Once you’ve seen the winemaking operations at one winery, you have pretty much seen them all. These days, certain equipment has now become de rigueur for any modern facility: stainless steel tanks with glycol jackets, bladder presses, crusher-destemmers. If you visit enough wineries, you will see these items over and over again, and you may even begin to recognize specific models of each. After a while, the winemaking facility itself can only provide a passing interest to the seasoned visitor (and the focus should be on the wine, not the winery, anyhow). I did discover an exception to this rule, however, when I toured the state-of-the-art facility at Palmaz Vineyards yesterday.
Built into Mt. George on the southern tip of the Vaca Mountain Range, Palmaz Vineyards is an incredible winery, to say the least. The winemaking operations are completely underground, occupying a space that is the equivalent of an 18-story building (the stones from the massive excavation were used for the property’s beautiful masonry). The Palmaz facility was designed to be pump-free, meaning that gravity feeds the wine from one phase to the next. Thus, the crusher-destemmer and the sorting table are located at the top section, with 24 fermentation tanks located below. The tanks are built onto a large carousel, which rotates each tank into position as the grapes from the winery’s 24 lots are brought in from harvest. Once the wine is fermented at the second level, it continues downward an additional level, and into French oak barrels for aging.
Palmaz Vineyards pays incredible attention to detail, beginning with their sorting procedures. Rather than sorting simply by the cluster, the winery also sorts the individual grapes once they have been run through the destemmer. To be sure, this method is a laborious process that only a few other wineries practice. Palmaz also ferments their 24 vineyard lots separately, and during the barrel-aging process, the winery does not mix the wine between barrels during racking. Overall, the gravity-based system itself is thought to have its own benefit, since some winemakers feel that pumps can “bruise” the wine at the molecular level.
Of course, the main reason that Palmaz can afford to take such a meticulous approach to winemaking is that the winery only farms 60 acres on its 600-acre estate (given the mountainous terrain, only 10% of the property is plantable). Fortunately, the wines at Palmaz do reflect the great care that is taken in their production. I tasted a flight of Cabernet Sauvignon yesterday, beginning with their current 2004 release and ending with their 2001 “Gaston” from their inaugural vintage. Each of the four Cabs was very well-made and also very distinct.
I am not usually a proponent of specific flavor descriptors, but I felt that the 2004 Cabernet had a strong element of cocoa powder on the nose, which I enjoyed. The 2004 was probably my favorite wine of the flight, with the 2001 “Gaston” being a close second. The 2004 and 2001 were both very heavy on the Cabernet component, which may suit my tastes at the moment; the wines were 95% Cab-%5 Merlot and 100% Cab, respectively. The 2003 vintage, which was 86% Cab-14% Cab Franc, was also very delicious, with the earthy Cab Franc component being noticeably present. The 2002 vintage was also 86% Cab, but with 5% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot and 2% Cab Franc. I did enjoy the 2002, but the personality of the 2004 ultimately captured my attention.