Ever had the dilemma whether to go to an art tasting or a wine museum? Excuse me, an art museum or wine tasting? That's better. Well, if you are ever stuck, one simple destination that resolves the quandary with nary a compromise is a visit to Hess Collection in Napa Valley, halfway up Mt. Veeder. It is either a modern art museum that has a winery attached or it is a winery conjoined with an art museum, it all depends on a person's perspective. Either way, it's a win-win proposition.
Hess is off the beaten Napa Valley wine-tasting trail. It won't take an off-road vehicle to get up Redwood Road off of Napa Valley's Highway 29, but it wouldn't hurt. Exit from 29 at the town of Napa on Trancas Road/Exit 19 and turn to the west towards Redwood Road. From this point it should take less than 10 minutes to get to Hess, unless of course there is road construction going on which was the case when I visited; that added another 20 minutes of delays.
This is a two-lane road that winds and twists it way up the mountain through sun-blocking forests and shoulderless embankments, so I advise paying attention to driving and ignore the scenery or that cellphone call. Not surprisingly you'll notice redwood trees, survivors from the days when this mountainous region's business was lumber and not winemaking. There are a few potential wrong turns to make and it's best to keep an eye on the blue and white signs directing you to Hess.
Make sure you don't go straight when the Mt. Veeder Road junction pops up, but take a hard left. This is not a Robert Frost A Road Not Taken moment, since there are a few other wineries up Mt. Veeder but none have art and most require appointments to visit and taste. After a few more curves Hess Collection will appear on the left side and with a small sigh of relief, you are there.
Hess Collection: A Wine and Art Destination
At the Hess Collection entrance, there are three flagpoles with the Hess Collection standards raised and gently fluttering in the breeze that beckon one on. Here there are small signs that point straight ahead for the tasting. On the left is a small building that serves as a business office.
The pathway leads into a courtyard with a reflecting pool in the center and various outdoor pieces of sculpture. The stone, ivy-covered, building runs the length of the courtyard and ends with another wing jutting out toward the south, making an "L". Inside the entrance you will be met by a host or hostess who will provide information for the self-guided tour of the art collection, the barrel chai or barrel cellar, the wine-tasting bar, and the wine shop.
Art Is Not for Wimps
One note about the Hess art collection, you won't find any Guy Buffet or Leroy Neiman here. Donald Hess' art tastes run toward more eclectic modern art, art that has been influenced by abstraction, expressionism, cubism, dadaism, and the avant garde.
He likes to find and collect art of living artists, supports them, and then when they die, moves on to another. If you are of the artistically faint-of-heart category, perhaps a little fortification of wine would be advised prior to viewing. In that case it would be best to go left to the wine tasting room first.
Otherwise, head toward the back of the vestibule. There's an elevator to get to the art collection upstairs, but I'd recommend you take the stairs. On the second floor landing one of the first thing that greets you is a flaming Underwood typewriter relic. This is a work by Leopoldo Maler and it's called Hommage and was made in 1974. This is a bit of conceptual art supposedly inspired by the death of the artist's uncle in Argentina. He was killed for writing incendiary criticisms of a previous repressive government. It was easy to relate to the concept, having toiled away at term papers on an old Underwood during my university days. I'd often thought a little lighter fluid might have helped my GPA.
There are two floors of art to explore. You will find pieces from noteworthy artists such as Francis Bacon, Robert Motherwell, Frank Stella, Theodoros Stamos, and Magdalena Akabanowitz. It's not all pleasant or comprehensible, but it is thought-provoking, striking, powerful, and sometimes a little weird. An example? How about one gallery room with rock things strewn around and a mud splotch with tire tracks? Figure that one out.
It was almost a relief to round a corner and just see some plain old abstract painting with geometric shapes. One work that draws everyone's focus is a photo-realist painting by Franz Gertsch, Johanna II. Gertsch, a Swiss artist, paints from a projected transparency using a quasi-camera obscura technique, similar to what the great Dutch painter Vermeer was thought to have used. Johanna II is a compelling face viewed either from a distance or up close, especially to see Gertsch's brush technique that captures the model's ephemeral composition more emphatically than a photograph.
Enough of the art mumbo jumbo, time for wine.
Viewing Donald Hess's art collection is free, but tasting his wine is not. A $10 tasting ticket can be purchased in the wine shop next to the tasting room. This will allow you taste four wines of your choice from the tasting menu. These include wines from the Hess Collection and the Hess Small Block Series. Another option is to pay $25 for a barrel tasting in the barrel cellar. This can be done on the fly if there are openings, but it is best to reserve in advance. There is a limit of eight people to a tasting.
Mosey Up to the Bar
The tasting room is a bit on the dark side, with an oval maple bar in the center. The room is large, almost oversized, and can do double-duty for larger events. On this day there were several couples tasting. The wine server took our tickets and set up a couple of glasses and gave us a wine tasting menu. There were eight wines on the list, of which we could pick four. Hess produces excellent Chardonnay, but on this day we went all red.
- Hess Small Block Series Cabernet Franc, 2004.
This wine shows abundant aromas and flavors with prominent doses of cherries, anise, and pepper. Has a soft mid-palate but sturdy structure overall. Price: $36.
- Hess Small Block Series Petit Verdot, 2003.
This comes from the Christian Brothers Mont La Salle Vineyard. Shows nuance and Bordeaux characteristics. Supple. Price: $36.
- Hess Collection Mountain Cuvèe, 2003.
This is a Meritage-type blend but substitutes Syrah for the Petit Verdot. There's juicy red cherries, spices, and cedar that is followed up with licorice, berries, and pepper. Tougher presence, compelling complexity, and a good sense of Mt. Veeder. Price: $36.
- Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon, 2003.
This is a silky textured Cab with cherries and cassis that is wrapped up with chocolate and a complex structure. Price: $40.
These were all very good, with their own redeeming qualities, but the Mountain Cuvèe stood out with its unique perspective of itself. At the end of our visit, somehow a bottle found its way into my car. Fancy that.
Things to Know About Hess
- Donald Hess was mineral water magnate from a generations-old Swiss company. The Hess Group operates as a holding company for a variety of brands in the beverage and hotel-restaurant industries. Donald Hess got the notion for a winery on a visit to Napa Valley on mineral water business. He's a savvy businessman with an eye for modern art, a nose and palate for seductive wine, and a passion for both.
- Hess began acquiring vineyards on Mt. Veeder starting in 1978, the first 502 acres called Veeder Hills.
- In 1986, Hess leased the Christian Brothers' historic stone winery, originally built by Californian wine pioneer, Col. Theodore Gier. Hess began a two-year renovation project.
- The first release was the 1983 Hess Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that was released in 1986 and garnered high praise. The renovated winery and private art museum opened in 1989.
- The Hess Group begins to expand, driven by Donald Hess' vision for producing and distributing premium quality wines from around the world. Besides the Hess Collection, the Hess Group now owns Australia's Peter Lehman Wines, South Africa's Glen Carlou, and a new venture in Argentina called Bodega Colome. This last winery, Bodega Colome, is Donald Hess' newest passion where he and his wife, Ursula, are learning how to tango with wine the Argentina way.
An Artful Experience
You don't have to be a wine snob or an art prig to enjoy your visit to Hess. However, if you are one or the other you will not be disappointed in your visit. If you happen to be both, then the experience will probably bring out the best in your snobbery and priggery.
Most people who travel to Napa Valley for wine tasting will probably miss Hess Collection. They usually go to the better-known wineries off of Highway 29 or the Silverado Trail, stopping at one or the other on a whim and depending if it's on their side of the road. Some people may accidentally find Hess if they are lost or are trying to take a shortcut over the Mayacamus Mountains to Sonoma Valley. The majority who go to Hess have made it their destination for a reason, they love the artfully made wines and the art that goes with it. Visiting hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.