A lion's head suggests a certain redoubtable strength, but Hess Collection chose the name Lions Head for a new portfolio of wines, they didn't quite know how useful a degree of leonine resolve would be as the project evolved.
Donald Hess officially retired in 2017, four decades after he bought land on Mt. Veeder and three decades after he opened his Hess Collection Winery. The leadership of the family-owned winery passed to Sabrina, his daughter, and her husband, Tim Persson, but Lion's Head was already in the works.
"Donald Hess looked forward," Tim Persson said in a recent conversation as they released the first Lion's Head Pinot Noir. "He's a very contemporary person, and he gave us the liberty to do that. This portfolio allows us to spread our wings and to do things we didn't feel as comfortable doing within the Hess Collection. That was very exciting and we really wanted to use it to push boundaries.
"The name is Lions Head is a reference back to the family crest," he added. "Hess wines, the lion, and Donald Hess's credo was always 'Live each day with the courage of a lion.' Mine is more of a domestic house cat but I do try."
"We took the idea of that emblem, conscious that our names are not Hess, and we wanted to have a nod to that. There is also the idea that the head (is) the direction you want to go in, the leading light of where we want to go in winemaking."
In addition, Lions Head is the name of a mountain next to Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, where Persson grew up. "It's a mountain I enjoyed climbing very much when I was a child. So for me, it had a poignancy."
The Lions Head brand, he said, "was meant to be a process of discovery, really embracing technology and new technique as they come along. We would see this as an area where we would innovate and try new things. But it actually became a story of resilience, which wasn't by design or intention."
This began with the 2014 South Napa earthquake. "We had significant damage," Persson said. "We lost a lot of wine but it also damaged one of our cellars really badly. So we took that as an opportunity to try and put a silver lining on a really bad day, and we rehabilitated that cellar into our Lion's Head cellar."
They installed state-of-the-art winemaking technology, "a lot of small lot fermenters, double insulated all around, computer-controlled. We bought our winemakers all the toys, so to speak," Persson said. "That was largely to allow us to house some of the newer fruit that was coming off our vineyards that we had completely started to rehabilitate from 2011 onwards. In essence, Lion's Head came out of that — making it work and embracing the fact that nature had designated which cellar had to be overhauled."
Next came the drought of 2015, and the wildfires of 2017 and 2020. This was in addition to the North Coast fires of 2018 and 2019, which destroyed fruit Hess had under contract for Hess Select wines. "All of our estates that we own are in Napa," he said. "Our land investments are concentrated in Napa, outside through long-term partnerships."
In 2020, they lost about 30 percent of grapes they had under contract, but all of their estate fruit in Napa. "We chose not to harvest it. It was a difficult decision to make and we will lose future sales from that wine. But unfortunately, we've had quite a bit of experience with smoke taint."
"Through that process, we've found that once (the fire) gets to a certain level, we're not comfortable in the predictability of the outcome for the wine, especially if you're making it at a higher end. I think it's a big risk to take. I know everyone's aware of the volatility of those compounds, but what it means is through the bottle life of the wine, things can change dramatically," he said. "We had this in 2008 where we bottled wine that seemed fine and six months later, it was like dousing yourself in an ashtray. That's clearly not something we want to have happen for our customers.
"You've got to take the longer term perspective, although we've been taking that a lot recently, so we walked away; but we were lucky we had generous 2018s and 2019s.
"That said," he added, "it looks like 2021 is going to be very light. This (season) is drier than 2016 right now — probably a decent thing, long term, because it brings everything back into balance. It will be a light and expensive crop and we'll probably try to release that earlier to bridge the 2020 gap."
Despite all the challenges of recent years, Lions Head has moved forward. "The first wine we released in 2016 was the Lions Head red blend. and it's a good example of what we're trying to do," Persson said. "The backbone of that wine is Malbec, which we've found to be amazingly successful up in Mt. Veeder, in the cooler areas.
His brother and sister-in-law have a winery in Argentina, he said, "so we had quite a lot of internal knowledge. (We) started to test it in Napa in 2007 and started to get excited about.
Nonetheless, Persson acknowledged, "it is a challenge to sell Malbec from Napa." Although they felt the wine "could carry itself but we chose the red blend because we thought that was an easier format to introduce it. But in any given year, it's approximately 50% Malbec, and I think a point of separation from red blends that have been developed in Napa or beyond."
They next extended Lions Head into Cabernet with Lion Tamer "and after we started looking at Sonoma."
For the Sonoma wines, they chose the name Panthera, from the genus for cat. "The imagery we use on the label is the mountain lion and there's plenty of them around us and in the Mayacamus mountains between us and Sonoma." A Sonoma Chardonnay followed by the new Pinot Noir, released for the first time this year.
"Whereas Lion Tamer was more of a masculine wine," Persson said. "We wanted a more feminine treatment for our Sonoma wines."
Persson doesn't foresee a lessening of challenges.
"Certainly weather patterns seem more volatile and is the problem for us because the volatility represents a greater risk as the grower and a greater risk as a winemaker. So I do think winemaking in Napa Valley has become a riskier process than it used to be with regards to weather and predictability. That worries me. I think one of the biggest things that is on everyone's minds is what are the fire mitigation plans that we collectively plan to employ and what are the investments in that? That for me has not been that clear.
"Granted," he added, "we've gone into a pandemic. I used to joke that we were waiting for a plague of locusts but now we have a kind of a form of plague."
"There won't be 2020 Lions Head wines," Persson said. "We'll go from 2019 to 2021." The winery will, however, release Hess Select wines from 2020.
"Certainly Mother Nature has been throwing up these obstacles to us," he said. "It's been an interesting process because each time the resilience has been tested, it's made us more determined to succeed. It's a wonderful realization, although I'd have liked an easier path to this."
In other words, the lion will go forward.
The winery atop Mount Veeder is now open for tastings of Lions Head and other Hess Collection wines. For reservations and more information, visit www.hesscollection.com.