Napa Valley is the place for wine. If you’re a wino like me, you know what I’m talking about. Just like skiers have the Swiss Alps, political junkies have Washington D.C., and geeks have Comic Con—we have Napa Valley. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to visit Napa for the very first time on a recent family mini-vacation up to San Francisco.
On the recommendation of my wine instructor, I visited The Hess Collection Winery. The winery was started by Donald Hess, a Swiss-born entrepreneur who came to the States looking for business opportunities. During his stay he fell in love with Napa Valley and eventually started his own winery in 1989.
The building where the Estate lives today was originally built in 1903 as a winery. When prohibition came about in the 1920s, the winery was overtaken by The Christian Brothers who were permitted to make sacramental wine. Up to this day, Mr. Hess continues to rent the property from The Christian Brothers.
First thing’s first, we headed to the tasting room!
For ten dollars, I tried four wines.
I began with the 2007 Mount Veeder 19 Block Cuvée, a delicious blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Malbec, 4% Syrah, 4% Merlot, and 1% Petit Verdot. This complex wine has aromas of black currant and plum. Intense dark fruit flavors and medium plus tannins interact on the tongue to produce a strong finish.
Next I tried their 2007 Artezin Petite Sirah. Not to be confused with Syrah, Petite Sirah is a varietal whose namesake came from early planters who mistook the variety for Syrah when it was first being introduced to Californian vineyards, but because it’s grapes are much smaller it was deemed “Petite Sirah”. Black fruit character, high tannins and high acidity intertwine to create a highly drinkable wine.
Hess produces two characteristically different Chardonnays—think of it as French vs. Californian. Their 2007 Su’Skol Vineyard Chardonnay is more reminiscent of a traditional, French-style Chardonnay because of it’s time spent in 30% new French oak barrels, adding flavors of toast and vanilla to the mix. In stark contract, their 2007 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Chardonnay reflects a crisper, more fruit-forward style with flavors like nectarine and apricot—a trend that is becoming increasingly popular with Californian Chardonnays.
Surprisingly the Mount Veeder Chard was aged in four-to-five-year-old French oak, not stainless steel like one might assume. Because the oak is older it only gives off neutral flavors, no oak. I favored the Mount Veeder Chard, which is saying a lot for someone like me who is slightly obsessed with buttery and oaky French-style Chardonnays. Wine Spectator gave it a 90 point rating out of 100, so you know it must be good!
The best part about The Hess Collection Winery is the winery itself. Like something straight out of a fairy tale, the property is breathtakingly beautiful. In the garden they have a lovely outdoor seating area reserved for food and wine tastings. Luckily it was a slow day so we were able to secure a nice table beneath the trellis.
We ordered a sampling of three cheeses for $14.00 which came with Manchego cheese, blue cheese, and a triple-cream cheese made from organic cow’s milk. On the side they included a bowl of candied walnuts and the best dried Michigan cherries you’ve ever tasted.
During our visit to the winery, we took advantage of the free tour where I learned a lot about the history of the winery and the owner, Donald Hess. The tour also included a visit to the vineyards, where they harvest grapes for their Mount Veeder wines, and is followed by a short-film in the theater. The film goes into depth about the land they harvest the grapes on and the specific opportunities and challenges they face with growing wine on mountain terrain.
The tour finally ended with a stop in their wine barrel room. Here the wine ages for a chosen period of time in oak barrels, allowing it to develop new flavors and complexities.
If The Hess Collection Winery is any indication of what Napa Valley has to offer, then I’m ready to dive in feet first! Even though I only had time to visit one winery, I definitely maximized my visit by taking advantage of the free tour, enjoying a wine tasting, and noshing on tasty cheeses.
If that isn’t the quintessential Napa experience, I don’t know what is. What I am sure of, however, is that I want to return someday in the near future. In the words of my Govenator, “I’ll be back.”