One of the most interesting wine tours in Napa is at Palmaz Vineyards. After all, it is a state of the art winery perched high on a hillside – in part to accommodate the five level gravity-flow winery that spans a whopping 18 stories.
Four of us paid a visit on a bright, warm Saturday, trekking up a winding staircase from
the parking area to the tasting room. Christian Palmaz, Director of Operations and the founders’ son, greets us with a glass of their riesling before starting the tour. The wine, made in the dry Alsace style, was insanely refreshing as we stood surveying the property from our hillside perch on the patio.
Palmaz is unique in that it still has the same number of pre-Prohibition acres (610) within its modern-day boundaries. A fellow named Bill Woodward first built on the land, establishing a winery and distillery during the Gold Rush.
Henry Hagen bought it in 1878, founding the Cedar Knoll Vineyard and Winery. (Today, Palmaz produces Cedar Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon as an homage.) At the turn of the century, it was among Napa’s premiere wineries, though Hagen lost the estate during Prohibition.
Fast forward 100 years.
Owning a winery was a dream from the days Julio and Amalia Palmaz came to UC Davis in 1978 to complete his graduate studies in Interventional Radiology. Naturally, there were many visits to wine country during those years, a tradition that continued after the family moved to San Antonio.
Finally, the time was right to start making the dream a reality. It took four years of searching before discovering the old wine estate. Amalia knew it was the right property for them, despite the fact that the previous owner – who had purchased it decades earlier from Hagen – abandoned any pretense of agriculture on the property.
As a result, the land was completely forested over by the time the Palmaz family took over in 1997.
They were undaunted by the task and began restoring the vines as well as the house Hagen built in 1878. But the forest was hiding something: “the rows, wires and stakes were still there,” describes Christian.
Replanting the vines started in 1997. Of course, when you’re planting vines, you also need a winery. So while the new vines took root, planning for the building commenced. Julio wanted to create the best possible setup for the winemaker and asked what was essential to making a top-notch wine. The answer was unexpected: “Options.”
That one word informed the design of both vineyard and winery. (The latter, by the way, took eight years to build.)
When all was said and done, the vineyards divided into 24 lots differentiated by factors such as soil type and elevation. The 110,000 square foot facility – the family admits to getting a bit carried away – allows each of these lots to be fermented and aged separately.
Looking down from the top floor, there is a massive carousel with 24 stainless steel tanks – the only one of its kind in the world. After the grapes from a particular lot are sorted on the top level of the winery, they gently roll down a tunnel into their designated tank. The circle of tanks then rotates for the next lot of grapes.
Each lot is assigned its own barrel – even if the wine is transferred, it is to a specially designated second barrel devoted only to that lot. Cleanliness is also essential. A microbiologist continually tests wines, barrels and transfer points to insure nothing contaminates the wine or winery.
(Christian manages to make all the chemistry and technology talk interesting and comprehensible – no small feat!)
Don’t think for a minute, though, that this scientific approach takes precedence over the art of crafting fine wine. The winemaking team continually monitors the juice from start to finish, insuring the wine develops to their satisfaction.
And when it comes time to make the wines? That’s where the options come in. The winemaking team arms themselves with samples of each lot and (I am paraphrasing Christian here) goes into a room, coming out only when the blend is finalized.
Of the 6,000 cases worth of juice that are pressed, only 3,500 to 4,000 cases worth of wine ultimately makes it into the bottle. That means if a lot isn’t right for the final blend, it simply doesn’t get used for a Palmaz wine: craft trumps technology!
By this time, we’ve come full circle, back to the tasting area where we started. A small plate of nibbles awaits us, along with more wines to try.
Keeping with the whites, we try the 2011 Chardonnay “Amalia.” It is very lean on the palate, though the aromas are full. It also manages to have a hint of butter flavor without being buttery.
Next we try the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s a blend of 95% cabernet sauvignon, 3% merlot and 2% malbec. It has a nicely earthy quality with lots of dark fruit flavors. It’s smooth, though the tannins are definitely there!
Compare it to the 2009, which has just 1% petit verdot to round out the cabernet. This one is darker and more tannic (but still very smooth), with notes of ripe black fruit.
Sated and delighted, we leave Christian and wander back onto the patio, savoring the view before climbing back down to the parking lot.