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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

Palatial Palmaz - An Epic Winery Experience

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A wrong turn on the way to Palmaz in Napa did nothing
to dampen a peerless experienc
e Garrett and I experienced this weekend at this monumental winery, which houses an 18-story wine cave, and an intricate gravity flow system. The experience was magnificen
t and flawless – yet despite the grandiosity of it all, the Palmaz family still managed to maintain a warm, hospitable aura at their 600 acre winery. Nestled above Napa Valley Country Club, Palmaz Winery is built into Mount George, a mountain with dramatic volcanic rock formations jutting out amidst the vineyards and brush. After an unassuming road along the estate to the tasting room, we followed
a steep stone pathway, cut beautifully from the excavated rock from Mount George, to the fourth floor where the grapes begin their fermentation process and where we would embark on an astonishing tour and tasting. At the apex of the stairs, which overlooked the valley below, Jessica Palmaz was awaiting us. As we chatted with Jessica, the birdsong was interrupted with the whirl of a little white Turbo Carrera Porsche that breezed up in front of the tasting room and hastily ejected a Chanel-purse clad, sunglass-wearing matron. “That’s my Mother in law, Amalia” Jessica mentioned as we started toward the tasting room and cave. “She makes our family meal every day”. The beauty in this winery is that as palatial as it is, the winery is
still run by Amalia and Julio Palmaz, their Daughter, Florencia Palmas, son, Christian Palmaz and his wife, Jessica Palmaz, giving visitor’s the sense that they are visiting an old family friend rather than assuming the spectator’s role.

Dr. Julio Palmaz, who, on a side note, invented the Palmaz Coronary Stent, purchased the winery in 1997, after moving from Argentina for a medical residency at U.C. Davis, where his interest in wine was ignited. Taking time to find the perfect piece of terroir for his
retirement project, Julio Palmaz finally came across the abandoned 600 acre Napa estate, then known as Cedar Knoll, built in 1896. The state had no vineyards or winery - although it did have a “wine tunnel” that ran underneath the house. After purchasing the property, the Palmaz family excavated Mount George behind the estate, creating the grandiose winery, which officially opened in 2003. Dr. Palmaz did not want to waste the precious vineyard space, and hence the stacked design of the caves.

The beautiful and Spanish-inspired winery entrance does little to prepare the visitor for the awe-inspiring interior of Palmaz. Beautifully constructed; the central feature of the winery is a massive self-supporting dome, with a wagon-wheel design of wine caves that spiraling outward from the main dome.

The tasting level of the winery is also the location where the wines begin their gentle journey towards the barrel and then the bottle. After being picked (about 50% of the vineyards’ total yield that is), the Palmaz grapes make their way to a conveyor belt-free crusher-stemmer machine that allows workers to gently pluck out the less tha
n perfect grapes from before the machine lightly crushest them (just enough to break the skin) and releases them through the Level 4 hatch into the tanks below. The cave boasts two dramatic floors of spotless stainless steel tanks circling the dome’s perimeter on a hidden carousel. Floor 3 holds 24 beautiful tanks holding 1500 – 1800 gallons of wine, while floor 2 holds 12 larger tanks, which hold 2600 gallons of wine and are used primarily for blending. These fermentation tanks are one half inch thick and filled with glycol, which is an incredible conductor of heat and cold. A massive controlling-device on Floor4, (which looks like a giant remote control), adjusts the heat for each tank individually, heating or cooling the tanks as necessary to control the speed of fermentation. Before the wine is barreled, it is separated into two parts: The free-run juice and press juice – which is the top, solid portion of the wine that floats to the top of the wine tanks and is relegated to a bladder press to be “gently” pressed. The bladder press is like hybrid mix of a bladder and a cement truck. The wine solids are placed in the round press, which inflates like a balloon in the center, pressing the wine gently against the walls of the press to squeeze out the precious juice. Then the entire press rotates, like a cement truck, to move the solids around and capture the remaining juices. The wine is then barelled, using nitrogen to siphon
off the barrels so as not to allow any oxygen to make contact with and contaminate the carefully handled wine.

Standing at the bottom of the dome of the Palmaz cave reminded of being in a massive submarine or deep inside the bowels of The Titanic, although maybe I just had the feeling that we were embarking on a journey and I was in over my head. As we made our way through some of the spiraling caves, we noticed the single-racked barrels. Jessica explained that the Palmaz winemakers (Tina Mitchell and Mia Klein) believe in aging every barrel on an individual basis. Each barrel is tasted and evaluated separately and even aged in different coopered barrels, creating “the winemaker’s spice rack” to add subtle flavors to each year’s vintage.

Back at the tasting room, the dining table was elegantly set for Garrett and I but could have seated a feast for 15. I complimented what I thought were Venetian glass water mugs at each setting and Jessica corrected me, saying that she just couldn’t stand the idea of a communal “dump bucket”. Needless to say, none of our five generous tastings o
f Palmaz wine went into our elegant individual “dump buckets”!

The Whites:
We started the tasting with the 2008 Riesling, paired with a star-shaped crostini, the size of a quarter, topped with smoked salmon. The Riesling was subtle and pleasantly floral on the nose with strong notes of apricot and rose, a perfect compliment to the smoked salmon. Next, we tasted the 2008 Chardonnay, which tasted more like a White Burgundy, as it was less buttery and oaky due to the malolactic fermentation. It was agin subtle, not overpowering, with hints of green apple and strawberry and mild vanilla from the French Oak. Served with a piave sheep’s milk gouda, the chardonnay grew nutty and rich.

The Reds:
We did a two vintage perspective on the Palmaz Cabernet – 2006 and 2005. The 2006 Cab was a silky treat, with bold punch of mocha and cherry and vanilla and completely fruit forward. The 2005 was still a bit tight with noticeable acidity. I still enjoyed the dark fruit flavor, and lots of spicy herbal notes, namely cloves, and ginger. These wines were paired with salted dark chocolate nibs and if the bottles didn’t set us back $100 each, I would have purchased an entire case.

The 2007 Muscat was a smooth, clean dessert wine, lacking the typical viscosity of syrupy dessert wines. It was tropical with hints of pineapple and peach and kiwi, and paired perfectly with the shar-shaped shortbread cookie topped with a goat-cheese mango-almond mixture.

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