Ann Colgin at her Tychson cottage home
Ann Colgin at her Tychson cottage home
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00
Experimental feature

Colgin Cellars, Ann Colgin’s acclaimed Napa Valley winery, has developed a cult following. The waiting list for its wines stretches to two years and includes royalty and heads of state.

Almost two years ago, French luxury house LVMH bought a controlling stake in the business. Colgin Cellars became the fourth winery in the company’s “Vins d’Exception” group, and the only one outside France.

Given she is 61, with no children and therefore no obvious line of succession, Colgin’s decision to sell control of her company might sound sensible enough, but it was not an easy one for her.

“When you’re an entrepreneur and you put your heart and soul and so much time, effort — everything — into a business for so many years, giving it up is hard to do,” she says. “But my husband and I realised we really want the Colgin brand to continue and thrive for many years after we’re no longer here.”

She says she has no plans to retire yet. But nor was the acquisition part of her plans. It gave LVMH a 60 per cent stake for an undisclosed price but saw Colgin retained in her leadership role along with her winemaker. It came about by chance after a social introduction to Bernard Arnault, LVMH chief executive, with whom she had an interest in art and philanthropy in common.

“My husband and I had never entertained taking on a partner, but we met Arnault and he was so completely aligned with our vision for the future,” Colgin says. “He was unwilling to ask us to sacrifice any of the care and attention to detail that our clients expect from Colgin Cellars. So we chose to work with LVMH because we had the opportunity to be a part of a very special group of wineries operating at the highest levels in the industry.”

Ann Colgin with her husband, Joe Wender
Colgin with her husband, Joe Wender

Colgin’s husband, Joe Wender, a former Goldman Sachs banker whom she met at a Beverly Hills dinner in 1997 hosted by renowned French vintner Henri Jayer, now helps her run the business.

Colgin, who developed her enthusiasm for wine while working in the wine department at auction house Sotheby’s in her twenties, has been seen as a trailblazer for women in the male-dominated wine industry ever since she established the business in 1992.

She is not, however, the first important woman in the history of Napa Valley, nor is she even the first woman to have run a business on the land where her winery is situated. More than a century before her, Josephine Tychson became the first female vintner in Napa Valley, having pursued her and her husband’s dream after his suicide.

During Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s, Tychson’s vines were ripped out, as happened at most of Napa Valley’s vineyards, and no more were planted until Colgin bought the four-acre site in 1996. The purchase included the little Victorian cottage that Tychson and her husband had built. Colgin restored it and turned it into her own home, where she still lives.

“Nothing was planted on this parcel, and the little Victorian house was in a state of disrepair when I bought it,” Colgin says in her soft Southern accent. “But I was very happy to be able to make the property the way it should be and bring it back to its 19th-century glory.”

There are other significant women in the winery’s history. Colgin’s first winemaker was the multi-award-winning Helen Turley, and since 2007, the winemaking has been led by Allison Tauziet. But Colgin says she does not deliberately recruit women. “I am very careful to hire the best people, regardless of their sex,” she says. “I’m looking for the very best people and we just happen to have a number of women who work for us.”

The Tychson Hill vineyard, as Colgin named it, produces a Cabernet Sauvignon that wine critic Antonio Galloni has described as “very voluptuous and sexy . . . what you would think of a Napa Valley wine as being”.

But it is another of Colgin’s three vineyards, the high-altitude (as high as 1,350ft) 125-acre IX Estate — so named because it was the previous owner’s parcel number nine and Colgin and Wender were married on September 9 — that wine critic Robert Parker called “as close to a viticultural nirvana as I’ve ever seen”.

Galloni agrees: “Tychson Hill is a soloist, but IX Estate is an orchestra.”

The wine produced since the LVMH acquisition has not yet been bottled, but Galloni has tasted some from the barrel. “It’s the level that I expect to see there, which is not a surprise. I don’t think there’s going to be much of a change post-acquisition,” he says.

The IX Estate vineyard
The IX Estate vineyard

Private clients, too, enthuse, about Colgin’s wine. There are currently 8,000 of them on the waiting list for the wines, of which a total of about 40,000 bottles are produced each year. Colgin is reserved about her celebrity clients but says one, Kyle MacLachlan, has become a close friend. In a video on the company’s website, the Twin Peaks actor describes his experience of Colgin’s wine at a dinner party. “I feel charmed. Violets. A delicate perfume. A caress, like the summer night. Slow dancing on rough floorboards,” he muses, before turning to Colgin and asking: “You’ve got to tell me, how do you get all of that into the bottle?”

With her high-society connections and her investment banker husband, Colgin might seem like just another pampered American who has had it easy in life. Yet her early years were not particularly privileged or comfortable. Her father, a surgeon, was 74 when she was born, and died when Colgin was five, leaving her mother, a nurse, to raise her on her own in their home town of Waco, Texas.

It is partly this background that has driven Colgin’s philanthropic activities, she says. The winery has raised more than $15m for causes such as healthcare, community services and the arts, by donating auction lots of wine.

Her mother, now 102, still enjoys a glass of red wine every day, says Colgin. Possibly not always from Colgin Cellars, though. Its wines start at $340 for the Syrah, while the IX Estate, Tychson Hill and Cariad Cabernet blends all sell for $650 a bottle. Colgin does not feel the prices are excessive, however. “The product we make, because of the land and the way we farm it, and the amount of handcrafted care that goes into each bottle, is expensive to many people,” she says.

“But everything is relative in life. There are some people who want to spend money on video games, cars, property — it’s all about how you want to live your life.”

Get alerts on Women in business when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article