Saturday, December 26, 2009

German Winemakers in the World: Swiss-German Donald Hess, US, South Africa, Argentina, Australia

To be clear, Donald Hess is not a German wine maker. He is a Swiss wine maker. Switzerland consists of three different areas, an Italian speaking region, a French speaking region and a German speaking region. I found Donald Hess’ live very impressive so I decided to include him in my series German Winemakers in the World although he is not a German, but a cousin so to speak, as he comes from the German speaking part of Switzerland. Donald Hess is also half American as his mother was American.

Donald Hess is known in the US for being the owner of the Hess Collection winery in California. But he has bought or established several other wineries all over the globe, in Argentina, in South Africa, in Australia and the US. He used to own wineries in Switzerland, which he sold.

It all began in 1844, when Johann Heinrich Hess laid the first cornerstone for Hess Family Estates with the founding of a beer brewery in Bern, Switzerland. For more than 100 years, beer was the central business.

Donald Hess was born in 1936 in Bern. His mother, Louise McNeir, was an American from New York City, who had met his father Hector Albert Hess during ski holidays in Switzerland. But she returned to the US after a few years, when Donald was 7.

After graduating from high school, Donald went to Germany to study beer brewing there. But at the age of 20 his father died and the young but bold Donald Hess had to return and take over the over the Estate. The next 20 years were marked by Donald’s successful attempts to restructure the business in Switzerland. In the early 1960s, anticipating the surge of demand for bottled water, he created Valser Water, which would become Switzerland's leading mineral water company.

In 1978, when he was in his early forties, Donald Hess finally turned to wine and started his astonishing journey of buying and establishing wineries around the globe.

He purchased his first Napa Valley vineyard in 1978 and soon after acquired the old Christian Brothers property on Mount Veeder, which is now the home of Hess Collection winery, as well as part of his collection of modern art.

Today, Hess Family Estates own six New World cellars and vineyards:
(1) Hess Collection winery on Mount Veeder, 2,000 feet above the Napa Valley
(2) Artezin Wines in Napa, which specializes in wine from the heritage grapes Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Carignan.
(3) Sequana Wines in Russian River, a venture into Pinot Noir.
(4) Glen Carlou Vineyards in South Africa. Located in South Africa's Paarl region, the Glen Carlou Winery is known for its Chardonnay and Bordeaux varietals.
(5) Bodega Colomé in Argentina, with presumably the highest vineyard in the world at 10,200 feet/3,111 meters above sea level in the northern part of the Calchaqui Valley. Bodega Colomé focuses on Argentina's two traditional varietals, Malbec and Torrontes.
(6) A major share (85 percent) in Peter Lehmann Wines, Australia. Founded in 1980 by the legendary Peter Lehmann and now managed by his son, Doug Lehmann, Peter Lehmann Wines is one of Australia's most respected wineries, located near Tanunda, in the heart of the Barossa Valley.

Donald Hess has many interests. One of them is art. His Napa Valley collection opened in 1989 in the original winery built in 1903. The Museum at the Glen Carlou Winery outside Paarl South Africa opened in 2006, and his latest passion in Bodega Colomé, not only has an art gallery but also has a stunning hotel.

All his live, Donald Hess remained Swiss citizen and resident of Bern. But he also kept an apartment in London, and, of course, traveled a lot and spend a lot of time at his different business ventures. He owns a dozen or so restaurants in the Bern area as well as other businesses. A few years ago, in 2002, at age 66, he withdrew from the operational side of his world wide imperium.

Schiller Wine --- Related Postings

This is part of the series German wine makers in the world:

Hermann J. Wiemer, Finger Lakes, US

Anton (Antoine) Mueller, 1800s,France,

Dr. Konstantin Frank, 1900s,USA

Christian Woelffer and Roman Roth, USA

Robert Anton Schlumberger, 1800s, Austria

Robert Stemmler, USA

Eduard Werle, 1800s, France


  1. if you get the chance, visiting the Hess collection in Napa is a real treat.

  2. Donald Hess' Glen Carlou winery in Paarl, South Africa is one of my favourite local wine farms. The building has a look of a swiss chalet but the interior is ultra modern with glass panels in the floor where you can see the cellar below and views that go on forever. I love the pinot noir and the zinfandel, which for South Africa is an unusual cultivar. The Hess art collection is impressive too.

  3. I'll have to get an appointment with this man... Thanks, Christian.