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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
7 Nov 2003

Monday saw the final act of a David and Goliath contest for one of Australia's most popular wine companies, Peter Lehmann Wines. Allied-Domecq has been looking for a nice, juicy Australian subsidiary for more than a year and this one, healthier than most, looked ideal. But in the end virtually all PLW shares now belong to a relative unknown on the international winescape, the Hess Group of Berne - except for the 10.1 per cent still owned by the ebullient King of the Barossa himself.

It was typical of Peter Lehmann that he would publicly insult his global suitor. He has spent much of his working life railing against big companies - indeed his own company exists virtually solely as a statement of despair at the predations of the big companies in his native Barossa Valley in the 1970s. He offered his grape-growing mates, fellow descendants of the original Silesian settlers, a decent home for their Shiraz which was then being forced into such ignominious forms as 'sherry' and pink pop by the wine industry giants.

Donald Hess meanwhile had inherited his Swiss family company in the 1960s at the age of 20 and immediately set about converting it from a beer to a mineral water business, thanks to an alpine spring he located and marketed as the Swiss Valser Wasser, pioneering direct home deliveries. He also had interests in hotels but, as with so many others, it was a trip to the Napa Valley that inspired him to try his hand as a vigneron.

By 1978 he had bought his first Napa Valley vineyard and eventually acquired the old Christian Brothers property on Mount Veeder which is now the Hess Collection winery, housing not just a 600,000 case wine operation but also part of his collection of modern art.

Donald Hess is far from a standard-issue businessman. He has somehow managed to have his own energetic brand of fun - much more holistic than golf and sailboats - during his 45 years at the helm. I'd come across him in the 1980s as he was feeling his way in the wine business, followed his subsequent acquisition of a half share in the highly-regarded family wine business Glen Carlou in South Africa, and watched him set up a US wine distribution company effective enough to launch Norton Argentine wines on the American market and attract the initial attention of the Peter Lehmann team when they were looking to improve their US network. Personal relationships have been key to these developments.

But Hess seemed most in his element when I met him again in the spring of last year almost 10,000 feet up in the Andes embarking on his most ambitious scheme yet, to produce fine wine from the world's highest vines. He claimed then that his biggest wine estate there Colomé (although he has planted even higher vines of his own) was his last project.

'I'm only interested in start-ups,' he said. 'I'm not interested in running things. I've just retired at 65, put all the shares in a family trust and now just have very good managers. [Dr Max Lienhard took over as chairman of the group at the beginning of last year.] As for me, I'll be spending six months a year here in Argentina taking care of my wine and six months a year in Berne looking after my art collection.'

No mention of Australia then. And it is precisely this promise of hands-off ownership that appeals to the Lehmanns in Australia. They had apparently asked the Finlaysons of Glen Carlou how they found relations with their Swiss co-owners. According to one Lehmann manager, they were told 'they left us alone and PL thought, this is bloody magic'.

In any case Donald Hess himself has far too much on his hands trying to drag this 96,000-acre estate and the hundreds of Indio people that come with it into the 21st century to have much time to meddle with the business plans of what is already a thriving Australian wine company. It was a bottle of wine from Colomé, altitude 2200 to 2300 metres, tasted on his first visit to Argentina in 1996 that lit the spark. 'When I tasted it in a restaurant, I just thought, this is a raw diamond - although it took me another year to actually get here,' explained Hess surveying his domain, eyes blazing with excitement. He is clearly a mountain man.

'This start-up is more difficult than usual,' he admitted. 'I usually have at least electricity, a phone, year-round road access and a reliable water supply.' His wife Ursula - another Swiss art collector (when she finally met him, having avoided him for some time, she found that the artists they collected were uncannily, irresistibly coincident) - is a little bit less gung ho.

When I visited, after a spectacular four-hour drive towards the Bolivian border along often-unpaved mountain tracks from the nearest city Salta, she was engaged in a prolonged campaign to install a reliable internet connection, and confessed to being frustrated at how long everything took. There is just one shopping trip a week, and even the half-horse town of Molinas is a fraught 30-minute drive along sandy tracks, involving a river crossing.

But these practical difficulties do not seem to have scaled down Hess's vision for Colomé. The hotel he envisaged is now open apparently. (It was a hole in the ground gazed at desultorily by the locals when I visited.) 'I plan nine double rooms, with a special writer's room, tennis, pool, horses,' he told me. 'I might do a little museum; I've found that works very well. Colomé will be a self-sufficient and biodynamic farm. This is nothing new here where the sun and moon have long been respected as powerful forces. But I do want these people to be paid a proper salary.'

The estate's ancient mixed-variety vines have been supplemented by new Bordeaux red grapes and planted vineyards now total 150 acres, expected to increase to 370 eventually but so far only 42 are producing. ('We'd like to keep Colomé small and special.') An intense cask sample of the first Hess vintage, 2002 (to be sold only in Switzerland), was impressive - especially to those of us who saw the original 'winery', a monument to 19th century disregard for sanitation and the niceties of modern vinification.

Colomé was once part of a personal holding which comprised an almost unimaginable five million acres of land belonging to the last Spanish governor, whose mummified body still rests in Molinos church.

The landscape here is extraordinary, pink gorges with scallops of soft deposits looking for all the world like a melting icecream sundae with hidden valleys of green and the odd abandoned Inca temple. As we drove over the 3348 metre Piedra del Molino pass on our way to Colomé from Salta, we saw three condors wheeling in the clouds below us. This the land of vicuna, puma and very, very few humans.

It is not one jot like the Barossa Valley, and completely unimaginable, I would have thought, in the Allied Domecq boardroom. But the Hess Group's recent sale of Valser Wasser has presumably played a part in its new, hotly fought Australian acquisition - and in last week's news that Hess has acquired the Finlaysons' half of Glen Carlou in South Africa.

See earlier stories about this takeover in purple pages' inside information.