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Fall/Winter 2009

Passion, not Pretense

Palmaz Vineyards reflects the ingenuity and determination of its owner.

By Ethan Fletcher

Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, Julio Palmaz doesn't give the impression of being the millionaire inventor of a medical device that has saved many lives. Just as his Palmaz Vineyards, located virtually unmarked off a windy country road on the outskirts of Napa, doesn't seem all that extraordinary at first glance. But like the winery, which houses one of the most sophisticated underground wine-making operations in the world, Palmaz has more going on than meets the eye.

Trim and youthful looking at 63, Palmaz was born outside of Buenos Aires-his father, a bus driver, used to send the young Julio to the store to fill up glass jugs with wine. After attending medical school in Argentina, he came to the United States in 1977 for his residency at UC Davis, and it was while living in the Bay Area that Palmaz and his wife, Amalia, discovered the magic of Napa Valley.
"I had this little white Triumph Spitfire, and we used to love exploring Wine Country on the weekends," Palmaz recalls.

It was also at Davis that Palmaz first came up with the idea that was to enable the couple to fulfill their fanciful dreams of one day owning their own Napa winery. Interested in medical innovation, Palmaz developed a coronary stent-a miniature collapsible scaffolding expanded by an inflatable balloon that essentially props up clogged arteries.

The relatively simple concept took years of dogged determination to put into practice. Only after Palmaz moved to the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston was he able to patent and, in 1986, license his invention to Johnson & Johnson, which later bought it outright for $500 million. The stent has been recognized as one of the most important medical inventions in modern history and earned Palmaz a spot in the Inventor's Hall of Fame.

Palmaz Vineyards took nearly as much inventiveness. It was originally Amalia's project, and she commuted from their Texas home to scout the 600 acres of overgrown land-a so-called "ghost winery" that sat unused for 80 years-which they ended up purchasing in 1997. Julio got more involved with the project as it became clear that the most efficient use of the property would be to build an underground "gravity flow" wine-making operation into the property's hillside.
Seeming almost embarrassed ("It's really a little crazy," he said at one point during our interview), Julio Palmaz recounts how the excavation kept expanding, until eventually the subterranean structure reached 100,000 square feet in area and the height of an 18-story building. At its heart is an enormous 54-feet-high by 72-feet-wide dome that houses the wine-making operations.

Looking like something out of a James Bond film, 24 gleaming stainless steel fermentation tanks circle the perimeter of the dome on a mechanized track and are rotated to collect grapes from a conveyor above. After fermentation, the wine flows naturally, without agitation by pumps, to a wine press below, then into secondary tanks, and finally into wine barrels, which are stored in a series of caves that spike out from the dome in a radial pattern. One computer controls most operations, allowing the winemaker to monitor the wine from home through a PC.

The results are impressive: Among those offering strongly positive reviews was Wine Spectator magazine, which gave the fledgling winery's '02 and '04 Cabs each a score of 89. Distribution remains limited, with around 1,500 cases of Palmaz Cabernet produced each year, sold through the winery's mailing list and at select restaurants and wine shops.

The winery's state-of-the-art inner workings are complemented by several spacious hillside terraces that look out over the scenic vineyards-not to mention an 8,000-square-foot room that displays Palmaz's collection of vintage racing Porsches. Yet, Palmaz Vineyards remains something of a hidden gem. Rick Walker, the co-founder of Napa's Festival del Sole music, art, and food extravaganza, calls Palmaz "the most spectacular winery no one has ever seen."

That's not surprising, says Graham Wozencroft, the project manager for Underground Associates, who worked closely with the family in the planning and building of the winery.

"The Palmaz family are unassuming people. They don't like to toot their own horn; they want their wine to do the talking for them," says Wozencroft. "Julio is a really unique individual-he has the ability to focus on one thing and focus on it until he figures it out."

Despite its cutting-edge technology, the winery retains its charm in large part because Amalia models its day-to-day operations on the memory of the quaint family-run Napa vineyards she and Julio fell in love with in the '70s. Palmaz is a family affair, with the couple's daughter, Florencia, son, Christian, and daughter-in-law, Jessica, all employed there.

For his part, Julio insists the over-the-top operation is just a means to an end: the consistent production of first-class wine.

"I love wine. It's truly incredible, the infinite variety of tastes and subtleties that you can achieve from a grape."

His eyes come alive as he recounts tasting a rare bottle of Screaming Eagle's cult Cabernet brought by a friend as a gift. Typically, Julio Palmaz didn't spirit the bottle away to the dark corners of a wine cellar but instead chose to pop it open right away-in order to enjoy the wine with his friend.

To schedule a tour and tasting, call (707) 226-5587. For more information, go to palmazvineyards.com.

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