Hi Sang Lee

14 Hi Sang Lee croppedIn Sanskrit, dana is the spirit of generosity and a fundamental principle of Buddhism. Hi Sang Lee named his Napa Valley winery Dana Estates—“a phrase that represents Hi Sang as well,” says his son-in-law Jae Chun, adding, “He cannot stand by while others around him suffer. Generosity is what he is all about.”

Hi Sang’s birth in Seoul, South Korea in 1945 coincided with the nation’s independence from Japanese occupation. It was a momentous time for Hi Sang’s large family and marked the beginning of an era of prosperity for them. As their business milling flour grew quickly, Hi Sang’s parents shared their good fortune with the entire community. “Every day when I returned from school there would be 50 to 70 people at my home,” Hi Sang says. “My mother provided food for our relatives, and for many of the villagers who otherwise would not have enough to eat. She was a sincere Buddhist and believed we should care for as many other people as we could.”

When he was in his 20s, Hi Sang traveled to New York and founded a company that made leather goods that could be sold in the U.S. and in South Korea. “My father-in-law told me that when he saw homeless people on the streets of New York, he never gave them money because he knew they would spend it on alcohol or drugs,” Jae says. “But he always went and bought food and returned to feed them. He could never just walk by and leave someone suffering.”

After eight years, Hi Sang returned to his family home in South Korea to take over his father’s business. As the business continued expanding, so did Hi Sang’s generosity. Jae explains, “Hi Sang supports nearly 50 families in his community. In each of these families, a child is the primary breadwinner because the adults are either deceased or cannot work due to illness. Hi Sang provides food and money to pay for the education of these children. He gives coal to the poorest families where he lives. Without him, these people would have no heat to survive South Korea’s very cold winters. Hi Sang now also travels each year to India to bring used milling equipment and flour to impoverished communities there.”

In the mid-1990s, the South Korean government approved the importation of wine to the nation. Hi Sang remembered the wines he had enjoyed while in the United States, and “because he is the kind of person who wants to share the good things he has with others,” Jae says, “he decided to find a way to bring the best wines he could find to his home.” He began by importing wine, and in 2005 purchased a winery in the Napa Valley, renaming it Dana Estates. Just one year later, Hi Sang made the decision to donate two dollars from every bottle of wine he sold in the U.S. or South Korea to cancer research in honor of a friend who passed away from the disease. As he does at home, he also extends his generosity in Napa—making grants to the local hospital, several nearby schools, and more than 20 other charities.

Jae says, “Hi Sang always teaches that we cannot make excuses not to be generous. There is no need too small; the important thing is to look around and give. Start with your family, your cousins, your co-workers and neighbors. Don’t worry about looking far away, just start with someone in need close to you and help.”

Hi Sang refers to his sincere Buddhist beliefs when describing his acts of kindness: “I believe that everyone has a Buddha within and that compassion is part of human nature. Therefore it is not something great and beyond ordinary people, but rather human nature to bring this power out from within you. Lower yourself and always learn from others. And make no excuses not to be generous.”