Donald Hess

The collection fills up the exhibition spaces adjacent to his visitors’ centers. “The art is free, but you have to buy the wine,” quips the Swiss-born Hess, who was labeled “the crazy Swiss” by neighboring competitors when he first established his wine company in Napa and installed a portion of his art collection there.

Neighbors didn’t factor that Hess’ already honed method of art collecting, which grew out of a chance invitation to an art gallery where a neighbor’s daughter worked, added prestige to his product. Hess buys what touches him and holds works long-term without rushing a purchase. He’ll mull it over for some time before he acquires it. His relationships with living artists allow him to pay advances against the cost of the art, which finances their work. After an artist has amassed several new works, Hess chooses the piece he likes.

Donald Hess
Hess in the 1903 barrel chai at The Hess Collection Winery.
Every two or three years, he buys a new artwork. “I force myself to buy a young artist if it moves me,” he says. No attempt is made to match the artwork with the types of wine sold. If anything, a given collection presents local and international artists, a mix of the young and the well known.  In Napa, it’s common to see a colorful Frank Stella, a muted Robert Motherwell or a Robert Rauschenburg. In Argentina, the Terrell James Museum is part of the landscape at Glen Carlou.

Hess steers away from name architects when designing his wineries. He prefers the collaborative process of working with young architects or architectural students.

When Hess was 20, he inherited the family beverage business, a company that began in 1844 as a brewery founded by his great-grandfather, Johan Heinrich Hess. Johan’s son, Albert Hess, took over as CEO upon his father’s retirement. Albert’s son, Hector Albert Hess, reluctantly took up the family business in 1919. His untimely death at 67 in 1957 gave Donald his start. Thereafter, Hess sold a mediocre winery owned by the company but longed to make wine a part of the business again. His patience was rewarded 20 years later.

For someone who might have led a life of leisure, Hess has filled his world with purpose. “I have two passions under one roof,” he says of his many wineries. 

Photo by Robert Russo, Mill Valley, CA.

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