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ON WINE

The Hess Collection : A Swiss Industrialist Showcases World-Class Cabernets--and Art--in the Napa Valley

December 13, 1987|ROBERT LAWRENCE BALZER

FOR ALMOST 10 years, with little or no fanfare, Swiss industrialist Donald Hess has been establishing his California connection, only recently unveiled as the Hess Collection. High on Mt. Veeder, in the Mayacamas Mountains that form the western rim of the Napa Valley, 280 acres of vines, now mature, have been planted to classic Cabernet varieties and Chardonnay.

The 50-ish president of his own diversified international conglomerate headquartered in Bern, Hess is a Swiss national whose mother was born in New York and whose wife is from Boston. Their 14-year-old daughter is American at heart. Hess is a ninth-generation brewer but opted to divert the family business into Valser mineral water, soft drinks, agriculture (including a trout hatchery), resorts and restaurants, and international real estate--commercial, agricultural and industrial.

Beyond all the above diversified subsidiaries in different countries, Hess believes that art is personally enriching and something to be shared. Over the years he has brought together a distinguished multimillion-dollar collection of paintings and sculpture, with works by Robert Motherwell, Olivera Neri, Arnulf Rainer and Morris Louis. The large old Gier Winery, which has been completely gutted and outfitted with modern and traditional wine-making equipment, allowed additional space for an art gallery in which to display the hundreds of artworks that make up the Hess Collection in the atmosphere of a producing vineyard and winery. From this private collector comes an outstanding public museum. "Art is to be shared," Hess has said.

Hess had toyed with the idea of buying a chateau wine estate in France but disliked the rigidity of French wine-making. The more he looked at California, the more his enthusiasm grew, supported by his wife and Swiss friends, such as Jean-Jacques Michel of Domaine Michel over in Sonoma.

Randle Johnson came aboard as the wine maker with impeccable credentials that went beyond his UC Davis education in viticulture and enology. He had been assistant to Phil Baxter at Rutherford Hill and worked at Mayacamas and Stag's Leap Winery. His years as cellar master for Mayacamas perhaps prejudiced him in favor of those intensely flavored mountain-grown grapes, his talents giving him the skills to make singularly wonderful and complex wines from their harvests.

The Hess Collection 1983 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($13.50) has already been described by wine writer Jerry Mead as the "Red Wine of the Year," and certainly the evident breed of this 100% Cabernet varietal becomes a liquid portrait of California claret from Mt. Veeder grapes. Already a lovely wine of depth and character and some drinkability, its best time is yet to come. The 1983 Reserve ($22.50) is obviously of the same family character but delectably more gentle, with the power of the mountain grapes in check. The 1984 Reserve is a total knockout. There's blackberryness, velvet richness, long and luscious taste, deep garnet color, and maybe the 5% Cabernet Franc giving those wood-violet hints and enduring body. It is not scheduled for release until June. Wine maker Johnson's talents with those mountain grapes is again evident in the 1985 Cabernet, already without any coarseness of tannins, a delicacy certain to grow more profound when release time comes around in a couple of years. All five wines were of world-class quality, textbook perfection, certain to draw rave reviews from all beholders of the California wine scene.

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