Napa is a celebrated romantic destination for Valentine’s Day (or President’s Day weekend and wedding anniversaries, for that matter). And what’s there not to love? The best-known wine production in America has going for it fantastic, spring-like weather, first-class dining, and a refined and sophisticated mix of familiar and emerging wineries. In fact, Napa Valley in some years has had more tourists populate its fields than Disneyland. For couples planning quality downtime, those crowds can deflate the romance factor.
A simple solution to the crowd issue is to take the road less traveled, and, for wine lovers, that means seeking out wineries a bit more hidden. That philosophy worked for Julio and Amalia Palmaz, regular vistors to Napa who loved the idea of winemaking so much they decided to relocate and purchase a winery in the 1990s. They happened upon a late 19th-century home in Coombsville (in Napa’s southern reaches) surrounded by 600 acres of land draped over Mount George. While 60 of those acres were ideal for the cultivation of grapes (particularly Cabernet Sauvignon), the couple discovered they uncovered a long lost piece of Napa’s winery history.
The original owner of what is now Palmaz Vineyards was Henry Hagen, who owned and operated Cedar Knoll Vineyard and Winery until Prohibition forced its closure. Hagen himself made history in a most ironic way in 1889, winning a silver medal for his Napa-made brandy almost a century after the “Judgment of Paris” challenged the global winemaking establishment, uncorking the potential for the American winemaking and debunking the notion the French cornered the market for the world’s best wines.
With all members of the Palmaz family, including adult children Christian and Florencia, involved since 2007, the vineyards and winery are making Napa history in ways even a casual wine lover would appreciate. Although the property’s history is acknowledged in artwork and antique winemaking vehicles in the main building, Palmaz is firmly rooted in the future. Once grapes from the steep, multitiered fields are harvested, the entire winemaking process entirely is conducted underground and inside of the mountain, which extends 18 stories. Gravity-based technology is in play, from the intake and sorting of the grapes to finishing and bottling. Christian, the winery’s operations manager, developed “Felix” (technically, “F-I-L-C-S”), a one-of-a-kind computer system that helps winemaker Tina Mitchell manage fermentation with key information projected onto the ceiling, planetarium-style.
Tours are private and by appointment only, so visitors can see the entire winemaking process as well as enjoy a seated tasting with Palmaz’s flagship wines paired with small hors d’oeuvres with seasonal recipes from cookbooks available for sale at the vineyard. While the two-hour experience runs $100 per adult, the tour is open to children who may be in tow for $50 each. Christian’s wife Jessica (Palmaz’s president), points out kids will enjoy the unexpected science lesson and their own tasting with non-alcoholic wine grape juices named for her son and nephew, paired with the hors d’oeuvres. While couples and groups made up of two couples are most common, a few beautifully decorated tasting rooms and areas can hold parties of up to 10 or 12 for events like milestone anniversaries and birthday gatherings.
According to Jessica, another advantage to Palmaz is its location 10 miles from downtown Napa. Must-try restaurants in the area, apart from the always booked and ballyhooed French Laundry, currently include Miminashi, Oenotri, Torc and Ad Hoc. If your kids are along for the ride, Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, Gott’s Roadside or The Charter Oak in nearby St. Helena serve things appealing to their picky palates.