Sustainable Wine Review: Q&A with Hess Collection’s Dave Guffy

This week we were fortunate enough to track down Dave Guffy of The Hess Collection in Mount Veeder, Napa. In addition to a wide range of sustainable practices, Hess is a leader in walking their susty walk and sets aside 1% of sales from several wines such as their Small Block Series of limited-release wines and during an annual promotion known as Chardonnay Month when the winery runs a promo called It Is Easy Being Green.

JK: Although Hess Collection needs little introduction, can you provide readers with a little background on who you are?

DG: For the past 11 years I’ve been the winemaker for The Hess Collection, which is located in a historic winery high atop Mount Veeder in Napa Valley. Donald Hess established his first Mount Veeder vineyard in 1978, and today, we farm about 1,034 acres, all sustainably, with 704 acres of that total in Napa Valley.

JK: What was your first job?

DG: I started my career as a cellar rat, at a winery in the Santa Cruz mountains known then as Felton Empire. It wasn’t long before I realized how much I enjoyed combining agriculture, viticulture and experiencing what still, at that time, was the beginning of the modern rebirth of California winemaking. I had spent a lot of summers on our family farm in Kansas, and the primal nature of farming intrigued me. With any kind of farming, and particularly with vineyards, each vintage or harvest is something new and different, promising and hopeful — and always challenging —in its own way. My winemaking jobs brought me to Santa Barbara, near some of California’s most notable vineyards, and ultimately, some 11 years ago, to The Hess Collection and our historic winery on Mount Veeder in Napa.

JK: How has the wine industry changed in the last 10 years?

DG: The wines, of course, across the board are much, much better. This has happened not only because we have learned much more about terroir in our vineyards (or, more simply, what grows well where and why) but directly because the wine industry has embraced sustainable practices.

As the California wine industry has matured, the mantle of sustainability brings more dust on your boots. Our approach now is to grow and nurture the healthiest vines we can, avoiding problems by becoming great farmers. The winemaker can no longer wait to see the grapes for the first time as the truck pulls into the winery. You have to get involved in the growing season and get out into the vineyard to work hand in hand with the vineyard manager and his team if you want to produce flavorful fruit with complex layers that lead to a more interesting wine. In the past, we waited for a problem to arise and then applied a “fix”. Now, we avoid that approach, and everything is better, for the vines, our workers, and our community.

JK: Can you talk a bit more about why you care about sustainability and what you’re doing?

From the beginning, Donald Hess brought forward a philosophy of delivering wines that speak to their natural origins. To honor where the vines come from, and what they offer, we farm sustainably and conduct our business in a sustainable manner.

What does that mean? It means that everyone who works at The Hess Collection is very much aware of our sustainable goals, and we seek to lead, not follow, wherever we can. To that end, we were among the first of California’s wineries to embrace and become certified in the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA), which is an ongoing process that pushes us to continually evolve our sustainable practices. And we were earlier among the first to receive certification in the Napa Green Winery program. We carefully manage our soils, conserve water, protect against erosion, use integrated pest management techniques, raptors, even goats to help clear brush in the springtime. In fact, most of our first 24 goats turned out to be pregnant, and today, we have a small flock of over 100 that we release in the vineyards just prior to budbreak to help with weed control, minimizing the use of tractors, which have a measurable carbon footprint as well as a tendency to compact wet soils. And we do much, much more in our approach to packaging, production and everyday business practices. We view things from the triple bottom line approach, balancing the environment, our relationship with the community and our working colleagues, and finally, the need for economic success, which includes our participation in the 1% For the Planet, which involves us donating a portion of our revenues to support sustainable efforts. Last year, our donations helped fund the Napa Land Trust. (JK: This year the Hess Collection donated $20K from 1% for the Planet sales to Land Trust of Napa County & Center For Land-Based Learning) It’s all just second nature to us now.

JK : Any general comments, observations, predictions about the industry?

DG: We’re glad to see that as we’ve learned more about how to craft great tasting wines at all price points, wine is becoming a larger part of everyday American life.

We’re lucky to have a very special place on Mount Veeder, and we see visitors arriving from all across the US (and, because of the Hess Art Collection, from around the world). What’s remarkable is that, more and more, our visitors are from a wide range of age groups. We’re finding a curiosity about interesting blends like our Hess Mount Veeder 19 Block Cuvée, which is Cabernet based but includes a variety of other interesting varietals, about different styles of Chardonnay, and in our Small Block series, an endless fascination with wines they might not have seen before, such as Grüner Veltliner.

I suspect we won’t be talking about sustainability quite as much just because people expect it, and we can deliver on that promise.

It’s really quite exciting for us because as people become more interested, we’ll always be challenged to do a better job, not only with traditional wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, but with blends and other varietal wines, old and new.

JK: When you’re not drinking one of your own wines, what are you drinking?

DG: I love the red Rhone varieties whether they are produced in Napa, the Central Coast, the Rhone, or elsewhere in the world. In fact, at home I have a small Syrah Vineyard and most years, craft a Syrah wine for my personal cellar. I have also been known to indulge in ultra premium tequila. Great tequila has similarities with great wine because both illustrate the importance of terroir and use of oak to define a beverage style. That well-known winemaker saying of “it takes a lot of great beer to make a great wine” could be refined a bit to include ultra premium tequila.

JK: What’s your favorite place to grab a bite out?

DG: The taco truck. If I could just get it to follow me around to the vineyards, life would be even better.

Thanks, Dave!

This post is cross-posted on VineCrowd.com.

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