Ann Colgin, Naoko Dalla Valle and Delia Viader speak out on getting started, branching out and collecting versus drinking their hard-to-come-by bottlings.
It isn’t at all unusual to go out to dinner in wine country—be it in Tuscany or in California—and be presented with menus and wine lists that offer only top-notch local offerings. But isn’t it a little strange to have dinner at a well-known Napa Valley restaurant (one that has an exhaustive California-only wine list, no less) with three area vintners, and not find a single one of their bottlings on the wine list?
With dinner companions such as Ann Colgin, Naoko Dalla Valle and Delia Viader, you can hardly fault the restaurant for not stocking their wines. The consumer demand for these winemakers’ bottlings is so fierce that the wines sell out as soon as they are released.
Colgin, Dalla Valle and Viader are all attractive, early- to mid-40s female winemakers, none of whom comes from a winemaking family. The cheapest of their wines, when you can find it, is a bargain at $80. The vintners are all grateful that the hard work that they have put into their wineries has paid off, but still find their star status in the business challenging. Colgin, for example, doesn’t know what to make of her fans’ desperate overtures to snag her limited-production Cabs.
“Most of my customers are men,” Colgin says, tucking into a perfectly rare, grilled Ahi tuna steak, “and they go to great lengths to get the wine. They’ll even name their kids after it!” she exclaims. One would-be customer, it seems, promised her that his next child would be named “Colgin” if the winemaker would place him on her mailing list. No deal, said Colgin.
Make no mistake—Colgin has female customers who are as protective of their mailing-list allocations as their male counterparts are.
“Maybe we need another word for ‘cult’… to describe our wines.” —Ann Colgin
“I once got a registered letter from a law firm in Chicago,” Colgin recalls. “In a divorce settlement, the wife received the allocation of my wine. She wanted to make sure that her address—and not her ex-husband’s—was on our mailing list.”
However successful they are now, the vintners’ road to the top of California’s cult wine pyramid has not always been paved with good times and gold. Dalla Valle’s husband, Gustav, passed away in 1995. Colgin’s first vintage—1992—was released shortly before her divorce from Fred Schrader, with whom she initiated her winery project. Viader built her winery while raising three children, mostly as a single mother. Whatever their trials, these feisty women don’t like to hear about how they’ve succeeded in a “man’s world.”
“The challenge of building a winery has made me a much stronger person.” —Naoko Dalla Valle
“Why do you want to give me that advantage?” Viader asks, somewhat miffed. “Maybe we succeed because we’re good at what we do.”
Dalla Valle agrees. “In America, sex isn’t really an issue. Not like it seems to be for the French.”
But thanks to these women’s efforts, and the efforts of other California winemakers like them, even the French have changed their opinion about women winemakers and Napa Valley wines.
“Early on, maybe 10 years ago, when I showed my wines in Europe, they would laugh at me,” Viader recalls. “Now they say, ‘Oh yes, Napa Valley, of course.’
“We have learned so much in the last decade,” she continues. “American winemakers used to always be going to France. But now the French are coming here. For example, each harvest we have a full crew from Europe and other parts of the world who want desperately to work in Napa Valley.”
The Roots of Dalla Valle
Naoko Dalla Valle was also drawn to Napa Valley from a foreign land, albeit one without much of a viticultural tradition. Born in Japan, she came to Napa to open a luxury hotel and spa with her husband, Gustav, whom she had met through a mutual friend in Tokyo. Gustav was Italian but lived in Tokyo, where he ran a scuba-diving company. He also invented several key technologies used in underwater exploration.
The Dalla Valles originally had French partners who wanted to invest in California. But they didn’t plan on growing grapes until after Napa County refused to grant them a building permit, thus dashing their hopes of erecting a resort hotel.
Napa Valley real estate agents Jean Phillips and Ren Harris (also vintners who make Screaming Eagle and Paradigm, respectively) suggested nonetheless that Naoko and Gustav buy a Napa Valley pied à terre. The property happened to have five acres of Zinfandel planted on it.
“Gustav was born in a wine region, so he had a desire to do something with the grapes,” Dalla Valle recalls. Their first wine was a 1986 Zinfandel. The following year, they replanted the Zinfandel vines with Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery now produces about 2,500 cases of wine, including Maya, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend that’s named after Dalla Valle’s daughter.
Dalla Valle’s wines were hardly an instant success. “They used to be floor-stacked in local wine shops,” the vintner remembers. “In the early years, I couldn’t make a living from my wine. Now I do. Unfortunately, I never have enough for all my customers.”
Yet wine seems to have given Dalla Valle something far more valuable than a career. “I always wanted something that would allow me to be a part of this country in more ways than simply being married,” she notes. “If it wasn’t for wine, I wouldn’t have stayed in America. The challenge of building a winery has made me a much stronger person.”
“I never imagined not succeeding.” —Delia Viader
From the Sorbonne to
If strength of character is an asset in winemaking, it’s no wonder that Argentina-born Delia Viader is so successful at what she does. Viader’s strength was tested four years ago, when she arrived home one afternoon after shopping and heard her 3-year-old son, Alex, calling to a “kitty.” He then suddenly screamed in pain.
Viader dropped her groceries and raced to her son, who had been attacked by a large, red, frothy-mouthed fox. With the help of her 17-year-old son, Alan, and their dog, the vintner managed to rescue young Alex and capture the fox for analysis. Sure enough, it was rabid, and all three family members were forced to endure a four-month-long series of painful rabies shots. (Tragically, the county imposed a terminal “Old Yeller” sentence on the dog.)
On the wine front, Viader displays equal force of personality. “When I started out in 1989, it was a low period for the wine business,” she recalls. “I wasn’t really comfortable in the beginning. I felt like I still had to prove myself, especially to my father,” a well-traveled diplomat with great expectations for his Sorbonne-educated daughter.
“I never imagined not succeeding. But it wasn’t very clear how to get there. Not only was 1989 a difficult vintage, but I was struggling with a different culture and language.”
Viader’s father’s job meant a lot of international travel for his family, and one special discovery for his daughter. Delia discovered California when her father, who now lives in Barcelona, purchased 92 acres on Howell Mountain in the early 1980s for a vacation home.
“Land was cheap then,” Viader recalls. The property eventually became her vineyard and winery location. “I finally bought my father out in 2001,” she notes with evident pride. “But the price tag had risen 1,000 percent from the original cost.”
Viader originally moved to California in order to finish her MBA at Berkeley. “My first love was California—not wine. But I wanted to stay here, because I saw a lot of opportunity. To be here legally, though, I needed to find a husband or a job.”
The husband approach was sketchy, but a career in wine looked promising. “I couldn’t find a job I wanted, even though I had good business skills. So I created my own job,” she says. After finishing her MBA, Viader built her winery and planted her vineyard while studying enology at the University of California, Davis.
Not one to sit on her laurels today, Viader is again pushing the envelope: She recently planted Syrah on six acres of her steep hillside property. Her first vintage, 2000, is scheduled for release in the fall of 2002.
However at home in the Golden State, Viader hasn’t gotten Europe, where “life is easier” and “the pace is slower,” out of her system. Last year, to cement her links to the Old World, she purchased a 17-acre property in Tuscany, where she plans to grow native Sangiovese—and some Merlot, just to buck tradition.
Colgin Branches Out to France
The hills of Tuscany and Napa Valley are far cries from Waco, Texas, where Ann Colgin was born. “I lived there before it was famous,” she laughs. An interest in art led her to work at Christie’s auction house in New York. There she met and married art and antiques dealer Fred Schrader, with whom she discovered Napa Valley while vacationing. The two were so smitten with the region that they decided to move to wine country and start their own winery in 1992.
The couple’s marriage unraveled in 1996. Schrader kept their art business and Colgin kept the winery and five-acre property in St. Helena. Currently married to investment banker Joe Wender, Colgin is now carving out a larger piece of dirt for herself in Napa Valley. The winegrowing couple has recently planted some 20 acres of vines high above the valley floor on Pritchard Hill, where they will grow grapes worthy of the Colgin label.
Like Viader, Colgin has branched out to Europe—in this case, France—where she will ironically bail out struggling French colleagues. Last January, she, Wender and a group of investors purchased Burgundy négociant Camille Giroud and its 25,000-case inventory. Colgin’s plan is to upgrade Camille Giroud’s winemaking facility and restore the French brand to its former glory.
“Make No Compromises” for
Back in Napa Valley, how do these high-toned women make wine that achieves cult status?
“Before we answer that,” Colgin states, “maybe we need to find another name for ‘cult’—especially in these times—to describe our wines.” Her colleagues concur.
Viader launches readily into her philosophy of quality control. “I make no compromises,” she says. “Ruthless selection is critical, even if you have to cut and discard half of your production. That’s how you keep consistency.”
“Each vintage is a new challenge,” Dalla Valle adds. “We are constantly striving to make every year our best one.” She was particularly successful in the now-infamous 1998 vintage. Though an unusually cool summer made grape ripening difficult, Dalla Valle’s Cabernet Sauvignon from that vintage was loaded with plush, ripe character, scoring 94 points on Wine Enthusiast’s 100-point scale.
Colgin, for her part, practiced such extreme triage in 1998 that she made only 300 cases of wine, in stark contrast to the 1,500 cases that she produced in 2001. It was a strategy that worked—Colgin’s 1998 vintage offered intensely focused flavors and a supple texture. True to form, the wine sold out almost immediately upon release.
Yet even at the top of her game, Colgin doesn’t like to think of her wine as a collectible—it’s a beverage, she says. “My wines are made to drink,” Colgin asserts. “It’s unfortunate that some people feel they are too valuable to enjoy at a meal. If you’re going to collect art, buy paintings—not wines.”
Quite a few wine collectors would disagree with her. Colgin’s 1997 Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet typically fetches $500 to $700 a bottle at auction; the same vintage of Dalla Valle’s Maya usually sets buyers back $400 to $600 a bottle. The current mailing list price for Colgin’s Cabernet is a mere $150 a bottle (and $120 for the latest Maya): Clearly, there are plenty of wine lovers who think of these wines as investments, not beverages.
Anyone lucky enough to possess only a bottle or two of Colgin, Dalla Valle or Viader should follow Colgin’s advice and drink them, rather than treat them like currency. Opportunities to try these wines come along so rarely that they shouldn’t be passed up.
Those lucky few who have larger quantities of these exceptional wines can opt for a more relaxed uncorking schedule. Beautifully structured Cabernets such as these will probably age gracefully and deliciously for many years to come. And it won’t be surprising, given the nature of the women whose names grace the labels.