VOLANTE Elyse Glickman visits Palmaz Vineyards, a family-owned and run property that blends tradition with technology, aided by geology and a gift for winemaking
Photographed by the author and courtesy Palmaz Vineyards
Elyse Glickman is US west coast editor of Lucire.
Napa is one of America’s most celebrated romantic destinations. And what’s there not to love? California’s premier wine growing region has going for it year-round spring-like weather, first-class dining, and a refined and sophisticated mix of familiar and emerging wineries. In fact, the Napa Valley in some years has had more tourists populate its fields than Disneyland. So much for it totally embodying the “wine lovers’ paradise” trope.
One easy and obvious fix to the crowd issue is to take the road—or wine trail—less travelled in pursuit of wineries that are a bit more hidden. That philosophy worked for Julio and Amalia Palmaz, who hail from Argentina and resided in San Antonio, Texas for many years. As regular visitors to Napa, they loved the idea of winemaking so much they decided to relocate in the 1990s. Ultimately, they unearthed and purchased a late 19th century winery estate in Coombsville (located in Napa’s southern reaches) with an auspicious history as the original Cedar Knoll Vineyards. Owner Henry Hagen made American wine history, winning a silver medal for his Napa-made brandy in 1889 nearly a century before the ‘Judgement of Paris’ debunked the notion French wine industry dominance and put California wines on the map.
While the property that is now Palmaz Vineyards (palmazvineyards.com) expands out to 600 picturesque acres of land draped over Mt George a mere ten minutes from downtown Napa, only 60 acres were suited for the cultivation of grapes (particularly cabernet sauvignon, with some plots of malbec—the signature grape of their native Argentina—chardonnay, riesling, and muscat). However, Julio and Amalia embraced the challenge of building a new winery from the ground up—and then some—with many of the winemaking facilities getting built in to the mountain.
‘The facility was literally designed from the inside out by my husband and I, assisted by a team of brilliant engineers, [led by] Gram Wozencroft who directed the geo-engineering,’ says Amalia. ‘As for the interior designer, we did not hire one. The winery’s furniture and art is admittedly a smattering of family heirlooms and homes from previous chapters in our life. I personally love both antiques and modern furniture so I chose to use both styles in different areas of the winery. It really feels like home walking throughout the winery as I will remember a piece that was my mother’s in Argentina or a painting my sister, who is an artist, made for me. It’s all very close to home and makes for fun stories.’
The flow between the old and the new sections of the winery is seamless, as Amalia carefully planned how she would arrange historic pieces and personal keepsakes to avoid a stark difference between the original Hagen Estate and Palmaz. There is also environmental repurposing on a grand scale for the exteriors, inspired by the hand-formed stonework used in the old buildings. Thanks to an abundance of stone from the material blasted from the caves construction, there is continuity from the old buildings architecturally to the newer structures.
There was also an understanding among all members of the Palmaz family—which includes daughter Florencia, son Christian, daughter-in-law Jessica and, by extension, head winemaker Tina Mitchell, son and assistant winemaker Doug Mitchell, and consulting winemaker Mia Klein—that even if the scale of production was small and carefully planned (given the area‘s geological idiosyncrasies), the processes would be collaborative and the resulting wines would be greater than the sum of its parts.
‘We work lockstep with each other on every detail,’ explains Christian, the winery CEO who introduced the highly sophisticated Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in the vineyard to provide the winemaking team a better understanding of each unique terroir on the property.
‘While not all of us have the skill to do blending, we all contribute to the process. I focus on the physical and scientific side of winemaking, while my wife has the whole marketing thing down. Florencia and my mother are the gifted ones in the family with the blending of the wines, sitting with Mia and Tina on most blending sessions assisting in the direction of the final products.’
Jessica (who as winery president runs the daily affairs of the winery and closely manages the hospitality and tasting room experience), points out that although her in-laws did not initially go into the wine business with the intention of drilling a cave into the mountainside of the property, the geology of the property turned out to be a fortunate feature that provides the winery the advantage of gravity flow. While the cultivation end of the process is done by mostly hand, gravity adds an extra dimension of thoroughness to the overall production, from harvest to bottling.
‘Our 60 acres are parcelled into 24 growing areas assigned to different varietals,’ Jessica says as we tour the facilities 18 storeys below the earth. ‘Each parcel is harvested individually, and those batches are sorted, de-stemmed and processed by hand. The grapes fall into a hole in the floor, and sent to the fermenting barrels to ferment. The fruits are on a carousel track that rotates as each fermenting tank is filled.’
After Jessica runs thorugh various points of interest within the winery, we enter a chamber that looks a lot like a hybrid of a planetarium and a set from Star Trek. This is my formal introduction of FILCS (‘Felix’), the mothership of the whole operation, developed by Christian and recognized as a major technical breakthrough in winemaking which pushes the craft forward while helping the winemakers retain important older traditions.
‘Fermentation is a critical time for a wine’s development, and all characteristics developed during fermentation are the result of the creative direction of the winemaker,’ says Christian. ‘The facility’s 18-storey design allows us to move wine gently during fermentation by gravity minimizing agitation and preserving the delicate molecular structure developed in the wine. Its height also allows us to filter and bottle the wine without compromise of pumps, giving us a unique “gravity finished” capability.’
Tours of Palmaz are by appointment only. Visitors can enjoy a customized tour of the entire winemaking process followed by a seated tasting with Palmaz’s flagship wines paired with small hors d’œuvres with seasonal recipes from cookbooks available for sale at the vineyard. While a two-hour experience runs US$100 per adult, the tour is open to children for US$50 each, which includes their own special tasting of alcohol-free varietal grape juices with the handcrafted nibbles. Several beautifully decorated tasting rooms can accommodate parties of up to 10 or 12 for events like milestone anniversaries and birthday gatherings.
According to Jessica, another advantage to Palmaz is its proximity to downtown Napa. Her favourite must-try restaurants (some which have their family member-named wines on their wine lists) include Miminashi, Oenotri, Torc, and Ad Hoc. If your kids are along for the ride, she suggests Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, Gott’s Roadside or the Charter. •
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