Hess Wines are Quietly on the Move

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Posted: Apr 15, 2009 12:01 AM
Hess Wines are Quietly on the Move

NAPA, Calif. -- The drive up Redwood Road from the center of Napa is deceptively steep because you drive many miles, and when you reach the winery, you are literally on the slopes of Mount Veeder, high above the valley floor.

At this property, once the home of the Christian Brothers winery called Mount LaSalle, Hess Collection has made its home for the past 25 years. Over that time, the winery owned by Swiss entrepreneur and art collector Donald Hess has quietly pioneered some fascinating wines.

The reason for my visit on a rainy April day was to see what winemaker Dave Guffy and Hess Collection President Tom Selfridge have been doing the last few years.

The answer is spending money.

The old winery that the Christian Brothers once used to make sacramental wines and many others is still in place, but because Guffy needed more room to add fermentation tanks and make a more crafted statement of the winery’s fruit, the old winery proved stifling.

So Guffy sought to add workspace. He found a tiny area that once was hillside up against the old building. At great expense, it was carved out, concrete was poured, and a series of small tanks were constructed. “They give me a lot of flexibility in how we make small lots of wine,” said Guffy.

Selfridge noted that some $10 million in winery renovations have been made in the last few years.

That, however, is only half the total the team has spent revamping the vineyards -- grafting new plant material to old roots, retraining trellises, and basically bringing the steeply sloped hillside vineyards into a state where the fruit can make a more dramatic statement.

Even so, “dramatic” doesn’t translate into “bigger” wine. Indeed, one of the new releases for Hess from the Mount Vedeer property is a 2007 chardonnay, which is delicate and more along the lines of a Chablis than of an oaky wine. This brilliant effort is spicy and delicate and works best with lighter foods. At $35 it is actually a bargain for those who prefer this style of wine.

Likewise, there are two new sauvignon blancs in the Hess line, both from 2007. One designated as Lake County ($15), from fruit grown just north of Napa, is light and refreshing, and the other from the Allomi Vineyard ($18) in Napa is racy, herbal, and perfectly balanced.

Red wines are Hess’ forte, and Guffy is proud of the winery’s Mount Veeder cabernet sauvignon. But the sleeper of the line is a lower-priced cabernet blend of Mendocino, Lake, and Napa fruit that is one of the best value red wines I have tasted in a long time. (See the Wine of the Week below.)

Hess also is an importer of a wide range of wines from places like Australia and South Africa and also has a new pinot noir project called Sequana (three wines from Sonoma County fruit).

The attractive, art-graced tasting room is filled with little winery-only treasures like a gewurztraminer, a cabernet franc and malbec.

Without much fanfare, Hess is on the move.

Wine of the Week: 2006 Hess Cabernet Sauvignon, Three-County Blend ($17) -- Superb balanced aroma of red and black cherry fruit, dried herbs, and delicate spice. Great midpalate fruit, and wonderful taste to match with red meats.