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In the heady world of Colgin Cellars, there are two types of people: the Haves and the Have-Nots. It's easy to distinguish one from the other. The Have-Nots are long faced and desperate, willing to pay up to $35,000 for a bottle of Ann Colgin's much-praised, impossible-to-find Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. They've also sent Colgin expensive jewelry (though this ploy never works). One frantic gentleman even offered Colgin a new Mercedes sports-utility vehicle in exchange for a single case. He was serious. Colgin said no.
The Haves are a different breed altogether. Mostly, they're friends of Colgin's or people fortunate enough to be at the top of her waiting list, which numbers almost 5,000 right now. For the Haves, opening a bottle of Colgin Cabernet is an act of celebration. And when three bottles are uncorked, as was the case at a recent dinner at the Bel Air home Colgin shares with beau Joe Wender, it's a party. The evening began in Colgin's kitchen, with some of her Hollywood friends--actors Kyle MacLachlan, of Twin Peaks fame, and Dana Delany, best known for her role in the TV series China Beach. They talked about "Ann's miraculous wine," as MacLachlan calls it. Acclaimed Brazilian jazz pianist Sergio Mendes and his wife, Graciña Leporace-Mendes, were also in attendance, singing standards like "The Girl From Ipanema" at the Steinway, while Josiah Citrin, chef and owner of Mélisse, a new Santa Monica hot spot, turned out one sumptuous dish after another. The meal began with crispy rock shrimp cakes topped with lemony whipped cream--a marvelous combination of succulent and sweet--and cool cucumber velouté served in small glasses. These hors d'oeuvres were followed by a playful salad of roasted beets, dates and caramelized endive, then by a hearty roast rack of lamb with Cabernet sauce. Individual flourless chocolate-almond cakes served as the grand finale.
At get-togethers such as these, Colgin (pronounced call-gin), 41, is usually at the center of it all, laughing and pouring her wines. Colgin, who grew up in Waco, Texas, and Nashville, was until recently the director of Sotheby's West Coast wine department. She's now a consultant and highly sought-after wine auctioneer, as well as a Napa Valley vintner.
Although Colgin's first vintage, the 1992 Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet, was released just five years ago, Colgin Cellars has already established itself as the maker of one of the best Cabs ever to come out of California. Thanks to a collaboration with acclaimed winemaker Helen Turley, that 1992 vintage, produced in minuscule amounts from a single vineyard, received a 92 rating from influential wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. (The 1995 that Colgin poured at her dinner party was awarded a near-perfect 98.) Parker's score and comments on the 1992 and subsequent vintages incited a frenzy of demand, the sort of fervor surrounding only the most elite limited-production wines, like Screaming Eagle and Pahlmeyer. Says Colgin, "I had great hopes that our wine would be delicious, but I had no idea it would be a sensation. It's hard to explain the enthusiasm sometimes. Iguess it's just human nature to want what you can't have. And it's also just a really tasty wine."
Tasty indeed, and powerful too. When the 1995 Colgin is poured, its black cherry notes seduce the senses even before it reaches the glass. The sensation in the mouth is pure, smooth silk. Soon the rhapsodizing begins. "Ann's Cabernet is like a sensuous lover," says Sergio Mendes, who is an avid wine collector. "It's beautiful to look at, with a wonderful scent. I hate to use the word perfect, but it's close." Another guest at Colgin's dinner party, Christian Navarro, a partner at Wally's, a top Los Angeles wine store, isn't as restrained. "Once you've opened a bottle of Colgin," he says, "you don't want to drink anything else ever again. It's a dream wine."
Even dream wines, however, sometimes get tangled up in nightmares. Last April, Colgin was working out on her Stairmaster at home in Bel Air when she received a frantic phone call from the Napa Wine Company, where her wine, and those of many other top vineyards, is made. Someone had accidentally poured additives into Colgin's new wine, the first production from a recently acquired Napa Valley property, Tychson Hill. Although Colgin says the news was devastating, nothing could be done about it. "Yes, we spent a lot of time investing in and cultivating a great crop," she acknowledges. "But you can't fix a mistake like that with the kind of wine I make."
The news spread across the wine industry faster than phylloxera. The rumors were intense, reports Mark Aubert, who replaced Turley as Colgin's winemaker last April. (He was previously at the celebrated Peter Michael Winery.) "People were crying sabotage and spouting conspiracy theories," he says. "The truth is, it was a simple mistake and no one was to blame." Adds Colgin, "Now all we can do is wait." The first Tychson Hill wine will be the 2000 vintage, available in 2003.
Of course, Colgin has found plenty of ways to keep herself busy until then. She and Wender are in the process of building a house on the Tychson Hill property. And she, Aubert and highly regarded vineyard manager David Abreu have already begun their first collaboration, a Bordeaux-style blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot. The wine doesn't have a name yet, but the initial bottling (300 to 400 cases) will be the 1999 vintage, available in 2002.
Actually, available may be too optimistic a word. These wines "get bottled, then they disappear into thin air," Navarro says. Colgin fans are sorely aware of the allotment issue. With the waiting list approaching 5,000 for only 400 to 500 cases of each new vintage, there is a restriction on the number of bottles available per customer. For the 1995, it was six bottles; for the 1996, it was just four. And many buyers get just one. Says Aubert, "One important winemaker friend of Ann's was so distressed at the allocation process that he invited her to a dinner party and gave her a single scallop, saying only half-jokingly: 'That's your allocation.'"
In the meantime, the Colgin Haves continue to celebrate. One friend of Colgin's, who paid dearly for a case, calls her each time he opens a bottle. He just likes to tell her how good it makes him feel. "The wine," she says with a laugh, "has a life of its own."
Text by David Hochman, a senior staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, who is based in Los Angeles. Hochman profiled wine legend Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson Winery for Food & Wine last month.