Drop this into a wine conversation sometime: 'There's this new winery in the Napa Valley that has to be seen to be believed!' What you're likely to hear, wearily muttered is, 'So what else is new.'
A jaded response, perhaps, but it's not surprising since there are so many new Napa Valley wineries, either already in place or popping up frequently, that seem to be making a louder architectural statement than the wines they were built to produce. The continuously growing list of impressive, even controversial, winery structures includes Opus One, Clos Pegase, Darioush, Hess Collection, Terra Valentine, Quixote and soon to come, the new Frank Geary-designed Hall of St. Helena Winery.
So when I was invited to visit Palmaz Vineyards, a name that frankly I had not heard before, I didn't fret about being out of touch because many of the 300-plus Napa Valley wineries are new to me. So, I followed shady Hagan Road east from the city of Napa into an area of the Napa Valley I hadn't been to before. At the end of Hagan, past the unassumingly entrance to the Palmaz estate, I immediately realized that what stretched out before me was far more than I had been told about.
Palmaz Vineyards became a reality in 1997, but for Argentine natives Julio and Amalia Palmaz, the dream of owning a vineyard germinated years before when they moved to Davis, California and discovered the Napa Valley. A physician by profession who liked to tinker with gadgets and mechanical toys, Julio Palmaz completed his residency at UC Davis and latter invented the Palmaz Coronary Stent.
After years of searching for the right piece of land, the Palmazs found the abandoned 600-acre Hagan estate at the foot of Mount George. Vines were first planted on the property in 1874, then the land went fallow until 1912, followed by a period of varied usage (including a stint as a 'whiskey ranch'). In 1997, Julio and Amalia purchased the property, and they began planting the same year. Today, there are three vineyards on 55 acres, planted mainly to the five Bordeaux red varieties, with a sprinkling of Chardonnay and Muscat and a tiny amount of Riesling. Julio and Amalia are the guiding forces behind Palmaz Vineyards, but the day-to-day is handled by their daughter Florencia Palmaz, who is director of marketing, and their son, Christian Palmaz, director of operations. Tina Mitchell is the winemaker, assisted by consulting winemaker Mia Klein.
Although the estate is large by Napa standards, Julio Palmaz did not want to use land for winery buildings that could otherwise be used for vines, so he designed a four-level, underground, gravity-flow winery built into the mountain's rock. In September, when I drove up to the winery, the special quiet of a warm day in wine country was punctuated by multiple tapping sounds that I soon discovered came from an industrious group of 16 stone cutters, from Guanajuato, Mexico, who were shaping each stone, captured from the mountain excavation, to finish the walls and façade of the winery. The entrance was imposing, yet I became aware that the truly eye-popping part of the Palmaz Vineyards winery is hidden deep inside Mount George.
Essentially, the winery is four caves stagger-stacked on top of each other, spanning the equivalent of a 15-story building. The staggered levels are rotated along the axis of the elevator shaft, which helps to offset pressure centered in one spot. As the grapes arrive at level 4, they are fed into a crusher-stemmer and then dropped through a hatch to the level below. Between levels 3 and 4 are two intermediate levels that are contained within the fermentation dome, with no outside access. Crushed red grapes are dropped through the level 4 hatch into one of 24 stainless steel tanks on a massive carousel on level 3.75. When white grapes are crushed, the carousel is aligned to bypass the tanks and a long Teflon sock is attached to the hatch, allowing the grape clusters to drop directly into the press on level 3.5, by-passing the fermenting carousel.
Fanning out from the fermentation dome is a series of tunnels, arrayed like spokes in a wheel, housing the year-one barrel storage, while directly below, on level 2, is a second wheel-and-spoke arrangement for year two and three barrel storage. The winery's own water treatment plant and bottling line are directly below on level 1. Connecting all of these levels is a honeycomb of tunnels stairwells and an elevator.
Standing on the balcony peering down at the fermentation dome and tank carousal, I couldn't help thinking that this amazing one-of-a-kind winery looks like something straight out of Stars War. The question remained, however: are the wines as impressive as the elaborate and unique facility? Palmaz is a Cabernet-centric winery, producing approximately 5,000 cases, the majority of which are comprised of Palmaz Cabernet Sauvignon, a reserve-class 'Gaston' Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cedar Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon (the latter being an homage to Henry Hagen's original brand, which during its time in the late 19th century was one of the Napa Valley's major wines).
The winemaking process at Palmaz is premised on the notions that gravity flow means finer texture and being gentle to the fruit yields a better wine. The grapes are all estate-grown, and are processed only in small quantities that can be managed with hands-on attention and moved solely by gravity flow, using no augers or belts. Only French oak is used. The Cedar Knoll, Palmaz and Palmaz-Gaston Cabernets are differentiated by subtle nuances in blending (involving Merlot or Cabernet Franc), aging periods, and percentages of new oak.
Complementing the two Palmaz Cabernets is a small quantity of barrel-fermented, limited distribution Chardonnay. Tiny amounts of Riesling and Muscat Canelli are made in an air-conditioned side tunnel, and there's also an estate-produced olive oil, these three are available only at the winery. Tours of the Palmaz winery, conducted by one of the family members, are available by appointment only. For more information and a look at the layout of this astonishing winery, go to www.palmazvineyards.com
Cedar Knoll Vineyard (Palmaz Vineyards), Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($35): This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon is crafted is in the fruit-forward style, with 7% Merlot and nicely integrated French oak (aged 17 months, with 50% new barrels). Less fleshy than some Napa Cabernets, the Cedar Knoll offers bright cherry-berry flavors and nicely integrated, refined tannins. The wine finishes a little shy but has substantial fruit, allowing for at least 3-5 years more development. 89
Palmaz Vineyards, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($100): The Palmaz Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with 5% Merlot and aged for 22 months in French oak, 70% of it new. The aromatics are subdued, with hints of ripe blackberry and toasted oak. The flavors are richly textured with hints of mocha and blackberry, supported by firm, refined tannins, good acidity, and impressive length. There's a lot of potential here, and patience will be rewarded by a more complex, structured wine. 90
Palmaz Vineyards, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($100): A 14% measure of Cabernet Franc added bright blueberry and herbal notes to this complex wine. A full 28 months in French oak, 50% new, was used to complement the fruit. The nose is still tight and the flavors are lean, with noticeable acidity. Dark fruits, herbal notes, and lots of spicy French oak work nicely together. Give it more time and this wine should develop well. 89
Palmaz Vineyards, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'Gaston' 2002 ($120): Named for the Palmaz son, Christian Gaston, this is comprised entirely of Cabernet Sauvignon that was aged for 28 months in French oak, 50% of it being new. The color is deep and inky and the nose is bright, with hints of blackberry, tobacco and toasted oak. The flavors are richly textured, deep, and concentrated, with nicely integrated fine tannins. This is a supple wine with ripe tannins and plenty of fruit. Made by Randy Dunn, Palmaz's first consultant, the Gaston is a wine made only in outstanding years, such as 2005, which will be the next release. 92