Thursday 30 January 2014

Interview: Ann Colgin

At 9 a.m. on a delicious November morning, with a white mist rolling in the valley, Colgin’s IX Estate vineyard glows in the fall sun. It is a scene drenched in beauty, but it can be deceptive, especially when you remember the quantity of high explosives deployed to blast out the vineyards.
Colgin's IX Vineyard, Pritchard Hill, Napa

"I had been looking for a great piece of untouched hillside property for many many years," says Ann Colgin, who is businesslike, polished, and heralded by two fluffy white dogs (named Corton-Charlemagne and Gevrey-Chambertin, somehow unsurprisingly). "I just fell in love with this particular parcel." The parcel was the 125-acre IX Estate on Pritchard Hill, which Colgin and her husband-to-be Joe Wender bought in 1998. They spent a year planting 20 acres of cabernet sauvignon with the help of "12 earth-moving machines and a bit of dynamite," completing the winery buildings in 2002.

Colgin’s history is well known. A Christie’s auctioneer with a degree in art history (an unfading passion: her home is filled with art and antiques, and she interrupted our interview to bid – successfully – for a painting by iconic American artist Ed Ruscha), she and her then-husband Fred Schrader started coming to Napa in the late 1980s. A burgeoning interest in wine was fueled by a meeting with consultant Helen Turley, and in 1992 she secured a parcel of grapes from the renowned Herb Lamb vineyard on the lower slopes of Howell Mountain. Robert Parker noticed – and smiled upon – the inaugural Herb Lamb Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Colgin reputation was born. She continued her search for vineyards, in 1996 purchasing the three-acre Tychson Hill north of St Helena. Two years later Colgin alighted on Pritchard Hill.

Her IX Estate sits high on this rocky eminence on the eastern side of the valley, just north of Atlas Peak. Colgin has illustrious neighbors, with some of them – Dalla Valle and Bryant Family for example – existing, as she does herself, in the ultra-rarefied heights of the Napa cult. It’s a term she disdains (she comes from Waco in Texas, where the word has different associations), but the dictionary definition – "devotion or homage to person or thing" – is apt. Parker, for one, describes the estate as "Nirvana." Prices, while not reaching the stratospheric heights of some Napa stars, are hefty. Few vintages of any of the cuvées retail at less than $500 a bottle.

One of the main attractions of Pritchard Hill is the extraordinarily poor soil. When a vintner up here tells you he took out rocks the size of Volkswagens, he doesn’t mean VW Beetles but slab-sided vans. There’s nothing unusual about using dynamite to break up the ground. It can cost anything up to $250,000 per acre to prep land for planting. Colgin’s landscaping efforts were comprehensive. The author James Conaway, in his controversial book "The Far Side of Eden," devotes some pages to it: a "scary" rockpile of "Brobdingnagian proportions," boulders rolling down and smashing municipal water pipes, abatement orders issued.

The neighbours claim Conaway over-dramatised the situation, but there is no doubt that Pritchard Hill has had extensive cosmetic work. It's all gleaming blacktop and electric gates, and behind them, palatial, rough-hewn wineries with tinkling waterfalls playing down artfully arranged rockpiles. Sometimes, the words "theme park" come to mind. There are some big-name consultants up here, crafting wines that for all their polish can lack a certain character.

I must stress that I don’t include Colgin’s wines in that bracket. They are universally admired – Robert Parker recently handed out 100 points to the 2010 Estate Syrah, the 2010 Cariad and the 2010 IX Estate (that makes nine perfect scores since the first vintage). I haven’t tasted the 2010s, but I can vouch for the purity and freshness of the 2009 IX Estate, its dense, tar-and-nettle nose, the peppery, plummy rush of the palate and the beautiful precision of the tannins. Moreover, tasting back through the years to the 1995 Herb Lamb Vineyard, Colgin’s fourth vintage, you can see a consistency in the breathy earthiness, the minerality and the balance.

That the wines should remain consistent through changes of winemaker is key to Colgin’s vision. When one considers the nature and ego of top-end Napa consultants, this can be a difficult proposition. Her first winemaker, Turley, was described by Jay McInerney as "Valkyrie-like"; her second, Mark Aubert, left Peter Michael Winery to join Colgin and then took off in 2006 for Bryant – by all reports with little warning. He was replaced by his assistant, Allison Tauziet, the current winemaker. Also employed is Bordeaux consultant Alain Raynaud, a controversial figure in many circles for championing riper styles. A constant presence has been veteran viticulturalist David Abreu, who looks after all the vineyards.

While Colgin may be a Napa cult in any accepted sense of the term, its admirers insist it is different from many of its peers. Joss Fowler, fine wine director at London merchant Fine + Rare, calls it a "serious" wine. "The price of some boutique wines rests on their boutiqueness rather than quality, but people see the price of Colgin as commensurate with quality." Lovers of great wine, he says, gravitate naturally from high-end Bordeaux to Colgin.

Sometimes, though, when tasting the highest-end Napa wines, you long for an edge. They are so perfect they leave you slightly breathless, and you find yourself looking for a break in the seamless purity. Sitting in the winery’s handsome tasting room with Colgin, I quote Chris Millard at Newton Vineyards on Spring Mountain, who values "rusticity" in his wines – wild briar blackberry, for example, as opposed to cultivated fruit. There’s a moment of silence. "There has never been a rusticity in our wines," Colgin says. "What’s happened is we’ve taken it to another level with focus on purity of flavours."

Mist in Napa Valley from Pritchard Hill

Colgin is fluent and frank in interview, with a disarming throaty laugh and a readiness to be amused (as when I suggest there’s a hint of marijuana on the nose of the 2006 IX Estate: "Ha! That's one we haven’t had"). When it comes to her wines, she is keen to get across the intimate, almost claustrophobic focus of her operation. Multiple different parcels are picked and vinified separately. There may be as many as 27 individual picks, sometimes one side of the row, and the other days later. "There is so much precision in what we do. We micromanage. I think of it as more like a bonsai – it’s very dialed in." Indeed, as Colgin’s chief of staff, Paul Roberts, says: "Viticulture here can be on a level that very few people are operating on."

Colgin herself believes that "this project is so dedicated and specific, it sets us, along with a handful of other producers, apart. It transcends the idea of Napa Valley." Is this a sleight of hand, the notion of being at once rooted in the soil, and transcending it? You wouldn’t catch a Burgundian suggesting his wines transcended the Côte d’Or. Colgin’s dedication to terroir is manifest, however. She returns again and again to the primacy of site. "The land trumps the winemaker. Fifty years from now there will be a different winemaker, but he or she will continue to express this site. This area is known as Sage Canyon, and there is that sense of earthiness and herbs de Provence that is inherent in the land. The essence comes through in the wines."

In the end, it all comes down to place. Sitting up here, gazing through the picture windows while the mist disperses and reveals the valley below, you can feel slightly removed from reality. And the wines themselves (let’s not forget how much they cost) can seem not of this planet. But then you taste that spice, earth and perfumed fruit, and feel yes, they do seem pretty rooted.

(This article first appeared on wine-searcher)

See also:
Francis Ford Coppola at Inglenook - from Decanter
A visit to Screaming Eagle
Tim Mondavi - The Decanter Interview
The Historic Vineyard Society of Sonoma
Stag's Leap Wine Cellars - Keeping the Faith - from World of Fine Wine
Napa Mountain vs Valley Floor
'We've got two wine OBEs in the audience today' - A Napa masterclass in London

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