AFAR: This Might Be the Most High-Tech Winery Ever

1/22/2016 9:51:23 PM


This Might Be the Most High-Tech Winery Ever

AFAR – the wayfarer 1.7.16 | BY larissa zimberoff | ORIGINAL ARTICLE

Despite its proximity to Silicon Valley, Napa Valley wineries are shockingly lacking in tech development. Not so for this one.

PALMAZ VINEYARDS is 610 acres of prime Napa Valley real estate nestled beside Mount George, a southern hillside that offers two key advantages: vertical space to dig, and gravity, which allows grape juice to flow. In a wine country known for having perfect this, and ideal that, this gravity-flow winery has found a way to be different.

More than any other winery, Palmaz Vineyards is rooted in technology. First, there’s the 100,000 square-foot underground complex. The cave, as it’s affectionately called, is 18-stories deep and took seven years to complete, which is why Mount George was the perfect locale. It makes Palmaz Vineyards the only winery practicing gravity flow and finishing all the way to the bottle. As the product goes from grape to wine, each step descends from one level to the next inside the wine cave, and it results in a bottle of wine that gets filled without the aid of mechanical pumps.

Then, there’s water, lots of it. Captured throughout the property, it’s stored in giant tanks inside the cave, aerated, and kept fresh to be reused. This means the vineyard is a net-zero consumptive water winery—good news in California’s multiple-year drought.

Last, there’s FILCS, pronounced Felix, a supercomputer of information that allows the winemaker to know exactly what is happening inside her 24 quadrilateral-jacketed glycol system fermentation tanks. More on that later.

When the Palmaz family bought the vineyard in the late 1990s, it had been abandoned since Prohibition, a not-uncommon occurrence in the wine world. Dr. Julio Palmaz, the patriarch of the family, invented the balloon-expandable coronary stent—a breakthrough that changed cardiovascular medicine for the better, and a coup that allowed him to pour money into his passion for grapes, an interest he developed during his residency at U.C. Davis. The family spent three years tinkering with schematics before a single shovel hit the dirt. Vines were planted first, because those take years to mature, and then in 2000, they began to dig.

“I was surprised how differentiating the wine industry was compared to the rest of the agricultural world, and how much money there was in the valley,” Christian Palmaz says, “but that there was a lack of drive in innovation.” After graduating with a degree in advanced agriculture and geo science from Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas, Christian joined his family—his father, mother, and older sister—at the winery. Once there, he built out a research and development lab and focused his sights on applying technology to tasks that had traditionally been done by hand or by smell.

“My father had very interesting ideas on how he thought the winery should operate. He believes strongly in an academic approach to running a business,” says Christian. His older sister, Florencia Palmaz, recalls fondly her decision not to get a degree in winemaking. En route to a degree in biology, also from Trinity, her dad asked her to buy every textbook required by the U.C. Davis enology master. She brought armfuls back for the family to read, and they all quickly became experts.

There are 64 acres planted in total. Puzzle-shaped plots roll across three elevations and microclimates. Rootstock (the vines) were matched to their soil, a topic the family gleaned from 5,000 core samples they took to investigate the porosity, acidity, and nutrient value of the land. The whites, for example, are planted at twelve hundred feet elevation because it’s colder there, and the vines receive forty minutes less of sunlight a day.

Tina Mitchell knows the land intimately, and is the woman in charge of these precious orbs. In the fall, she has one question running through her head: when to pick the grapes? When Mitchell gives the go ahead, the farm team begins harvesting. It’s midnight. That’s when it’s cool and the grapes are firmer and closer to the temperature they’ll hit when they go into the cold soak, their first stop in the fermentation process.