Palmaz Vineyards is 610 acres of prime Napa Valley real estate nestled beside Mount George, a southern hillside that offers two key advantages: vertical space to dig, and gravity, which allows grape juice to flow. In a wine country known for having perfect this, and ideal that, this gravity-flow winery has found a way to be different.
More than any other winery, Palmaz Vineyards is rooted in technology. First, there’s the 100,000 square-foot underground complex. The cave, as it’s affectionately called, is 18-stories deep and took seven years to complete, which is why Mount George was the perfect locale. It makes Palmaz Vineyards the only winery practicing gravity flow and finishing all the way to the bottle. As the product goes from grape to wine, each step descends from one level to the next inside the wine cave, and it results in a bottle of wine that gets filled without the aid of mechanical pumps.
Then, there’s water, lots of it. Captured throughout the property, it’s stored in giant tanks inside the cave, aerated, and kept fresh to be reused. This means the vineyard is a net-zero consumptive water winery—good news in California’s multiple-year drought.
Last, there’s FILCS, pronounced Felix, a supercomputer of information that allows the winemaker to know exactly what is happening inside her 24 quadrilateral-jacketed glycol system fermentation tanks. More on that later.
When the Palmaz family bought the vineyard in the late 1990s, it had been abandoned since Prohibition, a not-uncommon occurrence in the wine world. Dr. Julio Palmaz, the patriarch of the family, invented the balloon-expandable coronary stent—a breakthrough that changed cardiovascular medicine for the better, and a coup that allowed him to pour money into his passion for grapes, an interest he developed during his residency at U.C. Davis. The family spent three years tinkering with schematics before a single shovel hit the dirt. Vines were planted first, because those take years to mature, and then in 2000, they began to dig.
“I was surprised how differentiating the wine industry was compared to the rest of the agricultural world, and how much money there was in the valley,” Christian Palmaz says, “but that there was a lack of drive in innovation.” After graduating with a degree in advanced agriculture and geo science from Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas, Christian joined his family—his father, mother, and older sister—at the winery. Once there, he built out a research and development lab and focused his sights on applying technology to tasks that had traditionally been done by hand or by smell.
“My father had very interesting ideas on how he thought the winery should operate. He believes strongly in an academic approach to running a business,” says Christian. His older sister, Florencia Palmaz, recalls fondly her decision not to get a degree in winemaking. En route to a degree in biology, also from Trinity, her dad asked her to buy every textbook required by the U.C. Davis enology master. She brought armfuls back for the family to read, and they all quickly became experts.
There are 64 acres planted in total. Puzzle-shaped plots roll across three elevations and microclimates. Rootstock (the vines) were matched to their soil, a topic the family gleaned from 5,000 core samples they took to investigate the porosity, acidity, and nutrient value of the land. The whites, for example, are planted at twelve hundred feet elevation because it’s colder there, and the vines receive forty minutes less of sunlight a day.
Tina Mitchell knows the land intimately, and is the woman in charge of these precious orbs. In the fall, she has one question running through her head: when to pick the grapes? When Mitchell gives the go ahead, the farm team begins harvesting. It’s midnight. That’s when it’s cool and the grapes are firmer and closer to the temperature they’ll hit when they go into the cold soak, their first stop in the fermentation process.
Once the grapes are picked, they’re de-stemmed using a six-axis vibratory conveyor table—a little something Christian Palmaz cooked up. When you de-stem grapes, sometimes there’s still a piece of the stem, and going after that by hand is challenging. Palmaz’ machine puts it into a triangular highway, and with the aid of an accelerometer—a sensor that tracks the grapes’ motion and puts space between the elliptical movements—the berry is tossed in the air and rotated, then it corkscrews its way down the “highway.” Without a stem, the grape moves along; with a stem, it won’t rotate down the corkscrew. The end product is perfect berries: no stems or bruising.
After this dance, the grapes drop into one of the fermentation tanks that spin on a giant carousel one level below. Just moving the product is damaging, I’m told. Wine is only born with so many tannins, and it’s these that give a better persistence to your drink. The problem? Tannins are fragile. When the family was devising their vineyard they decided first and foremost that their wine would face as little agitation as possible. Most wineries use pumps at some point to transfer wine from one place to the next, but not this one.
A winemaker spends 50 percent of her time trying to make the fermentation process go smoothly. Most often, she’s playing with the speed of the fermentation—how quickly the sugars in the grapes are converted to alcohol. The family’s high-tech fermentation tanks have four bands around their bodies that can be heated or chilled at the tap of a button. They can even coat with frost in front of your eyes. As the winemaker dials up or down the temperature, which affects the natural yeasts that are busy processing the fruit, the delicate characteristics of the wine can be released. It was this time-intensive task the Palmaz’ hoped to alleviate.
It took years to get the system live, but it’s finally up. FILCS, the Palmaz’ proprietary software, stands for Fermentation Intelligence Logic Control System. FILCS samples the wines density ten times a second using sono-densitometers, forked probes in each tank that grab millions of points of data in order to watch over the heat production. Software takes the live data and creates 3-D visual maps in red-and-blue hues, then screens them on a pristine white dome coated in a custom compound that is sanitary and creates the right reflective surface to project upon. Using six-edge blended projectors, the images take over the domed surface giving anyone who wants it a 360-degree visual of the minutiae happening inside each of the tanks. The data, or an alarm you set, can be sent to your iPhone, iPad or iWatch, which means you can make wine while you’re in bed.
The wines, a Riesling, Chardonnay (made and kept cool in the style of a Burgundy), Muscat, Brasas, and a complex and earthy Cabernet Sauvignon aren’t easy to come by and much of their annual production goes to their almost 3,000 strong wine club.
At 10,000 cases of wine a year, Palmaz Vineyard is still considered small, but listening to them talk about the care they put into each step along the way, and you feel certain they’re making gold. Many point to Mother Nature as the guide to how your wine will come out, but, thanks to Christian Palmaz’ fancy gadgetry, Florencia’s methodical plans, and Mitchell’s oversight, Palmaz Vineyards has the binary code in place to support the clouds, the sun and the earth.
Visiting the Palmaz winery is by appointment only. 11,000 visitors came through their doors last year, and a third of those were industry folks. Probably trying to glean a few top-secret tips. Their wine club, Brasas, is named for a Cabernet-Malbec blend under the Palmaz label.
Larissa Zimberoff Larissa is a writer based in San Francisco covering the intersection of food and tech.