Winery Owner Donald Hess Dies at 86

Donald Hess, a businessman, art collector and a vintner on four continents, died at the age of 86 in Bern, Switzerland, on Jan. 30.

Born in Switzerland in a family of brewers, Hess built a successful mineral water company before entering the wine industry in 1978 by purchasing 700 acres of vineyards in Napa Valley’s Mt. Veeder appellation. Originally intending to only sell grapes, Hess started making wine of his own in 1983. Three years later, he opened the Hess Collection winery in a restored building originally built for the Christian Brothers winery in the 1930s.

Hess began amassing a large modern art collection to display as part of the Hess Collection, hoping to attract visitors up to Mt. Veeder. At that time, most Napa wineries offered simple tasting rooms, and the Hess art collection served as a draw. The museum still operates to this day, showcasing a wide range of artists. By the 1990s the Hess Collection had gained notoriety for powerful expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon. Hess also helped with the effort for the establishment of the Mt. Veeder appellation in 1993 and became an advocate for sustainable agriculture.

Hess also began buying other winery properties starting in the 1990s, most notably in South America. By the end of 1996 he had purchased or founded Mont Gras in Chile; Bodega Norton in Argentina; Chateau Tahbilk, Geoff Merrill and Peter Lehmann Wines in Australia and Glen Carlou in South Africa.

In Argentina, he took a particular interest in the lesser known region of Salta, acquiring Bodega Colomè in the late 1990s. Colomè’s first vintage under his leadership, a Malbec and Cabernet blend, was in 2002. The grapes for Colomè were sourced from a 150-year-old vineyard in the Calchaqui Valley in Salta, one of the highest growing regions on the planet, with vineyards planted at elevations up to 9,000 feet. It’s a very arid region, and Hess purchased an additional 96,000 acres of land to capture runoff water from the Andes Mountains to supply the site.

Argentina became the focus of Hess’s life after he stepped down as chairman of the Hess Collection in 2002, handing over the company to his stepdaughter and her husband. By the mid 2000s he was spending up to 11 months a year living at Colomè. He built another art museum there in 2009, this time solely dedicated to the works of James Turrell. In 2010 he purchased 380 acres in Cafayate, a town about 2 hours’ drive south of the Colomé site.

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

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Winery Owner Donald Hess Dies at 86  
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