"These days, making good wine is not enough," Donald Hess says. "A lot of people are making good wine. It’s difficult to sell wine if you have to show you’re so much better than the next guy." Silver-haired with a complexion reddened by years of sun and wine, Hess is sitting outdoors and lunching on beef empanadas, a specialty of Salta, the northwestern Argentine province that abuts Chile, Bolivia, and Paraguay. From the patio at his El Arenal vineyard we have views of towering cactuses, clumps of sagebrush, and the white-capped Andes beyond. "You have to have a good story, a true story," he continues. "In Napa we are known as the winery with the art collection. Here in Argentina we have the highest vineyard in the world."
Hess, 71, is the founder of the Hess Collection, a large Napa producer of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. El Arenal is one of four vineyards he purchased in Argentina’s high desert. It’s a perfect spot to shoot a Western but a peculiar place to grow grapes. Why has the Swiss-born entrepreneur chosen to cap his career by making wine in this rugged, remote terrain? And what convinces him he can plant a first-rate vineyard at 9,000 feet?
Hess began this business the same way he did the one in Napa—on impulse, after drinking and liking the local wine. "All my big decisions are emotional," he says. "Only the small ones are not."
In 1996 he was traveling with his wife, Ursula, in the southern part of Salta when the driver asked if they would like to see the best winery in the region. Upon arrival, the couple was offered only white wines. The valley lowlands, they learned, didn’t produce many red-wine grapes.
"Where should I go to find a red?" he asked. The answer was Colomé.
A couple of days later Hess found himself in a nearby town drinking a simple red from Cafayate, the center of wine production on Salta’s low plateau. "Don’t you have anything from the hills?" he asked.
The proprietor said, "Yes, we have this," and she brought out a Malbec-Cabernet blend from Colomé. "There was second- ary fermentation going on in the bottle," Hess recalls. "But I said, There is potential here." The flavor of the grapes was powerfully concentrated. He thought the wine was "a raw diamond."
Though not in a major grape-growing area, the Colomé winery, founded in 1831, is Argentina’s oldest. In recent times it had suffered from neglect. Because of spring floods, Hess couldn’t get there on that trip. Eventually he arranged a meeting with Raúl Dávalos, whose family had owned Colomé for generations. Hess made what he thought was a compelling offer to buy the vineyard, but Dávalos demurred.
The board of the Hess Group was eager to acquire vineyards in South America so Hess, then chairman, investigated other properties. "The main concern was, Is there water?" says Ursula, 60, a thin, elegant woman with green eyes, auburn hair, and high cheekbones. Hess used an idiosyncratic method to answer that question. In 1982, needing to drill a new well in Switzerland for a mineral-water company he owned, he contracted a dowser to find water the old-fashioned way. Where high-priced engineers had failed, water witching succeeded. And in the process Hess discovered that he could do it himself.
Walking the arid Salta terrain surreptitiously with a pendulum, he located three subterranean streams on a property now called Altura Máxima, near the lofty village of Payogasta. He also found water a few miles away, at El Arenal. After feeling the tug, he bought a year’s option on the land, enough time to ascertain that the water was really there. He also installed weather monitors to verify that the climate was right for growing grapes. Later he acquired 60,000 acres at Altura Máxima and 865 acres at El Arenal.
At that point, Dávalos announced he was ready to sell Colomé after all. So in 2001 Hess purchased the property that had initially attracted him—another 96,000 acres. By then he’d begun disengaging from running the Hess Group, after almost five decades. However, he agreed to supervise the Salta operations for the first two years, and he personally bought the Altura Máxima holdings. Hess is still closely involved with the estates owned by the company, which has invested $20 million in them, including a hotel and art gallery at Colomé.
To be sure, only a fraction of the land Hess acquired could be converted into vineyards. He optimistically estimates that some 500 acres will eventually be planted across the four properties. Currently 285 acres are under cultivation, most at Colomé. Altura Máxima, which remains an experiment, is far more land than Hess could ever use. But he paid a bargain rate for it (about $950,000), and it allayed Ursula’s fears that unless they protected the area, developers would quickly follow.
The couple now spends half the year in Argentina, devoting their energies to what is probably the last big venture of Hess’s career. His first Colomé Estate Malbec vintage, from the 2002 harvest, was limited to 2,400 bottles and released only in Argentina. A Malbec blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat, it is an intense, alcoholic, and flavorful wine with a rich purple-red color. The more ageworthy Colomé Reserva, made from older Malbec vines, followed after an extra year in the barrel. Hess also bottles a modest red under the Amalaya de Colomé label as well as a light, fruity white created from the varietal Torrontés.
The response to the wines has been so favorable that Colomé built a new winery capable of producing 100,000 cases a year. The latest harvest, in March, yielded enough grapes for 54,000 cases. So far very little has been released in the United States—1,200 cases in 2006, nearly all of which went to restaurants and retailers in California and New York.
"I think in the long run this region will make the best red wine in South America," Hess says. "It won’t be for everybody’s taste. I like heavy wines, myself. I don’t like thin wines, even if they’re elegant."
The climate may have lured Hess to Salta, but it was the altitude that captured his imagination. "I must admit to you, nobody really knows what altitude does to the vines," he says. That hasn’t stopped Argentine winemakers from indulging in a "mine is higher than yours" machismo. The bragging began in Mendoza province, which is the country’s chief vineyard area, 600 miles south of Salta. When most oenophiles think of Argentine wines, the Malbecs and Cabernets of Mendoza are what come to mind. Winemakers there discovered that if they planted high on the slopes, they could grow grapes with more finesse. Before long they started boasting on their labels about the specific altitude of their vineyards. The highest points in Mendoza, however, only reach some 4,500 feet. Molehills! At their loftiest, the vineyards in northern Salta are nearly 9,000 feet above sea level.
In the Argentine subtropics extreme elevation is thought to be viticulturally advantageous. The vines bask in bountiful solar radiation, which some researchers think may boost the level of healthful polyphenols in red wine. Pedro Marchevsky is a distinguished viticulturist who worked for Bodega Catena Zapata in Mendoza for over 30 years before starting his own label, Dominio del Plata. He argues that at higher elevations, the thinner air and lower humidity permit more sunlight to nourish the vines. "For certain varietals, it leads to ripe, soft tannins, deeper color, and better flavor," he says. "But if you follow the same directions in places close to sea level, you will get sunburn and bitterness."
Too much sun can also produce excessive levels of sugar, leading to crude, overly alcoholic wine. To help regulate exposure, Marchevsky pulls leaves off the vines on one side, promoting morning sun and afternoon shade. He also plants his rows at a slight westerly variation from the standard north-south line, a convention developed in sun-starved regions such as Bordeaux.
At Colomé Hess took Marchevsky’s deviation a step further, experimenting on one small plot with an east-west planting. The company is also trying a number of varietals: Malbec, Cabernet, Petit Verdot, Syrah, and Tannat. Despite the harsh appearance of the landscape, Salta’s climate is surprisingly moderate. Unlike Napa, where hot spells of 100-plus degrees can shock the vines, temperatures in Salta never top 90 degrees.
It all sounds promising, but as Hess is quick to say, he and his longtime winemaking consultant, Randle Johnson, are still learning. "There are different conditions in different places—the weather, soil, wind, rodents," Hess notes. Like an illustration in one of Aesop’s fables, the vines in Salta are trained to bear grapes high to elude foxes. More exotic is the Argentine leaf-cutting ant. "Before we planted, somebody told me the ants could be quite aggressive," Hess recalls. "But I thought, What can they do? I had planted a tree and when I came back, it was stripped of all its leaves. I thought that the gardener must have watered it stupidly hard. Then I saw a moving green stream of ants eight inches wide." Because of ant destruction, Hess had to replace 13 of the 30 acres in his first Colomé planting. Biodynamic principles prevent him from poisoning the insects. Instead he dispatches ant-assassination teams to burn their nests.
There were other mishaps, notably the time the new wine press was damaged when the truck transporting it overturned in an accident. For a while Ursula thought her husband’s ambition might have outstripped his reason. "There was nothing here," she recounts. "No electricity. No telephone for six months. Our bedroom was also the office. There were four employees. I was cooking, cleaning, doing the whole lot. We were running out of food. The last guy who went to bed turned off the gen-erator, the first guy who woke up turned it on. I thought, What are we doing here? The old vineyards hadn’t been plowed for twenty years. This was a complete ruin."
Her story is being told improbably over a dinner of pork medallions and steamed quinoa in the restaurant of the stylish nine-room inn that the Hesses constructed at Colomé. This could be a boutique hotel in Napa. There’s an infinity pool overlooking vineyards and a perennial garden. Although the linens and tableware were imported from Switzerland, almost everything else is local, including the food, which is grown according to biodynamic principles. Women from the village work as waitresses and maids. "Think of how they are living—no bathrooms, everyone in the same room, no radio, no lights," Hess says. "They come here and they are in the third millennium. At night they go back to the Middle Ages."
Touring the Colomé property, I get a sense of the grandiosity of the project. Hess installed an Italian-made turbine that provides clean hydroelectric power for 80 percent of his energy needs. He laid an elaborate drip-irrigation system in the vineyards. There is a greenhouse to grow vegetables in the winter for the hotel, another to nurture vine cuttings. There are pigpens and a tennis court. And there is art.
From the start Hess, a fervent collector, wanted a gallery at Colomé. The art museum and visitor center he built in Napa was a $12 million gamble that paid off handsomely by bestowing an identity on the winery. At Colomé Hess decided to focus on installation artist James Turrell, an exquisite manipulator of light, whose work he has collected for more than 30 years. "In Napa I have temperature and humidity controls," he explains. "But here that doesn’t make sense. That’s why I thought of Turrell. In one room there is a bench, in the other, projectors and lights. And that’s it."
Hess acquired two pieces by Turrell specifically for Colomé to complement the seven works he already owned. Along with the amenities of the inn, the gallery—which, after construction delays, is scheduled to open in the first half of next year—will provide another reason for people to make the long trip to the winery. But the museum will not give Colomé its unique profile. For that, Hess is relying on the altitude.
He is not the only one in Salta with high ambitions. Raúl Dávalos, who sold him Colomé, started growing grapes on another family holding, Bodega Tacuil. He produces several wines, among them the premium red Viñas de Dávalos, a huge wine packed with all the tobacco and charred-meat aromas you hope to savor in a Malbec-Cabernet blend. "At 2,597 meters [8,520 feet], we are the highest in the world," says Dávalos, asserting his preeminence. I mention that Hess is planting a vineyard in Altura Máxima at 9,000 feet. "Then I will go higher," he retorts, emphasizing that he has 314,000 acres at various altitudes. "Donald will never win."
The next day I have lunch with a friend of Dávalos’s, Arnaldo Etchart, the patriarch of the area’s most famous winemaking family. A decade ago Etchart sold his winery to the Pernod Ricard conglomerate. He kept another prized parcel, however, and now makes wine under the San Pedro de Yacochuya label. With his business partner, French vintner Michel Rolland, he has produced some of the best bottles in Salta. Rolland believes 8,500 feet is probably the upper limit for proper vine growth. "What’s important is to make good wine, whether it be at ten thousand feet or at sea level," says Etchart’s son, Marcos, who manages the business. "Without a doubt, Altura Máxima is a long shot."
Up north Hess is hoping to prove him wrong. Hess first planted at Altura Máxima in 2002—fortunately, only a little more than an acre, because it all had to be torn out. Last March he harvested another test vineyard, where the previous owner had grown Indian corn and squash. Hess used clones of Pinot Noir, as well as Malbec and Tempranillo. The yield was smaller than he anticipated. "The birds were faster than we were," he says.
While he declares that the vineyard has proved viable, Hess won’t be able to assess the quality of the grapes without a larger crop. And even if the Altura Máxima fruit is great, it will be a long time before the vineyard generates income. "If you start from scratch, it takes two years for the soil preparation, one year to set up the drip irrigation, five years to have a sixty percent crop," he says. "That makes eight years. Then another two aging in the winery, three for a reserve wine. So it’s a decade before you get your first money back."
Nevertheless, Hess is forging ahead. In November he was scheduled to plant an-other 27 acres, some with Sauvignon Blanc. Nearly 26 of the acres will be just below the test vineyard, but a planting of 1.2 acres at slightly over 10,000 feet will be the highest yet—the highest, almost certainly, anywhere in the world.
During lunch one day at Colomé, Ursula asks her husband, "So when are we going to build this winery at Altura Máxima?"
"First we have to see the fruit," he replies.
"If it isn’t great?" I ask.
"Then we might blend it into the Arenal," Hess says. A pause. "That would be a big disappointment."
"That is the risk," Ursula says. "Then you would know not to go so high up."
"Or," he adds, "go higher."
On The Rise: Colome’s High-altitude Wines
The Hess Group produces four wines at its Colomé vineyards, three of which are available in the United States in tantalizingly limited quantities.
Colome Torrontes With its lush floral nose and flinty finish, this straw-colored wine makes an unusual alternative to a Gewürztraminer or Viognier. Thanks to the removal of the grape skins before fermentation, the bitter undertones that can mar this Argentine varietal are absent. The 2006 Torrontés serves beautifully to wash down a seafood lunch. The 2007 vintage has just been released. Altitude 6,000–8,000 feet; $15
Colome Estate Malbec This meaty red cries out for a big Argentine steak. Despite the 14.5 percent alcohol content, the 2005 vintage isn’t rough or overwhelming. Nor is it soft and flabby, as are too many Malbecs. Underneath its fleshy mouthfeel is a structure that comes partly from its blend with Cabernet Sauvignon (10 percent) and Tannat (5 percent), as well as from the 15 months it ages in French oak. Altitude 7,200–8,500 feet; $30
Colome Reserva The most elusive and precious of Colomé’s offerings is this cellarworthy heavyweight. Only a minuscule 45 cases of the 2003 Reserva were allocated to the United States. Sadly, none of the 2004 is being shipped here, but look for the 2005 next fall. Made of grapes harvested from vines that are be-tween 100 and 150 years old, then aged for two years in French oak, the 2003 Reserva is a blend of Malbec (80 percent) and Cabernet (20 percent) that is deep purple in color, with spice and berry flavors. Altitude 7,200–7,500 feet; $90
Where to Stay in Salta
Argentina’s northern Salta province is a land of llamas, tamales, and Incan ruins. The landscape varies from wildlife-rich cloud forest to arid, polychrome canyons and salt pans. A clutch of sophisticated hotels have sprung up in the wine-producing area around Cafayate, in the Calchaquí Valley. To get there, you take a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires to the provincial capital, also named Salta, plus four (breathtaking) hours by car or 30 minutes by helicopter.
Estancia Colome Some 7,500 feet up in the Andean foothills, Donald Hess converted the Spanish colonial main house at Argentina’s oldest working winery into nine suites. Rustic chic with terracotta tiles, local stone, and llama-wool rugs, each opens onto a private veranda commanding spectacular views. A gallery opening next year will display a first-rate collection of artworks by James Turrell, assembled by Hess. Guests can do a two-hour guided walk through the prephylloxera Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon vines or tour the winery with Colomé’s winemaker, Thibaut Delmotte. Alternatively, they can opt to ride horses or bicycles, or simply admire the landscape from the splendid pool. From $260 to $330; 54-3868/ 494-200; estanciacolome.com
House of Jasmines Country Inn & Spa Swirls of the aromatic shrub that give this cozy hotelito its name abound on the 300-acre property, located a dozen or so miles from the city of Salta. Owned by actor Robert Duvall and his Argentine wife, Luciana Pedraza, the 117-year-old adobe-walled farmhouse has seven suites, all bathed in white, with four-poster beds. There’s a modest spa and a pool, and visitors may roam on foot around the rambling grounds, which have grapefruit and lemon orchards, as well as a vegetable patch that supplies fresh produce for the kitchen year-round. From $150 to $180; 54-387/497-2002; houseofjasmines.com
Patios de Cafayate Hotel & Spa French brothers David and Salvador Michel built this Spanish colonial–style mansion among their trestled vineyards, which they first planted in Cafayate in the late 19th century. The winery is now owned by Bodega El Esteco, and in 2005 Starwood Hotels converted the property into an elegant 32-room resort. Its labyrinthine interior features intriguing corridors leading to cobbled courtyards and jasmine-draped gardens, while the mustard- and ocher-colored rooms feature rustic furniture and touches of Andean tapestry. A well-equipped spa offers a range of treatments. The excellent restaurant serves regional specialities such as llama, quinoa, maize, and goat, while the dark, tannic wines come from the bodega next door. From $260 to $500; 54-3868/ 421-747; starwoodhotels.com
Papyrus Four years ago salteño owner Rogelio Salinas converted his sprawling home into this intimate 12-room guesthouse with a pool and a carefully tended garden. Perched on the slopes of Mount San Bernardo, it enjoys abundant sunshine and commanding views of the city of Salta. Inside, the decor combines vibrant walls with sober-hued leather-and-wood furniture. The restaurant serves well-crafted dishes such as rabbit braised with soy sauce and honey, Pacific salmon dressed with olives, and steak simmered in a Malbec reduction. From $280 to $380; 54-387/422-7067