The Hess Collection – an easy, enjoyable visit on Mount Veeder

The Hess Collection has many ingredients for an easy, enjoyable visit: a short, 20-minute drive from downtown Napa to a tranquil location amidst hilly vineyards and forest, an impeccably renovated old historic building, a pretty courtyard, and an interesting modern art gallery. I wish their hospitality staff was as top-notch. 

Story

I went to the Hess Collection as part of my Mt. Veeder AVA exploration. With 900 acres on Mount Veeder, the estate is the biggest landowner. And the winery’s site is the appellation’s most historic and important property.

It dates back 140 years, when a German entrepreneur Herman Hudeman arrived on Mount Veeder, established a resort, planted a vineyard and built a small winery. A few other wineries emerged nearby. Yet, for many years Mount Veeder was chiefly known as a resort area, the “Napa Redwoods”, and not a wine destination.

The Hess Collection, historic winery buildingThe three-story stone building, which now houses the Hess art collection, was a winery constructed by another German, Theodore Gier, in 1903. Gier created the first really important wine operation on Mount Veeder. He planted a large vineyard and was so successful, that soon expanded to the Valley floor.

The Christian Brothers took over Gier’s property in 1930, renaming it Mont La Salle. They produced sacramental wines during Prohibition, and after the repeal, extended into commercial winemaking. Several sources credit the Christian Brothers with significantly enhancing the reputation of Mt. Veeder wines.

Donald Hess, Swiss entrepreneur and art collector, has leased the historic building from the Christian Brothers for the past thirty years. He first come to Napa in the 1970s on his mineral water business and ended up purchasing 900 acres on Mount Veeder. The Hess Collection isn’t the family’s only wine business. The Group includes eight wineries in Northern California, Argentina, Australia, and South Africa.

Visit

The Hess Collection, art galleryAs said, Gier’s historic winery has been impeccably renovated and makes a great home for the Hess art collection. It features Anselm Kiefer, Francis Bacon and several other modern artists. I particularly enjoyed Magdalena Abakanowicz’s emotional and thought-provoking sculptures made from textile, fiber and other media.

My tasting room experience was less impeccable, however. It seems that the Hess Collection, like some other big wineries, is having a hard time finding the sufficient amount of competent and experienced tasting room staff. My host was friendly and nice but couldn’t go beyond a basic script.

Wines

There are two options at the tasting bar. One, priced at $20, offers a choice of four wines from the list of 13 or so current releases. The other, called ‘Taste of Mount Veeder’, offers four wines from this specific appellation at $30. I went with the latter option and in addition, got to try two off-dry whites from the current release menu, which left me unimpressed.

Mount Veeder Grüner Veltliner 2013 ($28) is a rare opportunity to taste the Austrian national grape grown in Napa Valley. Compared to racy acidity, and green, peppery tones of Austrian Grüners, the Mount Veeder version is lusher, riper, rounder, and more alcoholic (14.4%!), with flavors revolving around exotic fruit, lemon, and herbs.

Mount Veeder Malbec 2012 has a lot of ripe blackberries on the nose, along with plum and forest fruit jam, sandalwood, and cinnamon stick. It tastes smoother and fuller  compared to some Argentinian Malbecs, but at $58, seems a little pricey.

Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Malbec) is a relatively soft and approachable Mt. Veeder Cab. It offers a lot of ripe blueberries, blackberries and some mineral tones on the nose, supplemented by sweet baking spices on the palate. Energetic, firm tannins indicate good ageing potential. At $60, it can be considered a modestly priced Mount Veeder Cab.

Address and opening hours: 4411 Redwood Rd, Napa. Open daily 10 am – 5 pm. Tasting – $20 for a flight of four current releases, and $30 for four Mount Veeder wines (recommended). Walk-ins are welcome but there may be a wait during weekend busy hours. Free access to Donald Hess private art collection.