Palmaz Vineyards: The Winery of the Future

The barrel room in the cave. Christian Palmaz is designing an artificial intelligence system that will monitor wines as they age in barrels.

By: Nan McCreary

If you want to envision the winery of the future—a winery that leverages cutting-edge technology with the ancient art of winemaking—look no further than Palmaz Vineyards, hidden within the forested ridges of Napa Valley’s Mount George. Here, the Palmaz family is applying innovative, if not futuristic, tools to enhance the artistic elements of wine.

  Winery founder, Julio Palmaz, a physician and inventor of the Palmaz Coronary Stent, a device that revolutionized medicine, is clearly a man ahead of his time. From the beginning, he and his wife, Amalia, set out to create a winery that made harmonious use of tradition and technology to craft great vintages. That vision led them, along with their children Florencia and Christian Gastón (and Christian’s wife, Jessica Louise), to an abandoned property in Napa Valley, the former Cedar Knoll Vineyard and Winery, founded in 1881 by German immigrant and wine pioneer Henry Hagen. Hagen’s early success, the cool climate and stony soils—as well as the mountain’s potential for housing a multilevel gravity winery—inspired the Palmaz family to purchased the property in 1997, and spend the next three years restoring the house and developing the new winery and vineyard.

   “The 640-acre property was one of Napa’s few contiguous vineyards to retain its acreage after prohibition,” Christian Palmaz told The Grapevine Magazine. “Henry Hagen had planted grapes at three different altitudes, and we wanted to retain that philosophy. With so many different soils and microclimates, the place was begging to be planted by terroir.”

  Before planting, the Palmaz family analyzed 4,900 core samples from around the property to reveal the vineyard’s geology.  This data, along with analysis of climate and irrigation needs, led to the designation of 15 unique terroirs subdivided into 46 blocks, or parcels, throughout the property. Planting began in March 1998, and ultimately included eight different rootstocks based on geological considerations, plus some vines grafted onto various clones. Grapes were planted on 64 acres at three elevations—400, 1,200 and 1,400 feet above sea level—to take advantage of the varied terroirs and microclimates at each altitude.

  While the vineyards matured, the Palmaz family began construction of The Cave, a remarkable feat of engineering bored 18 stories into the bedrock of Mount George.  The cave was specifically designed to accommodate true gravity-flow winemaking, which treats the grapes and resulting wines as gently as possible on their journey from the sorting table, to the fermenters, to the filters, to the barrels and, ultimately, to the bottle. 

  “When gravity-flow wineries became prevalent, we realized that all had elevators, but the process compromised the wines at the end—when the wine was most delicate—by using pumps to move the wine through filtration,” Palmaz said. “We believed that this agitation could potentially degrade the wine’s delicate tannin polymers, so we engineered the winery to solve that problem. That’s why the structure is so tall.”

  The cave-building odyssey lasted nine years and now stands as a technological wonder in Napa Valley. At 100,000 square feet, it is the largest wine cave in Napa, as well as the largest soft-rock excavation in a single space in the area. In a testament to the Palmaz family’s commitment to sustainability, the cave houses its own water treatment plant, capturing and treating 1.5 million gallons of water per year, water which would ordinarily be drawn from the water table.

  At the heart of the winery is the fermentation dome, lined with 24 fermentation tanks that can accommodate grapes from individual vineyards across the estate. The tanks sit atop a carousel that rotates to receive grapes from the optical sorter located directly above them, exposing the grapes to as little handling as possible. Because each tank has many variables depending on the characteristics of the specific vineyard, Palmaz developed an intelligent winemaking assistant, FILCS (Fermentation Intelligent Logic Control System), nicknamed Felix. Felix measures events in the fermentation process, then adjusts the temperature and rate of fermentation as needed. Essentially, Felix utilizes the latest technologies in machine learning algorithms to project real-time conditions within the tanks onto the ceiling of the dome, giving the dome the appearance of a space-age command center. As winemakers digitally monitor what is happening at the moment in the tank, they are free from tasks that normally require manual testing and can concentrate on tasting and other creative aspects of producing great wine.

  “Winemaking is a biologically controlled reaction, plus things we can’t put numbers to,” Palmaz said. “These things are what you can see, smell, taste and feel. It’s the art. I designed Felix to free winemakers from distractions so they could add that human touch and enhance their artistic influence. If the winemaker wants a more extracted aroma, or a more extracted color, for example, they can tell Felix how to manage it. If they catch the moment when a beautiful aromatic shows up, they can put Felix on hold and preserve that moment. It’s all about time and efficiency and a little bit of quality control.”

  Felix is only one component of the Palmaz family’s merger of tradition and technology to make great wine. Christian Palmaz, with his strong background in computer science, also designed VIGOR (Vineyard Infrared Growth Optical Recognition) to monitor and adjust conditions in the vineyard. Twice a week, aircraft fly over the vineyards and take infrared images that illustrate vine health by measuring chlorophyll in the plants. That data, along with ground data collected manually, helps determine how much irrigation each plant requires.

  “The objective,” Palmaz said, “is to make adjustments so that all of the vines are ripening evenly. I had a college professor who said, ‘Low tech farming is farming the group so that all the vines behave like an individual. High tech farming is farming the individual to behave as a group.’ That’s what we’re doing. It’s the future of farming.”  For Palmaz Vineyards, VIGOR has paid off: in its first year, Palmaz experienced a nearly 20% reduction in water usage per acre.

  In addition to Felix and VIGOR, Palmaz has incorporated Veeam Backup Essentials software into the system as tools for data backup and recovery. With data-driven decision making, Palmaz generates multi-petabytes (one petabyte equals one million gigabytes) of information.  “Data was burying us,” he told The Grapevine Magazine.  “Data was getting produced faster than I could find a place to store it.” 

  Before Veeam, Palmaz was storing all of its information on the cloud. The cost was high, and the data was unorganized and difficult to access. With Veeam, data is arranged in a chronological format.  Some data— the more important data that needs to be readily accessible—is stored on site. The rest resides in the cloud.

  Today, while founders Julio and Amalia play a lesser role in the winery’s day-to-day operations, Christian and his sister, Florencia, steer the ship, following their parents’ vision of bringing innovation and invention to the art of winemaking. Christian is in charge of all winery and vineyard operations, and Florencia is CEO at Palmaz Vineyards and president of the family’s other primary business, GoodHeart Brand Specialty Foods Company. Christian’s wife, Jessica, is president of Palmaz Vineyards and responsible for the day-to-day management and customer experience. In total, the winery employs 50 people. The vineyards grow five Bordeaux varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec), three white (Chardonnay, Muscat and Riesling), as well as Grenache for a Provençal-style Rosé.  According to Christian Palmaz, case production floats between 7,500 and 10,000 cases per year. “Our wines have a lot of personality,” he said. “Each wine has an unspoken characteristic that gives it a sense of place. We are extremely fortunate; we have a great following.”

  As Palmaz Vineyards looks to the future, technology will inevitably play a leading role. Later this year, Palmaz will roll out STAVES, which stands for Sensory Transambiental Variance Experiment, to monitor wines as they age in the barrel. According to Palmaz, STAVES is a suite of sensors that attach to the barrel, measuring a host of variables. “Each barrel is handmade, and each barrel breathes a little differently,” he said. “We think that’s important, and we need to study it to help us determine when to rack, for instance, or when to the pull the wine.  It’s like Felix but for barrels.”

  Clearly, technology is in the blood of the Palmaz family as the second generation follows the footsteps of Julio and Amalia. Being bullish on innovation, Christian Palmaz is sharing his data with universities, such as the University of California, Davis, so oenology students see, for the first time, the fermentation process thermographically.

  “I hope that Palmaz gets remembered not for just developing tools for winemaking, but for setting a tone on how innovation can coexist with the oldest man-made food product,” Palmaz told The Grapevine Magazine. “The most important ingredient in wine is the people, and we will always respect that. Even with innovation, wine is as handcrafted as a painting; it’s way past quality control. It’s waving a wand; it’s magic. That’s what makes the process so special.”

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