Palmaz Vineyards is located at the end of Hagen Road just north and east of the town of Napa. This winery is not open to the public and appointments are required well in advance. All tours and tastings are private for your party, and are hosted by a Palmaz Ambassador or a Palmaz family member (upon request). Founders, Julio and Amalia Palmaz are originally from Argentina – both are extremely involved in the daily winery operations as are their two children, Florencia and Christian.
The total estate encompasses 600 acres of which nearly 60 acres are planted to vine. Most of the estate is hillside with vineyards flowing down the sides of the Vaca mountains. The vineyards one sees when looking down from the winery are just a small portion of their total overall vineyard acreage. Much of their vineyards are planted higher – on top of the hillsides to the east of the winery at elevations up to 1,400 feet. The winery itself sits right near Mt. George (in fact all three peaks of Mt. George are on their property) in the eastern part of the Coombsville region, a part of the Napa Valley that generally sees a cooler growing climate due to its proximity to the San Pablo Bay in the south and the influences of the daily fog.
When the Palmaz’s purchased this land – not only did they purchase a prime location for growing grapes but they also purchased a unique piece of Napa’s winery history as well as the accompanying stories associated with this property. This site used to be the home of the old Cedar Knoll Vineyard and Winery founded in 1881 by Mr. Henry Hagen (Hagen Road is named in his honor as well as several other properties along this road). Prior the Palmaz’s purchasing the property – it had been on the market of a number of years because the real estate agent at the time was marketing it has having only 8 acres suitable for planting. Later original vineyard maps were discovered showing a much larger part of the property had originally been planted to vines.
The original Hagen home has since been restored. A neat discovery at the time of their purchase was Henry Hagen’s wine cellar below the home (where they found a number of old wine making tools, wine bottles and other wine related items. Like so many other wineries in the valley and beyond, this original winery was shut down due to Prohibition and this land was not used commercially for wine grapes until decades later.
When Julio and Amalia first moved to the Napa Valley – a few days after settling into the old house on the property they received an invitation from Robert and Margrit Mondavi to enjoy dinner at their home. Julio and Amalia thought this was an invitation to a party at the Mondavi’s home and therefore decided to arrive fashionably late as is often the case when you go to parties in the valley. Upon arriving at the Mondavi’s home they quickly wondered why there were no cars of guests on site. They soon realized this was a private personal dinner invitation and there would be no other guests. They were late, but fortunately not to late!
Both Robert and Margrit were intrigued and curious about their plans for the Hagen property. Once they heard about the ambitious plans Robert told Julio and Amalia that he must see the cave before he died. Some time later the Palmaz’s received a call from Margrit indicating that Robert’s health was failing and that he would like to come by for a visit. The scheduled pouring of concrete in one of the levels was accelerated to accommodate his visit. They did not realize he wasn’t able to walk on his own at this time – so when he arrived they wheeled him in onto the still recently curing concrete – his wheelchair left tracks which if you know where to look are still faintly visible today.
Thinking he just wanted a glimpse of part of their construction they invited him down to the house for lunch. He would have none of this insisting that he wanted to see every last inch of their construction. Son Christian remembers the family and employees lifting Robert and his wheelchair over piles of construction materials and moving from one level to another with the tour lasting considerable time!
Although perhaps not as long as Mr. Mondavi’s tour – tours today last at least 2 hours. The tour starts on the fourth floor and will walk you through several levels of the cave; everything during the wine making process is conducted by gravity flow. One side door leads to the stairwell – looking down at the levels here gives one a perspective of the impressive vertical reach of the cave. The world’s largest underground reinforced structure is the fermentation dome which is 54 feet tall.
When drilling a cave this size you are bound to hit something of interest underground and in this case they actually hit gold in the rock at one point. While not concentrated enough to mine commercially this is the first time we have heard of any cave in Napa Valley actually hitting natural gold underground.
Arguably the highlight of a visit to the winery is their extensive nearly 110,000 foot cave system. To our knowledge this is at least 2x the size of the next largest winery cave in Napa Valley. This cave was carefully designed for their specific property – think of the winery as 24 wineries representing 24 parts of their vineyard. The fruit from each vineyard is vinified separately from their other vineyard blocks – and only after it’s aging is complete are the wines blended together. What is fairly unique is each barrel sees the same wine throughout the entire aging process. Rather than racking wine from multiple barrels into large stainless steel tanks and then refilling up the barrels – or racking to different barrels – each barrel is racked to a stainless steel carboy, the barrel is cleaned and this same wine goes back into the same barrel.
Processing fruit here is all about handling the grapes as gently as possible; gravity flow wine making is a big part of the operations here. Even filtering is gravity flow – with the wine flowing through hoses between levels through the actual filters (prior to bottling).
The Palmaz’s have borrowed several pieces of equipment from other industries to use in their own wine making. They even designed their own 6 axis shaker table to catch grapes with jacks still attached (the little stem that connects to the grape to the vine). During harvest it is quite impressive to see the attention to detail that the same workers who harvested the grapes show at this table – only allowing the best of the fruit to pass through to fermentation.
There are five main levels of the cave including the center point which is the massive fermentation dome. Picture a wagon wheel; the spokes of the wheel are the caves that extend out in all directions from this main room. The five levels are equivalent to the height of an 18-story building.
A viewpoint overlooks the circular fermentation dome which contains a number of stainless steel tanks. From a touch screen console located here one can easily control many aspects of each tank including their rotation (they sit on a custom made belt system). Each of these tanks is “online” and you can also control the tank temperatures merely by touch.
After this control system was installed, Christian Palmaz, the son of Julio and Amalia helped create the first ever proprietary algorithmic fermentation control system. This system is truly remarkable and has helped revolutionize how they collect and manage data from each harvest. Sensors are built into each tank which provides huge amounts of information ranging from temperature at various points throughout each tank, how fast fermentation occurs in each tank, amount of coolant being used in each tank and numerous other data points. It is very impressive to see the various data displayed on the walls of their fermentation dome.
Other cave features include a huge wine elevator for transporting the large tanks between cavern levels, as well as the winery’s own water treatment plant – no water goes to waste here (one tunnel on level one stores up to 1.2 millions gallons of water far underground); the ornamentals and other shrubbery on the grounds are watered entirely with this recycled water.
Also look for a rectangular part of the cave that was not covered over on one of the levels – leaving the original underground rock exposed. This was left unfinished on purpose. Julio used to paint as a child – often replicating the work of other masters, using postcards for his inspiration. When he finished a painting he would leave a corner of the canvas empty – signifying his painting was not the original artwork.
We have toured the winery a number of times and during one of our recent visits, Florencia Palmaz hosted the tour. She has a great sense of humor and her insights into the wine industry really help complement the tour.
Their fun room or as it is commonly referred to “the girls” room contains all their white wines. This is a separate room in the cave devoted entirely to white varietals. While Palmaz has focused their attention on making Cabernet Sauvignon they also make a number of white wines including Riesling (which tends to sell out rather quickly), Chardonnay and a delicious Muscat Canelli “Florencia”.
They are not fans of big oaky and buttery Chardonnays – you will not find that type of wine here. The wine making and oak program is of course an important element in the style of wine. Rather their Chardonnay is made in a Burgundian style with cold fermentation as well as aging taking place in oak sur lie. As a result this wine has good weight but is not overly viscous. The several vintages we have tried showed pleasing aromatics including citrus blossom and notes of lime on the bouquet with clean balanced flavors on the palate including some notes of minerality.
Their wines are all about balance and a textural softness (velvet) on the palate; delicate well integrated tannins are one of the Palmaz hallmarks.
Their core wine is Cabernet Sauvignon and each vintage tends to be blended slightly with another Bordeaux varietal or two. During your tasting you will typically taste one of their slightly older vintages of this wine along with their current release. The 2002 is aging quite well showing notes of tobacco and leather along with rich blackberry aromas. Rich ripe fruit shows on the palate including a plethora of baking spice; the fruit is holding up very well and this should be a wine that will continue to age and evolve well.
The “Gaston” Cabernet Sauvignon is their special wine and is made in very limited quantities only during years where they feel the quality is worthy of releasing. As a result, this wine has not been made a number of years. This wine takes it’s name from Christian’s middle name. The bouquet on the 2005 is decidedly all about the fruit; the palate is plush and smooth upon entry with some interesting notes of earthiness present. It is smooth, full bodied and well balanced with a long finish and does not show any harsh tannins.
We have tried several vintages of their Muscat Cannelli dessert wine including the 2007. Not to be outdone by her brother, this wine is named after Florencia. It is light Muscat Cannelli that is not overly viscous, high in alcohol or high in sugar. Rather it is very clean and crisp and best served chilled. It is a very refreshing wine. There is a big floral bouquet on the nose with notes of honeysuckle and mineralities on the palate.
Tastings are held in one of several small rooms within the cave winery (on the fourth floor); these are well decorated elegant rooms. You will sit at a long table surrounded by stone arches. All wines are paired with cheese and other tasty specially prepared hor d’oeuvres including delectable’s such as truffles or as we had during our latest visit, smoked salmon with wasabi infused caviar.
For a winery of this physical size and the amount of planted vineyards they could be producing significantly more wine; however the production is currently only around nine thousand cases. For more information, to schedule a tour or to purchase wine, visit: www.palmazvineyards.com