Finding the Fun in Napa Valley

Our contributor takes a tour of California wine country
Colgin Cellars is located in California's Napa Valley.

Anyone can write about the wines they tasted on their tour of California’s wine country; wine reviews can be found nearly anywhere you look online these days.  This considered, I feel (and fear) we’ve turned drinking wine into too serious of an activity.

And where’s the fun in that?

So instead of writing about all of the amazing, and mostly exclusive, wines I had the luxury of tasting, I would like to talk about the people and the smiles behind the wine you pour into your glass every evening, calming you down after a long day at the office. And, like wine, those people range from refreshingly light and bubbly to indulgently rich and elegant.

Winemaker Don Van Staaveren greeted us inside the walls of Three Sticks Winery, a 7,200-square-foot warehouse that screamed cool bachelor pad more than it did accomplished winery. He’s wearing an arm splint, khaki shorts, a flannel shirt, and weathered boots. His face and hair are delightfully kissed by many days spent in the sun and surf and when he laughs, his eyes show the age of a man who has lived a lot in his day. He can easily blend in with the crowd and no one would know they were walking among such a pioneer in Sonoma winemaking. He’s warm and kind and gentle. Even as he poured our 2012 barrel tastings (a rare treat), he did so with such a gentle hand, arm splint and all.

I sat next to Von Staaveren at dinner later that evening and we traded bites, constantly bumped elbows due to the splint, and talked about everything but wine.  After spending time with this man, I undoubtedly see the connection between him and his work. Von Staaveren chooses to not crush his grapes during his process, and I would expect nothing less from the most gentle man I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing a bite with.

If you were to look at the style of Von Staaveren at Three Sticks, imagining it being at one point on a long spectrum, you would have to search far to find the tiny dot that is Ann Colgin, owner of Colgin Cellars. But apart from her petite size, there is nothing tiny about this woman. Once meeting her, I was immediately in awe and admittedly, slightly nervous. Colgin greeted us at the steps of her impeccable winery, tiny dog in hand, not a wrinkle in sight or hair out of place, a stunning woman with power and beauty and grace. Colgin is the kind of woman who makes you stand up straighter and desperately try to remember all of your SAT words. It wasn’t until I cracked a joke an hour into our tour that I believed I wasn’t in a dream.  We were standing in her massive cellar and after all of the questions had been answered and a long pause entered the perfectly chilled room, she asked if we were ready to now go taste some wines. A chorus of polite yes pleases and of courses and that would be lovely!’s filled the room and then I blurted out, "Um yeah…it’s kind of been like dangling a steak in front of a bulldog." Getting a laugh from such an accomplished and admirable woman like Colgin can inflate you for a lifetime. 

When you’re able to experience meeting the great Colgin and then getting to taste her beautifully crafted wines, you fully understand her style: elegant and refined, with a hint of playfulness on the finish that sometimes takes a little time (or a filter-less Carolina girl) to detect.

Coming home after a trip like this one made me look at not only wine, but people in an entirely new way. It’s difficult not to judge a book by its cover, or wine by its label or better yet, wine by its winemaker. Because sometimes the fanciest bottle you own is made from the most elegant woman you’ve ever met, and sometimes it comes from the splinted hand of a surfing hippie. 

And that, my friends, is what makes wine so incredibly fun.

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