Profile on Donald Hess

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  • Tuesday 2 November 2010

Swiss-born Donald Hess has managed to combine his twin passions for wine and art, acquiring both at a rapid rate

Donald Hess

Donald Hess didn’t so much turn water into wine as turn from water to wine. As a young man of 20 he inherited a Swiss brewery and a hotel in Morocco. While retaining those interests for some years, he also developed the mineral water brand Valser Wasser that dominated the Swiss market and made his fortune.

Today, he still owns hotels, but has also acquired seven wineries, notably the Hess Collection in Napa Valley and Peter Lehmann in Barossa, both producing many hundreds of thousands of cases. He seems at ease with himself, a large, trim man in his seventies, still maintaining a punishing schedule.

His first and most lasting venture into the wine business was accidental. ‘Perrier had become very successful in the US, and I wanted to break into that market too. So in the 1970s I visited several mineral springs in the US, but never found anything suitable. While in Napa I tasted some local wines – a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Beaulieu’s Georges de Latour Reserve – and was amazed by their quality. So I decided to buy a Californian vineyard. My business managers were horrified, but I spent seven weeks travelling up and down the state, speaking to vineyard workers and managers so I could learn about soils and microclimates. Then, in 1978, I bought 900 acres on Mount Veeder in Napa – though only 20 acres were planted to vines.’

At first, Hess simply wanted to grow and sell grapes, but before long he was producing wines. ‘I looked for premises, and found the old Christian Brothers winery on Mount Veeder. Only after I bought it did I realise how vast the place was. I ended up with far more space than I could possibly use, so I decided to fill the surplus areas with my art collection. It was also a way to attract visitors, who were pretty unlikely to come up to Mount Veeder otherwise.’
The visitors’ centre and art gallery opened in 1989 and, since then, Hess has opened two more galleries to house his collections, at Colomé in Salta, Argentina and Glen Carlou, in Paarl, South Africa. ‘My father had no interest in art, as he always said nature could do a better job. But from the early 1960s I had visited dealers and learned how to appreciate art, and began to collect it, starting with Swiss artists. I have always bought from artists before they became well known. That meant I could buy their work relatively cheaply. Remember that great artists were producing great art when they were young and unknown, too.’

Hess was soon acquiring wineries in other parts of the world. ‘I wanted to produce more than just Cabernet and Chardonnay. So I looked for the ideal places to grow other varieties that I liked. For Semillon and Shiraz that meant Australia, and for Malbec that meant Argentina. The difficulty was that whereas in the past most wines were mediocre and the best stood out, by the 1980s and 1990s good wines were in the majority. That’s positive, but it was difficult for consumers to differentiate. I thought about buying in Mendoza, but realised that while I might eventually make wines as fine as those from Catena and Norton, I doubted I could do better. I was also looking for cooler climates, as I was wary of the heat spikes of California or South Africa that can complicate the maturation process.
‘In Argentina that meant looking at the north. I liked the feel of Salta and Cafayate, and toured the areas for three weeks.

I heard about the old winery from 1831 at Colomé and managed to try some wines from there. They were very concentrated, but a rough diamond. I visited the winery but it wasn’t for sale. Next year I tried again. No deal. So I bought and planted land nearby at Payogasta, at 2,500 metres, then to the north I planted Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir at Altura Maxima – the world’s highest vineyards at 3,100 metres. I bought Colomé in 2001.
‘What attracted me to these high sites was that daytime temperatures never rose above 33˚C, and nights were very cool. At such elevation the grapes develop thick skins and produce high polyphenols. I knew that all this made for a good story, and this got people talking and helped with marketing them.’

New World focus

Colomé is also a biodynamic vineyard. Decades earlier an impoverished artist had refused to sell his work to Hess on the grounds that, as a brewer, he was polluting the earth. Puzzled, Hess persuaded him to expand. ‘We often met to discuss his principles, and that’s what made me aware of the importance of organic practices. I sold my shares in chemical companies and introduced green policies in my own businesses. Colomé is certified biodynamic, Hess Collection in Napa is sustainable, and when Glen Carlou goes into profit, I’ll convert it to organic farming. Peter Lehmann is more difficult, as we buy from 150 growers. But its famous Stonewell Shiraz will be organic.’
Since he had grown up in Switzerland, it seems odd that Hess has never bought vineyards in Europe. But he has come close. ‘I almost bought Château Ausone [in St-Emilion]. [Previous co-owner] Mme Dubois-Challon wanted an assurance that I would change nothing. I said I’d respect the traditions of the estate, but that if I needed to make changes to improve the wine, I would. She wouldn’t sell to me. But what put me off in Europe was that it was very hard to buy more than 50 hectares. Any estates of that size in Europe were prohibitively expensive; land in the New World was far cheaper. Also, California or Australia give more consistent vintages than Europe.’

I wonder how closely involved he is in stylistic and blending decisions at his various wineries. ‘Primarily in thinking about where specific varieties will grow best,’ he says. ‘I look for hot regions where the nights are cool and where, if possible, there is some maritime influence. I’m a great believer in terroir and microclimate, and the last thing I want to do is produce international-style wines. I seek out and employ the smartest young guys I can find to run my wineries and hotels. And Randle Johnson, who was with me from the start as winemaker in Napa, now keeps an eye on many of the other wineries, too, and supervises the blending, though I choose the final blend.’

And how have Napa wines changed in the 30 years he’s been producing there? ‘Mostly in terms of oak,’ he says. ‘In the 1970s and 1980s the wines were far too woody – oak juice, basically. Today wines seem to have less oak, but more fruit and elegance.’

World tours

With wineries on four continents, it’s astonishing he has time to run them, as well as his hotels and art museums. Hess shrugs. ‘I start very early, but always finish by 5pm. Three times a year I do a world tour to visit all my wineries and vineyards, so that gives me more chances to look at art and add to my collection.’

For now, Hess is focusing on adding to his collection of wineries, Argentina’s Bodegas Muñoz being his latest acquisition. Based, like Colomé, in Salta, Muñoz has a less extreme location on the northern outskirts of the region’s wine capital of Cafayate, where it is planted with 20ha of Malbec, Torrontes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. Muñoz will be renamed Bodegas Amalaya – after the second label of Colome, which will now be made in the new acquisition’s winery. Another day – another Hess winery.

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