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

The Hess Collection has many ingredients for an easy, enjoyable visit: a short drive from downtown Napa, a tranquil location amidst forests and hilly vineyards, an impeccably renovated historic building, a pretty courtyard, and an interesting modern art gallery. 

With 900 acres on Mount Veeder, the estate is AVA’s biggest landowner. The winery’s site is also 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 he could soon expand to the Valley floor.

The Christian Brothers took over Gier’s property in 1930 and renamed it Mont La Salle. They produced sacramental wines during Prohibition, and commercial wines after the repeal. 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.

The Hess Collection, art galleryGier’s historic winery has been impeccably renovated and now 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.

The tasting room on the ground floor offers two tasting options. One is a choice of four wines from the list of 13 or so current releases, and the other is the ‘Taste of Mount Veeder’ – a flight of four wines from the  appellation. I’ve tasted both at a couple different times, and both times tasting room hosts graciously offered to pour two additional wines.

Mount Veeder Grüner Veltliner 2013 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 higher in alcohol, with flavors revolving around exotic fruit, lemon, and herbs.

Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Malbec) is a relatively soft and approachable Mt. Veeder Cabernet. 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 a 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. In addition to wine tastings at the bar (walk-ins welcome), the Hess Collection offers several  food and wine pairings, tours, lunches, dinners and walks (reservation only). Free access to Donald Hess private art collection.