Winemakers used to rely on instinct and tradition, but now, many are turning to technology, such as data analysis and tech innovation. What does this mean for wine's future?
Wineries frequently use second labels to distribute excess juice or work on special projects. The results can be amazing.
CNBC Wine Portfolio Channel recently came to visit us at Palmaz Vineyards.
Below are two episodes that featured Palmaz Vineyards
As part of our participation in this year’s Florida Winefest, Marcella and I chose the wine dinner at Café l’Europe on Sarasota’s St Armands Circle. We hadn’t been there in a while and, for further interest, I had no prior experience with the Napa Valley wines that would be featured from Palmaz Vineyards. Executive Chef Jonathan Walsh and Sous-chef Steve Devlin put together a 5-course spectacular, and Amalia Palmaz was there to present the wines that she and her husband created. Michael Helmer and Michael Faraone of Southern Wine & Spirits were invited to pretest the wines with the menu to up the probabilities of success.
The appetizer course was "Ménage à Trois," mango-papaya-pineapple salsa surrounded by Ahi tuna and, individually sauced, a Diver scallop and a gulf shrimp. The Palmaz 2007 (dry) Riesling appropriately greeted the dish with its own hints of pineapple. Unfortunately, the wine is not otherwise available in Florida.
Tomato "Floral" salad followed: mixed greens, baby arugula, "tobacco onions" (a concept new to me...shredded onions toasted to look like cigarette tobacco), a lattice of Asiago and smoked tomato vinaigrette; surprisingly accompanied by the 2007 Chardonnay. The key was the smoked tomato, playful with the subtle smoke of the wine. The wine itself was reminiscent of a premier cru Chablis.
Third course was roasted duck breast in sherry-lingonberry reduction, and spinach-gruyére risotto. The wine was the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon (5% Merlot), showing loads of smooth and well integrated butterscotch. Though the latest release, it is more readily approachable than the 2002 (14% Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cab Franc). The latter came with Kobe beef medallions, assorted mushrooms, white truffle demiglace and a mushroom stuffed beggar’s purse. Mia Klein was winemaker for the ‘04; Randy Dunn made the ‘02, more reflective of the style in his own well known slow developing wines.
The finale came as a "Napoleon Fantastique" (Godiva dark chocolate cake, Chambord mousse, white chocolate and triple berry flambé) served in duet with the 2006 Palmaz Muscat Canelli "Florencia": dry as dessert wines go, with a sensory blend of ripe pear and apple.
The Palmaz vineyards have restored the site of the 1881 Cedar Knoll Vineyard founded by Henry Hagen, one of Napa Valley’s pioneer winemakers. Hagen wines garnered a silver medal at the Paris Exposition of 1889, and during that era his was one of Napa’s premier wineries. The vineyards survived California’s phylloxera infestation in the 1890s, but not Prohibition.
Nearly 80 years later Julio and Amalia re-established the property and its award-winning status. The wine dinner proved the wines worthy of serious attention, but be forewarned, none come remotely close to the $10 level of a Viniac Value of the Week.
An internationally recognized sommelier for many years, Sarasota resident Arthur Levin has taught wine appreciation classes in Sarasota, New York, and Paris, France.. Address questions and comments to him care of the Pelican Press or via ThisArtOfWine@aol.com
The land just below Mount George here is covered in Cabernet grapevines and dotted with oak and olive trees. On one side of a steep slope sits an arched door -- a rabbit hole for people. Open it, and the world falls silent. Dampness hangs in the air. A tunnel leads deep into the earth until suddenly the ceiling opens up, revealing a huge domed room, 55 feet high and 75 feet wide. This is the heart of the Palmaz Vineyards winemaking operation, and more akin to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory than a Napa Valley wine cave. After eight years, numerous public hearings, a lawsuit and a price-tag builders estimate at $20 million, Dr. Julio and Amalia Palmaz have finished their 100,000-square-foot underground complex. Two elevators shuttle wine barrels, workers and visitors some 15 stories below ground. Holes cut into the grassy hillside allow light into Dr. Palmaz's subterranean office, which is separated by a large window from an 8,000-square-foot display of his collection of antique Porsche race cars. View Full Image Caren Alpert for The Wall Street Journal Julio and Amalia Palmaz built a huge underground complex for their winery in Napa. It took the construction crew a year just to excavate the dome -- work so complex it was written up in a scientific journal. But tricking Mother Nature was nothing compared to overcoming opposition from the Palmazes' neighbors. The result was an equally large culture clash, one that the Palmazes, Texans who originally hail from Argentina, have yet to fully recover from. "I am not the darling of the place," says Mrs. Palmaz, an elegant, 58-year-old who speaks with a rolling Spanish accent. Even the subdued, low-alcohol wine that the Palmazes produce is out of step with Napa, known for its burly Cabernets and oaky Chardonnays, she says. "My wine, the size of my project. What else can you do to alienate the world?" "They are not my favorite neighbors," says Louise Dunlap, who owns property just south of Palmaz Vineyards. The 70-year-old writing, yoga and meditation teacher says she has been taken aback by what she calls the couple's "high-handedness," demonstrated not only by the scope of their project but in the way they cleared brush to mark their property lines and expanded a road cutting up the hillside. The Palmazes, who married in 1972, first visited Napa Valley when Dr. Palmaz was a resident at the University of California, Davis. Each weekend the young couple would hop into their white Triumph Spitfire and head to Napa to drink wine. "The highlight of our week," recalls Dr. Palmaz, a youthful 63-year-old who is internationally known for inventing the balloon-expandable coronary stent. When Dr. Palmaz took a job at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 1983, the couple made a pledge: "Some day, we'll make a little bit of money and we'll come back here." If You Lived There | Napa Caren Alpert for The Wall Street Journal Napa is a second home for many residents. About half of the home buyers in Napa County are from San Francisco, but quite a few come from the East Coast, especially Florida. In 2008, the average price of a house here was $608,258, down from $860,813 in 2007. With 4.7 million wine-tasting visitors a year, Napa is the second most-popular attraction in California, after Disneyland. Source: Coldwell Banker Brokers of the Valley; Napa Chamber of Commerce They finally got that chance about 15 years later, when Dr. Palmaz's stent patent was bought outright by Johnson & Johnson in a deal that netted him and his backers about $500 million. In 1997, the Palmazes bought the Cedar Knoll winery here, abandoned nearly 80 years ago after failing to survive Prohibition. They decided to make their wine in a cave in part because the temperature underground -- 58 to 61 degrees -- is ideal. They also knew that cave permits in Napa County, known for its efforts to limit development, would be easier to come by than permits to build above ground. But the typical Napa cave is about 10,000 square feet. The Palmaz's proposed cave was 10 times that size. Trouble with the neighbors began about three years later. Ms. Dunlap recalls strolling her property one day and seeing open sky where an oak forest once had been -- land that the Palmazes had cleared for their project. "It looked like "Apocalypse Now," says Ms. Dunlap, who expressed her concerns to the Palmazes. Soon after, the couple invited their neighbors over for a cocktail party to discuss their plans. Ms. Palmaz says her guests came armed with notebooks and cameras, and spent the evening poking around the house and snapping photographs. Weeping with frustration, the Palmazes' eldest child Florencia recalls shaking so much while taking appetizers from the oven that she spilled some grease and started a fire. "That was the welcome we got," she says. Fearing everything from busy roads to commercialization, Ms. Dunlap joined about 30 of her neighbors who spoke out at planning commission hearings. At one meeting, Ms. Palmaz's sister looked at the agitated speakers. "I don't think they like you," she said in Spanish to Ms. Palmaz. "I think you should get out of here." View Full Image Caren Alpert for The Wall Street Journal Fermentation tanks line a computerized carousel. Wine flows from there down to 14 tanks on the level below. Despite the protests, the county eventually approved the Palmazes' permits, finding no cause to deny them. But the couple's troubles weren't over. County officials filed suit in April 2007, claiming the couple had planted 750 vines too close to a stream and failed to get permits to repair two bridges on the property. Two months later, the Palmazes resolved the case for an estimated total of about $1.25 million. As part of the deal, the family agreed to pay a fine of $550,000, remove hundreds of vines near the creek and plant 160 trees. The project now completed, the Palmazes -- who live on the grounds in the estate's original home -- now allow visitors to tour the high-tech operation, which is controlled almost entirely by computer. Grapes travel through a destemmer and sorting table on the top level of the underground dome, and then drop through a trap door into one of 24 fermentation tanks that rotate on a giant carousel on the middle level. The wine then flows through hoses down to 14 larger tanks used for both settling and blending the wines. From there, tunnels shoot out like spokes on a wheel to an outer cave that surrounds the space, where barrels of wine are left to age. Dr. Palmaz says he can sometimes tell what visitors are thinking. "They say it looks like NASA," he says. "They're judging, thinking, 'This guy wants to make wine by computer. It must not be any good.'" Palmaz Vineyards produces roughly 6,000 cases of Cabernets and 1,000 cases of white wines each year, which sell from $32 to $150 a bottle in restaurants, stores and by mail order. The Wine Spectator called their 2002 cab a "solid effort" and their 2004 vintage "trim and refined," giving both a score of 89. Despite it all, the Palmazes -- who also have homes in San Antonio and Punta Este, Uruguay -- say they still love it here. But should anyone else be seduced by the area and want to build a large winery in Napa, the Palmazes have some advice. "Go to Oregon!" laughs Dr. Palmaz. "No, go to France!" says Ms. Palmaz. "Oh, if I knew what I know now."
What is it about human nature that makes us overlook what’s in our own backyards? Like native New Yorkers who never climb to the top of the Empire State Building, or Floridians who rarely go to the beach, Napa Valley residents are seldom seen in the region’s tasting rooms. During the holiday season, visiting friends and family are the perfect excuse for getting out and exploring the wines and personalities of Napa’s wineries. Your guests are probably dying to do this, whether or not they’ve shared these feelings with you. In case it’s been a while since you’ve “gone tasting,” here are a few tips on how to get started. First, visit the Napa Valley Vintners Winery Search Web site at www.napavintners.com/wineries/. There, you can sort the Napa Valley Vintner member wineries by a number of categories and quickly identify the 78 Napa Valley Vintners open to the public, the 145 open by appointment, and the 110 offering special concessions to locals through the Napa Neighbor Program. There are also lists of wineries with art exhibits and picnic areas. Of course the other option is just to get in the car and see where the day takes you. Next, remember a few key points of tasting room etiquette. If you must wear perfume, please keep it subtle; strong scents can really affect your fellow tasters’ enjoyment of the wines. The Napa Valley Vintner web site lists “family-friendly” wineries, but remember that wineries are not designed to amuse children. So if you decide to take your kids along, make sure that they have some activities to keep them occupied and be prepared to excuse yourself quickly if junior throws a tantrum just before your host pours the reserve. The same goes for “dog-friendly.” Spitting is OK, seriously. Safety first. If you feel awkward spitting into one of the buckets on display, bring a paper cup and spit into that, then empty it into the bucket on the counter. Finally, asking questions of the tasting room host or hostess is encouraged; visiting tasting rooms can be a great learning experience. Many people working in the Valley’s tasting rooms are there because they have such a passion for wine that they left lucrative careers in other industries to be closer to the winemaking process. This passion should be respected. However, these individuals are not master sommeliers or enologists, so don’t be disappointed if they can’t explain the exotic Turkish wine you had on your cruise of the Eastern Mediterranean, or resolve the stuck fermentation in your garage batch of late-harvest zinfandel. What tasting room staffers are super at is conveying their own wineries’ philosophies and their winemaking processes. If you need an extra push to get out there and explore our local wineries, consider this: Tasting rooms also often feature limited-production wines not available outside the winery. Which brings us to our November tasting panel, during which we tasted wines available exclusively through winery tasting rooms. If you do venture out to taste this holiday season, you are bound to make some intriguing discoveries, just as we did. Thirty-two wines representing a range of varieties and styles were tasted in the November panel. Panelists were divided into two groups, each of whom tasted two flights of wine. Below are our tasters’ favorites. First place wines The Bouchaine Vineyards 2006 Carneros Pinot Meunier ($26) showed tasters ripe cherry and raspberry, spice, vanilla, leather and “hints of grilled meat.” Several panelists commented favorably on the wine’s balance and long finish. Tasters found the Provenance Vineyards 2005 Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($85) “racy and rustic” with aromas of spicy black fruit, coffee, herbs, mint, and toffee. Panelists also found a “nice structure” with “big, grippy tannins.” In the Palmaz Vineyards 2005 “Gaston” Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, $150) tasters noted ripe, jammy fruit, smoked meat, spices, black pepper, red apple skin, pencil shavings and dry flowers. Panelists also had positive comments regarding the wine’s balance and finish. The Markham Vineyards 2004 Napa Valley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($65) showed tasters rich ripe blackberry, plum, raspberry, caramel, and spice. Structurally, panelists found chalky tannins, and medium body. One taster commented “What Napa Cabernet once smelled and tasted like!” Second place wines The Silverado Vineyards 2006 Fantasia (Napa Valley, $50) “Shows youth, simplicity, and balance,” commented one taster. Aromas of cherry, blackberry, caramel, and wet hay were noted, along with a “good tannin structure” and “long finish.” In the Napa Wine Company 2003 Temescal Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, $85), panelists found aromas of red and black fruits, vanilla, fig, leather, and herbs. Several tasters mentioned the wine’s richness, ripeness, and density, with a few commenting that it was “zinful,” “port-like,” and even “over ripe.” The Hess Collection 2007 Mount Veeder Viognier ($18) showed tasters quince, canned peaches, melon, papaya, jasmine, spice, and aged cheese. Bright acidity and a creamy texture were also noted. One taster described it as having “Rhone-like complexity.” Tasters noted aromas of peaches, flower blossoms, honey and petrol in the Palmaz Vineyards 2007 Napa Valley Riesling ($45). Tasters also complimented the wine’s balance, a soft, lush texture, and acidity. “Very Germanic” commented one panelist. The Cakebread Cellars 2005 Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Howell Mountain, $106) showed tasters jammy dark cherry, plum, spice, cassis, and floral notes. Though one taster thought it had smooth tannins, another commented that the wine was a “little astringent on finish.”
From the summit of Diamond Peak, at an elevation of over 2,000 feet, a hypnotic view extends 30 miles or more across the Napa Valley to blue ridges of receding hills. It’s not hard to see why Fred Constant chose to build his new house on such a magical spot, or why he opted for a design with huge glass walls to showcase such a glorious tract of country. Diamond Mountain Vineyard occupies 40 acres of the steep slopes below. Pouring a generous glass of his 2004 Cabernet, Constant explains that it is the “stressed” growing conditions of such a precipitous vineyard that are chiefl y responsible for the complexities of his famously big reds. We are sitting with Hal Oates, the affable founder of the Porthos wine concierge service, whose consuming interest in his chosen subject is extremely infectious. Sunlight fl oods in and we swirl our wine, savoring its wonderful depth and concentration of fruit. Nowadays, Oates and his team sample more than 5,000 wines annually to share recommendations with both neophyte and expert collectors. Fortunately, he still manages to fi nd time to take individuals on private guided tours of the Napa Valley, gaining them access to vineyards otherwise closed to the public and introducing them to owners and famous winemakers. The following morn ing, we pull up at the imposing metal gate of Vineyard 29. Chuck and Anne McMinn acquired the property in 2000, along with the services of renowned winema ker Philippe Melka, whose natura l ta lents a re complemented by his Bordelais her itage. The original vineyard comprised just three acres of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, but this has since been augmented by the purchase of the 15-acre Aida Vineyard, which is now planted with Zinfandel, Merlot and Petite Verdot. It was the renowned Cabernets we had come to taste, however, and after a tour of the 30,000-square-foot winery, which from the outside looks a little like a contemporary art museum, we were ushered into the subdued light of a cave drilled deep into the hillside. The Estate Cabernet 2005 received a 95 rating from Robert Parker. Although its bold tannins bode well for long-term aging, the wine already seemed to us the embodiment of the very best that Napa can produce. Our fi nal stop of the day was at the up-and-coming Palmaz Vineyards. The winery takes the current craze for “gravity fl ow” production to its logical conclusion with a cave, equivalent in height to an 18-story building, constructed completely underground. Grapes arrive at the fermentation dome and descend in stages to the bottling facility far below. Our host was charming Florencia Palmaz, daughter of the owner, Julio Palmaz, inventor of the fi rst heart stent. We tasted the 2004 Estate Cabernet, a velvety and concentrated wine, similar to Napa’s famous Silver Oak but with only 5 percent of the production. “This one won’t peak until around 2014,” Hal Oates observed. “And at $99, quite a few bottles are going to end up in my private cellar!” Visiting Napa’s Boutique Vineyards The HIDEAWAY REPORT® is a privately published newsletter for the sophisticated traveler, 85% of our executive members holding the title of CEO/ President/Owner/Partner. Issued monthly since June 1979. ISSN 0884-7622. Member, Specialized Information Publishers Association. For information, visit www.AndrewHarper.com or contact the Andrew Harper Membership Offi ce, P.O. Box 684368, Austin, TX 78768 USA. Tel. (800) 235-9622 or (512) 904-7320. Fax (512) 904-7350. Copyright 2008 Andrew Harper, Inc. All rights reserved. Quotation, reproduction or transmission by any means is prohibited without written permission from the publisher. Editor-in-Chief: Andrew Harper Art Director: Kristina Mitchell Illustrator: Melissa Colson.
If the Master Sommeliers of the world were stranded on a boat, (or yacht with limited luggage space) and had room for just five wines, what would they be? Lest you doubt the veracity of the following recommendations, consider the fact that among the world’s 6.6 billion-plus population, a mere 158 held the prestigious Master Sommelier title as of Jan. 1. We suggest you take their recommendations seriously — quite seriously if you’re planning a ’round-the-world voyage. San Francisco-based Tim Gaiser, Education Chair for the American Chapter of the Court of Master Sommeliers (itself headquartered in Napa), chooses three French bottles: a 1988 Krug Champagne from Reims (for its “complexity and longevity”); a 2000 Francois Raveneau Chablis Grand Cru “Le Clos” from Burgundy (“It has a singular, immense personality and makes no apology for its greatness”); and a 1990 Domaine de la Romanée Conti “La Tâche” Grand Cru from Burgundy (“One sip of this legendary red Burgundy and you would not only think it was sent straight from heaven, but you would also understand what all the fuss over Burgundy is about”). Gaiser’s remaining bottles would be a 1989 Aldo Conterno Barolo Riserva “Gran Bussia” from Piedmont, Italy, and a 2003 Robert Weil Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese Goldkapsel, Kiedricher Gräfenberg from Rheingau, Germany. “The 1989 Granbussia captures the power and poetry of the Nebbiolo grape to perfection. Each sip beguiles and seduces, and the finish is at least 20 leagues long,” Gaiser says, applying an apropos metaphor. As for the lengthy-named German wine, he calls it “one of the greatest dessert wines ever made,” while noting that fewer than 50 half-bottles were made. “I tasted it once, and the memories of its ethereal aromas and flavors will last a lifetime,” he says. Virginia Philip, Master Sommelier at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., also relies heavily on French wines. Her picks include a 1985 Taittinger “Comtes de Champagne” rosé from Reims (“red cherry, strawberry and cranberry notes linger on the long finish, with a hint of brioche”); a 1966 Domaine Leroy Meursault “Poruzots” from Burgundy (a chardonnay with “hazelnut, mineral and apple notes with a hint of truffle oil”); and Mommessin “Clos de Tart” Monopole Grand Cru, Morey Saint-Denis, also from Burgundy (a pinot noir of which she says, “Silky yet powerful tannins linger on the finish with all the terroir associated with the vineyard swirling around in the glass”). Philips’ fourth wine would be a Tempranillo blend, a 1994 Muga “Prado Enea” Gran Reserva from Rioja, Spain. “The Muga has a canny knack for working with some of the most difficult dishes to pair,” she says, perhaps imagining the type of dinner she might concoct from the dwindling pantry of a small galley. “I have got to take it with me!” Finally, she opts for a Napa, Calif., wine: the multivintage ZD Wines “Abacus,” a Cabernet Sauvignon she describes as a marriage of the fruitiness in younger wines and the complexity of older wines. Wayne Belding, a Master Sommelier at The Boulder Wine Merchant in Colorado, confesses to being an Old World oenophile, so all of his top five wines come from Europe: two reds, two whites, and one fortified wine. “No wine is a better all-around beverage for pairing with food, especially fresh seafood, and sipping on its own than a great Riesling,” he says. His top choice would be a 1996 Trimbach Clos Sainte Hune Riesling from Alsace, France, which he calls “a wine to contemplate during the long hours at sea.” Another “great seafood wine,” he says, is the 1999 Francois Raveneau Chablis Grand Cru Valmur that “captures the senses with the pure apple and tropical fruit tones of chardonnay and the classic, flinty, mineral and herb character of a fine Chablis.” For reds, Belding would take a Burgundian pinot noir: a 1999 Clos des Lambrays Grand Cru with “beautiful layering of red and black fruit nuances, along with elements of flowers, vanilla, herbs and spices.” His other red, a 1990 Giacomo Conterno “Monfortino” Riserva Barolo from the Piedmont region of Italy, “provides just the contemplative, complex and endlessly nuanced character needed for my voyage,” Belding says. “It’s an exciting wine that will recall the bounty of the land when one is far away at sea.” Pointing out that 1870 was one of the last years before phylloxera devastated the vineyards of Europe, Belding waxes eloquently on an 1870 Blandy’s Verdelho Solera Madeira with “a penetrating and enchanting aroma that only a century of maturity can impart. Its tangy, smoky, nutty, floral and caramel aromas fairly leap from the glass.” In fact, he claims, “There is no other wine in the world that compares,” adding that it pairs well with sushi (a dish a world voyager is likely to enjoy on more than one occasion). Belding further notes Madeira’s historical tie to sailing, as the island off the northwest coast of Africa was a provisioning stop for ships across the Atlantic around the Cape of Good Hope to the East Indies. The island’s wine, he notes, was placed in barrels and used as ballast for ships. “After a few trans-equatorial crossings, people found that the hitherto very tart and lean wine had been transformed into a much more pleasurable beverage.” Madeline Triffon, Master Sommelier of Michigan-based Matt Prentice Restaurant Group, emphatically states that, “Modern Greek wine is a must!” for a ’round-the-world voyage. “We could toast the beginning of the voyage with a special Hellenic quaff, honoring the Greek sailors of old,” she suggests. And to do so, she recommends the “floral, dense and smooth” 2006 Katogi Averoff Traminer. Like Belding, Triffon would select a Riesling — though hers would come from Germany: a 1993 Zilliken Saarburger Rausch Spätlese. “At the end of a hot sunny day on deck, a fruity-tart, aromatic Riesling would be fabulously refreshing,” she says. She also would carry Thierry Allemand’s 2000 Cornas “Chaillot,” a Rhône Syrah that she calls “a stunner, with oodles of white pepper, raspberry, tar and smoke meat. The difficulty will be in keeping hands off the bottle too soon into the trip!” For a time “when a chill sets in,” Triffon would want a bold red wine. “The list would not be complete, she says, without “a bottle of what the U.S. does best: heroic Cabernet Sauvignon.” Napa Valley’s 2002 “Gaston” from Palmaz Vineyards fills the bill with pure blackberry fruit and edgy tannins. “This is the type of rich red one savors slowly, after the sun goes down,” Triffon says. “This wine would warm the bones and the heart with its powerful, expansive flavors.” Lastly, she considers a bottle of Champagne “an absolute necessity” for docking at the final destination. “Duval-Leroy’s ‘Cuvée Femme’ 1995 would do the trick — an ultra elegant sparkler with the lightest touch and a finish that goes on for days.”
Conceding that life only allows a writing team to pen so many columns, sometimes we can only tell you about certain wines and producers in short fashion. Fortunately, that is often all that is necessary, especially as it relates to the wineries covered today. You have read about them before in this column (and, dare we admit it, elsewhere) so we need not be detailed. Mostly, we are happy to report that the current releases described below are as good as, or better than, ever. Palmaz Vineyards: This winery is moving ahead by leaps and bounds, and will soon be open for tastings by appointment. We were fortunate to have sampled their wines this summer, and happily share the information with you. Of the five wines being produced, we can say that all are good, but, as almost always occurs, we have two favorites that we absolutely recommend. First is the 2006 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($45), an excellent reflection of the characteristics that seem to be popular with Chard drinkers today. It is not overly oaked, but not without the flavors imparted from a judicious use of the wood either. It is not too acidic, but not lacking in freshness. And it is not a simple effort, but rather a layered, serious one. We were also pleased (since we like the people here) to see the 2003 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon take its place among the Napa Cabs that can support a charge of $100 and still sell. Only 459 cases were produced by Palmaz this year, so you may want to find some of this wine with well integrated tannins, depth, and flavors of chocolate, blueberry, and black cherry. A 14% addition of Cabernet Franc (the 2002 had only 2%) seems to have helped this wine realize its potential. We also tip our hats to the Palmaz family for making two other varietals that are not often found in Napa. The 2006 Riesling ($45) is dry, filling in the mid palate, crisp, and very sippable. We would enjoy it with many traditional cold appetizers and salads. On the other side of the meal, one might try the 2004 Florencia Muscat Cannelli ($32 for 375 ml.), which is fermented with a specialty yeast to enhance the aromas and rich mouth feel that are unique to this grape variety. 5.0% residual sugar accents the ripe pear flavors and supple textures. www.palmazvineyards.com 707-226-5587
90 points; 5% Merlot. Keen and incisive curranty fruit is the driving force of the exceptionally well-defined Cabernet, while bountiful oak serves to sweeten both its layered aromas and its deep, fairly long flavors. It displays a real sense of polish beneath its entirely appropriate varietal tannins, and, while it is not so tough that it cannot be enjoyed early on, it deserves at least a few years of age in which to find an extra bit of refinement and round into its very best form. $100.00.
About a year-and-a-half ago, we had the pleasure of visiting Palmaz Vineyards for a private tour and tasting and came away quite amazed at what we saw, heard and tasted. All told, we spent about three hours getting a personal tour from owner Amalia Palmaz–we learned about the history of the land, the intricate winemaking process, the political hurdles facing the family as they tried to officially open the winery after many years of work and much more. Thinking it might be interesting for all of you to hear some of these same things, we recently tracked down the winery’s president, Florencia Palmaz, for one of our Five Questions interviews. Please excuse the accompanying photography as we were a bit ill-prepared for our visit and were forced to snap photos using our cell phones. Enjoy! CB: You started restoring the Cedar Knoll Vineyard and Winery property nearly 10 years ago. Is what we see today (the intricate caves, rolling hills of vineyards, etc.) part of the plan all along? What was your inspiration? Palmaz: Naturally some of the details of our plans have evolved over the last 10 years. But, with all of our decisions we have always tried to do what is best for the wines and what is best for the land. After much research, we chose our site in the shadow of Mt. George in southeastern Napa based on its cool climate, stony soils, and viticultural heritage – Henry Hagen planted the first vines here back in 1881. From the start, we wanted to build a multi-level, gravity-flow winery that would seamlessly blend in with the existing landscape. (We prefer to gently move wine with gravity rather than mechanical pumps.) CB: You’ve built an elaborate winery and follow a delicate winemaking process that utilizes gravity as a key component. Can you step us through your winemaking process (from bud break through to bottling) and explain how you see it as a competitive differentiator? Palmaz: Our goal is to produce wines that mirror the personality and character of our land. We are located in southern Napa in the proposed Tulocay AVA. Being a relatively cool region, our grapes are able to reach physiological ripeness at relatively moderate sugar levels. Our property features three estate vineyards at three elevations ranging from 400-1400 feet above sea level. The various soils and microclimates give us a broad range of flavors and structures to work with in our blending. The grapes are all harvested by hand and by individual block based on taste. Like many of the top wineries in California, we are less reliant on numbers and more concerned with balance and flavor when it comes to picking fruit. After hand sorting, the fruit is gently crushed on the first level of the winery and fed into tanks for temperature-controlled fermentations and extended macerations (30 days). Then the tanks are emptied into the press below also through gravity. Then the wines are transferred to barrel for the aging. The wines are aged entirely in French oak roughly 60% new. All racking is done using Nitrogen to move the wine rather than pumps. Throughout the first year of barrel aging, all of the lots are kept separate. At that point we select the best barrels for our flagship Palmaz bottling. Our Cabernets will spend up to two years in oak. And once the final blend is decided, the wine is blended using our tank elevator to transport the wines in lieu of a pump as well. Every movement the wine is subjected is done using either inter gas pressure for the elevator to avoid turbulence in the wines and oxygenation. This allows the flavor development and mouth feel of the wine to not be interrupted during the winemaking process is hopes of producing a wine that is well integrated and expressive. CB: We visited Palmaz Vineyards in April 2006—and Amalia Palmaz provided us an amazing personal tour of the winery and caves, followed by a lengthy tasting of your wines. At the time, Amalia said you expected the winery would be open to the public in some limited fashion later in 2006. What’s the status on that? Palmaz: Finally we are open for private tours and tasting. A member of the family conducts all tours. We generally show guests the winery and explain a little how the wines are made then we show three white wines and three Cabernet’s each paired with hors d’ oeuvres. Tours are set by appointment only and cost $60 per person. The fee is fully applicable towards wine purchases. For more information contact either myself (Florencia) or Jessica Palmaz at 707-226-5587. CB: During our visit, Amalia recommend a couple books to us for our reading pleasure. One of those books, James Conaway’s The Far Side of Eden, is about money, politics and the inner-workings of the Napa Valley. You yourself have experienced some of this since starting your operation—how do you navigate the often stormy political seas of the valley? Palmaz: I think every winery owner in the Valley, whether they have lived here for generations or moved here recently, would agree that planting vineyards and constructing a winemaking facility in Napa is a complicated process. But, this is an extraordinary place and in my experience everyone who lives and works here just wants to protect the beauty of the region and maintain the wonderful lifestyle that we all enjoy. CB: Of all the Palmaz wines, which vintage and varietal is your personal favorite and why? Palmaz: I hope I don’t sound like a politician, but I really enjoy every wine we’ve ever produced. I love the strength and tannin structures of the 2001, 2002 and 2003. It’s hard to resist the finesse, lush texture and overt fruit of our recently released 2004. The 2005 from barrel looks spectacular. It combines the power of the earlier vintages with the elegance of the ’04. The 2006, while still young and undeveloped, looks to be superb. One of the great pleasures of tasting them all together is sensing the character of the vineyard as a constant thread in each wine. One year might be big and dense, another might be subtle and understated, but every single wine has a taste that is recognizably Palmaz. CB: Thanks Florencia!
Palmaz Vineyards winery has officially opened to the public. You have to call and make an appointment but it will be worth it. Family members will apparently personally conduct the tours and tastings. Vino Girl and Winemonkey had the pleasure of visiting a few times under the guidance of engaging daughter Florencia. The hospitality, the winery -- and of course the wines -- will not disappoint. SUMMARY Started in 1997 by reknowned cardiologist (and inventor of the vascular stent) Julio Palmaz and his wife and entrepeneur Amalia, much of the day to day operations are left in the hands of their able-bodied daughter Florencia. WINERY The Palmazes have constructed the most outrageous winery in the valley (and that is saying something.) A five story structure built into the existing mountain, the gravity fed winery is an engineering and visual masterpiece and a must stop for any true wine lover. In addition, all of the stone work around the winery has been hand cut by stone masons; an ongoing project now in its fifth year and also a sight to behold. LOCATION The vineyards and winery are located in the up and coming Coombsville or proposed Tulocay AVA area along Mount George in the southern part of Napa Valley. WINEMAKING Originally consulted on by famed winemaker Randy Dunn (2000-2001), the project then moved into the hands of renowned consultant Mia Klien (2002-2005) who has now primarily turned over the reins to winemakers Tina Mitchell and Florencia Palmaz (from 2005 onward). CONTACT INFORMATION: Palmaz Vineyards 4029 Hagen Road Napa, CA 94558 707 226-5587 http://www.palmazvineyards.com. Original article: http://drinkthegoodstuff.blogspot.com/2007/11/palmaz-winery-officially-open-to-public.html
Drop this into a wine conversation sometime: 'There's this new winery in the Napa Valley that has to be seen to be believed!' What you're likely to hear, wearily muttered is, 'So what else is new.' A jaded response, perhaps, but it's not surprising since there are so many new Napa Valley wineries, either already in place or popping up frequently, that seem to be making a louder architectural statement than the wines they were built to produce. The continuously growing list of impressive, even controversial, winery structures includes Opus One, Clos Pegase, Darioush, Hess Collection, Terra Valentine, Quixote and soon to come, the new Frank Geary-designed Hall of St. Helena Winery. So when I was invited to visit Palmaz Vineyards, a name that frankly I had not heard before, I didn't fret about being out of touch because many of the 300-plus Napa Valley wineries are new to me. So, I followed shady Hagan Road east from the city of Napa into an area of the Napa Valley I hadn't been to before. At the end of Hagan, past the unassumingly entrance to the Palmaz estate, I immediately realized that what stretched out before me was far more than I had been told about. Palmaz Vineyards became a reality in 1997, but for Argentine natives Julio and Amalia Palmaz, the dream of owning a vineyard germinated years before when they moved to Davis, California and discovered the Napa Valley. A physician by profession who liked to tinker with gadgets and mechanical toys, Julio Palmaz completed his residency at UC Davis and latter invented the Palmaz Coronary Stent. After years of searching for the right piece of land, the Palmazs found the abandoned 600-acre Hagan estate at the foot of Mount George. Vines were first planted on the property in 1874, then the land went fallow until 1912, followed by a period of varied usage (including a stint as a 'whiskey ranch'). In 1997, Julio and Amalia purchased the property, and they began planting the same year. Today, there are three vineyards on 55 acres, planted mainly to the five Bordeaux red varieties, with a sprinkling of Chardonnay and Muscat and a tiny amount of Riesling. Julio and Amalia are the guiding forces behind Palmaz Vineyards, but the day-to-day is handled by their daughter Florencia Palmaz, who is director of marketing, and their son, Christian Palmaz, director of operations. Tina Mitchell is the winemaker, assisted by consulting winemaker Mia Klein. Although the estate is large by Napa standards, Julio Palmaz did not want to use land for winery buildings that could otherwise be used for vines, so he designed a four-level, underground, gravity-flow winery built into the mountain's rock. In September, when I drove up to the winery, the special quiet of a warm day in wine country was punctuated by multiple tapping sounds that I soon discovered came from an industrious group of 16 stone cutters, from Guanajuato, Mexico, who were shaping each stone, captured from the mountain excavation, to finish the walls and façade of the winery. The entrance was imposing, yet I became aware that the truly eye-popping part of the Palmaz Vineyards winery is hidden deep inside Mount George. Essentially, the winery is four caves stagger-stacked on top of each other, spanning the equivalent of a 15-story building. The staggered levels are rotated along the axis of the elevator shaft, which helps to offset pressure centered in one spot. As the grapes arrive at level 4, they are fed into a crusher-stemmer and then dropped through a hatch to the level below. Between levels 3 and 4 are two intermediate levels that are contained within the fermentation dome, with no outside access. Crushed red grapes are dropped through the level 4 hatch into one of 24 stainless steel tanks on a massive carousel on level 3.75. When white grapes are crushed, the carousel is aligned to bypass the tanks and a long Teflon sock is attached to the hatch, allowing the grape clusters to drop directly into the press on level 3.5, by-passing the fermenting carousel. Fanning out from the fermentation dome is a series of tunnels, arrayed like spokes in a wheel, housing the year-one barrel storage, while directly below, on level 2, is a second wheel-and-spoke arrangement for year two and three barrel storage. The winery's own water treatment plant and bottling line are directly below on level 1. Connecting all of these levels is a honeycomb of tunnels stairwells and an elevator. Standing on the balcony peering down at the fermentation dome and tank carousal, I couldn't help thinking that this amazing one-of-a-kind winery looks like something straight out of Stars War. The question remained, however: are the wines as impressive as the elaborate and unique facility? Palmaz is a Cabernet-centric winery, producing approximately 5,000 cases, the majority of which are comprised of Palmaz Cabernet Sauvignon, a reserve-class 'Gaston' Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cedar Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon (the latter being an homage to Henry Hagen's original brand, which during its time in the late 19th century was one of the Napa Valley's major wines). The winemaking process at Palmaz is premised on the notions that gravity flow means finer texture and being gentle to the fruit yields a better wine. The grapes are all estate-grown, and areprocessed only in small quantities that can be managed with hands-on attention and moved solely by gravity flow, using no augers or belts. Only French oak is used. The Cedar Knoll, Palmaz and Palmaz-Gaston Cabernets are differentiated by subtle nuances in blending (involving Merlot or Cabernet Franc), aging periods, and percentages of new oak. Complementing the two Palmaz Cabernets is a small quantity of barrel-fermented, limited distribution Chardonnay. Tiny amounts of Riesling and Muscat Canelli are made in an air-conditioned side tunnel, and there's also an estate-produced olive oil, these three are available only at the winery. Tours of the Palmaz winery, conducted by one of the family members, are available by appointment only. For more information and a look at the layout of this astonishing winery, go to www.palmazvineyards.com Cedar Knoll Vineyard (Palmaz Vineyards), Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($35): This blend of Cabernet Sauvignon is crafted is in the fruit-forward style, with 7% Merlot and nicely integrated French oak (aged 17 months, with 50% new barrels). Less fleshy than some Napa Cabernets, the Cedar Knoll offers bright cherry-berry flavors and nicely integrated, refined tannins. The wine finishes a little shy but has substantial fruit, allowing for at least 3-5 years more development. 89 Palmaz Vineyards, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 ($100): The Palmaz Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with 5% Merlot and aged for 22 months in French oak, 70% of it new. The aromatics are subdued, with hints of ripe blackberry and toasted oak. The flavors are richly textured with hints of mocha and blackberry, supported by firm, refined tannins, good acidity, and impressive length. There's a lot of potential here, and patience will be rewarded by a more complex, structured wine. 90 Palmaz Vineyards, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($100): A 14% measure of Cabernet Franc added bright blueberry and herbal notes to this complex wine. A full 28 months in French oak, 50% new, was used to complement the fruit. The nose is still tight and the flavors are lean, with noticeable acidity. Dark fruits, herbal notes, and lots of spicy French oak work nicely together. Give it more time and this wine should develop well. 89 Palmaz Vineyards, Napa Valley (California) Cabernet Sauvignon 'Gaston' 2002 ($120): Named for the Palmaz son, Christian Gaston, this is comprised entirely of Cabernet Sauvignon that was aged for 28 months in French oak, 50% of it being new. The color is deep and inky and the nose is bright, with hints of blackberry, tobacco and toasted oak. The flavors are richly textured, deep, and concentrated, with nicely integrated fine tannins. This is a supple wine with ripe tannins and plenty of fruit. Made by Randy Dunn, Palmaz's first consultant, the Gaston is a wine made only in outstanding years, such as 2005, which will be the next release.
After nearly decade of planning, one of the most incredible winemaking facilities in Napa Valley officially opens its doors to visitors this week. Palmaz Vineyards opens to the public by appointment only. Family members will personally conduct tours and tastings. Located just a few miles east of the town of Napa in the proposed Tulocay AVA, the facility features four levels of caves and domes carved from the living rock at the base of Mount George in the Vaca Range. From top to bottom, the winery spans the equivalent of an 18-story building, though the building blends into the Napa Valley countryside with native stone quarried directly from the site. Gravity flow facilities are not that uncommon these days. The concept is that the wine is never subjected to the violent agitation of pumping and that gentle treatment allows nuances of flavor to develop naturally for complex, elegant wine. The Palmaz facility, however, is one of a kind, taking gravity flow to a whole new level. At 72 feet in diameter and 54 feet tall, the winery's "fermentation dome" is said to be the world's largest underground-reinforced structure. The surrounding earth keeps the ambient temperature at a constant 60 degrees and the humidity at 88 percent. Also of note is the winery's carousel of movable stainless steel fermentation tanks--the only one of its kind in the world. The cave, which was built by Angwin-based Glen Ragsdale Underground Associates, even houses its own water treatment plant built for conservation purposes. All of these features are tools thought to gives the winemaking team --Tina Mitchell and consultant, Mia Klein--the tools they need in their efforts to showcase unique terroir. Julio Palmaz developed the heart stent used to open arteries clogged by cholesterol. Julio and Amalia Palmaz purchased the abandoned winery and vineyards in 1997 and immediately began clearing and replanting the property. At the same time they began planning, designing and constructing the winery and eventually finished construction during the summer of 2007. Palmaz' first vintage was 2001. Palmaz has three separate estate vineyards located at 400, 1200 and 1400 feet above sea level. Vineyards are planted primarily with Cabernet Sauvignon accompanied by small lots of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec for blending. Palmaz Vineyards is located at 4029 Hagen Road, Napa, CA 94558, www.palmazvineyards.com. Click here to view entire article in a new window.
You know how the song goes from The Sound of Music: “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens” and so on. It is not a list of the very best. It is not momentous. It is a list of Maria’s favorites, and generally they are modest, simple, intimate and personal (admittedly with a saccharine aftertaste). If you’re planning to visit Napa Valley, there is no shortage of guidebooks that will help you plan your trip and point you to “the best.” What follows is more of a “whiskers on kittens” selection; we love the splendor of Meadowood and the thrill of a balloon ride, the Hess collection must be experienced to be believed, and who would deny that Silver Oak sipped at the winery is a sublime experience indeed? None of these are overrated. What we’re endeavoring to honor are activities and destinations that might fly under the guidebook reader’s radar. What follows is not “better” or “more cutting edge” or anything else. It’s just our favorites. Palmaz (707.226.5587; www.palmazvineyards.com) and Jarvis (800.255.5280; www.jarviswines.com) are both huge wineries built totally underground. Palmaz is the equivalent of 14 stories from top to bottom; Jarvis has an underground creek and hidden rooms full of giant amethysts...Daryl Sattui’s Castello di Amorosa (707.942.8200; www.castellodiamorosa.com) is an incredible Tuscan-style castle; the towers and ramparts look across the Valley at Sterling’s Cretan monastery. There are those who will see it as a step toward Disneyfication, but it’s really the inevitable culmination of the trend that began with the Beringer Brothers building a Rhine House to remind them of their homeland. www.winemag.com
Even if you've been in wine caves before, nothing can prepare you for Palmaz Vineyards' 100,000 square foot underground winery.
By far the largest in Napa Valley, it stretches the equivalent of 18 stories underground from top to bottom. It has four levels, each with separate entrances; one level is an incredible five-store high dome.
The winery is dug into a hillside east of Napa and just under Mount George. It's on 600 acres owned by Dr. Julio Palmaz and his wife Amalia.
In 1978, the Palmazes came to Napa Valley, and in 1996, they bought the forgotten Cedar Knoll Winery, founded in 1881 by one of Napa Valley's pioneer winemakers, Henry Hagen. During Hagen's time, Cedar Knoll was one of Napa's premier wineries and its wines were renowned.
Cedar Knolls' vineyards survived the phylloxera infestation in the 1890s, but Prohibition proved fatal to the business. The winery fell into disrepair and the vineyards were abandoned for nearly 80 years.
The Palmazes restored the impressive old Hagen mansion and their small stone winery while planning new vineyards and the underground winery.
Construction began in 2000. It turned into quite a project, admits Amalia Palmaz. "It wasn't our intention to make it this large. It just evolved," she said. The winery should open to the public on a very limited scale this year. The cave is being built by Angwin-based Glen Ragsdale Underground Associates.
The scope of the cave made construction challenging, especially the digging of the giant underground fermentation dome. The dome is the world's largest underground reinforced structure.
"The challenge for this project was that it is a very large span in weak rock with shallow cover," said Sarah Holtz, a senior engineer with Jacobs Associates, the San Francisco-based firm overseeing the project.
Palmaz, an interventional radiologist and researcher, developed the heart stent used to open arteries clogged by cholesterol. His innovation and attention to sanitation is apparent throughout his winery as well.
The cave dome is 54 feet high by 72 feet wide, cut out of soft lahar flow rock. It consists of fresh andesite boulders in a matrix of highly weathered rhyolite. The dome is supported by 16 feet long, threaded steel rods 1 inch in diameter and a shotcrete lining reinforced with welded wire fabric.
The dome ceiling was finished with hand trowels for a smooth finish to permit movies to be projected on it and was coated with epoxy so it can be pressure cleaned for sanitation.
The floors are tile, and ubiquitous drains allow cleaning. All water is recycled in an underground water-treatment plant to comply with strict conservation guidelines.
The winery maintains a total gravity flow. Grapes arrive on the top level in small bins, pass from the destemmer through a long sorting table manned by six people, then drop to one of 23 fermentation tanks on a rotating carousel 18 feet above the floor. Below them is the press and blending and storage tanks on the bottom floor of the dome, with tunnels used for first-year barrel storage radiating like spokes to an outer circular tunnel.
A large industrial elevator that holds a squat portable tank is used to move wine and other loads to a lower level where the wine is aged a second year. All barrels are stored only one high on stainless racks; the only wood in the winery is the barrels as a precaution against tri-chloroanisole or TCA, the musty compound that makes wines taste "corked."
The caves have a slight slope for evacuating carbon dioxide, but also contain an automatic back-up system to remove excess CO2, but it hasn't triggered after three vintages.
There's also a separate refrigerated arm of the cave to ferment white wines in barrels at a cooler temperature than used for red wines.
The top floor of the underground complex includes offices with windows drilled through the rock, a tasting room, lab and offices. The facility also includes its own bottling line and passenger and freight elevators. The winery has a permit for 14,000 cases (35,000 gallons) of wine per year.
Of course, a winery without grapes is nothing. Palmaz's vines grow in more than 14 different blocks at three elevations on the slopes of Mount George. Their foundation is base rock laid down during the Pliocene volcanic age. The vineyard geography ranges from steep slopes with shallow nutrient-poor soils, which produce concentrated grapes, to stony colluvial deposits made up of cobbles, gravel and sandy loam. Variations of soil type, sun exposure and elevation produce a a wide range of flavors.
The vineyard is planted primarily with cabernet sauvignon, plus some small blocks of merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc, which are used as blending components for Palmaz wines. Each block is fermented separately, allowing the winemaker to blend wine to satisfy his palate. The winery's production is primarily cabernet, which sells for $100 a bottle. A second label called Cedar Knoll is $45.
Palmaz also produces small amounts of chardonnay, muscat canelli and riesling primarily for its own use. These latter wines are available only at the winery.
Palmaz offers tours and occasional charitable benefits at the Palmaz mansion, rich in local history. For more information, call 226-5587.
Memorial & Biographical History of Northern California, The Lewis Publishing Co., 1891 HENRY HAGEN proprietor of Cedar Knoll, the beautiful country place about four miles north of Napa, has been a resident of California since 1852. He purchased Cedar Knoll thirteen years ago, when a vineyard of thirty acres, with a wine cellar. Mr. Hagen has added to and beautified it until it is now a summer paradise, even for California. There are 440 acres in the ranch, comprising hill and rolling land, and valuable water privileges. There are now sixty acres in vineyard. He had at one time 125 acres in vineyard, but it was destroyed by the phylloxera, and he has since been planting resistant stocks, which he proposes to continue till the entire acreage above referred to has been replaced. He plants the Riparia and LeNoir, grafting them with the Riesling, Chasselas and others of the choicest varieties of grapes. Some of these resistant vines are bearing very satisfactorily. He has a family orchard of some four acres surrounding the house, and containing almost every variety of fruit. There is on the place a winery, distillery and several wine cellars, with a storing capacity of about 100,000 gallons. All the accessories which can add to comfort, convenience and elegance are to be found on this model ranch. A park of three acres, with a stream of water running through it all the year around, contains twenty-three deer and fawns. There are three fishponds: one for trout, one for carp, and the other for black bass. A swimming pond, oval in shape, 110 feet long by thirty wide, four feet deep at one end and eight feet at the other, is cemented into the rock. This is fed by a constantly running stream, and affords the finest bathing facilities in summer. Oranges, lemons, bananas and vines are doing well, the trees at this writing being loaded with fruit. An iron spring has been discovered on the place this summer, which adds therapeutic virtues to the beauties of its surroundings. An over-arching bower of cypress shades the graveled avenue from the road to the house. The remainder of the ranch furnishes hay, grain and all the products of a general farm.
We didn’t really know much about the winery we were headed to visit on an unusually wet Saturday June morning in the Napa Valley. Located east of the actual town of Napa, and out a rarely traveled road for those who don’t reside in the neighborhood, we were ill prepared for what we would see after we passed through the iron gate.
At first glance the property looked like many other wine estates, with a restored ranch style house serving as the office and outdoor patios appropriately decorated for picnics, tea parties, and tastings. However, just beyond this beautiful setting sat an incredible expanse of land comprised of two primary areas – one being 28 acres of strategically planted vines designed to make the most of every micro-climate on the foothills of the eastern slopes, and the other rising out of the dirt, and from the mountain, reminiscent of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude without the ice.
For here we could see the soon to be ultra famous caves and underground winery of the Palmaz family, where all winemaking and aging takes place in a maze of tunnels and lofty domes within the living rock of Mount George. The depth of the wine cave is beyond belief – the equivalent of an 18 story building which provides the vertical range needed for true gravity-flow winemaking. What a site to view the numerous steel fermentation tanks set on a carousel so they can be individually moved to below the destemmers to catch the grapes, and later moved again over the press to drop the fermented juice. Producing wine in this manner means the wine is never subjected to the violent agitation of pumping, which can change the liquid’s intra-molecular structure. Palmaz Vineyards feels this gentle treatment allows the finest nuances of flavor to develop naturally, with the result being complex, elegant wines.
It is not insignificant to note that the fermentation dome is, according to the family, the largest underground reinforced structure in the world, being 72 feet in diameter and 54 feet high. And the cave itself houses its own water treatment plant to comply with strict conservation guidelines. The exterior of all of this is enhanced by hand cut stone which also frames the offices and reception rooms presently being created. An amazing project.
We were hosted by the company’s bright and engaging 29 year old President, Florencia Palmaz, and her home-from-college-for-the-summer brother Christian. They are the children of the winery’s 1997 founders, Julio and Amalia Palmaz, he a famed radiologist who invented one of medicine’s most important devices. Besides the vineyards and caves, the Palmaz’ have also restored the old Henry Hagen home, and the winery that once was has been reestablished. It now serves as the wine library with the stone archways set to house Palmaz Vineyards vintages. Family and friends, as well as wine writers and other guests, are able to gather at a massive pine table made from lumber salvaged from an ancient, dying tree on the old Hagen property. Julio built the table and benches in his woodshop. Finally, old winemaking equipment has been restored and sits in the house as a tribute to times gone by.
With all of the above, we held our breaths as we prepared to taste the winery’s first releases. We wanted them to be good, or at least good enough to write about. Well, we need not have worried. All were more than simply good, and some were outstanding.
-2004 Johannisberg Riesling ($32): Palmaz’ production of this varietal gives us a chance to briefly talk about it. In California, winemakers are often now producing high quality, German style Rieslings, which are light, delicate, and slightly to medium sweet. Because the name "Riesling" is used in many ways, it is sometimes difficult to find wines truly made from this variety. In California, for instance, Johannisberg Riesling is the true Riesling, whereas Gray Riesling and Emerald Riesling are actually other varieties. A bottle of California wine labeled simply "Riesling" usually means that the wine is made from one of the lesser varieties, not Johannisberg Riesling. The Palmaz entry is quite good, with overtones of honeysuckle, lemon custard, and cotton candy. Residual sugar measures 1.6. A nice wine for spicy Indian and Thai dishes.
-2002 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($45): Quite smooth for a non malolactic wine, with crisp acidity surrounding peach and pear nuances. The body was impressive, and the sur lee aging and minimal French oak provided lots of layers. Our primary complaint was a bit of a fuel smell on the nose. However, this was corrected with the excellent 2003.
-2003 Russian River Chardonnay ($45): Perhaps doubling the oak plus a year of experience are the reasons this wine shows beautifully. Heavy in tropical fruit and vanilla, there is power on the mid palate even while the delicate acid structure is apparent. And what a finish. Only 111 cases were produced, and that’s a shame.
-2000 Cedar Knoll Vineyard Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon ($45): This Stag’s Leap appellation will become an estate wine next year. Now, it is typical of its growing area with dark fruit up front, good aromatics, and lots of tannins. Chocolate finishes it up.
-2001 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($100): A star in our wine universe, this Cab has a little Merlot, Cab Franc, and Petite Verdot in the mix. The result is a bold, velvet, aromatic, spicy, dark, and balanced bottle of wine with backbone to spare. Every sip is a pleasure.
-2001 “Gaston” Cabernet Sauvignon ($100): Named for Christian (his middle name), this Cab features lots of up front fruit and a pleasant, dry finish. With 30 months in 50% new French oak we would like to have seen a bit more in the middle for this price point, but a worthy first effort nonetheless.
All the wines we sampled were stylish, as is the entire Palmaz family. Our tasting was held on that beautiful pine table and accompanied by various h’ors deuvres each designed to compliment one of the wines. There was a glass for every wine, a pen for notes, and informative commentary from Florencia. All in all, over two hours of delight.
For the following two days we communicated the “wonders of the rock” to vintners up and down the Valley. It became apparent that most could not yet identify the name Palmaz, though they had heard rumors about the underground structure. This lack of recognition won’t last long, as in California the production of good wines is a rapid way to earn respect. Couple that with style and the creation of one of the Valley’s wonders, and Palmaz will soon be the talk of the town.
One of the most prodigious projects in recent wine country history is nearing completion 50 ft. beneath a rolling, lush hill in the middle of the picturesque Napa Valley.
There, with the sweet scent of fermenting grapes in the air, the elaborate 100,000-sq.-ft. Palmaz Wine Cave is taking shape below grade.
“The challenge for this project was that it is a very large span in weak rock with shallow cover,” said Sarah C. Holtz, a senior engineer with Jacobs Associates, the San Francisco-based design firm overseeing construction of the project. “The wine cave dome is 50-ft. high by 75-ft. wide in soft rock.”
The rock is called lahar flow. It consists of fresh andesite boulders in a matrix of highly weathered rhyolite. An 8.-ft.-wide walkway encircles the inner edge of the mushroom-shaped dome and is elevated 18 ft. above the invert. Ground support for the dome consists of 16-ft.-long, 1-in.-diameter steel- threadbar rock dowels and a shotcrete lining reinforced with welded wire fabric.
Holtz, who joined Jacobs four years ago, said that because of the excavation’s size and the rock’s low strength, maintaining stable openings during sequential excavation and support—and design of the lining—were “tricky.” Unconfined compressive strength for the rock was in the range of 300 to 600 psi.
“The shallow, sloping cover meant that rock arching could not be relied on to contribute to support, and the geometry of the mushroom-shaped dome meant that predicted stresses had to be carefully analyzed,” she added.
Because of the geometric complexities and the associated excavation sequencing, numerical modeling was employed for analysis, Holtz said.
Jacobs Associates' design included construction sequencing and ground support details using construction aspects of the New Austrian Tunneling Method, also known as the Sequential Excavation Method.
Currently, there are about 100 wine caves in Napa County. With minimum price tags starting at more than $1 million (Palmaz Wine Cave officials declined to disclose the cost of their facility), it’s easy to imagine the amount of extravagance involved.
Some caves possess state-of-the-art sound systems, limestone libraries, heated floors, specialty kitchens and church-like vaulted ceilings. Others boast elevators, Italian marble statues, private dining rooms, ancient mural depictions and wrought-iron chandeliers. There is even one with a stream and waterfall. Construction on the Palmaz Wine Cave began in May 1999.
When it opens in about 12 months, it is expected to handle and produce about 35,000 gallons of wine per season. Amenities will include windows punched through the hillside, a tasting room, bottling line, water treatment plant, offices, an elevator and a dome ceiling finished with hand trowels to permit movie projection.
Owned by Amelia and Julio Palmaz, the wine cave will be the largest in the county. “It wasn’t our intention to make it this large. It just evolved,” Amelia Palmaz told the San Jose Mercury News this past April.
A spokesperson for the Palmaz Winery said in late August that due to the “current harvest rush,” the owners were not available for comment.
The cave is being built by Angwin-based contractor Glen Ragsdale Underground Associates.
This project involved the design and construction sequencing of a 50-foot high by 75-foot wide wine cave. The cave was constructed as a dome in lahar that consisted of fresh andesite boulders in a matrix of highly weathered rhyolite. Cover over the dome is sloping and relatively shallow, with an average cover of approximately 45 feet. Jacobs Associates' design included construction sequencing and ground support details using construction aspects of the New Austrian Tunneling Method (NATM). Ground support for the dome consisted of 16-foot long, 1-inch diameter steel threadbar rock dowels and a shotcrete lining reinforced with welded wire fabric.
Jacobs Associates was also responsible for geotechnical characterization, which consisted of examination and mapping of existing pilot tunnels and surface outcrops, observation of percussive drilling at the ground surface, and laboratory testing of rock materials taken from within the pilot tunnels. An instrumentation and monitoring program was implemented to measure ground and tunnel lining displacements. Both Multiple Point Borehole Extensometers and lining convergence measurements were utilized.
01.06.05 - Here are the picks from 27 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons (more than $50) from 1999, 2000 and 2001
Comments: Ripe, rich cherry, violet, mint and smoke on nose; blackberry, plum, black olive, tobacco and cocoa flavors; nice, long, toasty finish. A quite tannic, powerful young wine.
Comments: Nose of creosote, licorice, barnyard, berries; candied plum, blackberry, coffee and loads of oak on palate; complex and expressive; rough around edges.
Comments: Ripe, juicy fruit, toasty oak, chocolate, mint, pencil lead and barnyard aromas; dark chocolate, plum and blackberry flavors; supple tannins. Very low production.
Comments: Very good. Aromas and flavors of black cherry, black plum, licorice, prune, fig, coffee, tobacco and creamy vanilla; nice acidity; a powerhouse but holds balance.
Comments: Excellent and a panel favorite. Deep nose and flavors of blackberry pie, black cherry, cocoa, hint of pine; soft, lush mouthfeel; nice texture; bright acidity.
Comments: Very good. Nose of cherry cola, black olive, herb, leather and oak; smooth flavors of blueberry and black cherry; dense texture; long finish. Low production.
Comments: Black fruit, cigar box and barnyard aromas; concentrated flavors of black cherry, blackberry, cassis, raspberry; smooth and supple; lingering finish. Low production.
Comments: Very good. Anise, cherry, cedar, bacon and tobacco on nose; full- flavored raspberry, blackberry and dark chocolate palate; big and rich; firm tannins. Low production.
Comments: Very good. Ripe but subtle aromas of black fruit, spice, cocoa, cedar, earth and leather; similar flavors plus licorice, chocolate; great structure -- will age.
Comments: Excellent and a panel favorite. Berry pie, vanilla and toast nose; raspberry, cherry, cassis, licorice and chocolate flavors; firm, supple tannins. Low production.
Comments: Nose of brandied cherry, plum and vanilla; blueberry, raspberry, dark chocolate and bell pepper flavors; good mouthfeel and texture. Limited production.
Comments: Nose of blueberry, herb, toast, eucalyptus and barnyard; cherry, bittersweet chocolate and dill flavors; a huge wine with big fruit and big tannins. Limited production.
Comments: Eucalyptus, black fruit, oak and spice aromas and flavors; soft and smooth with polished tannins; thinner, less concentration, red bell pepper notes on finish.
Comments: Very good. Nose of plum, mulberry, earth, saddle leather and eucalyptus with lush plum, cassis, blueberry, blackberry and licorice flavors; firm tannins.
Comments: Very good. Pretty black cherry, oak and vanilla aromas with hints of tobacco and cedar; silky flavors of sweet ripe blackberry, cassis, black cherry, spice; firm tannins.
Comments: Cherry cola nose with blueberry, cedar and ripe cherry aromas and flavors; soft on palate, velvety but with sufficient tannins; oak evident on finish.
Comments: Very good. Fresh, lively nose of black cherry, cassis, plum, tobacco and toast; vanilla, chocolate-covered cherry and black olive flavors; smooth, seamless; long, juicy finish.
Comments: Very good. Candied cherry, coffee, lavender, chocolate-cherry and raspberry nose; cassis, black plum, blackberry and beefy soy flavors; nice chewy tannins; acidity on finish.
Comments: Pomegranate, cinnamon, earth, eucalyptus, toast and a little greenness and barnyard on nose; flavors of juicy red fruit, blueberry and mocha; soft and smooth; well-integrated.
Comments: Pretty nose of cassis, pine and cedar with slightly sweet aromas of vanilla and coconut; ripe, dense black fruit flavors with chocolate and cherry. Limited production.
Panelists: Nicole Burke, sommelier and wine director, Viognier Restaurant, San Mateo; Drea Dedona, assistant manager, Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, San Francisco; Denise Johnson, general manager, Napa Valley Winery Exchange, San Francisco; Linda Murphy, wine editor, The Chronicle; Susan Pey, consulting wine director, Il Fornaio Restaurants, San Anselmo. Wines listed are generally available but may not be in all stores.Start with local wine merchants, but also try larger stores and wineries.
[An excerpt] Three of the most recent additions to Napa Valley — Colgin, Bryant and Palmaz — magnify their respective owners’ individual tastes when it comes to design. For Ann Colgin the winery is a literal extension of her lifestyle. She lives within steps of her winery. Colgin’s winery is an elaborate estate with the rustic look of an old water tower. It’s spacious inside, utilizing gravity flow to move the wines.
Bryant Family Vineyard sits at the top of a 15-acre Cabernet vineyard in the hills east of Napa Valley. Like Colgin Bryant enjoys a panoramic view of the valley and Lake Hennessey through its large glass windows.
There are plenty of tiny wineries, too. Grace Family Vineyard, north of St. Helena, was one of the early cottage chateaus, but few are smaller or quainter than Jean Phillips’ Screaming Eagle winery, a stone-covered fermentation room with five little tanks. Phillips ages her famous Cabernet in a tiny cave, too, below the winery, transferring the wine downhill into barrels through a hose. Once crush is over, her machinery is tucked away neatly in a nearby barn.
Much of Napa Valley is abuzz about two new wineries, Vineyard 29 and Palmaz, and no wonder.
Vineyard 29’s owner, Chuch McMinn, is self-described “high tech” and “start-up” junkie who heads Covad Communications, a high-speed DSL provider. His design not only incorporates gravity flow but is energy self-sufficient, utilizing two microturbine engines, for instance, to create heating and cooling elements in the winery. One of the ways McMinn moves his wines is by elevator. Once a fermentation tank has been emptied into a belowground tank, that tank is lifted above those by the elevator and the wine is allowed to return to the fermentation tank via gravity flow.
Palmaz is an amazing undertaking. The winery, owned by Amalia and Julio Palmaz and located in the Coombsville area of Napa, is 17 stories tall, built into a hillside and subdivided into six floors. Palmaz conducted its first crush last year, having the grapes delivered to the top floor. After being crushed, the must flows into a series of computer-controlled stainless steel tanks that rotate under the crusher on a rail. From there, the wine descends to a third floor in larger tanks, and then down to two levels of barrel aging. On the bottom level is a bottling line.
Once you’ve seen one bottling line, you’ve seen them all. But once you’ve seen the likes of many of Napa’s architectural delights, you’ll be hard-pressed to say you’ve seen anything quite like them. Just remember the inner workings are pretty much the same as they’ve alway been. So far, no one’s come up with anything better than gravity flow to move wine from crusher to tank to barrel—and frankly, no one expects to.
Robert Sinskey Vineyards built by Nordby Wine CavesGood wines love a well-built cave, and who could blame them? Damp, cool, safe and still—they're an unmatched recipe for aging toward perfection. But wait, the scene has shifted — mankind is taking vino-culture underground.
Today, new world wine caves are all the rage. More than one hundred exist throughout Napa and Sonoma counties, making the California Wine Country the most densely "tunneled" place on earth. Wine caves come in all shapes, sizes, and ages from cavernous to downright snug, from linear to spoked, from over-the-top ornate to simple and utilitarian. Winemakers agree that caves are the ultimate in wine storage. The constant cool temperature, high humidity, relatively still air and darkness make for happy, profitable wines down the road.
In addition, a growing number of wineries are constructing entire winemaking facilities underground, not just for aging barrels and bottles, but as offices, tasting rooms, banqueting halls, laboratories, bottling lines! "Wine-cave envy," may be surpassing Wine Spectator ratings; some wineries seem to be trying to outdo their competitors by creating larger, lower, deeper and more opulent spaces than ever before.
Why Wine Caves?
New cave construction has become very popular for a variety of reasons. "Caves make good economic sense," says Glen Ragsdale, one of the leading building contractors, whose company has built many of the wine caves throughout the wine country. "There are vastly reduced energy costs, no heating, no air conditioning, and the constant temperature and humidity saves between three to six percent of wine evaporation per year." This amount can add up to substantial savings. Wine caves retain an average temperature of between 55 and 60 degrees, and an average relative humidity of 75 percent, which assists with winemaking quality control. The interior of a cave presents absolutely perfect conditions for the creation and preservation of wine. It is estimated that within seven years, wine cave owners will realize a return on their investment due, as compared to owners of above-ground facilities.
There are many non-wine reasons wineries are constructing new facilities below ground. "The county likes caves," says Paul Frommel, former Director of New Project Development for Nordby Wine Caves, speaking about Napa. "There are no view-shed problems, and they'd rather have you go subterranean than build a new above ground structure." Furthermore, agricultural land is preserved, and a minimal footprint left on the land is a huge advantage caves have over above-ground facilities. In fact, many wineries have grape vines growing directly on top of caves. Neighbors rarely complain about new caves, because little is visible to the public, after the construction phase is completed. Another plus is that caves virtually last forever, using extremely durable materials including concrete, stone, no wood, and have constant temperatures and humidity.
PALMAZ: Hearst Castle of the Wine Country
The Xanadu of wine caves
The Palmaz caves are something altogether different. Giant eucalyptus trees herald visitors into the property. This, the Xanadu of wine caves, is something to behold, and will be worth a visit, if you can get in, when it opens sometime in late 2004. "The initial plan, was to make a complete, gravity flow facility underground," says Glen Ragsdale, Palmaz' cave builder, and owner of Ragsdale Underground Associates. The project may have gotten out of hand.
Still, seeing this incredible undertaking is like being inside the Channel while under construction. Palmaz's tunnels are being dug on four intertwined levels, with more than 140 feet between the highest and lowest levels. Palmaz is even constructing a special waste water treatment plant (as demanded by the county) to have a zero water impact on the surrounding community. This future winery, off Hagen Road, is scheduled to open in 2004, and will have 50,000 square feet entirely underground. This $25 million project will hopefully produce superlative wines. The elevator burrowing some 18 stories deep into the bedrock will be the largest (though underground) in all of Napa County.
Palmaz will also house an 8,000-square-foot car museum, complete with over 40 rare racing Porsches, all belonging to winery owner, Dr. Julio Palmaz. "This will add to the ambience," chuckles Glen Ragsdale.
The Dome Room at Palmaz is perhaps its most auspicious engineering feat. The underground space is 55 feet high and 75 feet wide, and holds 24 large fermentation tanks, the upper 12 supported on an amazing, mechanical lazy-susan type device. A computer controlled, gravity feed system drops the grapes gently into the proper tank below. When properly filled, the next tank rotates into place.
Bob Ecker is a freelance writer and photographer residing in Napa. His work has been published in the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Miami Herald, Gusto Magazine, Spirit of Aloha Magazine, Wines & Vines and numerous other publications. Ecker is also the Napa/Sonoma editor for Gayot.
Gaze out at the never-ending expanse of lush vineyards, and you'd never guess that the hillsides in Napa and Sonoma wine country are like so much Swiss cheese.
Burrowed below are immense human-made caverns, million-dollar architectural marvels designed not only to make and age thousands upon thousands of wine barrels in a naturally cool, humid environment, but also to foster both work and play in extraordinary style.
Picture caves dazzling enough to host weddings and swanky dinners, with cathedral-like domed ceilings, chandeliers, heated floors, state-of-the-art-stereo systems, catering kitchens, private dining rooms, libraries, theaters, marble statues, waterfalls and handpainted murals of knights on horseback. Picture caves enormous enough to contain every aspect of wine-making, from crush to bottling, as well as a private collection of 40 antique race cars.
Picture that, and you'll get an idea of what lies below in the 100 or so caves in Napa and Sonoma, a region with one of the highest concentrations of wine caves in the world. Almost a quarter of the 450 or so wineries in Napa and Sonoma now have caves. Most were built only in the past 22 years, with the majority costing $1 million or more. They have spawned a whole new building industry in California, with seven contractors who specialize in the extremely heavy work. And more caves are under way. In fact, one major Napa Valley wine cave builder has a two-year waiting list.
"We always planned on caves," says Shari Staglin, owner of Staglin Family Vineyard in Rutherford, whose entire wine-making operation is housed in an unusually brightly lit 24,000-square-foot cave that was completed last year. "It's so much more environmentally friendly. You don't see it, hear it or smell it. You don't even know it's here."
"Plus, it's just so romantic," says Dirk Hampton, winemaker for Far Niente in Oakville, who helped design that winery's caves. They were built in 1980, the first in North America since the turn of the century.
Part of the appeal of caves is their timelessness. In the days of the Roman Empire, Romans stored wine in catacombs. Today, there are wine caves in Europe, New Zealand, Oregon and Central California.
In the Napa Valley, the oldest caves can be found at Schramsberg sparkling winery in Calistoga, followed by Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena. Dating to the late 1800s, both were constructed by Chinese laborers who built the transcontinental railroad. Resembling gold mines, these hand-cut tunnels were forged by pick and shovel, and the dirt carried out in woven baskets. Unlike modern wine caves with their smooth finishes, these have rough-hewn walls that still bear pick marks.
A new age of wine caves was ushered in after Gil Nickel bought the historic Far Niente winery in 1979. He found a stone archway in the west wall of the cellar where wine caves were supposed to have been chiseled into the solid rock. But Prohibition forced the closure of the winery before excavation could begin. After touring the cellars, caves and basements in the great wine regions of Europe and studying their advantages, Nickel was intent on making Far Niente's caves a reality.
For one thing, caves are cost efficient. A standard cave costs about $100 per square foot to build, compared to upward of $250 a square foot for an above-ground warehouse. Because air conditioning is usually unnecessary except for underground offices, a cave also results in lower utility bills. And because of its parabolic shape with intrinsically strong bowl-shaped arches and layers of reinforced concrete, vintners say, a cave is far safer in an earthquake than an above-ground structure. Although collapses can occur during construction, they are uncommon and have rarely resulted in injury, says cave builder Glen Ragsdale.
In the wine country, where property owners and builders face stringent building regulations, as well as the wrath of neighbors intent on protecting cherished views, getting approval to build underground is usually far easier than for above-ground facilities, vintners say.
But that's precisely what worries some people. Chris Malan, an executive officer of the Sierra Club's Redwood chapter, which includes Napa and Sonoma counties, explains that since the state Department of Mines and Geology issues the permits for the digging of caves, it is very difficult for the public to get involved in the process without going to Sacramento each time a cave is approved.
"It really takes the public review out of the county and puts it at the state level," she says. "You can imagine the massive amounts of dirt from these projects. But the sediment and erosion control is being managed out of the county. It's a problem."
Wine cave owners, though, contend that building structures underground preserves space above ground to plant more vineyards. In Far Niente's case, it allowed for the expansion of its 1885 stone winery without marring its historic nature.
Caves, with their still environments and year-round temperature of about 60 degrees, also are ideal places to age wine. Wines are kept at a constant temperature even in scorching summers. Corks and empty wine barrels don't dry out. With their consistent 90 percent humidity, caves retard wine evaporation. Indeed, a winery could lose one bottle of wine per month per barrel through evaporation in an air-conditioned warehouse, says wine cave builder Alf Burtleson.
When it comes to taste, is a cave-aged wine naturally more palate-pleasing? Not necessarily. "If you stored one bottle in a bad place and another in a cave, I'm sure you could tell the difference," says master sommelier Larry Stone of San Francisco's Rubicon restaurant. "If you stored it in an environment with very good air-conditioning, you probably couldn't. A cave is more of a guarantee that the wine has been ideally stored, so it may help increase the value of the wine."
Those were the benefits Nickel was after when he started construction on the caves that would house his Far Niente chardonnay and cabernet, and Dolce dessert wines. Nobody was building wine caves in 1980, so Nickel turned to Burtleson, who had extensive experience constructing drainage, telephone, reservoir and flood-control tunnels for Bay Area cities.
Because utility tunnels are far narrower, Burtleson needed new equipment -- a roadheader, a British mining machine that's like a gigantic drill, with a 20-foot-long arm fitted with carbide teeth. Once his four-person team excavates an area, the walls and ceilings are sprayed with shotcrete, a smooth, concrete-like substance that hardens into a strong shell to help support the tunnel.
Far Niente's owners could have stopped there. However, they wanted something not only practical, but artful. That's why the 40,000-square-foot cave has a three-tiered wrought-iron candelabra dangling from the center of it. And why there's an octagonal library inside, complete with handcarved grape cluster on the ceiling, and a limestone fountain, a sculpture of a monk cradling a wine barrel with water spurting out of the bung hole.
Back then, there was nothing like it. Now, "there's a friendly rivalry among certain people who build caves," says Burtleson, who has constructed nothing but wine caves since 1986. "They want to outdo one another."
And how. At Calistoga's Paoletti Winery, small alcoves throughout the cave showcase 22 marble statues from Italy. They depictwinery owner Gianni Paoletti's heroes, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Ronald Reagan. At Jarvis Winery in Napa, its 45,000-square-foot cave features a stream and waterfall running through the center of the underground winery. And in the western foothills north of St. Helena, Darryl Sattui of V. Sattui Winery is boring through earth and rock to create a $6 million-plus castle andwinery, complete with a 21,000-square-foot cave, three floors of wine cellars and even a medieval torture chamber to show off his collection of maces and manacles.
Then, there's the multi-million-dollar Palmaz Family Winery in Napa. Contractor Glen Ragsdale Underground Associates Inc. has been digging for almost three years. There's still a year to go. The four-level cave will be massive enough to house offices, the entirewinery including its own water treatment plant, a collection of antique race cars and two 12-story elevators. The centerpiece is a 55-foot tall, 75-foot wide, mosque-like dome that took a year alone to excavate and was chronicled in the scientific journal, "Rock Mechanics in the National Interest."
" It wasn't our intention to make it this large. It just evolved," says Amalia Palmaz, who runs a Texas gourmet food company and owns the winery with her husband, Julio Palmaz, a world-renowned cardiovascular surgeon. "If someone tries to outdo it, that's great. Then I won't feel so guilty anymore."
If Amalia Palmaz sometimes has to pinch herself over her palatial wine cave, so, too, does her contractor, Ragsdale, who only 17 years ago was building sewer tunnels. Since then, he has dug about 50 wine caves, including ones for Stag's Leap, Pine Ridge, Kunde and Rudd Estate. Not bad, he says with a laugh, for an old country boy whose beverage of choice used to be whiskey or beer.
Thanks to this cave-building frenzy, Ragsdale now finds himself not only a wine aficionado and hobby winemaker, but privy to a few particularly choice perks.
"I built the Harlan cave," he says proudly of the Oakville winery whose scarce, small-production cabernets can fetch $200 a bottle and up. "It was the only way I got on the mailing list for their wines."
WINE CAVE TOURS
There are about 100 wine caves in Napa and Sonoma, according to wine cave builders. Only some are open to the public. Somewineries offer regular tours of their caves; some also allow rental of their caves for weddings, private dinners or other events. Glen Ragsdale Underground Associates Inc., one of the primary builders of wine caves, maintains a Web site that lists many of the caves in Napa and Sonoma, and whether they are open to the public.
Go to http://www.winecaves.com/palmaz.htm
On May 3 and Aug. 2, the Napa Valley Museum will offer special tours of wine caves, including a few not normally open to the public. Last year, about 200 visitors went on the "Napa Underground: Wine Caves of Napa Valley" tours. Two tours will be offered each of those days. The North Tour will go to Quintessa, S. Anderson Vineyard, Clos Pegase Winery and Staglin Family Vineyard. The South Tour will include Vine Cliff Winery, Pine Ridge Winery, Jarvis Winery and the under-construction Palmaz.
Each tour is limited to 200 people, and includes wine tastings and a picnic lunch. Each tour begins at 8:30 a.m. at the Napa Valley Museum, 55 Presidents Circle, Yountville, and includes transportation to the caves on the tour. The tours are $150 per person (or $275 for both dates), and benefit the Napa Valley Museum. To make a reservation, call (707) 944-0500 extension 100.
For more information, check www.napavalleymuseum.org.
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There are wine caves and then there’s Julio and Amalia Palmaz’s wine cave. It has as much in common with the average wine cave as Disneyland has with a street fair. “This project will probably rival any project in the world,”says cave digger Glen Ragsdale, who is just halfway through the nearly four-year project. When it’s finished, the cave will span about 70,000 square feet and will encompass the entire winemaking process, from grape to crush to bottling. Included will be a 12-story elevator and a 60-foot-high planetariumlike plaster dome thata will serve as a centerpiece. Above: The Palmazes have a glass of wine while checking on progress.