Palmaz Vineyards digs in for different take on wine

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 2, 2013 - 3:16 pm | Page 1D
Last Modified: Wednesday, Apr. 3, 2013 - 2:03 pm

NAPA – When you stop at the security gate at Palmaz Vineyards and look into the distance, you're able to take in all kinds of things – the gentle slopes of Mount George, a private road that winds along a field of grapes, the expansive sky of the Napa Valley.

The winery itself? The place where the magic happens? It may be a seriously high-tech, money's-no-object facility, but it's not exactly front and center for all to see.

Carved into the mountain itself at a cost no one is eager to talk about, this mind-blowing winery is the result of an outsize dream by a larger-than-life physician-scientist named Julio Palmaz, who invented the first cardiac stent in 1985. The Argentine is known both for his life-saving inventions and his impeccable taste. He sold much of his massive wine collection through Sotheby's; he continues to collect vintage Porsches.

Palmaz, who did his medical training and residency in the late 1970s at UC Davis, used some of the fortune he made to create this winery. He bought the property in 1996, a tract of land that had been a vineyard beginning in 1876 but had been abandoned and neglected for more than 80 years.

Palmaz opted to dig into the mountain rather build something atop it. The result is a series of tunnels like something out of a science fiction novel – only the owner is bent not on world domination but on making world-class wine.

Florencia Palmaz, his daughter, runs the day-to-day operations with her brother, Christian. She's in charge of the winery; he oversees operation of the vineyards.

Many believe they are creating some of the most elegant and well-rounded wines in the Napa Valley. Wine aficionados readily shell out $120 for a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, $55 for chardonnay and $180 for a limited release cabernet sauvignon dubbed "Gaston." All tastings and tours of the premises are private and require reservations – $60 per person.

Florencia Palmaz has plenty to explain – the winery is so vast, so unusual, so incomprehensible, and, yes, so very expensive. And the wines themselves, blended with such finesse, are a collaborative effort by three women – Palmaz, Tina Mitchell and Mia Klein.

Viewed from the parking lot built into the hillside, the winery is but a wall of rock, no windows and two oversize wooden doors.

"This wasn't built to be a beautiful building," Palmaz said. "To my father, this was a laboratory."

The structure is vast and obviously expensive. Could the winery ever sell enough wine to recoup the investment?

"People ask all the time," she said with a smile. "We're fully committed. How about that? My father wanted to create a family business environment that could be passed down through the generations. He is content in simply having this in the family. There is no need to flip this."

She added, "The ambitions of this property evolved over time. Initially, my parents bought a lovely old home and a dream to come and spend time in Napa and live the dream. They didn't have this in mind right off the bat. But when Dad got into it, he really got into it."

Because the winery is underground, there is no need for heating or cooling – the insulation of the rock keeps the interior at a constant 60 degrees and the ideal 75 percent humidity. The 54-foot-high dome that houses 24 glistening silver fermentation tanks is 72 feet in diameter and is considered the largest underground reinforced structure in the world, according to the winery's website. Lining the hallways or tunnels within the winery are scores of wine barrels, all French oak and some costing as much as $3,200.

The vertical nature of the interior is not just for show – it's crucial to something called gravity-flow winemaking, which allows Palmaz to do without the pumps that some believe can be harsh to wine and disruptive to the subtleties of its structure.

The 55 acres of vineyards, too, have several unusual features that add up to advantages for the winemakers. Pieced together at elevations ranging from 400 feet to 1,400 feet with a variety of weather patterns and soil conditions, the estate boasts 24 parcels of grapes (thus the 24 fermentation tanks), the majority being cabernet sauvignon, with lesser amounts of merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc (primarily for blending), chardonnay, Riesling, muscat and malbec.

"This land gives you a lot of diversity of flavors and textures," Palmaz said. "When we come to the blending table, we have a lot to work with. People diversify their portfolios – we diversified our vineyards while still being one estate. It's a very rare combination."

For visitors, the tasting experience reflects the style of wine – personal, relaxed and refined. The tastings are hosted by Palmaz and her brother their mother, Amalia, or two winery employees. Unlike many Napa wineries packed with visitors making multiple, hurried stops, here the idea is to stay, chat and appreciate.

"There's so much snobbery and fluff in Napa that people are intimidated," Florencia Palmaz said. "I find it important to be private so I can customize the approach to the people. I can demystify and inspire at the same time.

"Boring people don't come to Napa. I get the most fascinating people here – nuclear arms negotiators, bond traders, artists. You give them a glass of wine, ask them what they do and their stories are incredible. I feel like the best hairdresser in the world."

When Palmaz is asked to talk about her wines, you won't hear a lot of jargon or arcane tasting notes.

"I find it a very mundane conversation to focus on the wine based on similes," she said, adding that much of the tasting experience for her focuses more on texture than flavors.

She's also not rigid about pairing wine with food, arguing that it's more art – or accident – than science. And, perhaps surprisingly for a winemaker, she insists that food takes priority when it comes to pairings – the food must be great for the food-and-wine experience to be sublime.

"I'm very irreverent about it. When the perfect pairing happens, it's a delightful experience," she said. "But if you spend the rest of your life trying to find the perfect pairing, then you're not necessarily drinking the wines that you like and eating the foods that you enjoy – you're missing out on just living."

Palmaz Vineyards

What: The operation is known for its elegant and well-rounded wines and its high-tech facility.

Tastings: $60 per person; reservations are required

Where: 4029 Hagen Road, Napa

Information: (707) 226-5587;

Slideshow: Palmaz Vineyards in Napa

Call The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.

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