January 2019 Issue of Wines & Vines

Technical Spotlight: The Hess Collection Winery

Extensive renovation of historic cellar in Napa Valley enhances red wines and visitor experience

by Jim Gordon

The Hess Collection Winery completed a major renovation of its estate winery on Mt. Veeder near Napa, Calif., in time for the 2018 harvest. It had been four years in the making, prompted by major damage to tanks and other equipment and the resulting loss of 42,000 gallons of spilled wine during the 2014 Napa earthquake — then delayed by a harrowing wildfire drama during the 2017 harvest.

What emerged from the disasters is a totally refurbished and newly equipped 3,884-square-feet, two-story fermentation room in the space formerly known as Cellar One when the Christian Brothers made wine in this facility from 1930 to 1986. The Hess Collection team, now led by fifth-generation Hess family members Sabrina and Timothy Persson, has renamed it the Lion’s Head Cellar.

Goals for the renovation were to ensure seismic safety before the next big earthquake, convert the cellar from a focus on old, large tanks to new, well-equipped small ones and create new visitor facilities including a commercial kitchen.
Before the renovation, two dozen large tanks remaining from the Christian Brothers era dominated the cellar, capable of holding 300,000 gallons total. One tank alone could have held the refur¬bished cellar’s entire 25,000-gallon capacity. So even without an earthquake, the winemaking team led by Dave Guffy knew they needed to better adapt to today’s ultrapremium winemaking ap¬proach for the Napa Valley and Mt. Veeder AVA wines made here, which average $77 a bottle retail.

The new cellar has 10 Westec double-wall, insulated tanks that can handle 1 to 3 tons, and another 10 that start at 3 tons and go up to 5 tons. “I think it answers a need that many wineries have, for more small red-wine fermentation tanks,” Guffy said. “The way we pick grapes these days, especially up on the mountain, is all in small lots because things ripen so differently. We do the best we can as we redevelop the vineyards to create smaller irrigation sets, smaller vineyard blocks, than we did back in the old days.
“It’s important on Mt. Veeder because we have so many differ¬ent soil types and the ground literally can change in just a few feet,” Guffy said. “We end up with a lot of small, small lots. The ability to keep those separate and not compromise on that is a quantum leap for quality. So when you take that, coupled with the Pellenc optical-sorting system that we’ve been using for three years, we look forward to a nice, elevated quality level across the board in all of our Napa and Mt. Veeder wines.”

International estates
Guffy is senior vice president for winemaking and viticulture at The Hess Collection, which is a division of Hess Family Wine Estates. The estates group in California includes the brands Hess Select, Artezin, MacPhail and Shirttail Ranches, an on-premise-only brand. Elsewhere, the Hess family owns Bodega Colomé and Amalaya wineries in Argentina and Glen Carlou winery in South Africa.

Before joining The Hess Collection in 1999, Guffy served as winemaker for Cambria Estate in the Central Coast of California and had made wine at Corbett Canyon winery. He studied food science at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and transferred to California State University, Fresno to complete his B.S. degree in viticulture and enology.
Working with Guffy is winemaker Randle Johnson, who joined The Hess Collection in 1983 before it had its own winery, plus winemaker Alison Rodriguez and assistant winemaker Stephanie Pope. Johnson is in charge of winemaking for Artezin, a Hess brand that produces Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and other traditional California red wines along with white Verdelho, mostly from vineyards outside of Napa Valley.

Johnson described how the Christian Brothers had built “cold boxes” around their massive tanks in the Lion’s Head Cellar, basi¬cally surrounding them with walls and ceiling so that cold air could be pumped into the rooms to keep the tanks cool. Today the cold boxes are gone, and the concrete tank foundations and floor have been demolished and replaced with a new floor by North Coast Con¬crete, Pennacchio Tile and Eureka Valley Floor.

Only one tank from the Christian Brothers era remains in the Lion’s Head Cellar. It’s a twisted, crunched, deflated-looking stainless steel reminder of the earthquake. At 3:20 a.m. on Aug. 24, 2014, a magnitude 6.0 tremor cen¬tered a few miles south of Mt. Veeder in the Carneros district shook the southern part of Napa County and nearby Sonoma County. It was the strongest quake in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1989 and rocked the Hess winery and many others in a dramatic and damaging way.

Barrel mayhem
Barrel stacks in one of Hess’ three barrel cellars fell over, and some of the barrels split open to spill wine. Nearly all the barrels in a small cellar in an old section of the winery rode out the quake well because that cellar had been seismically retrofitted in 1988. Only two were damaged. In the detached warehouse-style barrel room, how¬ever, 3,000 barrels were stacked up to six barrels high. Here was where the mayhem occurred.

Guffy recalled that some barrels spilled off the top of stacks, some stacks fell over completely, and when he and his crew arrived a few hours later, 100-120 barrels were too damaged to save. “Half of the room was a big pile. The barrels on the bottom were demolished. Some of the barrels broke open, and some had their bungs knocked out and half their wine was gone. It took us 10 days to get through the stacks.”

Seven thousand gallons of wine were lost, including what spilled on the floor plus the wine in half-empty barrels that was oxidized or dirty by the time the crew could reach it. One lesson learned from the disaster was to be more careful with the barrel stacks. Now the Hess crew stacks them only four high and straps the top two racks on each stack together to prevent them from tumbling the next time.

In what is now the Lion’s Head Cellar, one tank alone — the twisted relic — lost 10,000 gallons of red wine. As the ground heaved un¬derneath, the tank buckled and twisted, Guffy said, and the bottom manway lost its seal. Wine gushed out, flowing across the floor, under the cellar door and flooding the garden visitor area outside. Since wine was escaping through the manway faster than a breather valve at the top could let air in, a powerful vacuum formed in the tank and sucked the sides and top inward.

Later, when Mervin & McNair Architects was perfecting the renovation plans, CEO Timothy Persson chose to save the damaged tank and re-erect it in the cellar after construc¬tion was completed. This was an engineering challenge in itself, but Andrews & Thornley Construction solved it by skewering the entire tank on a steel beam before placing it back inside the cellar and standing it up.

Now the disabled tank serves as a sculpture in the middle of the Lion’s Head Cellar, an arrest-ing reminder of the earthquake but also a work that’s perfectly suited to The Hess Collection winery. The oldest section of the winery houses a spectacular collection of modern art paintings and iconoclastic sculpture collected by the win¬ery’s founder, Donald Hess, and open to the pub¬lic as part of the visitor experience.

Wildfires interrupt harvest
The second part of nature’s double whammy hit the winery on Oct. 8, 2017, when wildland fires erupted in Napa and Sonoma counties that would ultimately kill 40 people and destroy thousands of homes and other buildings. The Partrick fire started within a few miles of Hess, burned through the steep, forested hillsides and came right up against the Hess vineyard proper¬ties including Veeder Crest and Veeder Summit at about 2,000 feet.

Authorities closed the roads leading to the winery and vineyards and banned people from the area for 10 to 12 days. No winery infrastruc¬ture was destroyed, but this was in the middle of the red wine harvest and many fermentations were underway. The Hess property became a temporary base for about 100 firefighters while they were working to stop the spread of flames. They filled their water trucks with about 200,000 gallons from Hess’ tanks while helicopters also pulled water from Hess’ 40-acre-foot reservoir.

Guffy said he eventually obtained permission to enter the fire zone and come to the winery. Electricity was restored before the winery’s wells could replenish the water in tanks that the fire¬fighters depleted. Surprisingly, most of the new wine was not lost despite what was minimal human intervention, to say the least.

“Only one out of 20 fermentations stuck. Some of the reds were a little lighter than usual because they didn’t get pumped over, but they were not that bad,” Guffy said. These lots be-came part of the Hess Select Cabernet Sauvi¬gnon, a $19 North Coast AVA wine that’s usually produced at the second, larger, warehouse-style Hess winery in nearby American Canyon, Calif.
No smoke damage was detected among wine lots in the cellar. However, grapes harvested after the fire from some vineyard blocks did show smoke taint and had to be declassified to lower AVAs or disposed of, Guffy said.

A year later, with that drama over and the new facilities ready for use, the winemaking team started its crush with a much better-pre¬pared winery and a relieved frame of mind. The first grapes to come in, on Sept. 18, were Zin¬fandel from the Rockpile AVA in Sonoma County.

High-Tech Crushpad

It was the third harvest using a grape-processing operation featuring mostly Pellenc equipment. Grapes arrive in MacroBins, and a receiving hop¬per and incline conveyor supplied by P&L Special¬ties move them to the top of a Pellenc Selectiv Process Winery M destemmer. Once removed, the berries flow through a Pellenc Selectiv Process optical-sorting machine that uses a high-speed camera to find MOG and berries that don’t meet pre-programmed settings for size and color and then removes them with an air knife.

Guffy and Johnson were enthusiastic about the performance of the equipment. They were especially happy last year when the fire was closing in and Pellenc brought a “pop-up” set of similar equipment to the Hess winery in American Canyon so the
crush could continue during the fire emergency.

After sorting, the crew dumps bins full of berries into the tops of the removable-lid Westec tanks for usually a two-day cold soak. The crew then uses the tank’s built-in heating and cooling system to warm the must from the range of 50° to 60° F to 85° or 90° F in about two days. “We pitch yeast and go for a really warm start to the fermentation,” Guffy said.

“We keep that heat for a day or two so it will drop from about 25° Brix down to 12°, and then we’ll back off and study it. We’re really looking at extractions quite heavily to see what kind of anthocyanins you’re getting, what kind of tannin you’re getting, and making decisions on that as well as the old-fashioned way of just tasting. That’s how we decide when to take it to press.” That press is a Carlsen basket unit.

Hess outsources the tannin assays to Enologix, but for other testing the winery’s lab is equipped with an Anton Paar Alcolyzer and Metrohm Au¬totitrator, among other instruments.

What happens in the tanks during the ex¬traction period is critical, Guffy said, and that’s why they chose dedicated heating and cooling jackets for their tanks, plus an insulation layer between the inner and outer stainless steel skins. “We’ve gotten jacketed tanks before, but without the insulation you always get that little dip (in temperature) before the pumpover comes. You can see it on the graph. It spikes up, and then over time it cools down, but the insulation holds it nice and steady, and we’re seeing that with these first fermentations.”

The new tanks have dedicated centrifugal pumps by Process Engineers and Lotus sprin¬klers by Vintuitive to wet the caps. Westec built the tanks with a hose connection through the side of the top manway rim so the manway can be closed while pumping. A big internal screen catches pieces of skins and seeds to keep them out of the pump.

The fermenters use TankNet technology to monitor and manage fermentations, wet the caps and distribute the heat even when no one is in the cellar. Guffy and crew can program each tank from a phone, an iPad or a computer for as many pumpovers as they want, when they want and for what duration. They performed virtually all the pumpovers automati¬cally for the 2018 harvest.

Guffy said typical skin-contact time is 10-14 days. “It’s not like we used to do back in the day, with 30 to 40 days on the skins.” After pressing, red wines go into barrels by Demptos, Saury, Sylvain, Taransaud, Orion and Boswell for 22 months of aging. The percentage of new oak in the reds varies, but the $185 flagship wine, the Lion Cabernet Sauvignon, gets 60%. The wine-makers try to fine and filter cautiously, he said, and the Lion is bottled unfiltered.

Lions and a lioness
For the white wines, most Chardonnay under¬goes barrel fermentation and partial malolac¬tic, while the luxury-level Lioness Chardonnay gets 50% new French oak for almost 16 months and full malolactic. Hess also makes an un-oaked musqué clone Chardonnay. The Albariño and Grüner Veltliner are fermented in steel and aged in neutral barrels on the lees.

The “lion” references pop up frequently in the winery’s marketing efforts, beginning with a lion image that’s part of the company logo. The win¬ery website states that a lion has been the family’s symbol for nine generations. Besides the Lion’s Head Cellar, the Lion Cabernet Sauvignon and Lioness Chardonnay ($65), Hess also makes the Napa Valley Lion Tamer red blend ($45).

The “tamer” in Lion Tamer is Malbec, Guffy said, because he prefers Malbec as a blending grape with Cabernet Sauvignon over the other Bordeaux red grape varieties. “We like to run about plus or minus 15% Malbec every year, and the reason is that it’s got a super-high anthocyanin level like Petite Sirah or Syrah. They’re always big wines, but they’re not heav¬ily tannic wines, so you get that big, unctuous middle palate without drying tannin.”

The team also makes several other wines for distribution and a Small Block Series of 15 wines for direct-to-consumer sales, including some from other counties, but also several Mt. Veeder AVA wines such as a varietal Malbec, the Albariño and Grüner Veltliner. The Hess Select brand offers three whites and three reds priced in the teens.

The founder
Winery founder Donald Hess is Swiss. He de¬veloped the popular mineral water brand Valser Wasser in that country. He discovered California wine in the 1970s while looking for mineral water sources in the state and was very impressed with the quality of some wines. In 1978, Hess began buying vineyard land. In 1982, he completed the purchase of 900 acres on Mt. Veeder and began vineyard develop¬ment while also setting aside more than 600 acres to support wildlife and biodiversity.

In 1986, Donald Hess leased the current win¬ery site from the Christian Brothers order of the Catholic Church and established The Hess Collec¬tion Winery. He renovated the winery, moved in his personal art collection to fill 13,000 square feet in the oldest section of the winery, and opened the winery and gallery to the public in 1989.

Three years later he signed a long-term lease with the Christian Brothers for 125 acres of vine-yard adjacent to the winery. In the years since, The Hess Collection has added vineyards in other parts of Napa County and in Monterey County for its various wine programs.

Donald Hess, his family and staff have long been enthusiastic stewards of their land. The Hess Collection was one of the first certified Napa Green wineries in 2008 and started a goat herd that now numbers more than 150 to help with weed control and minimize tractor passes and tilling. In 2010, the winery become one of the first 17 wineries to be third-party certified as sustainable through the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.

As much as the winemakers are proud of Hess’ green credentials, at the beginning of the 2018 harvest they were obviously most thankful for a near-ideal growing season and their brand-new winemaking and hospitality facilities. The ground was not shaking, no nearby fires were burning, and they had a beautiful, well-equipped home for all the grapes that were about to arrive.

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