February 2008

A New Legacy in Napa Valley

By: David Gadd

Operations Director Christian Palmaz, Hospitality Director Jessica Palmaz and Marketing Director Florencia Palmaz ouside the new Palmaz winery in Napa.
 
Palmaz Vineyards builds its future at a historic estate

What most people envision as “the good life” doesn’t get much better than living on a vineyard in prime California wine country—even if it means working the vines and moving the barrels with your own bare hands. This was true even back when Henry Hagen built his imposing stone house at the foot of Mt. George, at the southern end of Napa Valley. The year was 1874 and Hagen’s winery, Cedar Knoll, opened not long afterward, would become the first winery within the Napa town limits.


Henry Hagen of Cedar Knoll.
 
Cedar Knoll shut down in 1912, bringing an abrupt hiatus to a budding Napa legend. Hagen’s original cut-and-cover wine cellar, dug into the rocky hillside, but in the 1930s and 40s, the place was converted to prune farming, with the bulk of production going toward the war effort.

“It was definitely a fixer-upper!” gasps Florencia Palmaz, whose Argentine-American family bought the place in 1997. “The vegetation was right up against the house,” adds her brother Christian, “completely overgrown. Those early days were rough.”

We’re sitting on the broad west-facing porch of Hagen’s original house, which is now the permanent home of Florencia and Christian’s father and mother, Julio and Amalia Palmaz. Christian and his wife, Jessica, live in the former gatehouse just down the driveway, and Florencia and her husband are their backyard neighbors. “It’s all very cozy,” chuckles Florencia, who always seems to be on the verge of a laugh.
The name Palmaz might sound familiar from outside the world of wine. Julio, a physician and researcher originally from Buenos Aires, is the inventor of the Palmaz coronary stent, a medical device that’s saved thousands of lives. The technology was later sold to Johnson & Johnson.
“When he was first developing the stent, it was all fascinating and wonderful,” recalls Florencia. “Then there was a second phase, which was the traveling and the education.” Florencia continues, “With his intensive lecture circuits, we never saw him. Finally, he decided he needed to slow down, so he bought this place. He didn't quite slow down, but we're all here!”

On the day THE TASTING PANEL visits, Dr. Palmaz and his wife are away on their annual winter getaway to South America, leaving the younger generation in charge on the home front.  “There’s not much to do here between barreling down and spring, so Mom and Dad spend winters in Uruguay . . . but they iChat us every hour to ask how things are going,” quips Florencia.

Officially, Florencia is Marketing Director and Christian is Operations Director; Jessica Palmaz acts as Hospitality Director. In reality, in addition to their officially prescribed duties, the younger generation is involved hands-on in everything that happens at Palmaz Vineyards, from harvesting to water management. “We do unbelievably menial jobs around here,” says Christian, “but that way we get it done right, the way we want it.”
 


The stately but relaxed Hagen house is impressive, with its meticulously cared-for period interiors and a wealth of leftover winery hand-me-downs. Christian shows off a set of Hagen’s original barrel brands, which the Palmazes used to create the label design for their second wine, named Cedar Knoll in honor of the founder. But even more impressive than the house is the recently-opened 100,000-square foot winery that the Palmazes built just up the hill.

 

“When you say 100,000 square feet, people don’t really get it,” says Christian. “It’s the equivalent of an 18-story building put underground. It’s difficult to actually conceptualize.” It’s also difficult to photograph, as I found, at least from the outside. Because it’s built on five terraced levels, stacked up the side of Mt. George, finding a vantage point from which to get a view of the entire rambling structure is a challenge.
Inside, the place just seems to go on and on, with caves branching and elevators connecting the various levels. Celebrated winery architect Jon Lail drew up the original plans, aided by Dr. Palmaz, who took an active part in the design. “When the cave-digging began,” remarks Florencia, “the engineers and the winemaking began dictating the design. We have very little intentional esthetics: the winery is purpose-driven.”  Christian takes up the thread:  “We ran into unbelievable battles and engineering nightmares, and these guys found ways to handle every problem.”
 
French oak barrels line the halls of the wagon wheel–shaped winery.
PHOTO BY CHRISTIAN PALMAZ
 
The circular fermentation room is built on a turntable.
The gravity-feed facility is basically shaped like a wagon wheel, with barrel halls and transport corridors surrounding a central fermentation room filled with shiny stainless steel tanks. The room is built on a turntable so that any given tank can be gravity-filled from the top, and the whole layout is computer controlled and monitored using custom-designed software. “I can pull any one of the tanks up on the computer screen and get its status and vital statistics,” explains Christian. “It allows us to control all the variables as much as possible. The object is not to have the computer make the wine for you, but to help you catch things before they go south.”


Christian Palmaz demonstrates the custom computer that monitors the fermentation tanks.

This state-of-the-art domain is where Palmaz winemaker Tina Mitchell and veteran Napa consultant Mia Kline call the shots. “All of us are very humble about the winemaking itself,” Florencia says; “we really rely on Tina and Mia.” The talented winemakers get royal treatment from the Palmaz family. “One of Mia’s indulgences is that she likes all the fruit kept in-house and aged for a year before she decides what to do with it” Florencia says with another laugh. “What happens is that we have the same overhead costs, whether it’s going to be Palmaz or Cedar Knoll. It makes for a great declass wine, but it’s keeping us honest!”

Palmaz was intended from the beginning to be a Cabernet-driven estate, focusing on a single, great wine. “People give us flak sometimes about why we have such an elaborate winery for such small production,” says Christian. “But when we were in the design and production phase, we really started asking the question: How do you take gravity-flow to the next level and—especially in a saturated market for cult wine—what can you do to go beyond?”

Current production is just 1,100 cases, but the winery was designed for an eventual 14,000-case capacity. “This generation will be happy if we can hit that number,” says Florencia. Of that, she predicts 4,000–5,000 cases will be Palmaz and 10,000 will be their second wine, bottled under the revived Cedar Knoll label and released a year earlier than the flagship. There’s also an occasional all-Cabernet release named Gastón (Christian’s middle name), made only in exceptional vintages. The Palmaz and Cedar Knoll reds are supplemented by a smaller program of whites: Chardonnay, Muscat Canelli and Riesling.

Environmental consciousness is part of the plan at Palmaz, too. “We have zero water consumption in the winery,” notes Christian proudly. “We made a commitment not to use any water except what’s given to us for agricultural purposes.” He points to the grates in the floor. “All those drains lead to a labyrinth of hoses that wind up in a 1.5 million gallon water treatment plant on level one. I treat every drop of water to near-potable standards and use it for irrigation.” Christian runs the water treatment facility himself, another of his many hats. “We're really water conscious. That's the future of Napa: all these water issues and how to handle them. We always try to stay thinking 25 years ahead.”
As we wander further around the halls we come to a room that still seems to be under construction. Florencia flips on the lights. “This will eventually be a car museum,” she says, “the one decadent moment my father had when planning the winery.” Dr. Palmaz is an avid collector of vintage Porsche racing cars, and Christian has been piloting them since he was a teenager, participating in historic races like Sonoma’s Wine County Classic and other Porsche-sanctioned events.
 

“It’s a legacy we work on every day.”
 

“You could say that Dad is failing at retirement,” laughs Florencia. Dr. Palmaz is still a part-time professor at Stanford in the department of bio-design and is currently working on yet another medical technology innovation.  But these days, his lecture tours always include a lecture on wine.

For once, Florencia’s voice takes on a serious tone. “I don't think any of us realized how involved in the winery we’d be, or how obsessed we’d all become. One of the things to be conscious of is not to get too greedy or too anxious. You don’t build something that takes seven years to complete and then take it for granted. This is very much an inheritance. My father was always afraid of raising trust-fund babies, so he built this so that we’d have something that would keep us working. It’s a legacy we work on every day.” 
 
As an early but temperate winter evening arrives in Napa and the sun sets over the Mayacamas Mountains to the west, Christian picks up his wine glass and takes a sip of the current Palmaz. “In six months,” he muses, “when we finally have the rock workers out of here and when it’s as quiet on a Tuesday as it is on a Sunday, then we can say ‘Yeah, it’s done.’”
 
Palmaz Wines
 

The Palmaz wines are classic Napa Valley, with ripe, powerful fruit and great panache. 
Here are my notes on some current releases. —Anthony Dias Blue

Palmaz Vineyards 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($100)
Dark and concentrated, with lovely balance and structure; long, smooth-textured and supple with great depth and style. 94 points.
 

Palmaz Vineyards 2002 “Gaston” Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($120)
Dense, tannic and rich with firm, plummy fruit and deep, supple flavors; long and intense, ripe and balanced. 91 points.
 

Cedar Knoll 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($45)
Ripe and nicely concentrated, with rich texture, suave plum and berry fruit and subtle oak; long, rich and quite charming. 90 points.

Palmaz and Cedar Knoll are distributed in California by Southern Wine & Spirits.
 

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