Monday, October 27, 2014

Donald Hess—Entrepreneur and Visionary

Donald Hess, a Swiss entrepreneur, bought 900 acres on Mount Veeder (situated between Napa and Sonoma Valleys) between 1978 and 1982, setting aside 600 acres to support wildlife corridors and biodiversity. Immediately, sustainable practices, as defined by the Wine Institute, were utilized in the vineyards. The old stone winery, originally built in 1903, was opened to the public in 1989. Since that time, the Hess Collection of wines has become synonymous with quality wines and green farming.

I had the opportunity to visit Hess a few weeks ago, and it was a memorable experience. Within a few hours of landing in San Francisco, my new friends and I were sitting at a picnic table in the middle of the Allomi Vineyard looking out over 210 acres of vines. The vineyard, purchased in 1997, sits at the base of Howell Mountain in the beautiful and remote Pope Valley. Although Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, and Petite Verdot are also grown here, this vineyard is best known as the source for the Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Allomi. Mike, our host, poured the 2012 as we enjoyed an incredible picnic lunch prepared by Hess’s chef. This wine is a quintessential valley floor Cab with luscious red fruits that are joined by a bit of blackberry and black currant. The tannins are ample enough to lend support and complexity but are well integrated for a soft, round mouth feel. Selling for $28.99, this is a delicious wine! The six of us polished off two bottles before leaving this beautiful place and resuming our adventure.

We then headed up Mount Veeder, almost to the very top, to the Veeder Summit vineyard. Hess is so dedicated to sustainable green farming that dozens of goats are released before bud break each spring to clear undergrowth around the vines so there is less dependence on vehicles. There are fully a dozen varietals grown here, with the early ripening Malbec and Merlot being the most dominant. Looking southwest, we could see as far as the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and 115 acres of vines spread out before us.

We gazed out over the magnificent vista as we drank a bottle or two of Hess 19 Block Cuvee. A blend of Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah, and Malbec sourced mainly from the vineyard we were sitting in, this wine has beautiful red berry fruit, clove, and cinnamon on the nose followed by a mouthful of red fruit. A soft tannic finish laced with raspberry and a hint of vanilla make this a wonderful wine. It sells for $31.99 and is worth every penny.

We then went to the beautiful old stone winery, where we tasted several wines in the garden. We tasted a few winery-only wines that were very good, especially an awesome Petite Sirah. We also tasted through the Hess Select series. These entry level wines are sourced from all over California and are very well made for the price they sell for. There is a Monterey Chardonnay, fresh and vibrant without being overwhelmed with oak, and a very correctly made citrusy Sauvignon Blanc, both of which sell for $10.49. The Pinot Noir was a pleasant surprise, with cola, cherry fruit, and spice. The Treo, a blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Merlot, full of cranberry, pomegranate, black cherry, and spice, is jammy and easy drinking, a perfect BBQ wine. Both these wines sell for $12.49 and are great values.

The tasting completed, we now walked up to the library, gazing at Mr. Hess’s amazing art collection on the way. We enjoyed a wonderful meal and, of course, wonderful wines to match each course. The most noteworthy wine was the 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay, served with a pan seared halibut. This delicious Chardonnay, is sourced from the Su’skol Vineyard on the Napa Valley floor, barely ten miles from San Francisco Bay. Morning fog from the bay cools the hot Napa Valley microclimate, providing perfect growing conditions for Chardonnay, and it shows in the wine. I tend to be an ABC kind of guy (anything but Chardonnay) but this wine is remarkable. The musque’ clones used in the vineyard result in beautiful floral aromatics and flavors of honeysuckle and apple with a background of citrus and tropical fruits. Acidity is perfectly balanced against a rich mouth feel. Only 25% malolactic fermentation and aging in neutral oak result in a perfectly balanced, vibrant Chardonnay. This wine is a must for Chardonnay fans at $21.99.

The next day we visited the 175 acre Su’skol vineyard, and Kate, the winemaker gave us a tour of the massive 850,000 case facility that Hess has nearby. From there we continued our adventure in wine country, but we are not soon to forget our experience at Hess. If you go to Napa Valley make sure to visit the winery. But in the meantime, enjoy the wonderful wines that come from this venerable estate, whether they are from the excellent value Hess Select series or the amazing estate wines. You will be impressed.


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