The Doctor’s Orders

By Tom Geoghegan  |

For those of us who remember watching that 60 Minutes segment titled the “French Paradox” on November 17th 1991, it was a true epiphany for the typical American lifestyle. We took our first serious look at moderate wine consumption actually being part of a healthy lifestyle, especially when combined with diet and exercise. Red wine consumption increased over 40% just that year as we jumped on the red wine band wagon, and we’ve never looked back. And from those early tentative suggestions that there might be a link between red wine consumption and increased heart health, now 23 years later, the medical community is almost overwhelmingly supportive of this position, with an army of studies and clinical data to back them up.

Several years previously, a young doctor was finishing up his residency training in diagnostic radiology in California at U.C. Davis. Born in Argentina, Dr. Julio Palmaz had come to the states in 1977 to further and complete his medical training. Shortly thereafter, he attended a conference in New Orleans and heard a presentation by Andreas Gruentzig, who had performed the first successful percutaneous coronary angioplasty. The insertion of a small balloon allowed the clogged artery increased blood flow and was an alternative procedure to the current bypass surgery.

The downside was when the balloon was removed; almost half of the patients experienced the same clogging. Dr. Palmaz put some initial ideas down on paper, and over the next few years began to refine the idea and tinker with prototypes. In 1983, Dr. Stewart Reuter from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA) convinced Dr. Palmaz to come to San Antonio, where he could practice medicine and continue his developmental research. All this hard work paid off as he patented the original stainless steel stent in 1985, and soon sold the licensing to Johnson and Johnson. FDA approval came in 1991, and from there Dr. Palmaz never looked back. 

His stent quickly captured 90% market share and is the preferred method (80%) of dealing with coronary interventions and is now used in over 2 million procedures each year. Recognized as one of the 10 patents that changed the world for the last century, it has become an everyday part of the 21st century approach to cardiovascular medicine.

So when that segment of 60 minutes aired in 1991, Dr. Palmaz had just received early FDA approval for his invention, and started on the path of fulfilling one of his lifelong dreams…establishing a winery in the California wine country. During those residency years at U.C. Davis in northern California in the late 70s, he and his wife Amalia would spend their weekends exploring the wine country in their little white British sports car. Then living in San Antonio, they made frequent trips back to Napa, looking for the perfect property. 

Most of us are familiar with the term “fixer-upper”, a true conundrum whether you’re looking at a home or a winery. Julio and Amalia discovered the old Henry Hagen property. 

Located in the Coombsville area at the south eastern end of the Napa valley in the Vaca mountain range, the original site at the foot of Mount George was developed by Bill Woodward from 1846 to 1876. Henry Hagen then purchased the property for his Cedar Knoll winery in 1878. He began producing wines that garnered high praise, including a silver medal at the Paris Exposition of 1889, sort of a precursor to the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976. The winery survived the phyloxeria infestation of the 1890s, but succumbed to the noble experiment we called Prohibition. The land would lay fallow for the next 86 years until discovered by the Palmazes. 

They purchased the property in 1997, with modest plans to extend the size of the original Hagen winery. But then they ran into the limitations imposed by the county planning commission, which seemed, on the surface, to limit their goal of expanding the old winery site. 

Initially stymied, Dr. Palmaz read through the ordinance and noted an interesting point. It covered existing above ground structures and mandated no expansion, but made no mention of anything underground. The site was on a mountain, and as he modified his plans, he realized he could encompass his other two planning points, underground cellars and gravity flow, to add to his love of mountain grown fruit. But as Amalia then puts it, “We got carried away a bit.”

Most folks in the wine country are familiar with the old axiom “How do you become a millionaire in the wine business?” and the answer is to start as a billionaire and buy a winery. Eight long years later, with numerous public hearings and a price tag estimated in excess of 20 million dollars; they had completed their dream winery. Essentially, they hollowed out the mountain to build a complete winery that encompasses 5 levels and 100,000 square feet that are the equivalent of an 18 story building. This is the world’s largest completely underground gravity flow winery, with the winemaking beginning at the top level, and then gently flowing through the process to the bottom level when completed. The fermentation dome at the top is 72 feet in diameter, and 54 feet tall, making it the world’s largest underground reinforced structure. The dome has a unique rotating carousel which houses 24 stainless steel fermentation tanks, one for each of the different vineyard blocks they source for their wines. The current winemaking team is Tina Mitchell and Mia Klein, who continue the traditions originally laid down by famed Cabernet winemaker Randy Dunn.

The main focus for the winery are their signature reds, primarily Cabernet based with small amounts of estate grown Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petite Verdot. The Palmaz Cabernet is the namesake red, but they also produce in select vintages a “Gaston” designation, named for his son’s middle name. And in a nod to Henry Hagen, their second label Cabernet is named Cedar Knoll. Their other offerings touch on the other family members, the “Louise” Riesling for Christian’s wife, and the “Florencia” Muscat Canelli for his daughter. The sentimental favorite is the “Amalia” Chardonnay. The first side project for the winery was for Mrs. Palmaz who loved the reds, but had a soft spot for a well crafted Chardonnay. As a wise man once said, “Happy wife, happy life.” Nice to have a winery to back it up. Lastly there is Gina, their Italian greyhound. You can’t have a truly state of the art winery if you don’t have a cool dog to greet guests and chase critters. 

And remember the little British sports car Dr. Palmaz used to explore the wine country with Amalia? When we’re young, we all dream about moving up in the world, starting a family, maybe start a business, and if you’re a car guy, we dream of a very nice car. As Dr. Palmaz puts it, “this time it was me that got a little carried away.” 

He had always admired the superb engineering that Dr. Ferdinand Porsche had put into his namesake cars from the beginning. Now Dr. Palmaz had the means to back up his passion, and began to assemble what is now the most significant collection of racing Porsches outside of the Porsche Factory museum in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen, Germany. 

In his new winery, he incorporated plans to include an 8000 sq. ft. area to display his collection of over a dozen cars. Each of them has been meticulously restored to perfect running condition, and all were significant in the racing history of the Porsche factory. The crown jewel is the Model 917-023, which scored the first overall victory for Porsche in the 1970 running of the legendary 24 hours of Le Mans in France. Legend now has it that the good doctor actually outbid the factory to acquire what many consider the most significant racing Porsche ever built. 

At the end of some weeks, just every once in awhile, Julio and Christian will roll out the legendary 917, fire her up, and take a quick run up the Silverado Trail, just to check the timing and “clean the carbon” off of the 12 spark plugs, before doubling back for a glass of Palmaz Cabernet Sauvignon with the rest of the family. There they can honor the family mantra in the most delicious way I can think of; with a full glass from the namesake winery. Their mantra is a simple one, “Love the land. Know the grape. And make wine that honors both.”

Thank you Dr. Palmaz and Salud!


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