Culture and chardonnay: exploring California’s remarkable art wineries

Culture and chardonnay: exploring California’s remarkable art wineries

If there’s a downside to touring California’s great wine estates by car, it’s that someone has to be the designated driver. Of course you can be disciplined and spit, but that can be a slippery slope, especially when alcohol-by-volume levels are as high as they tend to be in this part of the US — 14 per cent ABV and rising is increasingly the norm. The alternative is to help the driver feel less of a martyr by putting together an itinerary where wine is only part of the attraction.

Take the Hess Collection winery in Napa Valley. In his youth, the Swiss entrepreneur Donald Hess, took over his father’s brewery and apple-juice factory in Switzerland, diversifying into bottled water (he sold the Valser Water Company to Coca-Cola) and then wine, amassing eight wineries in Argentina, Australia and South Africa as well as the US, among them a 900-acre estate on Mount Veeder, which had been established by the Christian Brothers in 1930.

In 1996 he also began to collect art, and what a collection it is! Only about a quarter of it is ever on show in the purpose-built gallery that adjoins the Hess Collection winery, but the current exhibition is filled with pieces by Francis Bacon, Georg Baselitz, Franz Gertsch, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, among other artists whose work I didn’t know. Its restaurant is a pleasant place for lunch, and tastings start at $25 for four generous shots. (Admission to the art collection is free, though a guided tour combined with wine tasting can be booked for $35pp.)

Works by Magdalena Abakanowicz and Zadra Abakan at Napa Valley’s Hess Collection CREDIT: HESS COLLECTION

Half an hour’s drive south, the Donum Estate last month launched its sculpture collection, 39 outdoor works that stand amid a strikingly beautiful landscape of vines, olive groves and lavender. Here you’ll find another roster of big names – as at Hess, the collection favours works, many of them site-specific, by living artists.

Among them are Ai Weiwei (whose Chinese zodiac animal-head drawings can also be found on the labels on its bottles; its owner is a Danish-born, China-based fashion tycoon), Doug Aitken, Fernando Botero, Louise Bourgeois, Elmgreen & Dragset, Tracey Emin, Yayoi Kusama, Jaume Plensa and Marc Quinn. Keith Haring, whose towering Cor-ten steel King and Queen (1987) hold court at the top of a slope, is a rare exception. Indeed both wineries currently have on display work by Anselm Kiefer and Yue Minjun.

In other respects, however, they are very different enterprises. For a start Hess is in Napa, while Donum lies in the Los Carneros area of neighbouring Sonoma (and should you be touring the area, Sonoma is where you should base yourself, ideally at the El Dorado hotel, from $225).

Ai Weiwei’s Zodiac Heads CREDIT: ROBERT BERG

Where Hess grows pinot gris, grüner veltliner, malbec and cabernet sauvigon on Mount Veeder (and a host of other grapes on its estates elsewhere), Donum grows just pinot noir and a small quantity of chardonnay on its 147 acres, on lower, gentler slopes, within sight, on a clear day, of San Francisco, 60 miles south.

While Hess makes about 600,000 cases a year, Donum is also an altogether more rarefied enterprise it terms of its production. When its state-of-the-art new winery opens later this year, it will have the capacity to produce a maximum of one-sixtieth of the Hess Collection. In short it’s a super-premium operation releasing pure pinot noirs of rare and exceptional quality. A four-flight tasting here costs $80 per person (for which it’s essential to book well in advance).

Yue Minjun’s Contemporary Terracotta Warriors, on display at Donum Estate CREDIT: ROBERT BERG

Back in the city of Sonoma (it counts as one despite having a population of only about 10,000), I perused the wine list with interest wherever we went for dinner. The places we ate at were Café La Haye (a five-minute walk from the El Dorado, across the town’s picturesque early 19th-century central plaza) and the neighbouring Harvest Moon Café.

Both are unpretentious, informal, typically Californian (lots of health-giving, flavoursome veg), not outlandishly expensive (even with the weak pound) and excellent. And both keep Donum (though not Hess) wines in their cellars, respectively a Russian River pinot noir ($110) and a 2015 Carneros Estate one ($112).

A Yayoi Kusama pumpkin amid the Donum Estate vineyards CREDIT: ROBERT BERG

These are not the most exalted wines they make, but I thought both outstanding: the former very dry, earthy and complex; the latter more obviously fruity (cherries and blackberries, say the notes), but spicy, even peppery too. And don’t wines of this class always taste even better with food?