Donald M. Hess, a business magnate, avid art collector and the founder of one of the country’s most recognized wine brands, died peacefully Sunday at his home in Bern, Switzerland. He was 86.
Hess founded his eponymous winery, Hess Collection Winery, now called Hess Persson Estates, 45 years ago. He was a leader in both sustainability and hospitality — known for infusing wine with art — in Napa Valley and abroad.
“He was one of those people that has infectious energy; you just wanted to be in the same room that he was,” said Dave Guffy, the winemaker at Hess since 1999. “He was incredibly successful, but at the same time, incredibly humble and down to earth and very easy to be around.”
Born in 1936, Hess was only 20 years old when his father passed away. When he took over his family’s brewing and real estate companies, he quickly proved he had a natural acumen for business. He launched the first nonalcoholic beer in Switzerland. When he saw that the brewing industry was rapidly consolidating, he made the difficult yet pragmatic decision to sell the small operation, which had been in the family for three generations.
Using the money from the sale, Hess pivoted to a different sector of the beverage industry: mineral water. He purchased a mineral spring in Switzerland and produced bottled mineral water under the label Valser. Over the course of three decades, the brand grew into the leading mineral water brand in Switzerland. It was so successful that Hess sold the company to Coca-Cola in 2002.
Donald Hess in the vineyard during harvest for Hess Collection Winery in the 1990s.
Hess Persson Estates
But decades prior, his pursuit of U.S. expansion for Valser brought him to Napa Valley in the late 1970s. Napa was in the throes of its exciting experimental era, and he became enamored with the quality of the region’s wines. Hess’ real estate search quickly shifted from mineral springs to vineyards, and in 1978, he purchased his first parcel, totaling 700 acres, and founded Hess Collection Winery. The first vintage was produced in 1983, and in 1986 he chose the site for the future winery.
A short drive from the center of Napa, Hess Collection is located on Mount Veeder, in the southern part of the Mayacamas Mountains. The winery site has a rich wine history dating back to 1864, and the 70-acre parcel is still owned by the De La Salle Institute, a Catholic order that was once Napa Valley’s largest wine producer. (They lease the land to Hess.) Hess was one of the early Napa Valley vintners to recognize that hillside vineyards can produce fruit of exceptional quality, resulting in complex, age-worthy wines. He later played a pivotal role in establishing the Mount Veeder wine region in 1993.
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