Twenty Years of Harvest and Over Twenty Years of Technological Innovation

12/8/2021 11:47:21 PM

Written by Palmaz Vineyards | December 2021

To celebrate our 20th harvest this year, we’re exploring the last 20 years of farming innovation at Palmaz Vineyards with co-founder Christian Palmaz.

Since 1997, Palmaz Vineyards has pursued the marriage of innovation with the art of winemaking—starting with its eighteen-story subterranean winery carved into the side of Mount George. The engineering of “The Cave” was a feat unto itself, resulting in a structure unique even among gravity flow wineries. While The Cave is a technological marvel hidden in plain sight; it’s still just the tip of the iceberg, especially when it comes to farming.

The intent that heralded The Cave’s construction has been present from Palmaz Vineyards’ earliest days: a desire to bridge a divide between tradition and technology, with respect to the practice of farming and the art of winemaking. Julio and Christian Palmaz, both inventors in their own rights, are suited to the task. Their successful integration of technological innovations; present at every stage, from farming to fermenting; uplifts the practice of winemaking at Palmaz, but has never eclipsed it.

“People sometimes think that technology steps on the toes of artistic decisions, but there’s very defined moments in wine where your style and art are driving decisions. Then there’s a lot of times in winemaking where you just need more information,” says Christian Palmaz, whose notable innovations at Palmaz Vineyards have included software and hardware technologies benefiting a wide range of the winery’s practices, including irrigation and fermentation. “There’s nothing wrong with putting it all on the table.” 

One of the hallmarks of technology at Palmaz is data collection. “We are moving away from the sense of farming the group to behave as an individual,” says Christian. “We farm the individual to behave as a group, as opposed to the old style, which is you picked the parcel—the group of plants—and applied the same viticultural program to all of them, assuming that they’re all going to do the same thing.” This kind of assumption making can lead to inconsistencies at harvest, when it’s too late to do anything but compromise. Palmaz’s approach to informed farming nips those inconsistencies in the bud, so to speak: “high-tech farming is where you don’t think as a group…you think as an individual plant and then you change the farming for each plant so that they behave as a group.”

The results are plants that ripen together, can be harvested precisely, can be fermented in the same fermentor, and be expressed by the winemaker uniformly. It’s not only more efficient long-term, but gives both the winemaking team and the vineyard team space to practice their art and farming without concession. 

Another compelling reason that Christian and the rest of the Palmaz family have focused on technological innovation at the winery for over twenty years: the land and its terroir demand it. “We signed up for a very challenging 64 acres of vines” says Christian, describing the variation of the land and vineyard plots spanning three different elevations. “You had these microclimates to deal with: from the base of the valley floor to the Hills of Mount George, and then the peak of Mount George.” Pair a range of distinct climates and environments with varying soil types, from alluvial to volcanic, and you have a lot to reckon with if you are aiming for a true terroir expression from your grapes. 

Gathering data on individual plants from 64 acres and 46 distinct vineyard blocks requires a lot of processing power. This is where Christian’s program, VIGOR, is instrumental. VIGOR (Vineyard Infrared Growth Optical Recognition) is a software that analyzes infrared imagery captured by aircraft flown over the vines twice a week. VIGOR pairs its findings with a whole melange of micro data collection—namely soil moisture measurements, but also insect mapping (since Palmaz’ sustainable vineyard program forgoes insecticides), petiole, and pressure bomb data to name a few. VIGOR allows the vineyard team to make informed adjustments week by week resulting in significant improvements in flavor consistency and a consistency in ripeness. Because it helps the team assess the individual irrigation needs of the vines as opposed to watering for the needs of the lowest common denominator, VIGOR has also led to a notable reduction in water usage, with an 18% decrease in water usage per acre in its first year of implementation. 

“What you do today [in the vines] affects how the fruit matures six months from now, three months from now, two months from now,” says Christian. “As you get closer [to harvest], your options to affect change diminish.” The majority of growth and maturation of a vine people don’t even experience with their senses. “You and I can’t go and lick the bark of a plant and know, oh, this one’s going to ripen too quickly,” says Christian,“we can’t effectively taste the berry thirty days ahead of its ripening.”

Palmaz’s advancements in data collection; so many individual measurements that inform a larger picture; allow the team to visualize events in the vineyards they wouldn’t normally be able to see. “The vines are telling us so much information” says Christian, “we just need to understand what they’re telling us, whether they’re telling us through a wavelength you and I can’t see with the naked eye, but we can see with multispectral cameras.”

Christian is quick to say that innovation at Palmaz is often led by innovations outside of winemaking (VIGOR, for instance, is based on a concept that, while seldom used to directly control irrigation, has been instituted in large scale agribusiness for decades). ”There’s some cool things that Palmaz is doing that is unique and novel, but there’s a whole lot that we are borrowing and being inspired by,” says Christian. “Self-driving cars for better vision systems and the kind of technology that’s been farming in corn, soybean, and tomatoes is, actually, starting to ripple effect into our technology, our world as well.” The application of these tools in a way that suits the winemaking process and doesn’t overwhelm it is another elegant expression of the Palmaz family’s quest for great wine.

The next twenty years of innovation at the winery? “We’re trying to consistently position ourselves to be able to ask bigger and bigger questions,” says Christian. “The kinds of questions that you can ask today and the kind of questions you were able to ask, say, ten years ago, are very different.”

Whatever the innovations the next twenty years bring, these past twenty years of harvest at Palmaz Vineyards has shown us that the marriage of tradition and technology still leaves plenty of room—in fact, makes more space—for that ineffable aspect of winemaking and its human touch. The truth to that is in the glass.