Palmaz Vineyards Reviewed by American Winery Guide

6/15/2017 7:06:58 PM

Palmaz Vineyards Reviewed

American Winery Guide | By Mark and Sonja Gudgel | June 15, 2017 | Original Article

The tectonic plates that slammed together to form Mount George and the other noteworthy peaks at the southern end of the Napa Valley had long since settled by the time that Henry Hagan arrived in California in 1852. Drawn north from San Francisco by the allure of untamed wilderness and unbridled natural beauty, the industrious Hagan founded Cedar Knoll Vineyard and Winery in 1881 and set about the business of viticulture with the spirit of a pioneer. Hagan experienced success with his wines, growing grapes in the unheard of Napa Valley and serving them mostly to locals in the Opera Houses and other upscale establishments of the Bay Area.

Then in 1889, at L’Exposition Universelle de Paris, Hagan shocked some folk when his brandy won a silver medal. It was the first Napa Valley victory in France, 87 years before the “Judgment of Paris” would forever lay to rest the notion of French superiority in the winemaking industry. Henry Hagan had stuck his foot in a door that would soon enough be blown clean off its hinges.

The misguided if well-meaning legislation of 1919, dubbed by many the “noble experiment”, killed Cedar Knoll Winery the same way it killed almost every other wine, beer, and spirit producer in America, and the late Henry Hagan’s 450 acres of fertile Napa Valley land at the base Mount George lay dormant, overrun with wildflowers, saplings, and wildlife as the world somehow continued to spin without the influence of American viticulture.


Dr. Julio Palmaz was born in Argentina in December of 1945, shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War, shortly before the tide of Nazis who would inhabit his home country, forever lurking in the shadows of the South American giant. Along with his wife, Amalia, Julio moved to California in the 1970’s after finishing his medical degree to pursue a research career at UC Davis. On the weekends, the couple would frequently visit the Napa Valley, tasting wine and dining, bracing themselves for another grueling American workweek upon their return. It was on these visits that they fell in love with the Valley, a seeming cornucopia of beauty and fine wine, during the Renaissance of the 1970’s that had, in part, been foreshadowed by Henry Hagan’s success in Paris nearly a century before.

Listening to a lecture one day in New Orleans, Dr. Palmaz began to doodle in his notebook. What if a stent could be inserted into the heart that would serve as a scaffold for the vessels and prevent them from blockage? He jotted his ideas, over and over, and once back in his office, began sticking pins into a pencil, then weaving wire around it as a rudimentary prototype of what would eventually become the Palmaz-Schatz Stent. A decade of experiments, patents, legal battles, and more ensued, but Dr. Palmaz was familiar with the world and the perseverance required to overcome such adversity. He overcame. Today, nearly a million of Dr. Palmaz’s balloon-expandable heart stents are implanted worldwide on an annual basis, saving countless lives, and standing as an example of yet one more extraordinary contribution of immigrants to America and to the world.

More than two decades had passed since his graduation from medical school at the National University of La Plata when, in the 1990’s, Julio and Amalia realized what before had seemed like an unobtainable dream when they purchased a parcel of land at the southern end of the Napa Valley, and the house that a pioneer had built himself upon it. In the side of Mount George, a winery was painstakingly constructed, overgrown vineyards were replanted, and another dreamer’s great ambition began to come alive.


We were positioned at the end of a high-tech conveyor belt, an aluminum-looking contraption that could rotate on multiple pivots, gently moving grapes along the line so that men and women standing on either side could pick over them with their fingers and eyes, removing any grape that bore even the slightest of imperfections. The belt ended at a balcony on which we stood, and beyond the railing was a four-story drop, the walls of the room below lined in massive steel tanks intended to hold fermenting grape juice. Almost imperceptibly, still speaking, our host removed his phone from his pocket and tapped at it briefly. Suddenly, the domed roof above us lit up with color and images in such a way as to cause both Sonja and me to jerk our heads upward to see what was happening. With little more than a tap on a touchscreen phone, the contents of every one of the tanks below had been projected onto the walls above us, weaving an illuminated tapestry of data that told anyone who could read it the history and condition of the wines inside.

Christian Palmaz, Julio’s son, is the anything-but-mad scientist who was showing us around the facility that day. A combination of warmth and intellect, who inexplicably managed an air of humility as he walked us through the winery to end all wineries, Christian looked like any other visitor to his establishment that day, save for the fact that he had the keys to the proverbial Ferrari programmed into his iPhone. “This is “Felix”, he said, introducing us to a computer. “F-I-L-C-S,” he spelled it out. “It’s not a very good acronym, I know, but look at what she can do,” he went on, activating a platform so that the tanks moved around the room, traveling so that the person working with the wine could stay in one place. “When you have a winemaker like Tina Mitchell, you want her to be able to skip the mundane and focus on her art,” explained Christian, justifying the astonishing machine of a room that was designed to bring the wine to the winemaker, rather than requiring the winemaker to go to the wine.

Christian explained that the 110K square foot building, roughly the size of a Costco, allows for a “zero consolidation” approach to winemaking, in which no wines have to be blended prior to their full maturation. No wines are blended simply to make room, an admittedly expensive yet arguably desirable approach in which the winemaker exercises full control over what is blended, how, and when. Ultimately, Palmaz is more like 24 separate wineries than merely one.

Admittedly, there’s perhaps something a bit, well, methodical about the process. The image of a bearded vintner high on Howell Mountain creating works of art one French oak barrel at a time is hard to summon to mind in the 17-story laboratory of a winery at Palmaz, and yet there’s an undeniable charm to the place, and to the people who work there. In reality, the winery’s first winemaker was none other than the quintessential bearded Howell Mountain vintner, Randy Dunn. “A lot of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young people started here, but none of them had Randy’s wherewithal. We needed him,” recalled Christian, thinking back on the favor Randy had done for them in getting the winery up and running for their first vintage in 2001.


In a square room, centered through a doorway in a glass wall, was a long table at which settings of crystal stemware awaited us in the number of our party. Seated with my back to the glass, to my right sat a buffet that covered the wall opposite a case of wines, and there rested several bottles, a few coffee table books, and a Facon, a traditional Argentine knife which the family gives as a gift each year to wine club members. The books were written by Christian and his sister, Florencia. Christian’s deals with the winery, while his sister’s is a cookbook. “Hers is actually available on its own on Amazon,” Christian explained. “It won several awards, and is quite popular.” It’s easy to see there’s no jealousy amongst these siblings; Christian is simply proud of what his sister, and his family, has accomplished – a legacy in which he himself plays no small part.

To our left was a wall racked with wines, and from it came a flight to rival any I’ve ever had. Most impressive were the Cabernets, arguably young yet seemingly perfect in their balance, their fullness, and character. As each wine appeared in the glass, notes on the vineyards, the vintage, and more appeared projected on the wall which we sat facing, seemingly anticipating our questions before we could ask them. Each wine came with a small food pairing to bring about the flavor, inspiring me to take copious notes until, at last, I realized it was time to simply sit back and taste these remarkable wines. Christian sat just to my right, tasting along with us, enjoying himself, answering our questions. I couldn’t stop myself from remarking time and again on the quality of the wines, to which Christian remarked: “We want to be more like the painting on your wall than the food in your refrigerator”. Mission accomplished, I thought.

As we sat in the cozy room and tasted the wines, the fruits of the intuitive, inventive, industrious labors of the Palmaz family were evident in every sip. The tasting assumed the Argentine tradition known as “Sobre Mesa,” which Christian explained means “Over the table,” or an after-dinner, or in this case, after-tour, talk. We sat and tasted wine and spoke with Christian late into the evening. At last, we had to leave for fear of missing our next appointment, though in truth we had no desire to leave, to end our Sobre Mesa, to leave a place that was so welcoming, inspiring, and relaxing all at once.


Henry Hagan, industrious pioneer of the Napa Valley that he was, never could have envisioned what his winery would one day become, though from his own endeavors in viticulture, competition, and business, it seems relatively safe to say that he would both marvel at and approve of the winery that now stands built into Mount George, towering above the home he built for himself down on the Valley floor almost a century and a half ago. He might also enjoy knowing that his home is still in use and that even his cellar remains stocked to this day with some of the best wines being made in the Napa Valley, if not the entire world. Furthermore, Hagan’s original, pre-prohibition land remains intact, and is still put to the same noble, artisan use for which he purchased it, back when making wine in California was considered a fool’s errand by the oenological elite back in Europe’s ivory towers.

Now in his early 70’s, Julio Palmaz still wanders the grounds of his winery, taking stock of what he’s accomplished, what is left to be done, and welcoming guests and old friends as they arrive. His gatherings, traditional Argentine cow roasts and other such festivities, draw huge crowds, and the man who invented the device that has saved millions of lives around the world now devotes his sharp intellect and skillful hands to shaking those of others, and to lighting the fires to roast meat on an open spit that overlooks the Valley that he and Amalia have come to know as home. With a Facon strapped to his back by the belt and a smile on his face, he watches as his children, Christian and Florencia, follow along the path that he, and before him Henry Hagan, began to wear over time with their gentle, persistent footfalls, the path of the Napa Valley pioneer.