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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Vintner Ann Colgin is the first lady of Napa Valley "cult" wine.

The bids are coming fast and furious for lot 60 of the 2007 Auction Napa Valley charity wine sale in St. Helena, California, the very bosom of American's most famous wine-growing region. "Yaw!" hollers a "spotter," one of a team of local ranch boys relaying bids to a tuxedoed auctioneer onstage.

"Eighty, 90, 100,000," calls out the auctioneer, barely pausing for breath until he reaches $260,000. When he finally brings down the gavel at $320,000, the crowd applauds the astronomical price paid for four bottles, two magnums and one double magnum - in all, equivalent to a single case - of a 2004 Bordeaux-style blend from a small local winery called Colgin Cellars.

"Let's go see who it is," chirps proprietor Ann Colgin, as she pops up from the table that she and her husband, investment banker Joe Wender, put together for the event. Colgin, who's wearing a plum silk Vera Wang cocktail dress, is an attractive woman nearing 50, Texas born and well polished by 15 years in the wine business. When she returns to her seat at the head of the table of "hedgies" (hedge fund managers), and "VCs" (Silicone Valley venture capitalists), Colgin reports that the winning bidder is an investment honcho, who, as part of his purchase, will also be treated to a wine-soaked dinner for himself and nine friends at Colgin's winery. Apparently, he's been trying to get his hands on her bottles for a long time.

"He just reminded me that he called me years ago because he wanted to buy a stake in my business," says Colgin, who has tousled chestnut hair and an ability to imbibe deeply without visible effect.

It would have been a wise investment on the part of the mystery financier. Colgin began to make wine almost as a hobby in 1992. At the time she was working as an art and antiques dealer, and her intiial bottling amounted to a mere 275 cases. Today, total production is 2,500 cases a year. While that is tiny by industry standards, Colgin is one of only a half dozen ultrapremium Napa Valley producers to be considered a "cult" winery by collectors. She hates the term.

"Being from Waco, Texas, 'cult' makes me think about David Koresh," Colgin says with a laugh, sitting the day before the auction in the oversize Mediterranean villa at IX (pronounced "number nine") Estate, a 120-acre vineyard property in the hills above St. Helena. She and Wender, a serious wine collector, bought the property in 1998, a year after they met at a Burgundy tasting in Beverly Hills. At the time, she was running the Sotheby's wine department in Los Angeles - "When Joe and I were courting, he would come to my wine auctions and would just keep on bidding," recalls Colgin - and already owned Tychson Hill, a 2.5-acre Napa Vineyard. The couple invested heavily to develop the land at IX Estate and were married there among the young vines on 9/9 in 2000.

"IX Estate is the most remarkable new vineyard planting of the past 20 years anywhere in the world," says Paul Roberts, wine director for the French Laundry and Per Se restaurants. "'Expense' is not a word that comes up with Ann and Joe because they want it to be at a standard that can't compare to anything else."

Today the couple divide their time between homes at Tychson Hill and Los Angeles, and also make regular trips to Burgundy, where in 2002 they bought a piece of historic wine merchant Maison Camille Giroud. It's no exaggeration to say that Colgin, who has no children, lives and breathes wine. Her art collection is built around bacchanalian themes, and her dog is named Corton-Charlemagne after an appellation in Burgundy.

Rapturous reviews from critics - including Robert Parker, who awarded Colgin's 2002 Tychson Hill Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon a perfect 100 points - have pushed the price of Colgin wines to $275 a bottle upon release. If, that is, one can find some. Most of the product is sold directly from the winery to clients on a carefully tended mailing list, and the waiting list to join the mailing list now has some 3.500 names.

"I started this whole business on a shoestring," recalls Colgin, noting that the price of entry was much less before a land rush in the late Nineties drove vineyard values in Napa sky-high. "It was an act of passion. I fell in love with wine."

Colgin got her first taste of fine living as a girl, when her gastronome father would drive the family to New Orleans in his baby blue Cadillac. Colgin attended boarding school at posh Hockaday in Dallas and went on to Vanderbilt University. Later, she attended Sotheby's decorative arts program in London, and it was there, in the land of well laid cellars full of fine old claret, that her interest was sparked. "One night I had a chance to try Latour and Haut-Brion from 1959," recalls Colgin, naming two legendary wines. "I had to learn more."

In the early Eighties, she moved to New York to work for Christie's in client services. Her mentor there, auctioneer Brian Cole, was a devoted oenophile and opened doors for her early visits to Napa. In 1992 she bottled her first vintage in a local co-op facility, with fruit from local grower Herb Lamb and technical guidance from a young winemaker named Helen Turley, who in the years since has emerged as an industry star. That wine, the Colgin Cellars 1992 Herb Lamb Vineyard, established the style for which Colgin is still known. "The vision that Ann had for her wines helped put Napa in a new league," says Roberts, who describes Colgin wines as "the epitome of the glorious California sunshine, with richness, great length and a perfect balance."

Colgin bought her first property, Tychson Hill, in 1996 - the land had been planted in the 1880s by Josephine Tychson, the first female vinter in the valley - and soon began attracting major industry attention. Says Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible: "Ann has an extraordinary palate, the equivalent of perfect pitch."

Given the Napa Valley's current global status, it's hard to imagine that even 10 years ago some collectors didn't believe that California wines had the potential to age well. "They were Francophiles," says Colgin. "They bought Italian wines occasionally and other old-world wines. But they would not consider buying anything from California."

The Napa Valley charity auction shows how much times have changed. The event is a high-water mark of the local social season, and for the sort of serious collectors who arrive by private jet, the hot ticket is to one of the Friday-night winemakers' dinners. This year Colgin and Wender - accompanied by current winemaker Allison Tauziet - treated 18 guests, from as far away as China, to a feast by French Laundry chef Thomas Keller.

Before the meal, Colgin leads visitors through the estate's cellars. Pausing in front of a sculpture of a red mouth outside the barrel-aging room, she announces, "Those are my lips." Years ago, she explains, she "signed" a bottle of Colgin Cellars wine being sold for charity by kissing it. The gimmick proved popular, and Colgin repeated it so often that it became her signature, inspiring the tribute from a local artist - a piece, Colgin adds with a wink, that Wender was naturally honor-bound to buy.

Good humor aside, however, Colgin is dead serious about the integrity of her business. It would be easy, for example, to cash in on her reputation with a mass-market "second" wine. But when the subject is raised, Colgin shudders. "I feel like what we create here is very special," she says. "I don't want to dilute that."

 By Kevin West