From beer to water to wine: this is how Donald Hess’ unusual life could be summarised, but everything is connected. Born in 1936, Hess was the son of a brewer who took over the brewery at the age of 20 after his father’s death. He tripled sales over the course of just one decade. He sold the Steinhölzli brewery in 1968 and developed the mineral springs in Vals, which he bought in 1960, into a well-known brand. In 2002, he sold the brand to a global corporation.
By this time, Donald Hess was already involved in the wine business. Everything started in the Californian Napa Valley. The Hess Collection Winery at Mount Veeder was created in 1978. Early on, the company switched to organic cultivation because Donald Hess was also an environmental protection pioneer: The painter Rolf Iseli once refused to sell Hess a painting because he believed that industrialists – like Hess – are not doing enough for the environment. The reason the Swiss mineral water entrepreneur set up his first vineyard in California had something to do with the fact that his mother was American, the freedom the New World affords, and with the arts. The arts are probably the most important thread in the life of Donald Hess. The vineyard, built in 1903, had a big hall, where a museum for contemporary art was opened in 1989. 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. They must somehow haunt him: “I must dream of a piece of art or wake up in the middle of the night. It has to haunt me.“ At least at the beginning, he strictly adhered to a price limit, because, after all, Donald Hess was also a smart businessman. So that others can 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 Argentinean 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 is one of the 200 most important art collectors of our time.
His son Doug Lehmann continues the family tradition; the wines are created under the competent leadership of chief winemaker Andrew Wigan, who himself is already a legend in Australia. When Peter Lehmann lost his majority shareholder, he looked for new partners for his company. He chose Donald Hess in 2003, and not the major corporation Allied Domeq, which had engaged in a bidding war with the Swiss.
For Donald Hess, who enjoys sealing the purchase of a new piece of his collection in the art studio with a wine from his vineyards, he enjoys his success most when others share in the celebration. His museums are therefore open to anyone, and there is no admission charge.