Hess Collection which opened to the public in 1989 (their first release was 1976) is a very unique winery owned by wine mogul Donald Hess. It is located in the Mt. Veeder area in the hills just west of Southern Napa Valley. Donald Hess was born in Switzerland and was originally trained in his family business to brew beer. He soon branched out into other products including mineral water and wine. As a result, he has been in the wine business for many years and purchased his first property in Napa on Mt. Veeder in 1978 after he fell in love with the area on a business trip. Today he owns several International wineries ranging from Australia, to South Africa to Argentina.
Donald has always been attracted to hillside vineyards and their location is Napa certainly fits this profile. From the upper reaches of the vineyards at about 2000 feet, on a clear day you can see the shining city of San Francisco far to the south west and parts of the Napa Valley floor. The Hess Collection is on site of what used to be the old Mont La Salle winery which was one of the Napa facilities used by the well-known Christian Brothers Winery. The Christian Brothers still own the property here; Hess Collection leases the winery buildings and the land.
Today Hess Collection focuses on a variety of wines produced under three main labels. The Hess Collection wines features wines made from grapes grown on their Mt. Veeder estate property, single vineyard wines feature terroir driven wines, and their appellation wines which are sourced from a variety of counties in California.
There are very few wineries in the hills of Napa Valley open to the public by walk-in and Hess Collection is one of these wineries. The shortest way to reach Hess Collection is from the town of Napa as the winery is really in the middle of “nowhere” along a narrow winding road. It is surrounded by wooded hills in a beautiful location that feels far removed from the valley floor yet is a rather short drive from the city of Napa. Once you enter the main winery you can either taste at their tasting bar which is located next to the gift shop or you can take the elevator or stairs up to the multi-level art gallery.
This winery is known as much for its contemporary art collection as it is for its wine and displays the largest art collection of any Napa winery. Tours of the art galleries are self guided, private tours can be arranged by prior reservation. Their art is worth seeing as its unlike anything you’ve seen before. Here are just a few examples from their very eclectic collection: a typewriter which has real flames coming out of it, a computer programmed “running” exhibit which changes appearance depending on the days of the year, a series of large rocks scattered on the floor which were heated up and changed in appearance and an exhibit of numerous human torso’s.
The art gallery also contains what in our opinion one of the best pieces of artwork in the Napa Valley – the incredible large real life looking painting of a beautiful woman; this is the centerpiece of their main upper floor gallery. Donald strives to get to know the artists he purchases work from and often purchases multiple pieces. Hess Collection rotates some of their art on a fairly consistent basis and they do continue to purchase new works. This collection represents only about 20% of his entire collection.
Hess Collection’s production is the best of both worlds, having a large distribution as well as being able to make limited production wines. They produce somewhere around 600,000 cases a year which for Napa standards is enormous. Of this, only about 10% of their wine is made in this facility. They are certainly not a small winery but they have a number of wines that are extremely hand crafted in very small productions, sometimes just a few barrels. These wines are typically only available at the winery. The majority of their wine is distributed nationally and of this, most of their production is Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. A couple of wines we recommend from an earlier visit include their Artezin Petite Sirah, Petit Verdot and a Gewurztraminer.
The tasting bar is in an old stone room with rock quarried from the hillside located directly behind the winery. This room was built in 1903 and at that time you tried to use materials already located on site as transportation costs based on the type of technology available would have been prohibitive. This was the old “brandy” room as both brandy and still wine were made at the winery. The wooden bar covers 3/4 of a rectangle and in our experience there have always been plenty of staff on hand to handle the crowds, especially on the weekends. Because of their large production, they offer a number of wines for tasting. Its rare when we can try an older vertical of Cabernet Sauvignon at a general tasting room in Napa and upon seeing this listed on the tasting menu, we quickly jumped at the opportunity. A vertical gives you a unique chance to see how the wines have aged both with aromas, flavor and structure.
Hess’s wines seem to hold their fruit, and tannin structure extremely well, even on the older vintages. The 2004 shows a great bouquet that is rich in floral aromatics (violets), with a core of sweet candied fruit. The entry is amazingly soft for still a fairly young wine and has notes of black licorice, black cherry and hints of chocolate on the palate. Broad firm chewy tannins anchor the long finish. The oldest wine we tasted, the 2000 vintage has been treated well with age. The backbone is still certainly there with pleasant briary and blackberry aromas.
It is also somewhat rare to find a Botrytis late harvest Chardonnay in Napa and in the case of Hess Collection this wine is extremely rare having only been produced 1x to date! This vintage was 2006 and is from their Su’skol Vineyard (located in the southern part of the Napa Valley). Each year a certain amount of Chardonnay is left to hang on the vines and in every year except 2006 the fruit goes to waste. Conditions need to be ideal for creating the “noble rot”, or the grey mold that literally covers the outside of the grapes. This wine is very rich in both flavor and sugar with a moderate alcohol level of 12%. It has very good weight on the palate or phenolic grip. There are notes of honeysuckle and citrus blossoms on the bouquet with tropical fruit flavors the carry all across the palate. This is a dessert wine and can certainly be consumed by itself. However, we have found another use for rich wines such as this; we pour a generous helping over fresh stone fruit during the summer (i.e. nectarines or peaches…delicious!).
Joining their wine club gives you access to some pretty neat events including one gathering where you get to blend wines with the head winemaker and the winning blend is announced at the day’s end. Hess is proud owner of the world’s highest commercial vineyards which are located in Argentina at almost 10,000 feet! This winery is Bodega Colome and the vineyards are appropriately called Altura Maxima. Now that is incredible! They operate a second winery (warehouse) in American Canyon where the Hess Select wines are made. Visit: www.hesscollection.com
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