Colgin Cellars - Press - Napa Valley's Colgin Cellars Flees the Cult and Becomes a Classic

Napa Valley's Colgin Cellars Flees the Cult and Becomes a Classic

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Friday, November 01, 2013


THE VIEW FROM Colgin IX Estate, high atop a hill, encompassing Lake Hennessey and Napa Valley, bounded by the Mayacamas Mountains to the west, is one of the more awe-inspiring vistas in the region. As I looked out across the valley this past summer while tasting recent Colgin vintages with the vineyard's proprietor, Ann Colgin, I couldn't help thinking about my first experience sampling the very first vintage of Colgin Cabernet, in 1995, in a cramped and frigid cubicle in the Napa Wine Company, a winemaking cooperative on the Valley floor in Oakville, Calif.

It was my first trip to Napa, as well as my first wine-writing assignment, and I was nervous as hell. I'd never tasted wine at 10 in the morning - in fact I'd never tasted at all in the professional sense, and Helen Turley, Colgin's first, soon-to-be-famous winemaker, had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly. She was tall and Valkyrie-like, and she looked down at me as if I were a cowardly foot soldier who didn't deserve to be escorted to Valhalla. After pouring her own very impressive Marcassin Chardonnays, she opened a 1992 Colgin Herb Lamb Vineyard, which pretty much would have knocked my socks off had I been wearing any. It was like a young Left Bank Bordeaux, except more seductive. At the time I thought, "sexy librarian," because, while the wine was very rich and voluptuous, it also had an earthy, savory component that made it seem, well, kind of smart. It was entirely Cabernet, but the tannins were silky in a way that was more like Merlot, more like a Pomerol than a Pauillac. I knew I'd experienced something special, but I didn't realize at the time I was getting a glimpse of the birth of a tectonic shift in the world of wine - the Napa equivalent of the recording of "Nevermind" a few years earlier.

The early '90s saw the birth of the "cult" Cabernets - a group of small-production, high-octane, high-gloss reds that included Araujo, Bryant Family, Colgin, Dalla Valle, Harlan and Screaming Eagle. When these wines emerged, Bordeaux was suffering a string of bad vintages, and the large Napa wineries seemed to be getting complacent. Small as their production was, these new wines had a huge impact on the way Cabernet was made around the world. Some 20 years on, the cult term is ripe for retirement, not least because the distinctions between these wines have become more interesting than their similarities. Ms. Colgin, for one, can't wait for the word to be done away with. "I was born in Waco, Texas," she says, "which is why I've always hated the term 'cult.' " At a certain point, a cult becomes a classic, and if Harlan seems more and more like the Mouton of Napa Valley, Colgin might reasonably be compared with Margaux.

Ms. Colgin has come a long way from Waco, although she still has the accent and the easy, open manner of a native Texan. After studying art history at Vanderbilt, she took Sotheby's decorative arts course in London. It was while living abroad that she began to fall in love with fine wine.

Her romance with Napa began in 1988, when she was working at Christie's in New York and attended her first Napa Valley wine auction at the behest of a colleague, Brian Cole, who was a guest auctioneer. At the time, she was married to Fred Schrader, who has since become the proprietor of an eponymous Napa winery. On subsequent visits to the Valley, Ms. Colgin got to know John Wetlaufer, who was then the buyer for a wine store in Calistoga, Calif., and his wife, Helen Turley, who was the winemaker for Peter Michael Winery.

Ms. Colgin started her winery in Napa, in 1992, and hired Ms. Turley to vinify grapes purchased from a rocky hillside vineyard just below Howell Mountain. Even before the release of the first vintage, Robert Parker's 96-point score launched Colgin's reputation. For several years, Colgin was essentially a virtual winery, with neither vineyards nor a winemaking facility of its own, and yearly production of fewer than a thousand cases.

In 1996, Ms. Colgin purchased the historic Tychson Hill vineyard, named after Josephine Tychson, Napa's first female vintner, who arrived in the Valley with her husband in the 1880s and took charge of their business after his suicide not long after. She remained on the property until 1939, occupying the clapboard cottage that Ms. Colgin would eventually call home after a gut renovation.

"I love the history," Ms. Colgin said, standing at the top of the 3-acre Tychson Hill vineyard that slopes down to Highway 29, "but it was the soil that convinced me." She kneeled down and dug a handful of the dark earth, called Aiken stony loam. The east-facing vineyard was ideal, but too small to produce more than a few hundred cases. Ms. Colgin continued to search for prime Napa Cab terrain, eventually finding a virgin 124-acre plot in the Pritchard Hill area.

While commuting between Napa and Los Angeles, where she worked for Sotheby's as head of the West Coast wine department, Ms. Colgin met Joe Wender at an Henri Jayer wine dinner at Spago in 1997. Mr. Wender, a Goldman Sachs partner and Burgundy fanatic, had never heard of Colgin Cellars, but he was smitten with the proprietor. In 1998 the couple bought the Pritchard Hill area property, and on September 9, 2000, they got married on the estate, which was in the midst of being prepped and planted by master viticulturalist David Abreu. Dubbed the IX Estate in honor of their wedding date, the property now produces a Cabernet-based blend, along with a Syrah.

In 2002, Ms. Colgin completed her own production facility at the estate, a pristine two-story winery in the round. The inaugural Cabs from the new winery, the 2002 IX Estate and Tychson Hill, both received 100-point scores from the Wine Advocate - two of six such scores to date.

Ms. Turley moved on in 1998, replaced by her assistant, Mark Aubert, who was in turn replaced by his assistant, Allison Tauziet, in 2006. The Colgin style has remained fairly consistent, although each of the new vineyards has its distinctive identity. Colgin wines are never as powerful or as voluptuous as Harlan or the Cabs of Ms. Colgin's ex-husband, Fred Schrader. The blueberry-smoothie caricature of the cult Cab never really fit the Colgin flavor profile. Colgin Cabs have more tannin and more savory notes than most of their peers. They take time to reveal themselves, in the bottle and in the glass. A still-fresh bottle of the 1993 Herb Lamb Vineyard opened this summer seemed more like a blend of Haut-Brion and Margaux than a typical California Cab.

Colgin now makes three different Cabernets, each with its own characteristics. Tychson Hill is probably the most feminine and floral, while Cariad, made mostly from old-vine Cabernet from Mr. Abreu's Madrona Ranch Vineyard, tends to be more exuberant and spicy.

This week Colgin is releasing its 2010 IX Estate Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, although if you aren't one of 6,000 customers on the winery's mailing list, it will take some work to track down a bottle or two. A very select cadre of restaurants and retailers will get an allocation.

Both wines are among the best yet from this property - 2010 was a very good, classic vintage in Napa. The Cabernet could use time in the bottle, but the explosive Syrah provides instant gratification (though its predecessors have proved extremely age-worthy). At $250, the Syrah is no one's idea of an everyday wine, although it deserves comparison with Guigal's much more expensive single vineyard C~te-R~ties, just as the Colgin Cabs increasingly seem to bear comparison with some of the best in Bordeaux.

 By Jay McInerney

The Wall Street Journal