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The Newest Wonder of the Napa Valley--Palmaz Vineyards

by Sara and Monty Preiser

Preiser’s Reserve: Robert Parker has referred to Robert Biale Vineyards as one of the country’s top two or three Zinfandel producers. While we might not adopt that particular superlative because Zins have such diversity and the preferences of consumers are likewise varied, we do readily say Biale probably produces the most elegant line of Zins on the market. They are not only delicious and varietal representative, but they are the definition of smooth and seamless. This week we had the chance to taste a brand new wine for the winery – one that won’t even be released for a few months. Called “Zappa,” this luscious blend of 65% Zinfandel, 18% Petite Sirah, and 17% Syrah rivals Biale’s established line with gorgeous berries up front that spread down the tongue and into the back of the palate. One sip lasted as long as it took us to write this paragraph (and we assure you that is more than most wines give). We understand this will be priced in the $35 range, so . . . Watch for it!


The Newest Wonder of the Napa Valley

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.


Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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