High-Tech Winemaking

How a new generation of techno-oenophiles is reengineering Napa's wines.

This is a very unusual facility, very unusual,” says Christian Gastón Pal­maz, president of Palmaz Vineyards (4029 Hagen Rd., Napa), and he’s not exaggerating. The winery he presides over in California’s Napa Valley is entirely underground, a network of brightly lit, immaculately clean caves containing one of the strangest and most iconoclastic winemaking operations on earth. It looks more like a pharmaceutical lab or an ICBM installation than the home of a boutique producer of high-end wines.

“A lot of people think there is nothing left to innovate in making wine,” explains Christian, age 29. “Or they think they shouldn’t innovate because we shouldn’t mess with the status quo.” The Palmaz family begs to differ.

Palmaz Vineyards isn’t the only producer experimenting with the ancient process of winemaking. A new generation of California vintners, many either from Silicon Valley or bankrolled by it, is dabbling in cutting-edge technology, but no house is so singularly focused on innovation as Palmaz. And that all starts with its founder, Christian’s father.

Dr. Julio Palmaz is an Argentinian-born radiologist who invented a coronary stent, then licensed the patent to Johnson & Johnson, making a fortune in the process and landing himself in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. During his residency at the University of California, Davis in the 1970s and early ’80s, Julio and his wife, Amalia, spent much of their free time in the then fairly unde­­veloped Napa Valley and fell in love with the area. Many years later, the couple decided to found their own winery and, after a four-year search, happened upon what Christian calls a dream property—a 607-acre plot with 2,000 feet of elevation gain and a bounty of 24 distinct terroirs.

Grapes were first grown on the grounds in 1881, when German immigrant Henry Hagan bought the land and established Cedar Knoll Vine­yards, one of the first American producers to gain recognition in Europe. But Cedar Knoll didn’t survive Prohibition, and the land lay fallow for decades. By the time Julio took over, grapes hadn’t been grown on the property in 80 years.

Being an academic, Julio decided to rethink everything. In addition to a viticulturist, he also hired geologists and set out to understand his land in a way no one had attempted before. Almost 5,000 separate core samples were taken to provide a detailed study of how the soil type changed from the head of the property to the foothills to the mountain slopes. If you were to drive around Napa, you’d find that the vines at nearly all the wineries are oriented in a consistent direction and organized in a grid pattern. “They line up like soldiers in a row,” Christian says. This makes sense; it simplifies hydration and harvesting. But his father wanted his vines—which today produce all five Bordeaux grapes, plus Chardonnay, Riesling and Muscat—optimized for his soil, and he didn’t care how they lined up.

The fundamental concept at Palmaz Vineyards is to cultivate zone-specific parcels that are harvested, sorted and fermented in distinct batches, at schedules dictated by the specific grape and not by logistics. The batches are never blended until the winemaker decides it’s time.

To do this requires a facility that can operate, in essence, as 24 wineries in one. “That’s why, architecturally, this place is so weird,” Christian says. His father carved out the rocky insides of Mount George to install a 110,000-square-foot winery, which includes an 18-story-tall wine cave (to enable a gravity-based system that obviates the need for pumping, thereby eliminating one of the primary causes of tannin breakdown); a panopticon-like fermentation dome; and a network of tunnels storing 1.5 million gallons of water.

“This is nothing short of an underground city,” Christian says with a chuckle. Since taking over day-to-day operations in 2007, he has continued to push innovation. Christian runs the winery like an academic institution that encourages radical thinking. He’s got a computer engineer and an algorithmic Ph.D. on retainer. “We are trying to create the next generation of advanced winemaking,” he says.

Chuck McMinn of Vineyard 29 (2929 St. Helena Hwy., St. Helena) respects what the Palmazes are up to. He’s hacking the process himself. In his previous life, McMinn, 62, founded Covad Communications, a telecommunications firm that went public in 1997. But for the past decade, he’s been in St. Helena, California, focused on making better wine.

McMinn likes to paraphrase his former boss, onetime Intel CEO Andy Grove, saying, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” Seven years ago McMinn met a French American Ph.D. named Thibaut Scholasch, who went on to cofound Fruition Sciences, a viticultural analytics company. McMinn’s Vineyard 29 was one of the first customers to test Fruition’s primary product: an array of sensors that diagnose a vine’s health by tapping its sap flow and then transmitting that information wirelessly to the cloud, where, using proprietary software, it is stored, analyzed and made available in real time.

“In the world today, we have continuous monitoring of so many things,” says Cameron Vaw­ter, a winemaker at Dana Estates (707-963-4365), another of Fruition’s customers. “That’s something we didn’t have until sap-flow sensors came along.” Fruition Sciences allows the winemaker to know when a vine is thriving and when it needs attention. “It’s a nonstop connection to what the vine is feeling,” says Vawter.

Palmaz Vineyards doesn’t use sap-flow monitoring, because Christian doesn’t believe it’s enough to understand how some vines are feeling; he wants to know how all of them are doing. Several times a year, a plane with an infrared camera in its belly flies over the vineyard. The brighter the red in the captured images, the higher the level of chlorophyll; the higher the chlorophyll, the more vigorous the plant. By looking at these pictures, Christian—who is also a geoscientist by training and borrowed the idea from mass-scale agri-farming—can identify his “happiest” and “saddest” vines.

Technicians then go out with neutron probes—each with a piece of depleted uranium in the tip—to take precise soil moisture readings. The results are transmitted to the iPads that everyone at the winery carries around. Ever the doctor’s son, Christian calls it a “CAT scan of the soil.” The readings are then matched up with the chlorophyllic information in a specialized app, and from this data, Christian can map out a highly precise plan for putting water into the vineyard only when and where it’s most needed.

It’s far more difficult to measure how such analytical fastidiousness affects the taste of the final product. The wines made at places like Palmaz, Dana Estates and Vineyard 29 are consistently excellent and probably would be even if none of the winemakers felt the need to tinker with the process. But what they’re really trying to do is eliminate human error. “I look at technology as a way to treat fruit or wine better than we could if we were just doing it manually,” says Michael Silacci, a winemaker at Opus One (7900 St. Helena Hwy., Oakville). Silacci uses optical sorters to photograph the grapes as they pass along a conveyor, analyzing 200 of them simultaneously. Then tiny jets of air blow the grapes into either “good” or “bad” piles. According to Silacci, not only does the sorter process fruit more quickly than human beings, it’s better at identifying quality.

Back at Palmaz, it seems unlikely that Christian will ever be satis­fied. He’s on the verge of introduc­ing “high-level thermal imaging” of the fermentation tanks, which can identify hot spots and help ensure an optimal fermentation. “We are always trying to give the winemakers a little more control,” he says. The inno­vation he is most giddy about has not yet arrived. Christian likes to say that Palmaz winemakers work with an iPad in one hand and a glass in the other. (For three weeks last summer, the company was a featured story on Apple’s home­page for this reliance on its tablets.) “My dream is that they have nothing in their hands,” Christian says. His solution is to project analytics about each barrel of wine onto the 80-foot-wide dome of the fermentation room.

Soon winemaker Tina Mitchell and her team will be able to look up and see every piece of information for any tank in the caves. To do this, Christian hired visual technologies firm Christie to develop a cinema-quality curved dome projection that will be the largest of its kind in the world. “It’s immensely expensive,” Christian says. (Each of the $35,000 projectors is a “fire-breathing beast,” generating heat that must be cooled lest it damage the wine.)

Every innovation he can introduce gets Christian excited, but he’s also realistic about his role. “I know that everything in there has nothing to do with why our wines taste good,” he says. “It only has to do with why they don’t taste bad. The vineyards are the only reason they taste good. If I make fewer mistakes over two years and execute closer to what the winemaker is trying to do, I might get a little bit closer to the potential quality of what

Fun Fact

Napa isn't the only winemaking region where Silicon Valley's influence can be felt. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, Cypress Semiconductor founder T.J. Rodgers has invested his fortune—and his engineering savvy—into his Pinot Noir label, Clos de la Tech. In a nod to his profession, each bottle's label is festooned with a microchip sealed in wax.