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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

Hess: World Class Art meets Fine Wine

Tuesday, July 30, 2013
In my humble opinion, the benefit to viewing fine art in a museum is solitary access to priceless, collectible art from renowned artists.  However, museum visits lack one thing that I love about gallery parties - the wine and cheese!  There’s nothing like absorbing visually inspiring art while spearing tasty morsels of aged gouda and imbibing the nectar of the Gods. Enter your ticket to Napa’s art and culinary paradise; Hess Winery and Art Museum, where you can enjoy world-class art and quality wine at one destination.  Nestled into the hillside of Mount Veeder, Hess Collection Winery brings art and wine together like no other locale I’ve visited the valley. Swiss art collector and entrepreneur, Donald Hess, originally traveled from Europe to Napa in search of a new mineral water source for his Swiss company.  While the Calistoga water source didn’t meet his standards, a visit to the Christian Brothers' 1903 property inspired him to purchase it to grow grapes and later produce wine starting in 1978. The historic stone winery was originally constructed in 1903 by Colonel Theodore Gier, though the winery first opened to the public in 1989, that same year Hess concurrently opened his 11,000-square-foot museum.  The art museum was opened at the winery in part to promote artists Hess had been collecting, including the likes of Anselm Kiefer, Francis Bacon, Frank Stella, Franz Gertsch, and Andy Goldsworthy and also as a great PR campaign to entice visitors to his winery, which is situated ff Napa’s beaten track, along a winding tree-lined road aptly named “Redwood Road”.

What attracted Donald Hess to Mount Veeder was exactly what kept other vintners away - the elevation and mountain climate.  Many of Napa’s early winery owners were turned off by these features in favor of warmer, flatter AVAs, but Hess was familiar with this style of mountain vineyard farming from his homeland, Germany, and confident that it would yield high quality grapes and wines.  Because of the low demand at the time, Hess was able to purchase his Mount Veeder property for as little as $17 per acre!  Today, Mount Veeder is distinguished among Napa’s mountain districts for its geologically diverse soils - Hess alone has 13 different soil types which is why Hess wines are known for their complexity, structure and elegance.  The winery is best known for its flagship Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines, as well as single vineyard designates from its estate vineyards in Napa Valley and of course, it’s art.  

Though I’m hesitant to admit it, what finally enticed me to visit Hess Collection was their famed art collection, a feature I thought my LA-based artist friend, Simone Drucker, would appreciate on a recent visit up to Napa with me.  As it turns out, Hess began collecting art in 1966, growing his collection substantially since then.  At the present, the Hess Collection in Napa houses only a quarter of his priceless collection and the rest is spread throughout museums worldwide.  His collecting style is a personal endeavor driven by a passion rather than investment.  Hess is not drawn to famous or trendy artists, but develops a close dialogue with an artist to better understand what drives him or her to create and then faithfully supports that artist long term (many of these artists have reached world-wide fame).  One of the qualities of The Hess winery group and credo that I find most appealing is that the focus doesn’t lie on Hess himself, but rather on his marriage of art and wine as complimentary.  At Hess, both are made accessible to the public for reasonable prices; A $10 fee provides access to the the winery tasting room and tour of the gallery, and the “affordable luxury” wines average in the $20 - $30 price range - a steal for Napa standards.  Ever supportive of the community, Hess is also a leader in sustainable practices; the Hess Collection Winery was among the first 10 wineries to receive certification for the Napa Green Winery program and is enrolled in the Napa Green Land program, soon to be completed.  Donald Hess has a credo: “Nurture the land; return what you take.”

What to expect on your visit: Visitors can sip the estate’s highly regarded wines in a spacious tasting room or paired with cheese out in the shaded gardens before or after a tour of the 3-story galleries, which display about 120 works, including favorites such as photorealistic paintings by Franz Gertsch and an installation of melted and cracked rocks by Andy Goldsworthy.  Windows near the gallery staircase offer glimpses of the working winery with overhead views of the giant fermentation tanks.  If you wish to call ahead, you can arrange for a special tour.  My visit included an informative guided tour of the grounds and art gallery led by Larry, a knowledgeable 7-year veteran guide at Hess.  We could have spent two more hours in the gallery easily marveling at the treasures beholden there, but a cheese and wine pairing awaited us from the third floor private tasting room, that was irresistible even in the presence of such awe-inspiring art.  
We did a blind tasting of 4 wines, each paired with a fantastic local artisanal cheese (notes below) which drew out nuances in the wines that may have been missed without the culinary compliments.  The Mount Veeder wines stood out in particular - the mountain fruit can taste  more concentrated, complex and distinctive from valley fruit.  I would recommend planning a full day expedition to Hess - this is a destination where you want to leave plenty of time to browse the fantastic art, enjoy a light picnic or wine and cheese pairing in the garden, and then peruse the gift shop on your way out. The wines are reasonably priced for the quality and the winery truly makes for a complete well-rounded destination.  Tasting notes and cheese-pairings below:

Wine and Cheese Pairing:

1) 2011 Artezin Mendocino Petite Sirah $25 with Toma Pasteurized Cow’s Milk Aged 3 Months - Point Reyes Farmstead, Point Reyes, CA
Bright aromas with dark and brooding fruit of blackberries, dry forest and exotic spices with nuances of leather and tar. Flavors of black cherry, cassis, nutmeg and allspice with a mouthfeel that is highly textured, like velvet, and a very slight grip that is beneficial for aging. Try it with chocolate truffles too!

2) 2011 Hess Small Block Sauvignon Blanc $24 with Inverness Pasteurized Cow;s Milk Aged 2 Weeks - Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes, CA
Nice light aromas of lemongrass. On the palate, there are tropical notes and passion fruit.  An elegant nuanced wine with vibrant fruit flavors of grapefruit and kumquat balanced on the finish by a crisp acidity.

3) 2011 Hess Collection Napa Valley Chardonnay $22 with Carmody Pasteurized Jersey Cow’s Milk Aged 6 weeks, Bellwether Farms, Valley Ford, CA
Subtle notes of vanilla bean and brioche complement distinctive citrus aromas such as tangerine and lemon zest. A combination of fermentation in stainless and in oak barrels brings focus to the bright fruit characters of white nectarine, pear and green apple. Aging in mostly neutral French Oak for nine months allows the fruit to remain on display.  A small portion of the wine is allowed to complete malolactic fermentation resulting in a crisp, fresh taste with a solid acid backbone.

4) 2009 Hess Collection Mount Veeder 19 Block Cuvee $38 with Big Rock Blue Pasteurized Cow’s Milk Aged 2-3 Months, Central Coast Creamery, Paso Robles, CA
Aromas of cedar and black licorice. A rich entry of black cherry and ripe plum is supported in the mid-palate by oak nuances of vanilla, caramel and graham cracker. A long, silky finish of polished tannins suggest immediate approachability but the wine will continue to improve over the next several years.

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