DongA One bought Dana Estates Winery in Napa Valley, Calif. in 2005. It has produced vintage and premium wines since then. / Courtesy of DongA One
Lee Hi-sang DongA One chairman
Dana Estates' Cabernet Sauvignon Lotus Vineyard
By Kim Jae-won
DongA One chairman Lee Hi-sang is an exceptional figure in the Korean business world. Not only did he create a new line of revenue for his flour business by expanding into wine production, he also broke through the barriers set up by the rigid, established American wine producers in Napa Valley, Calif., even fighting against discrimination.
Some 15 years ago, California winery owners declined to sell their products to DongA One. "It was like picking stars in the sky for a Korean company to have products from Napa Valley wineries. In the late 1990's, the wine market in the U.S. was expanding at a fast pace, and they ignored Korean importers, thinking ‘How much could they know about wine?'" said Lee in an e-mail interview with The Korea Times.
However, the businessman did not give up, and instead tried to win them over by becoming good friends. "I sent them traditional Korean souvenirs, along with my business card. I even took the same flights with them intentionally so that I can talk to them." Lee even cancelled all of his appointments to attend the funeral of Joe Heitz, owner of Heitz Cellar, in December 2000, and as far as he knows, was the only Asian there.
Moved by his sincere gestures, the American wine moguls finally gave Lee a chance. Owing to these new relationships, Nara Cellar, the wine importing subsidiary of DongA One, now buys vintage and premium wines, including brands such as Montes and Columbia Crest, from the New World wineries.
But the Korean businessman did not stop there. He dreamed of having his own winery in the Valley, and in 2005, after years of searching, he bought Livingstone Moffett, later changing the name to Dana Estates. Based in the western mountains of Napa, Dana soon realized its growth potential.
Robert Parker, a leading U.S. wine critic, has rated Dana Estates' Cabernet Sauvignon Lotus Vineyard a perfect 100 twice — once in 2007 and again in 2010. Wines getting a perfect score more than once are rare. Further, Parker's evaluation is influential in the industry, affecting the prices of wines directly.
"It's hard to know where to start with these magnificent wines from Dana Estates. The 2010s are epic, while the 2011s continue to show all the promise I sensed when I first tasted the wines this spring," said Antonio Galloni, a wine critic who evaluates American wines on behalf of Parker.
In his review this past December, Galloni commented that "Napa Valley has attracted a lot of wealthy, big-time investors over the years, but few, if any, have managed to accomplish as much as Hi Sang Lee and his team have."
How did Lee reach his goals in that short a time? Lee credits the combination of an expert team and good soil for making his dream come true. "I made the best wine team by scouting Philippe Melka, one of the best winemakers of our time. I also let the best experts design and construct the winery," Lee said. The high quality soil in the winery also played a key role in producing great wines.
What's Lee's next step after setting this milestone in California? The 67-year-old, a second-generation offspring of the DongA One founding family, said that the company still has a long way to go in terms of growth, and thus, aims to increase revenues to 1 trillion won by 2015. To achieve this ambitious goal, Lee seeks to increase the group's overseas market share. "We will focus on the U.S. and China as hubs for overseas markets. Cambodia will be added, and we will reach our arms to Russia and Central Asia, too," said Lee.