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Napa Valley wine pioneer Donald Hess dies aged 86

Donald Hess, the founder of iconic Napa Valley producer Hess Collection Winery, has died peacefully at his home in Bern, Switzerland.

The entrepreneur, vintner and art collector was surrounded by family when he passed away at the age of 86.

Hess was born in Switzerland back in 1936, and he inherited a brewery close to Bern from his father. He learned the brewing tradition as an apprentice in Bavaria, and he pioneered a successful new method for producing non-alcoholic beers.

Hess sold the brewery and reinvested the proceeds in a mineral spring in Vals, a village close to the Italian border. He turned Valser into Switzerland’s leading mineral water brand.

In the late 1970s, he travelled to the US in a bid to expand his mineral water business by purchasing an American producer.

Instead, he ended up in Napa Valley and became captivated by wine – a love affair that changed the course of his life.

He was drawn to the rugged hills of Mount Veeder, where he claimed that the slopes were unsurpassed in yielding high-quality grapes.

Hess established The Hess Collection after purchasing 283 hectares of land on Mt. Veeder in 1978.

The first Hess Collection wines were produced in 1983, and he continued to expand the business in the years ahead, while he also played a pivotal role in establishing the Mount Veeder AVA in 1993.

Over the past 45 years, The Hess Collection has pioneered sustainable viticulture, and it also helped to revolutionise wine tourism in the region.

Hess, a passionate art collector, installed a three-story art museum above the winery’s tasting room in Napa Valley, housing pieces from famous artists such as Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter.

This gallery helped the estate attract tens of thousands of visitors per year, offering a blend of fine wine and world-class art.

In the late 1990s, driven by a passion for wine and love of adventure, Hess ventured to Argentina. He found a 150-year-old winery called Bodega Colomé high in the mountains of Salta, which he called a ‘diamond in the rough’.

He moved to Argentina with his wife, Ursula, and they spent more than a decade rehabilitating the vineyards and transforming the winery.

They expanded the business with further vineyard acquisitions around the Calchaquí Valleys, including the Altura Maxima vineyard, and Bodega Colomé now has four estates totalling 150ha.

Hess sold the Valser brand to Coca-Cola in 2002, allowing him to concentrate on wine and art.

Along with the Hess Collection art gallery in Napa, he also founded the James Turrell Museum at Bodega Colomé, which houses nine of Turrell’s immersive light installations – the world’s largest installation of the artist’s work.

Hess is survived by Ursula, his daughter Alessandra, his stepdaughters Larissa and Sabrina, and five grandchildren.

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