Greetings, Wineaux: I recently had the pleasure of dining and wining with Dave Guffy, executive VP of winemaking for The Hess Collection in Napa Valley, and John Grant, president and CEO of Hess Collection. We met at a fabulous Chicago restaurant, Momotaro, where we talked, tasted the current releases and I learned about what sets Hess Collection wines apart.
Anyone who buys wine at the store is probably familiar with Hess Select Chardonnay, Cabernet and other varietals that retail for around $12-$15 per bottle – great, everyday wine. But what I didn’t know much about was The Hess Collection wines. These are a little more special and Dave Guffy explained why.
The Land: Hess Collection is located in the Mount Veeder AVA which is east-northeast of downtown Napa. It’s got a lot of hillside property, which grapes love because of the great drainage from rains (those grapevine roots do not like to be all soggy and squished up in a bunch of wet mud!)
And as you can see from this tiny map, it’s got good proximity to the San Pablo Bay which blows lovely ocean breezes to keep the grapes cool at night – which makes the grapes – and the winemaker – happy. According to Guffy, “Site trumps everything. With grapes, if you don’t have a place, you’ve got nothing.”
The Winemaking: Dave Guffy has some creative tricks up his sleeve when it comes to how he makes the wines.
- Chardonnay: Instead of going with the super-popular Wente clone (named for the family that brought it over from Europe way back when) or another darling of so many Cali winemakers, Clone 4, Dave likes to use the more unusual Musqué Clone #809 (blended with some other clones), which he likes for the freshness and bright acidity it brings to the wine. I’m with Dave! The 2015 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($22 SRP) we tasted was deeee-licious! This wine is well-balanced, with just the right amount of weight and richness from 20% malo-lactic fermentation (the process that turns bitter-tasting lactic acid into creamier-tasting malic acid) and thoughtful use of French oak (i.e. not too much new oak).
We also tasted the 2016 Panthera Chardonnay (SRP $45), which is made with fruit from Russian River Valley over in Sonoma, so it’s got a little more tropical and stone fruit going on (think peach, apricot, pineapple), which RRV is known for. It’s called Panthera, because the Hess family has a big cat on their family crest (they come from Europe, where families have that kind of thing.)
- Barrel Brilliance: So wine barrels are made of staves – you know, those vertical planks – that are normally heated with fire in order to bend them into the arc-shape that makes a barrel a barrel. But guess what clever Dave Guffy does? He bends his staves in hot water and then he gently toasts them with fire. Why? Because the water leeches out some of the bitter tannins from the wood and turns the oak into more of a complement to the wine than a loud, overwhelming characteristic. Buh bam! Freaking brilliant.I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: hey, “ABC” people – the “Anything but Chardonnay” people – think again! What you might not like about Chardonnay is a big, fat new-oak punch in the face — too much vanilla, too much sweetness, too much of everything. Not with Hess. Nope. Try it.
- Mixing in Malbec: So now we’ve got some tempting Wagyu beef on the table and it’s begging for some red wine (except sorry, I think that picture is dessert – whatever — it was chocolate and it, too, begged for some red). And here’s where Dave kind of blew my mind. He pours the 2013 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($75 SRP) and explains how it is mountain-grown Cabernet from very rocky soil, and I taste it and … my head explodes. It is SO GOOD! It’s three-dimensional! It’s got structure like a skyscraper, sexy tannins, fruity freshness and depth for days. I love it. Why is it so freaking good? Dave tells me why: he mixes in a little Malbec – 18 percent to be exact.
Okay, what the what, because who in their right mind takes primo Napa Valley vineyard land and grows Malbec – instead of Cab or Merlot or even Chard? Dave Guffy does, that’s who. Hess is the largest grower of Malbec in all of Napa Valley, with 33 acres of the stuff. And that is Dave Guffy’s secret ingredient in a lot of the Hess Collection red wines. “Malbec can tame a big, brawny Cabernet,” said Dave. “Plus, Malbec brings some interesting, complementary flavors to the wine, like blueberry, cassis and a hint of mocha.”
I’m happy to know more about this legendary Napa Valley Mount Veeder winery and I hope you have a chance to try some of their gorgeous wines. Let me know if you like them as much as I do! And thanks to The Hess Collection for providing the samples (and dinner).