year, the art-dealing duo found themselves solidly under the spell of California wine country, where they rented a Victorian farmhouse for the summer. "It was the perfect time to be away from Florida. We'd come out for the auction and stay through summertime, Colgin explains.
Perusing the shelves at a nearby wine shop in Calistoga, Calif, Ann and Fred met a wine merchant named John Wetlaufer, who introduced them to new and interesting local wines. He also introduced them to his wife, Helen Turley, then winemaker at Peter Michael Winery. Turley currently makes outstanding Chardonnay under her own label, Marcassin, while acting as a consulting winemaker for such well-known labels as Pahlmeyer and, now, Colgin.
"Marcassin was in the development stage back then, and Helen also wanted to make Cabernet Sauvignon," Colgin remembers. In 1991, she and Fred drove up a rugged road to visit Turley's property on the northern Sonoma Coast. "My rented Lincoln Town Car was never the same," the auctioneer quips. "After a few fabulous Montrachets and a great red, Fred and I became more serious [about making wine]. The next day we were out looking to buy a vineyard."
The enthusiastic vintners-to-be were unable to find a suitable property for the 1992 harvest. But with Turley's help, they were able to secure Cabernet grapes that year from the Herb Lamb vineyard in Napa. "I made Helen a partner," Colgin says. "We put up the capital; she put up the expertise. We split the profits." (They can be significant on a wine that retails for $50.)
The dream of owning a vineyard remained strong for the Napa newcomers. After two years of off-and-on negotiations, they purchased a 5-acre property north of St. Helena in 1996. With guidance from veteran winemaker and vineyard manager David Abreu, 3 acres have been planted mostly to Cabernet for what will eventually be a second — though not a secondary — label for Colgin. She intends to bottle the wine from her new vineyard separately from the wine made with Herb Lamb's grapes. (Colgin Cabernets are made at Napa Wine Company, a custom-crush facility.)
On her new property sits a ramshackle abode once owned by Josephine Tychson, one of California's first female vintners and the founder of the winery now known as Freemark Abbey. Tychson's century-old, white clapboard house will require significant renovation before Colgin can call it home. "It would be cheaper to tear it down," she says, showing her practical side. But the romantic in her wins the debate. "I can't do it. The house has such historical significance. And now it has a female thread: Josephine, Helen [Turley] and myself."
Unfortunately, Colgin's bicoastal, fairy-tale existence was severely disrupted last fall when her 11-year marriage to Schrader soured. They divorced earlier this year. "Fred kept the art business," she says. "I got the vineyard and label." The couple also divided up their extensive wine collection, which, not surprisingly, included a lot of California Cabernet Sauvignon.
With winemaking in Turley's hands and the vineyard cared for by Abreu, Colgin can focus on setting up auctions in her new hometown of Los Angeles. She has left Florida for good. "It's a lot easier to commute to Napa from Los Angeles than from Florida," she half-jokes. In truth, a permanent West Coast address is something she has desired for a long time.
However, Colgin's appointment with Sotheby's was serendipitous. Early this year, she was having a purely social lunch in New York with her friend Jamie Ritchie, who happens to be director of United States wine sales for Sotheby's. Ritchie told Colgin he was looking for someone to open a Los Angeles wine division.
"I hadn't even thought about it before," Colgin admits. She did, however, realize her life was in transition and that this was an opportunity to find a new direction. "I said I'd be interested. Jamie took the bait and ran with it."
It's too soon to tell, but Colgin's background in art and wine may be the perfect fit for her new job. She handled herself well as the solo auctioneer at Sonoma County's annual charity wine auction last July — her first public appearance under the Sotheby's banner. Colgin's first commercial auction will take place on November 8, in Los Angeles.
While predicting auction totals is about as confounding as guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar, one thing is certain about Colgin's debut: Her fresh face, mild Texas drawl and zippy personality — not to mention her fashion flair — introduce a new and exciting factor into the wine auction scene. Until now, Hermacinski (of Christie's) has been the reigning queen of American wine auctions. She may have to watch her back with Colgin in the wings.