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Pioneer Spirit Drives Founder of Napa's Hess Collection Winery to Argentina

Swiss multimillionaire Donald Hess is developing remote vineyards from which he will produce Cabernet-Malbec blends.

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: April 13, 2001

Donald Hess, the Swiss multimillionaire who owns The Hess Collection winery and world-class art museum in Napa Valley, has bought 138,000 acres of land in Argentina, along the Andean foothills, and is now developing vineyards from which he will produce a total of up to 160,000 cases of red wine per year.

Some of the vineyards will be planted at 9,500 feet, which Hess believes will make them the highest in the world -- one of the challenges that prompted Hess to name his new company Vinas de Amalaya SA. Amalaya means "hope for a miracle" in the native Indian dialect. "We need a miracle up there," said Hess.

"Up there" is a remote, arid area that lacks electricity and running water, in northwest Argentina, about 200 miles from the border with Bolivia. It takes a two-and-half-hour commercial airline flight from Buenos Aires, followed by a three-and-a-half-hour car journey, to reach the region. "I'm a pioneer," said Hess.

Last year and early this year, Hess paid a total of $3.8 million for land in Colomé -- in the province of Salta, in the Calchaqui Valley, close to the town of Molinos -- and in Payogasta, about 40 miles away. The property in Colomé came with a winery built in 1831 and a 22-acre pre-phylloxera vineyard.

Hess said he was confident the area could make world-class wine after tasting a "stunning" 1998 red from the vineyard, which was planted 147 years ago to Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and a third, unidentified, red variety.

In Colomé, Hess plans to plant 300 to 400 acres of vines, mostly Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, using cuttings from the existing pre-phylloxera vineyard. But in order to pull off the project, he had to acquire 86,000 acres -- mostly mountains and arid land. Due the area's drought conditions, Hess said, he had to buy the surrounding mountains to tap enough water for the vineyards. He might have to build a dam to funnel the water needed for drip irrigation and for sprinkler systems to protect the vines from frost.

He is also planning to build a winery that will be able to produce up to 40,000 cases of what will be his flagship Argentine wine, which will be called Colomé. "We want our Colomé to be a powerful, old-fashioned wine with a strong goût de terroir," Hess said.

Colomé will retail for between $20 to $28. Hess bought 100 cases of the 2001 vintage, made from the pre-phylloxera vineyard, and those will be released in 2004. From the 2002 vintage, he will make 1,800 cases of Colomé, which will be released in 2005.

In Payogasta, Hess bought 52,000 acres of land, on which he will plant about 800 acres of vines -- again mostly Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon -- up from 50 acres now. The Payogasta area is as arid as Colomé, but Hess said he found a large underground supply of water that can be pumped out to support the vineyards, some of which will be at altitudes as high as 9,500 feet.

The first crop from Payogasta will be in 2003, and the first wines will be released in 2005. Hess plans to produce up to 120,000 cases of a blend called Amalaya; it will be slightly lighter in body and will retail for about half the price of the Colomé. Both wines will name the Calchaqui Valley as their region of origin on their labels.

Overseeing this ambitious project will be Vinas de Amalaya president and winemaker José-Louis Mounier, who was formerly president and winemaker at Etchart, a large winery also in Salta province.

The Amalaya venture will occupy much of Hess's time once he retires from his company, Hess Holding, after turning 65 this August. The privately owned Hess Holding, which reportedly had $140 million in sales last year, encompasses restaurants, real estate interests and the Swiss mineral water company Valser (with which Hess made his fortune), in addition to his California wine holdings.

Hess, who is also a prominent art collector, founded his vineyard operation on Mt. Veeder in 1979 and opened The Hess Collection Winery in 1989. The business has since expanded to own more than 1,100 acres of vineyards in Mt. Veeder, Carneros, Pope Valley and Monterey. The Hess Collection, which is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, produces about 55,000 cases a year, while another 325,000 cases per year are made of a more affordable brand called Hess Select. Hess also owns half of Glen Garlou, one of South Africa's best wineries.

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Check our recent ratings of Hess Collection and Hess Select as well as Etchart wines.

Learn more about Donald Hess:

  • March 31, 1996
    Napa Valley Vintner Donald Hess Buys Half of South Africa's Glen Carlou Winery in Worldwide Expansion

  • Dec. 15, 1995
    Cabernet All-Stars: The Hess Collection Winery

  • April 30, 1995
    Great Values: Hess Select
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