Changing of the Guard
A new generation breathes renewed life into the wine and art programs at The Hess Collection.
Photography by Matt Edge
It was a chilly night in the candlelit courtyard fronting The Hess Collection winery, and after an exquisite alfresco dinner, the excitement began.
Three unassuming gentlemen strode out from the stone winery to a circle of drums in the center of the courtyard. The crowd—all music lovers—abandoned their wine glasses for a moment to applaud. Over the next few minutes, the men banged those drums rhythmically, soulfully, and passionately. At times, their hands and arms moved so fast, their limbs appeared not to move at all. During quieter segments, the men struck the drums so softly, the resulting sounds felt like a miracle.
As the Russian National Orchestra percussionists continued to play, the music filled the courtyard and wafted down Mount Veeder toward the rest of Napa Valley.
That moment during the summer of 2015 represents Napa’s annual Festival del Sole at its best—innovative, eccentric, and exhilarating.
For The Hess Collection, the beats signaled something much bigger: a new era at one of the region’s oldest and most storied wineries.
While the almost 80-year-old Donald Hess ran his eponymous winery for the better part of 25 years, Hess 2.0 is all about the next generation, namely Hess’ daughter, Sabrina, and her husband, Tim Persson. The couple took over in 2011, and in the years since, they have refreshed the wine program and rolled out thoughtful approaches to the way the winery embraces art and music. Looking forward, the Perssons expect to continue this transformation, implementing new programs to make the 700-acre Mount Veeder property even more of a day-trip destination.
“It’s about wine, but it’s also about so much more—art, culture, music, and lifestyle,” says Tim. “Ultimately, it’s up to us to put a stake in the ground, and create something that’s fun and at the same time relevant to what we’re all about.”
Roots That Run Deep
Winemaking at what is now The Hess Collection winery dates back to the late 1800s, when German settlers planted a five-acre vineyard on part of the property and built a small stone winery. After another owner expanded farm operations on the site, Colonel Theodore Gier acquired the property in 1900, planted more vineyards, and built the three-story winery that now holds Hess’ historic barrel chai and art gallery.
Conditions in the 1920s—Prohibition, the stock market crash, and post–World War I anti-German attitudes—forced Gier to sell the winery to the Christian Brothers. In 1986, a Swiss man, who had been buying up acreage across Mount Veeder, ponied up big bucks to modernize the winery. In 1989, that man, Donald Hess, reopened the winery, with an additional 13,000 square feet to house his personal modern art collection.
As accolades piled up in Wine Country and beyond—Hess Family Wine Estates owns three other brands in Northern California, including MacPhail Family Wines—Hess spent more time overseas, building wineries and related art collections in Argentina, and investing in South Africa. In 2011, then-75-year-old Hess decided to retire from day-to-day operations. His successor: Tim Persson, his son-in-law.
A lawyer by trade, Tim shared his father-in-law’s business savvy and commitment to sustainability, but was different in one key way: He was only 32 years old.
Tim stepped in with fresh ideas about how to honor the past and make changes for the future. He spent four months interviewing employees, business partners, and customers. From these meetings, he devised strategies to develop the winery, use technology and aspects of customers’ lifestyles to appeal to them, and make the experience more approachable.
“There was a sense that while the wine was good and the business was moving along, we had stagnated a bit,” says Tim. “A lot of people would talk about what we were. Few people talked about what we were going to be.”
Making Art Accessible
To combat this complacency, Tim initially set his sights on the wine—stepping up quality and creating higher-end wines and offerings on the property.
Next, Tim turned his attention to the art. Like his father-in-law, Tim sees art as a natural complement to wine. The big challenge: to make modern art, which can be a bit obtuse and hard to connect with, appealing and accessible to all.
“We have an opportunity to create a place that can be a bedrock of creativity,” says Tim. “That’s not a job I take lightly.”
To strengthen that bedrock, Tim has set out to redouble the winery’s efforts to bring schools into the gallery and put students face-to-face with modern art. Visit on a Thursday morning, and you’ll find the galleries filled with students.
Another move was to strengthen the bond with the world-renowned de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Periodically, the museum leads trips up to Hess, giving visitors a chance to experience modern art in a unique setting. The de Young also regularly points patrons north to Hess. The partnership benefits everybody because it puts the art first, says Richard Benefield, acting director of museums for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
“The way I see it, if you’re a fan of art, the four places in the Bay Area you must visit are SFMOMA, the de Young, the Anderson Collection at Stanford, and Hess,” says Benefield. “Hess has pieces from very highly regarded artists and pieces from artists from around the globe. It’s the real deal.”
Tim has even added to the art collection. When the South Napa earthquake struck in August 2014, it caused significant damage in one of the tank rooms. As part of the rebuilding process, Tim is having one of the warped fermentation tanks turned into a sculpture so it can be the focal point of a new room where visitors will learn more about winemaking. There, they will be able to see winery operations from an observation platform, enjoy VIP tastings, and indulge in food and wine pairings from executive chef Chad Hendrickson.
The Importance of Music
In addition to the reemphasis on art, Tim doubled down on the Hess family’s commitment to the community and to other arts—namely, music. Donald Hess had been a patron of Festival del Sole, the county’s biggest music festival. The Perssons have extended and amplified this commitment in a number of ways.
The couple began by reorchestrating how the winery gets involved. After the 2014 festival, the duo expressed interest in planning a memorable follow-up concert. They wanted music, but they wanted something more. And they wanted to pair it with fine wine and an epic meal.
These desires led to the 2015 Festival del Sole concert, the one that culminated in the Russian National Orchestra’s drummers. That evening also featured a concert by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, a screening of a film about composer and oil scion Gordon Getty, and an alfresco dinner prepared by Hendrickson back at Hess.
This year, Festival del Sole has been renamed Festival Napa Valley, and The Hess Collection event will be similar. Sabrina says the 2016 itinerary works to capture the unique aspects of Hess.
“We really wanted an event that would get people outside and expose them to the magic and beauty of our historic winery building at night,” she says. “That approach showcases what we have at the winery, but it also is totally us, and it’s important during something like [Festival Napa Valley] to make sure the event you’re putting together says something about you as well as the place and the music.”
The Perssons have put their own stamp on the festival in other ways, too. After the 2015 event, Sabrina, a psychotherapist, joined the board of directors. In this volunteer position, she helps plan the annual event, contributes to fundraising, toils at networking, and advocates on the festival’s behalf.
Rick Walker, president and CEO of Festival Napa Valley, says that the Perssons are welcome additions to Festival Napa Valley and to the community at large.
“They bring a refined sensibility of the arts,” says Walker. “As Napa grows, it must reinvent and rejuvenate itself, and the youthful energy that Tim and Sabrina bring to everything they do helps that reinvention process.”
The Perssons hope to turn their focus to a third aspect of The Hess Collection: the property as a holistic destination. On this point, the Perssons’ perspective is perfectly clear: Mount Veeder is so out of the way that when people come to Hess, they should plan on spending part of the day there.
The Perssons envision new offerings ranging from vineyard hikes to guided eco-tours. Eventually, a list of expanded activities might also include harvesting from a soon-to-be-expanded property garden, or taking an educational tour of the winery’s new beehives and other sustainable features.
“There’s plenty of stuff here to explore,” says Tim. “Now, we must come up with new ways to explore it.”
Tim is quick to note that these expansion ideas are just that—ideas. But whatever programs the winery rolls out, one of the big motivators will be to make Hess more family friendly.
Part of this push is driven by necessity: The Perssons welcomed their second child in February, and both children are under the age of three. They recognize that the new generation of Wine Country enthusiasts—the generation they represent—comprises families with young kids—clans that often come to Wine Country as much for a luxury experience as they do for a diversion out of the house.
Some young couples might buckle under the pressure of carrying on a family winery into the next decade. For the Perssons, the challenge is an opportunity to take something wonderful and make it even better.
“We’re acutely aware of what we now have custody of, and we’re respectful of the tradition and the heritage of it,” says Tim. “At the same time, we recognize it’s important to create something that’s authentic to ourselves, something holistic that feels vibrant and energetic. Will we do everything right the first time? No. But we’re certainly going to try.”
The Hess Collection, 4411 Redwood Rd., Napa, (707) 255-1144, hesscollection.com.