About a year-and-a-half ago, we had the pleasure of visiting Palmaz Vineyards for a private tour and tasting and came away quite amazed at what we saw, heard and tasted. All told, we spent about three hours getting a personal tour from owner Amalia Palmaz–we learned about the history of the land, the intricate winemaking process, the political hurdles facing the family as they tried to officially open the winery after many years of work and much more.
Thinking it might be interesting for all of you to hear some of these same things, we recently tracked down the winery’s president, Florencia Palmaz, for one of our Five Questions interviews. Please excuse the accompanying photography as we were a bit ill-prepared for our visit and were forced to snap photos using our cell phones. Enjoy!
CB: You started restoring the Cedar Knoll Vineyard and Winery property nearly 10 years ago. Is what we see today (the intricate caves, rolling hills of vineyards, etc.) part of the plan all along? What was your inspiration?
Palmaz: Naturally some of the details of our plans have evolved over the last 10 years. But, with all of our decisions we have always tried to do what is best for the wines and what is best for the land. After much research, we chose our site in the shadow of Mt. George in southeastern Napa based on its cool climate, stony soils, and viticultural heritage–Henry Hagen planted the first vines here back in 1881. From the start, we wanted to build a multi-level, gravity-flow winery that would seamlessly blend in with the existing landscape. (We prefer to gently move wine with gravity rather than mechanical pumps.)
CB: You’ve built an elaborate winery and follow a delicate winemaking process that utilizes gravity as a key component. Can you step us through your winemaking process (from bud break through to bottling) and explain how you see it as a competitive differentiator?
Palmaz: Our goal is to produce wines that mirror the personality and character of our land. We are located in southern Napa in the proposed Tulocay AVA. Being a relatively cool region, our grapes are able to reach physiological ripeness at relatively moderate sugar levels. Our property features three estate vineyards at three elevations ranging from 400-1400 feet above sea level. The various soils and microclimates give us a broad range of flavors and structures to work with in our blending. The grapes are all harvested by hand and by individual block based on taste. Like many of the top wineries in California, we are less reliant on numbers and more concerned with balance and flavor when it comes to picking fruit.
After hand sorting, the fruit is gently crushed on the first level of the winery and fed into tanks for temperature-controlled fermentations and extended macerations (30 days). Then the tanks are emptied into the press below also through gravity. Then the wines are transferred to barrel for the aging. The wines are aged entirely in French oak roughly 60% new. All racking is done using Nitrogen to move the wine rather than pumps. Throughout the first year of barrel aging, all of the lots are kept separate. At that point we select the best barrels for our flagship Palmaz bottling. Our Cabernets will spend up to two years in oak. And once the final blend is decided, the wine is blended using our tank elevator to transport the wines in lieu of a pump as well. Every movement the wine is subjected is done using either inter gas pressure for the elevator to avoid turbulence in the wines and oxygenation. This allows the flavor development and mouth feel of the wine to not be interrupted during the winemaking process is hopes of producing a wine that is well integrated and expressive.
CB: We visited Palmaz Vineyards in April 2006 and Amalia Palmaz provided us an amazing personal tour of the winery and caves, followed by a lengthy tasting of your wines. At the time, Amalia said you expected the winery would be open to the public in some limited fashion later in 2006. What’s the status on that?
Palmaz: Finally we are open for private tours and tasting. A member of the family conducts all tours. We generally show guests the winery and explain a little how the wines are made then we show three white wines and three Cabernet’s each paired with hors d’oeuvres. Tours are set by appointment only and cost $60 per person. The fee is fully applicable towards wine purchases. For more information contact either myself (Florencia) or Jessica Palmaz at 707-226-5587.
CB: During our visit, Amalia recommend a couple books to us for our reading pleasure. One of those books, James Conaway’s The Far Side of Eden, is about money, politics and the inner-workings of the Napa Valley. You yourself have experienced some of this since starting your operation–how do you navigate the often stormy political seas of the valley?
Palmaz: I think every winery owner in the Valley, whether they have lived here for generations or moved here recently, would agree that planting vineyards and constructing a winemaking facility in Napa is a complicated process. But, this is an extraordinary place and in my experience everyone who lives and works here just wants to protect the beauty of the region and maintain the wonderful lifestyle that we all enjoy.
CB: Of all the Palmaz wines, which vintage and varietal is your personal favorite and why?
Palmaz: I hope I don’t sound like a politician, but I really enjoy every wine we’ve ever produced. I love the strength and tannin structures of the 2001, 2002 and 2003. It’s hard to resist the finesse, lush texture and overt fruit of our recently released 2004. The 2005 from barrel looks spectacular. It combines the power of the earlier vintages with the elegance of the ’04. The 2006, while still young and undeveloped, looks to be superb. One of the great pleasures of tasting them all together is sensing the character of the vineyard as a constant thread in each wine. One year might be big and dense, another might be subtle and understated, but every single wine has a taste that is recognizably Palmaz.
CB: Thanks Florencia!