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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

(continued from page 8)

It isn't exactly the room that cult wine built because Colgin's husband, Joe Wender, is a former partner of the Goldman Sachs Financial Institutions Group. Still, those coveted bottles didn't hurt.

The cult-Cabernet phenomenon is not only native to Napa Valley, but has helped define it as well. Even if you've never tasted a Colgin, Bryant Family, Harlan or Screaming Eagle, just knowing that the valley can produce such wines—which usually cost more than Bordeaux's first-growths, and score just as high or higher—alters your mind-set about the region. "All are about the essence of this special place," Colgin says. "I don't think it could have happened anywhere else."

That it happened to her was unexpected. With her master's degree in art administration, the Texas-born Colgin moved to New York in 1985 as an art and antiques dealer. She started spending five weeks a year in Napa Valley, living in a farmhouse on the valley floor. By the time she met Turley in the early 1990s, she thought a small winery of her own might be an enjoyable sideline. Turley made Colgin's first vintage in 1992 from purchased grapes.

The timing was perfect. A new generation of Napa Valley producers, as different from those that had gone before as the Impressionists were from traditional painters, were starting boutique wineries almost simultaneously. "You had a number of energetic people who were willing to do whatever it took to make the best wine they could from the best land," Colgin says. "I was part of a fantastic pledge class."

Such wines were, by necessity, made in tiny quantities. And as the boom years of the 1990s created wine-savvy millionaires eager to try the best of everything, such rarity made these the most coveted wines in the world. "Small, handcrafted bottles of things," Colgin says. "It was a perfect fit for me, coming from the art world." For the first time, too, wine auctions had become legal in New York. "That changed the market dramatically," Colgin says. "The auction clientele appreciates quality and rarity." And a case of Colgin cost far less than, say, a modest Modigliani.

The phenomenon created an international reappraisal of Napa wines. "People began to take notice," Colgin says. "All of the attention caused people to say, 'I'd better try these.'" That served to push prices higher throughout the valley. If a Colgin or Bryant was worth $150 on release, wineries figured, their own top Cabernet should be at least $75.

Colgin has taken advantage of her success by buying vineyards. The IX, planted with Syrah and the Bordeaux varieties, may be the most important. It produces almost 1,500 cases a year, a not-insignificant amount that gives a new wave of consumers access to Colgin for the first time with no loss of quality.

But Tychson Hill, tiny and historic, is the most compelling. The 2003 Tychson Hill Cabernet Sauvignon has an exotic cardamom nose reminiscent of Bordeaux's Cos d'Estournel, but a purple-gone-to-black color that could only mean Napa. Smoky, plummy and absolutely delicious, it will doubtless be seen by auctiongoers as the equivalent of rare art, to be displayed as the ultimate sign of good taste. That said, it would be a shame not to drink it.

Spottswoode Vineyard & Winery: Keeping the Faith
A vineyard fills 40 acres of downtown St. Helena, where Madrona Avenue meets Hudson. Adjacent is a gabled house, framed by pine trees that could have emerged intact from the 1890s. Its gardens are immaculate, tended with an ingenuity and a care seldom seen today. This property belongs to Spottswoode, a throwback of a Napa winery that makes Cabernet Sauvignons so restrained and elegant as to seem like royalty among commoners.

Jack Novak was a 38-year-old San Diego doctor in 1971 when he decided he didn't want to practice medicine anymore, nor raise his five children in San Diego. During a rainstorm, he fell in love with Napa and sunk his savings into 45 acres. The vineyard had been planted after Prohibition with Gamay, Petite Sirah, Chenin Blanc and French Colombard, grapes that sold at the local co-op for $300 a ton. With no knowledge of the business, Novak decided to replant with Cabernet Sauvignon and start a winery.

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