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Priestesses of the Grape

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Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Three of Napa Valley's top winemakers reveal their secrets for balance and perfection in wine and in life

In Napa Valley, America's premier — and very crowded — winegrowing region, there are a few ways to stand out. Building a track record more than a decade long for making great wines is one. Another is to be a prominent woman in an industry traditionally, though not exclusively, male-dominated.

Mia Klein, Ann Colgin, and Heidi Peterson Barrett (left to right) stand together on the hillside of Dalla Valle.

Those who've pulled off both feats comprise a short list. Among the valley's high priestesses of the grape would have to be Mia Klein, Heidi Peterson Barrett, and Ann Colgin — the first two as highend winemakers, the third as owner of a single sought-after label.

The names these three currently produce make collectors salivate: Dalla Valle Vineyards, Screaming Eagle Winery, Paradigm, and Colgin Cellars, to name a few. They have produced some of the great "cult Cabs" made in tiny quantities, Cabernet Sauvignons that sell for hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars per bottle on the secondary marketif you can get them. And you probably can't. They go first to restaurants and to people on select mailing lists.

"These women understand balance," says Peter Marks, curator of wine at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts, Napa's new multimedia museum devoted to wine and food. Balance is one elusive quality all good winemakers will tell you they are aiming for. Barrett, Klein, and Colgin have taken very different paths to achieve it not only in their wines but in their lives as well.

"It's all small, and it's all got to be perfect," says Klein, 40. In addition to her own label, Selene, she is the full-time winemaker for the well-regarded Dalla Valle and two other wineries.

All told, Klein is only making around 12,000 cases a year. By comparison, Robert Mondavi Winery makes 320,000 cases a year. But as far as quality winemaking goes, she is among the Most influential people in the business.

"Mia doesn't spread herself too thinly," says Marks. "She makes wine with focused, intense flavors." He compares Klein's wines to her physical aspect: "sleek and concentrated." A martial arts devotee and a runner, Klein has an athlete's forthrightness about her.

"Cooking brought me to wine," says Klein. In high school she worked at a fish restaurant in Manhattan Beach, California. "No one brought home an unfinished bottle of wine in those days. Something would get left on the table, and that was my introduction to wine."

Focusing herself with trademark intensity, she enrolled in the famous "fermentation science" program at the University of California, Davis, which has produced many famous winemakers. After a variety of starter jobs at various wineries, Klein's career took off when she joined forces with winemaker Tony Soter.

The two formed a consulting business, and in the '90s made the reputations of three of the hottest Cabernets in the country: Araujo Estate, Spottswoode, and Viader. Soter left to work on his own label, and Klein eventually parted company with all three. But those stints made her reputation.

"Her wines are on the side of elegance and complexity, rather than just power," says wine journalist Jim Gordon of Wine Country Living magazine. "She's a meticulous, intuitive, really deft winemaker."

Klein's goal is to focus intensely on the vineyard she's working with, instead of trying to make changes in the later stages of winemaking after the grapes are picked and crushed. "If you have a good site, you have to listen to what the grapes are telling YOU:' she says.

When asked about all the media hype over her wines in recent years, Klein says, "The wine business is a luxury business, with limited properties and limited wines. When they get attention, they get it big."

Since wine is an agricultural product, it's at the mercy of weather conditions and soil. "The big thing is for all of us to keep our humility," says Klein. "Good things come and go. The wines we can make in Napa are a miracle of many good things coming together."

For Heidi Peterson Barrett, one of those good things was being born into a winemaking family. Her father, Richard Peterson, was a well-known winemaker for Beaulieu Vineyards and others. "I call him the rocket scientist," says Barrett, 44.

Barrett herself is known for similar acuity. In addition to two consulting jobs (one alongside her father), she is the fulltime winemaker for nine small labels, including one she owns, La Sirena. In all, her output is similar to Klein's.

Another is the Screaming Eagle label, the definition of a cult Cabernet. A charity auction in 2000 brought $500,000 for a rare 6-liter bottle. She also makes red wines for Paradigm and Jones Family.

She's one of the people responsible for the now recognizably high-octane style of Napa Cabernet, a grape that makes up about 80 percent of her output. "Cabernet is king," says Barrett, echoing the opinion of many producers and drinkers.

Barrett seems like an upbeat suburban mom — which is partly the case. "I was in the middle of starting a family," she says, explaining her decision to eschew a fulltime job at a big winery. "I was trying to figure out how I could be a mom, number one, but also keep making wine."

She started consulting in 1988. "Back then, it was rare," says Barrett of her freelance pioneering. "I just made it fit my life." Ironically it has also made her very busy, because she's been successful at every wine she has taken on.

Barrett continued her grape immersion by marrying a Napa winemaker, Château Montelena's Bo Barrett. "Harvest time is wild," she says of the craziest season for anyone in the business. Instead of being a source of competition-who made a better 1998? — their shared occupation makes for empathy: "We have an understanding of what the other is dealing with," she explains.

They keep their sanity by taking breaks. "When we go on vacation, we don't visit France," says Barrett. "We keep it completely nonwine-related."

Keeping it real, so to speak, seems to work for her. "Heidi is one of the nicest people," says Copia's Peter Marks. "Her wines all have a signature sweet ripeness about them that you can find in her as well."

"Balance is everything," says Barrett. "I don't want any sharp comers sticking out." That quality comes with endless tinkering, since winemaking is measured in years from initial planting of vines to the opening of a bottle. "It's a perfectionist's game," she says. "But you have to let go at a certain point. It's not an exact science, and there's no right answer."

Ann Colgin would agree. "I wasn't born into wine," says the 43-year-old Texas native. "I had a long route to get here." For Colgin, "here" is the owner of a very small-500 cases a year-boutique Cabernet that bears her name.

She came to wine as a high-end consumer vacationing in Napa Valley with her first husband. "Having come out for a few summers, I finally got the bug to do something," she says. So the couple decided to make a wine and began with the 1992 vintage.

"At the time, I had an art and antiques business," she says. "My life has done a complete turn. I still collect art, but my business is the winery." For a while Colgin also headed the wine department of Sotheby's Los Angeles, but she has scaled back to a consultant role. She still has a home in Bel Air, but a share in a small plane allows her to fly to her Napa base often, where she has a home with her second husband.

With two successive winemakers (the first being another well-known woman winemaker, Helen Turley), Colgin has built a brand that attracts rare devotion. "Last year I got a certified letter from a woman in the Midwest," she says. "It was from her divorce lawyer. In the divorce agreement, she had gotten the allocation of Colgin wine."

The wine is so hard to get that even a local wine expert like Marks says, "I've actually never gotten to try Colgin before." And although the Colgin name will soon be applied to two more wines, it will still be difficult to find.

One of Colgin's newer vineyards is on the site of her home, Tychson Hill. It bears the name of Napa's first woman winemaker, Josephine Tychson, who once lived on the site. Colgin built an elegant new home in the style of the original as an homage to Tychson.

This will leave Colgin with two Napa homes — "not a bad problem to have," as she puts it. "Besides," she says, "I'm in this for the long haul."

So why are so many of today's best wines made by women? Scientists believe that women, on average, are more finely tuned tasters than men.

Barrett, for one, is not convinced. "I think it's just a fluke ' " she says, though she concedes that "in the scope of history, it's relatively new" for women to be at the top of this agricultural specialty.

Colgin tends to agree — "I don't know that they do anything so different' — but her time at Sotheby's gave her a unique perspective on another part of the business, the top wine collectors, who are overwhelmingly male. "They are obsessed with buying every single bottle," Colgin says. "Women tend to see wine as part of a bigger picture."

Klein believes it's an intuitive sense of roundness and completeness that women are bringing to the table. "The male is about perfecting things. The female sees the whole' " says Mein.

From her sprawling hilltop view at Dalla Valle, a woman's perspective is looking pretty good. "We all have both masculine and feminine in us," says Klein. "The fact that women are getting attention now just shows how important that whole is."

 By Ted Loos