A Shared Table

For almost nine decades, the Henry Hagen House in Napa, Calif., lay in a state of neglect. Nestled at the foot of Mt. George, the old Victorian manor sat abandoned, presiding over an equally forsaken estate where the old Cedar Knoll Vineyard once operated. Turn-of-the-century farming equipment rusted away, lifeless in the middle of a field of vines. A time capsule of the Great American West, the estate’s future seemed bleak–until the Palmaz family discovered and unearthed its beauty.

words by Carlos Anchondo
photos by M. J. Wickham

The Palmaz family learned of the property when its patriarch, Julio Palmaz, was completing his residency at the University of California, Davis. Julio, the inventor of the Palmaz Coronary Stent, and his wife, Amalia, soon fell in love with the Napa Valley and dreamt of one day opening their own winery in the area. Research for the stent and patent approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration brought the family to San Antonio and the University of Texas Health Science Center. Four years after FDA approval was secured, Julio and Amalia once again set their sights on California and were able to realize their dream of becoming winemakers, opening Palmaz Vineyards in 1996.

Florencia Palmaz ’99, Julio and Amalia’s daughter, remembers the vineyard’s formative years and learning the industry from the ground up.

“Here was this fascinating treasure trove of history that we began to renovate with sensitivity and respect,” says Florencia, director of marketing. “Our approach to the wine industry has always been to understand things technically as well as possible and then translate that knowledge into execution.”

A biology major who once aspired to enter the medical field like her father, Florencia was drawn to every aspect of the winemaking process, particularly production and sales, where she worked tirelessly to establish a place for Palmaz Vineyards. As the winery grew, producing its first vintage in 2001, Florencia says the openness of industry colleagues played a major role in how she and her family learned and improved their craft.

To absorb everything they could about the industry, they employed a charm offensive. Home-cooked meals and shared bottles of wine created the perfect opportunity to invite other vintners and owners to the vineyard, where the dinner table turned competitors into mentors and friends.

Younger brother Christian Palmaz ’07 became involved at the winery at age 13 and always knew that he would one day take a greater role in the family business. In his college search, Christian learned of Trinity geosciences professor Glenn Kroeger and his research with geographic information systems (GIS). Even as a business major, Christian worked closely with Kroeger and applied GIS to the world of wine, measuring the inside of a fermenter through mathematical regression analysis and creating a technology that intimately monitors every moment in the fermentation process. Christian’s fermentation intelligent logic control system (FILCS) is the next generation of his proprietary algorithmic fermentation control system (AFCS).

“FILCS is an extremely advanced computer system that allows our winemakers to have a much broader picture of what is happening with our wine,” Christian says. “We are making a product at the highest level of its ability, the most expensive food product anyone buys, as true to form as possible, and with the best artistic talent in the world.”

Christian is referring to winemakers Tina Mitchell and Mia Klein, who “put their element of art” on the wine. Although he has been criticized by some for sacrificing art in lieu of technology, Christian contends the Palmaz Vineyards uses technology to elevate art. He believes that FILCS allows his winemakers to spend less time with the mundane details and more time infusing their artistic talent into the wine.

As president of Palmaz Vineyards, Christian is in charge of all farming and winemaking operations. He oversees the 64 acres cultivated to grow Palmaz grapes, with three elevations planted to take advantage of each unique microclimate and terroir. An 18-story underground gravity-flow winery, nicknamed “the Cave,” transports these wines through the bedrock of Mt. George. Moving the wine without any contact with pumps does not agitate the wine and thus creates a smoother, silkier, and more mature wine.

“In wine, you really have to marry the subjective and the technical seamlessly,” Florencia says. “Technical knowledge built on a solid foundation allows you to execute the subtleties, textures, and expressions of a truly beautiful wine.”

With almost 20 years of industry experience, Florencia says that she is incredibly impressed with the level of knowledge and sophistication consumers have today. She says that collectors have a great interdisciplinary capacity for taking what they know from their own careers and applying it to both the processes and product aspects of wine. She credits the success of Palmaz Vineyards to always respecting the consumer and being forthright on the deeper subjects of wine.

Customer experience is the chief priority for Jessica Callanan Palmaz ’07, director of hospitality, who met Christian during their first year at Trinity. She went on to earn a marketing degree and joined the winery after their marriage in June 2007. Responsible for all tours, the management of the tasting room, and the Brasas Wine Club operations, Jessica says every guest at the winery comes for a different experience, whether it is to immerse themselves in the deeply technical or simply enjoy a relaxed wine-tasting experience.

Every tour at Palmaz Vineyards is private and includes a guided visit of the winery that follows the journey of the grape from harvest to bottle. Ambassadors then bring guests, normally in groups of two to four, to a tasting with a food and wine pairing.

“Palmaz gives the guest the experience that they are most interested in,” Jessica says. “We treat guests who come to the winery as if they were guests in our home.”

All members of the Palmaz family – Julio, Amalia, Florencia, Christian, Jessica, and their children – live on the 610 acre estate. Every day at noon, Amalia, co-founder and CEO, brings the family together for lunch at the main house, where the family “talks shop” and checks in. Family dinners happen four to five nights per week, and no business is permitted—only quality time.

Florencia, who is co-authoring a two-volume book with Christian titled Tradition, Terroir & Technology and At the Table and Around the Fire, says that bringing the family together around the table is what has made the business and relationships a success. The Palmaz slogan reads, “Love the land, know the grape, and make a wine that honors both.” This has become a mantra for Florencia that makes all the hard work and long days worthwhile.

“It is hard not to love a place that has brought your family together,” Florencia says.

Christian echoes that sentiment, saying that in the grand scheme of things, his family has been able to accomplish what he considers the “ultimate goal.”

“We are able to live, work, be creative, and produce something with family around us,” he says. “It has not always been easy, but the beauty is that we have been working this way my whole life and this is something we can hopefully impart to the third generation. That is the true reward.”