When winemakers a century from now look back on the technology that changed the game, one winery is going to stand out: Palmaz Vineyards in the Napa Valley. Though ordinary in appearance at first glance, an amazing array of custom-built technologies lurking in a subterranean lair bolster the winemaker’s craft with exacting science.
Located on 610-acre parcel located northeast of downtown Napa, the vineyeard is run by the Palmaz family, who originally came from Argentina. They purchased the property in the mid-90s and had to start from scratch, as the previous owner had let the ground go fallow.
When they set out to make the winery, the Palmaz family wanted to take the land into account. They drilled 4,900 core samples around the property to understand the various soil compositions, then tailored the entire layout of the vineyard around the findings – a departure from the simple rectangular parcels that dominate the surrounding area.
Another goal was to have access to as many available options at the time of blending as possible.
“What if we could build a facility to leverage all these unique regions and never allow them to be combined until the moment of blending? Then, to take that one step further, never make consolidations of any kind,” Palmaz says. Take these two elements, throw in three years of planning, seven of construction, and two of finishing touches, and a winery was born.
Look beneath the surface
With fifty-four full-time staff, including two winemakers, the winery produces around 9,500 cases of wine per year split between Cabernet Sauvignon (the premier grape in the Napa Valley), Chardonnay, and other varietals only available at the winery.
From top to bottom, the winery stretches to a depth of 240 feet—the equivalent of a 22-story building, of which 18 stories is underground.
The number of cases, though, pales in comparison to the sheer size of the operation, especially when you look at the winery. For those 9,500 cases, current CEO Christian Palmaz says they have around 110,000 square-feet of working space. It’s all underground, in space that looks a bit like a nuclear missile launch facility. Twenty-four different fermenters, each with different specifications, are tailored to the specific grapes the land provides.
And one more thing about those fermentation tanks: They rotate on a carousel-like system. The mobility allows the crew to carefully insert the grapes into the fermenter from above without worrying about moving the grapes from where they were brought in and risking damaging them in the process.
From top to bottom, the winery stretches to a depth of 240 feet—the equivalent of a 22-story building, of which 18 stories is underground. This great depth, Palmaz says, allows them to “gravity finish” their wines, making them the only winery in the world to do so.
“Throughout the entire winemaking process, we never use a pump. From where our barrels are stored on Level 3, we use the additional 133 feet to naturally create the pressure needed to filter and bottle in the same movement,” Palmaz says.
The difference in the data
Upon entering the area where fermentation takes place — a domed cavern that houses the fermenters — it only takes a moment for the dome itself to come alive. A series of projections pop up: graphs, charts, statistics, everything you could think of that might be useful to the winemaking process.
The system that handles these projections is named FILCS (pronounced Felix). Short for Fermentation Intelligent Logic Control System, FILCS “excels in the mundane,” allowing the winery’s two winemakers, Tina Mitchell and Mia Klein, more freedom during the creative process that many see as the art behind winemaking.
“You essentially tell the system what the plan is going to be and then adjust as you go. The system builds a trend line and will make minute adjustments in temperature every second to modulate the rate of fermentation,” Palmaz says.
“You essentially tell the system what the plan is going to be and then adjust as you go.”
A significant amount of technology went into creating FILCS, including the adaptation of a special probe — a sono-densitometer — that measures the speed of sound between two paddles in the bottom of the tank. The speed of sound is then used to equate density which provides the brix, the sugar content in the wine.
“The goal is to give the winemaker back her time so she can spend it with the only real instrument a winemaker likes to use, a glass,” Palmaz says.
FILCS can finish a wine on its own, even down to the zero minute of the (standard) 28th day of fermentation. It is that dialed in.
“That doesn’t guarantee it’s a great wine, just a great fermentation. What makes a wine great is when the winemaker happens to be there when something great happens. Something you can see, smell, taste, et cetera.”
It’s that second part — the one that is harder to explain — that pushed Palmaz to learn from other fields and adopt technology capable of measuring the temperature of the wine at 3.2 million different points – data which is projected on the dome above as a graphic.
“Data is great, but useless unless they can interact with it at the time they’re working. By projecting it on the ceilings around them they can leverage all of the data,” Palmaz says.
This is where the workspaces come in. Using a Radio Frequency Identification system (RFID) that registers who is standing in front of a specific tank automatically, FILCS will project the information for that tank 180-degrees behind them, as well as the last four tanks that person worked on. When that person moves, the images shift accordingly to the new tank. If only one winemaker is present, she can choose what to display on the dome using an app on her phone.
“All of this allows the winemakers to have pretty tight controls over everything going on while being able to disconnect from the worrisome part of winemaking and focus more on other elements,” Palmaz says. “If you find something you like, FILCS can hold the conditions in order to extract more of that specific component.”
Another set of displays show parcel maps of the vineyards created using another technological innovation of the Palmaz family, VIGOR.
VIGOR, or Vineyard Infrared Growth Optical Recognition, is data obtained from a device attached to an aircraft that, twice weekly, they send up to pass over the winery at around 10,000 feet, taking infrared images of each plot. Those images map the NDVI — normalized difference vegetation index — which assesses the evenness of the plants’ growth by studying amount of chlorophyll in the leaves (translating to how much water might be needed in a certain area at a given time).
With two flights per week, Palmaz and his team are able to assess and adjust, then check to see if their adjustments were beneficial. This technology is then put into the cloud of data feeding FILCS, allowing the winemakers to see the patterns of growth for the grapes that are now in the fermentation tanks.
The craft isn’t dead
“All of this data helps winemakers make decisions quickly when it’s game time,” Palmaz says.
Using all of the data, FILCS is able to learn and grow with each harvest. With two full harvests and a test season under its digital belt, FILCS has already begun to adjust according to patterns in data that it has observed.
It can, for example, understand temperature propagation.
The point is to elevate the human element so that they’re not spending their time concerned with mundane details.
“FILCS knows, for example, that heat transfers through the cap of skins differently from the juice below or airspace above. We can model all of that in real time and control each area independently,” Palmaz says.
All of this data production and analysis has caused ire among some other winemakers.
While some, jokingly or not, talk of killing the romance that is winemaking, Palmaz argues that they’re doing the opposite, in a way. “The point is to elevate the human element so that they’re not spending their time concerned with mundane details.” They’re not making synthetic wine, after all.
This means more risk-taking, being more creative, and being able to push the envelope because of the higher situational awareness they have in regards to the wine.
“They’re far less stressed.”
It helps, too, that FILCS is able to understand when a problem is going to occur, sometimes up to 30 hours in advance. This allows the winemakers to make the appropriate adjustments and not risk losing an entire batch of wine due to, for example, an oxygen deficiency.
The Palmaz’s technology is the result of years of research and development. That being said, there’s always room for improvements in his eye.
With those two areas of the winemaking process covered, there’s really only one left that could use a futuristic boost, and Palmaz says they’re well on their way.
Their next innovation? Barrel awareness technology, able to scan individual barrels during aging to monitor a variety of conditions. Palmaz says they hope to unveil the new technology in the next year or two.