WASHINGTON — One of the things I cherish about the wine industry is that there is always something new to learn. Whether it’s a varietal that I’ve never tasted or an innovative winemaking technique that is breaking new ground, I am impressed with the breadth of things to discover.
But once in a while, I learn something new about a subject I thought I knew everything to know about. For example, the Hess Collection.
I was under the misguided notion that the Hess Collection was a winery built around an assortment of contemporary art. In other words, I thought the wine was a hobby. How delightfully wrong I was. While there is, indeed, an impressive art collection, it is simply the proverbial icing on the cake — the cake being an extraordinary assortment of wines.
It all began, almost by accident, when a young Donald Hess was thrust into the family business, brewing beer and producing apple juice in Switzerland. Eventually, Hess built an empire, including the Valser Water Company, the largest mineral water producer in Switzerland.
However, in 1978, while visiting California on a business trip, he became enchanted by the sheer beauty of Napa Valley and the potential of a burgeoning wine culture. He eventually acquired 900 acres on Mount Veeder, setting aside over 600 acres to support wildlife corridors and fish-friendly farming practice, embracing his philosophy of “nurture the land and return what you take.”
In 1986, Donald leased the winery buildings from the iconic Christian Brothers site up on Mount Veeder. He then spent the next two years renovating the property and extending the facility to provide space for his extensive art collection. Eight years later, Hess leased 125 acres of vineyard from Christian Brothers, including the historic Brother Timothy vineyard.
Today, Donald’s son in-law, Timothy Persson, is the fifth generation of the Hess family to lead the Hess Family Enterprises, including the Hess Collection and Hess Family Wine Estates, which includes the wines of the Hess Collection on Mount Veeder in the Napa Valley; Artezin from California’s North Coast; Sequana Vineyards in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley and the Santa Lucia Highlands of California’s Central Coast; Colomé and Amalaya from the Salta Province of Argentina; Glen Carlou from Paarl, South Africa; and Peter Lehmann wines from Australia’s Barossa Valley.
But my story focuses on the remarkable wines made on Mount Veeder, and the “collection” that taught me to never judge a story by the wine label.
In 1995, Donald Hess planted the Su’skol Vineyard near San Pablo Bay, where morning fog and afternoon breezes create an ideal climate for growing chardonnay. According to Dave Guffy, director of winemaking at Hess, “The Su’skol vineyard is carefully farmed to emphasize fruit with wonderful acidity and balance, and demonstrates the impact of the moderate temperatures influenced by nearby San Pablo Bay.”
The 2015 Hess Collection Chardonnay, from Napa Valley, is aged for nine months in barrels on the lees, and stirred weekly for four months. The result is a wine that sports an exotic nose of honeysuckle, lavender and orange rind. It covers the palate with flavors of Honey Crisp apple, ripe pear and buttered toast. Its long, luscious finish is simply remarkable. $22
The 210-acre Allomi Vineyard lies in the gently rolling hills of northeastern Napa Valley, where the combination of a typically long, warm growing season and well-drained soils create optimal ripening conditions for cabernet sauvignon. The 2015 Hess Collection ‘Allomi’ Cabernet Sauvignon, from Napa Valley, opens with aromas blackberry, violets and chocolate covered cherries. On the palate, the wine displays flavors of dark berries, mocha and more ripe cherry fruit. Distinct notes of vanilla and oak spice are complements of aging in American oak. Elegant, velvety tannins enhance the mouthfeel on the long fruit driven finish. $32
Donald Hess was attracted to Mount Veeder’s high elevation and challenging mountain climate, believing this rugged land would produce great grapes, leading to even greater wines. Mount Veeder is distinguished in Napa for having the highest elevation, coolest growing season and geographically diverse soils among its valleys and slopes. This elevation helps develop wines that are known for complexity, structure and surprising elegance, as found in the 2015 Hess Collection ‘Lion Tamer’ Red Blend from Napa Valley. The Lion has been the emblem of the Hess Family for many generations. It has come to symbolize the bold and persevering nature of founder Donald Hess. The 2015 vintage is a blend of malbec, zinfandel, petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, merlot and mourvedre. The wine offers a beautiful nose of black fruit, violets, and dried sage. Layered flavors of blackberry, blueberry compote, black plum and dried herbs are built on a well-balanced frame. Notes of roasted coffee and toffee linger on the tongue on the elegant finish. $45
Adorned with the family crest, the 2014 Hess Collection ‘The Lion’ Cabernet Sauvignon marks the second vintage that is a winemaking collaboration between consulting winemaker Celia Welch and Hess winemaker Dave Guffy. It is a remarkable wine, with malbec and petite verdot blended in to provide an outstanding balance and depth. Aromas of blackberry, cassis and blueberry liqueur fill out the fragrant nose. Expansive flavors of blackberry, black cherry and dark plum are layered over the entire palate and supported by firm tannins and solid acidity. The powerful, well-structure finish features lovely notes of vanilla and tobacco. $185