The family-owned 640-acre vineyards are nestled in the Napa Valley region of California. Christian's father, Dr. Julio Palmaz, acquired the land in 1996, after it lay fallow for nearly 80 years when descendants of its original owner, Henry Hagen, could not endure the financial slump of the Prohibition era.
The Palmaz family restored the vineyards by replanting 64 acres at three major elevations.
According to Palmaz, the biggest detriment to a winemaker is when they are forced to consolidate their available ingredients prematurely. In order to avoid this, the Palmaz family designed an underground 18-story cavern with a maze of tunnels and domes carved into the rock at the base of Napa Valley’s Mount George.
“That’s why the winery exploded in size, it’s a very unusual use of the architecture,” Palmaz told BeverageDaily.
‘Very aggressive approach’
Palmaz Vineyards has developed its technology in-house, unlike most other wineries that purchase it from a vendor.
“From the beginning you could see that the winery had a very aggressive approach to innovation,” Palmaz said.
In the late 90s winemakers were encouraged to be as gentle with the wine as possible during the winemaking process to promote the flavor and textural sensation imparted by tannins, a molecule that attaches itself to proteins in the palate.
The technological process of Gravity Flow Winemaking makes that possible, Palmaz said.
“What makes us different is that we’re the first winery to take that concept and take it all the way to bottling, which is something no other winery in the world has been able to accomplish,” he said.
The wine is at its most delicate state when it comes time to bottling, and Gravity Finished Winemaking allows the winemaker to be as gentle as possible throughout the entire process.
Other components of the Palmaz Vineyards’ use of technology include an aircraft called VIGOR (Vineyard Infrared Growth Optical Recognition) that flies over the vineyard twice a week capturing chlorophyll data to create a watering regime for each plant.
“Optimizing this idea of harvesting the group is very old world thinking,” Palmaz said. “The modern approach to farming is we farm the individual, not the group. Every plant gets a little bit different program.”
Inside the cavernous winemaking operations, the Palmaz team uses FILCS (Fermentation Intelligent Logic Control System), an algorithmic fermentation-control and -monitoring system for each tank. FILCS projects a broad range of data (including real-time thermal imaging) onto the ceiling of the dome, giving instant insight into the fermentation process.
“You’re going to spend your time on the abstract things, the things you can see, smell, taste and feel,” he said.
“You’re going to be thinking much more creatively because you’re not going to be spending your time worrying what’s happening in the fermenter.”
The human element
One of the biggest criticisms of using large amounts of data during winemaking is that the 'art' is lost, but Palmaz “wholeheartedly” disagrees. He says that having this much data, and technology that can analyze the objective elements of the process, frees the wine tasters to focus on the abstract part of winemaking.
“What makes wine go from just great to exquisite and beautiful, complex, and elegant is a human element,” Palmaz explained.
“The only instrument you want someone to hold in their hand is a glass.”
Industry is at a crossroads
There is pressure for winemakers to create the next big thing in the industry, but that may come at a cost to all wineries, Palmaz said.
There is already a high amount of end consumer trust with wine, he said, differentiating wine by label designations and health claims is not only unnecessary but detrimental.
“Some people in the industry think that the only way to get the next big thing is to add the next big thing into the wine, and I don’t mean that metaphorically,” he said.
According to Palmaz, technology should be there to conserve resources, improve quality, and to ensure no mistakes are made in the manufacturing process.
“I worry about the day that the FDA comes in and tells the industry that it has lost the end consumers’ trust and now you have to put an ingredient statement on the bottle,” Palmaz said.
“I think this a step in the wrong direction.”