Obituary: Donald Hess, Wine Pioneer and Patron of the Arts

Donald M. Hess, passed away at the age of 86 on January 30th, 2023 in Bern, Switzerland. He will be particularly remembered for pioneering winemaking in California and Argentina and for his love of the arts.

Donald and Ursula Hess
Donald and Ursula Hess


The Swiss newspaper Weltwoche once wrote that Donald Hess would always be just as crazy as his sanity allowed him to be. Hess, who was born in Bern, made a name for himself as an art collector, art patron, and winemaker. To him, the wines from the New World and contemporary art were a way of life.

From beer to water to wine: this is how Donald Hess’ unusual life could be summarised, but everything is connected. Born in 1936, he had a difficult childhood. His mother left the home when he was eight and his brother died from leukemia while he was still young. Hess’s father, a brewer, described as “relatively austere” also died when Hess was just 20, leaving him to take over his Steinhölzli brewery.

Hess tripled sales over the course of a decade and was noted for launching Switzerland’s first non-alcoholic beer. He sold the business in 1968 and developed the mineral springs in Vals - purchased in 1960 - into a well-known brand which he sold in 2002 to Coca Cola.

By this time, Donald Hess was already involved in the wine business. Everything started in the Napa Valley. Hess’s mother was American and he appreciated the freedom he saw in the New World – both for business and in the arts. The vineyard site on Mount Veeder was originally established in 1864 and the winery built in 1903. Hess planted 700 acres of vines, built a new winery in 1986 and, in 1989, installed a contemporary art museum above the tasting room and opened The Hess Collection Winery at Mount Veeder to the public.

At the time, making wines in the hills was an innovation, as was the creation of a winery tourist offering that went beyond a simple area in which wine could be sampled. Hess was also ahead of the game in his viticulture. The painter Rolf Iseli reportedly refused to sell Hess a painting because he believed that industrialists – like Hess – were not doing enough for the environment. Hess switched to organic farming and Iseli acknowledged his mistake.

The arts are probably the most important thread in the life of Donald Hess. The Hess Art Collection today has more than 1000 pieces of art from Georg Baselitz, Franz Gertsch, Gerhard Richter, Rolf Iseli, Per Kirkeby, Andy Goldsworthy, Francis Bacon, James Turrell, Magdalena Abakanowicz and many others, making it a “Who’s Who” of contemporary art.

Even as a young man, Donald Hess was passionate about art. He intentionally purchased pieces of art from unknown artists and always relied on his instincts. “I must dream of a piece of art or wake up in the middle of the night” he said “It has to haunt me.“

In order for others to enjoy these pieces of art, he established three museums on vineyards; in addition to the one in the Napa Valley, there is also one in the South-African Glen Carlou Winery (2006), which focuses on African art, and one in the Argentine Bodega Colomé, which is dedicated to the American light artist James Turrell (the people there called Donald Hess “el loco“ when he implemented this ambitious project). For the American magazine ARTnews, Donald Hess was one of the 200 most important art collectors of our time.

In 2007, the Sequana Pinot Noir vineyard in the Russian River Valley was added to the California portfolio. Under the responsibility of winemaker James MacPhail. Four years later Hess also bought MacPhail’s own wine business.

In 1998, he and his wife Ursula moved to Payogasta in Salta in Argentina and took over the 150 year-old Colomé winery, the oldest in the country. The vines, planted at up 3,100 metres are ungrafted and some are 170 years old. Another 80-hectare Salta vineyard called Amalaya in the Calchaquí Valley was then added, at an elevation of 1800 metres. Together, the Colomé and Amalaya have 280ha of vines and Colomé is home to a busy visitor centre and hotel as well as the James Turrel Museum.

Five years after launching the Argentine venture, Hess acquired Glen Carlou in the Paarl, in South Africa. Founded in 1985, it was a pioneers in organic and sustainable farming and was  fully certified 2010. Also in 2003, the Peter Lehmann winery in the Barossa Valley became  part of the Hess Collection, following Hess’s last minute intervention to save the family-owned business from being swallowed by the UK-based multinational Allied Domecq. In 2014, Peter Lehmann was sold to the Casella family – best known for Yellow Tail.

In 2011, Hess officially retired, handing the reins the following year to his stepdaughter Sabrina and her husband Tim Persson and, in 2021 the business name reflected the change by being renamed Hess Persson Estates.  

Hess is survived by Ursula his wife; Alexandra, his daughter; Larissa and Sabrina his stepdaughters; and five grandchildren. He will be remembered and missed by wine professionals and lovers across five continents.

Latest Articles