Podcast Episode 23

Making a Family Wine Business A Success: Palmaz Vineyards CEO Tells All

Florencia Palmaz | 54 Minutes | December 7, 2021

In this episode, we speak with Florencia Palmaz, President of GoodHeart Brand Specialty Foods and CEO of Palmaz Vineyards, a premier winery in Napa Valley.

Coming from a family of farmers, technologists, and serial entrepreneurs, Florencia is no stranger to being a multifaceted expert. Besides managing the family wine business, Florencia is also a food & wine connoisseur and cookbook author.

Listen as we chat with Florencia about how her family built a revolutionary wine business, specialty foods, technology, and commitment to land and service.

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Florencia Palmaz, president of GoodHeart Brand Specialty Foods, and co-founder of Palmaz Vineyards, one of the premiere wineries in Napa Valley. Florencia is the creative power behind her family’s business ventures. She’s also a talented CEO, serial entrepreneur, and certified cookbook author.

Join us today as we chat with Florencia about her passion for bringing people together around the table, and how her family has built two revolutionary food and wine businesses.

Welcome, Florencia! Thank you so much for being with us today.

Florencia Palmaz: Thank you for having me. It’s an absolute pleasure.

Napa Valley and Argentina

Kirk Bachmann: Wonderful. It’s early there on the West Coast, right?

Florencia Palmaz: It is! It is! It’s about 7:30. The fog is just rolling in.

Kirk Bachmann: Is it going to be a beautiful day?

Florencia Palmaz: It’s going to be a beautiful day. Every day in Napa, you wake up to a blanket of fog, and you just wait until it all dissipates.

Kirk Bachmann: I was just going to say, Napa Valley, it doesn’t get too much better than that, right?

Florencia Palmaz: No. Honestly, it’s Mother Nature and farming’s Eden. It’s incredible.

Kirk Bachmann: How does it compare to your homeland?

Florencia Palmaz: To Argentina?

Kirk Bachmann: To Argentina, in terms of weather and consistency of good weather?

Florencia Palmaz: Well, you know, Argentina is like the United States. They’re two huge countries, so it’s very hard to say that Argentina and Napa Valley have anything in common. I’m sure there’s a small pocket somewhere that’s a lot like Napa Valley. But we’re from Buenos Aires and La Plata, so the city. So not too similar to living on a farm here in the United States.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that! “Living on a farm.” It’s a vineyard. I love that. I’m going to create some more of those analogies here in a minute. But before we get into some questions, when you and I chatted the other day, you commented, and I quote, that you “live for moments at the table.”

Florencia Palmaz: Absolutely.

Moments at the Table

Kirk Bachmann: I have not stopped thinking about moments at the table. So can you talk a little bit more about that? What does that mean to you?

Florencia Palmaz: For me., the table is that sacred place in the house that brings people together. When you are gathered around the table, you are facing each other with intention of connection. And then you are then just distracted enough with absolutely delicious meals. It’s always a place of joy. Growing up as a kid, my mother was – was and is – an amazing cook and amazing entertainer. Dinner and lunch every day was an absolute gathering at the table, and was always a lot of fun and very animated. All the most important moments in life, all the most important pieces of news in my life were always communicated at a table.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I love the “intention of connection.” That’s absolutely beautiful. So you’re together with your family. You’re the founder of one of Napa’s premiere vineyards, named after your family.

Florencia Palmaz: Yes.

The History of the Land

Kirk Bachmann: Can you take us back a little bit, maybe even back to 1852 and Henry Hagen, the original settler of that land?

Florencia Palmaz: Yes. Absolutely. I consider us the current caretakers of this land. But we are not the founders. The real founder of this land was Henry Hagen, who was a German immigrant who came to California, was living in Pack Heights with his family and came to Napa Valley with the intention of starting a partnership with his brother-in-law, who had a wine shop in San Francisco. So he was the intrepid one who came all the way out to what was a rough frontier, and found this really amazing valley and mountainside, here at Mount George in Coombsville, and started taming this wilderness. It’s a location that had beautiful waterways. It’s got a wonderful creek running through it. It had a huge spring box that he was able to capture for irrigation. And he literally started traversing all the sections of our mountainside and building out the vineyards. He also had a small cattle operation where he had a corn crop, and he had a little bit of cattle. So those were his cash crops that helped running the winery. He ran Cedar Knoll Vineyards from 1876 to 1912. Unfortunately, phylloxera and Prohibition both…it was a one-two whammy, that, like so many vintners in the 1800s couldn’t survive. The house that he had built and the winery all went into disrepair. Actually, the house itself survived only because it became a brothel. You have to remember that, during Prohibition, Napa did two things.

Kirk Bachmann: You gotta have something to do.

Florencia Palmaz: Yeah. Napa switched from making beautiful farm products to gambling and maybe a little prostitution. So our house, unfortunately, was a house of ill repute, like my neighbors called it. Then, we were fortunate enough to purchase it from the family who recovered it out of bankruptcy in the 1920s and ran it. We basically acquired it from the stepdaughter’s husband’s second wife, many generations later. But the beautiful thing about that was that in the basement were all the artifacts and the historic documents that were Henry Hagen’s time. So we were able to collect all this wonderful information that was literally sitting in the drawers of antiques in the basement.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow. Wow.

Florencia Palmaz: And see the maps where the vineyards were grown. The way tags. How many tons he was producing. What kinds of wines, the barrel brander. I mean, just incredible.

kirk: Wow. Wow, I love that. And I can sense the passion. You’re a storyteller. I mean, it’s important to celebrate the past.

Florencia Palmaz: Absolutely.

Farming the Individual Vine

Kirk Bachmann: I bet that was really, really, really exciting.

I’m going to quote, this is from the website: “At Palmaz, we believe in farming the individual vine, not the vineyard.” So, I love this, and I feel like I’m walking through the vineyard. You just said that a minute ago. It’s kind of connected to walking through a garden. Can you talk a little bit about farming the individual vine?

Florencia Palmaz: Sure. Wine is a wonderful example because it’s a product that is a permanent crop. Our vines literally become better in quality, but we have to take very good care of them. If you are careless with them, they will die. But to really have an enduring and sustainable farming program, you need to first of all, take care of the vines themselves. And then, of course, look at the weather patterns and the individual soils of those locations to try and maximize the quality of the grapes in every location.

But like everything else, the more exquisite the quality you try to achieve, the more details you have to cover. So for instance, if we were making a $15 bottle of wine to be drunk at an airport or purchased at a supermarket, we’d be very concerned with volume. We’d be looking at how to minimize our labor and our overhead and how to run as much volume as fast as we can. We would not be so hung up on the little details inside of the contours of the land, or how’s the irrigation really behaving on the north side of the block versus the south side of the block. But because we are actually passionate about making wines for extraordinary moments in people’s lives, we like to think we’re working in the top echelons of quality that are capable in our industry. We really sweat all the details.

So like you mentioned the website, we’re very focused about leveraging what we can both from a time and an energy and technology standpoint to make sure that every single vine is well cared for, both from a sustainability standpoint, but also well cared for in the individual moment of that vintage so that it can make the best quality possible. Whether that be looking at its individual water needs, whether that be analyzing the soil temperatures or the sun exposure in that specific place in that vineyard.

From Venison Farmers to a Specialty Foods Brand

Kirk Bachmann: Such good advice. And I love the passion. This is an ongoing family story. The family has built at least a couple successful food and wine enterprises, one of which, I believe, you had a lot to do with when you were still in college. I’m really curious to know, how did the idea come about to start a commercial specialty foods brand, which is still vibrant today, as opposed to a restaurant or some other kind of culinary business? Not an easy business to start, right?

Florencia Palmaz: No, not an easy business to start, and honestly, I laugh. I’m laughing because I think, “My God, I was so young and so naïve,” to have started with it, what we did. I did it. Of course, my mother and I, we did this together. So I hate to say that I’m the founder. We definitely worked on this together. Yes, I was in college still. We did not start the company with the intention of selling products or being a successful commercial enterprise. In fact, we started because we needed to bake something for the outlet of our land at the time.

When we lived in Texas, we had a small ranch there, and because like everything, at the end of the day, at our ethos, we’re farmers. We love land. We love caring for land. It is, for us, one of the highest honors to be able to care for land. Also, it’s a really gratifying legacy and a wonderful environment for family businesses. So growing up as kids, we had a small ranch just outside of San Antonio in Bandera, Texas, that was honestly too hilly and too rocky for cattle, which would have been the traditional Texas ranch. But my mother, being as entrepreneurial as she is, actually decided that fallow deer were going to be a better herd or a better animal for that piece of land, so we actually ended up becoming venison farmers.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh wow! Okay.

Florencia Palmaz: So we started the specialty foods company because we realized pretty quickly that in order to be a sustainable farm that would then be able to continue producing in a sustainable way for many generations, we needed to also figure out what was going to be the ultimate customer of the meat, not just the animals. We were trying to build a farm of, again, exquisite quality. You can see a sort of a theme in our family: make really great quality. So we wanted to control how it was butchered and how it was distributed. And it was an amazing experiment.

It evolved quite a bit over the years. We started as a venison farm. We had a small further processing plant that we wanted to make sure we could make all the beautiful French cuts of – oh my God – loins. I’m losing my butcher terms, it’s been so long! We did all the specialty cuts for the restaurants and we started selling to all the high-end white-tail-glove restaurants around the country. Actually we were mailing our farm-raised venison to some of the top chefs, Michelin star restaurants all over the country.

Kirk Bachmann: And when was this, in terms of years?

Florencia Palmaz: It started back in 1996.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow. Wow. Before social media and the popularity of sourcing locally, right?

Florencia Palmaz: Absolutely. This was way before it was cool.

Kirk Bachmann: It was before it was cool!

Florencia Palmaz: Way before it was cool.

Kirk Bachmann: But it’s still cool.

Florencia Palmaz: It is. It’s great to see those chefs back in that day really source out. Even though this is an age-old adage, this is not new. Great chefs knew that good ingredients had to come from unique places.

Commitment to California, a Historic House, and the Land

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. So then fast forward: when did the wine-making business begin? Maybe talk a little bit about that journey from whenever that was to present, to us chatting today.

Florencia Palmaz: We were running the specialty foods distribution business, and at that time we expanded past venison into what we called “tame game.” We didn’t want to deal with anything sharp-shooted in the field. But we started partnering with other farmers, so we had quail, wild boar. We had chukar, pheasant, all the game birds. It was really quite a beautiful catalog of products that we were selling to chefs, living in Texas and really having a wonderful time.

My parents, though, when we first came to America in 1978 from Argentina, they first came to California. They loved California and found this incredible house and property in Napa that was abandoned for 86 years and thought, “This is a wonderful opportunity to get back to one of the most beautiful places on earth,” for them.

And in 1998, we started the process of restoring a house, doing the history and planting the vineyard. As a family, we’ve always been a little bit with a foot in both camps, in Texas and in California. As you can imagine over the years, California and growing out an entire vineyard, we’ve really preferred this place. I can say it’s really beautiful, so we have our kids growing up here.

Kirk Bachmann: I saw that. So second generation now?

Florencia Palmaz: Well, G3, hopefully. My parents. Our children, my brother and I and our families.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s wonderful. How does a property like that sit abandoned for 86 years?

Florencia Palmaz: Well, it was marginally abandoned. The house itself was actually a set for Falcon Crest for a few years.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow! Wow! You’re dating me! You’re dating me! I know exactly what you’re talking about!

Florencia Palmaz: And myself. And myself.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow! Wow!

Florencia Palmaz: So it was this rental property, movie set for a while. It was marginally lived in. But the farming activities were completely abandoned. So that’s why I say it was abandoned, because once you let the land go fallow, that’s really when the soul of a property like this, where an estate dies.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. Absolutely.

So we’re a school. At Escoffier, we teach cooking fundamentals and more advanced culinary skills. But we also focus for our students and at least present the opportunity to learn business acumen. Super, super important, right? How has your family, you in particular, merged your obvious and collective passion for food and entertainment into two related business ventures? Common denominator?

Florencia Palmaz: The common denominator is a commitment to land and a commitment to service. And it’s both serve the land and also serve the customers who enjoy the products from that land. It is the ultimate transfer of honor is how we look at it.

Kirk Bachmann: Another great quote. I’m so stealing so many of these quotes. The commitment to the land. It’s a very common farming statement, right?

Florencia Palmaz: Absolutely.

How a Vineyard Becomes High-Tech

Kirk Bachmann: 100 percent. So the vineyard, I read, is very high-tech. I don’t know what that means. Is that specifically related to the viticulture process or the way you go to market? Can you talk a little bit about how a vineyard becomes high-tech?

Florencia Palmaz: Absolutely. I’m glad that you asked this question because it’s something that gets so misinterpreted. Even in food and gastronomy, we see the misinterpretation of high-tech a lot, from my perspective. For us, the use of technology was just about innovative solutions to old problems. When you’re in the vineyard, for instance, this notion of how we really maximize the quality of every vine is hard and daunting, especially when there’s 1500 vines per acre, you know, and as a family, we have a little over 60 acres, so you can imagine that’s a lot of vines.

How do we then get efficient and leverage technology to help us give each individual vine that attention that we’re talking about. We definitely have some technologies that we developed. I am very fortunate to have a much smarter little brother. My brother, Christian, went to school for business and computer science. When he started coming into the companies, the first question posed was, “How can I help?” A wonderful brother coming into family business.

Kirk Bachmann: Humility.

Florencia Palmaz: My first answer was, “I don’t know!”

Kirk Bachmann: Very honest.

Florencia Palmaz: Well, there’s a lot to do around here. And he said, “Well, how can I make the wine better?” Which was such a very simple question. Keep it simple, right?

And his question was rooted in, how do we know when we’re doing a better job in the farming? How do we make sure the farming approaches that we’re doing are resulting in a better quality of wine? It’s an infuriating fact in a vintner’s life that we don’t know what the wine’s going to taste like. The transference. Those grapes could look and be delicious, but you could make terrible wine out of them if you’re not careful.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s a frightening business statement!

Florencia Palmaz: Well, I have to say, I think in food, the same thing happens. We can look at a bag of flour and make a terrible loaf of bread.

Kirk Bachmann: I want to go back to that. I’m trying to picture walking up and down the vines. One of my favorite movies, it’s a corny movie, a Russell Crowe, I think it was called “A Good Year.” I know it was far-fetched. But the wine maker literally went from vine to vine to vine. Can it differ that much in one row?

Florencia Palmaz: Absolutely.

Kirk Bachmann: Isn’t that amazing?

Florencia Palmaz: Imagine this. When we went to plant our vineyard, we knew that the subsoil was so varied because it’s volcanic and it’s in a mountain. Literally, the valley floor, the edges, where the terrain has a little bit more sunlight and maybe a little bit more vegetable material in the base for millennia will have different…every 20 feet is different. So when we went to plant the vineyard, we did over 4000 core samples because we needed to know what kind of soil we were dealing with, because you don’t know what to plant until you know what kind of soil you’re going to plant in.

From there, we actually developed 64 acres…sorry, the creative never knows the numbers, so bear with me.

Kirk Bachmann: I like that. I’m totally going to use that as well.

Florencia Palmaz: My brother would give you a very different interview, but you’ve got to deal with me.

Kirk Bachmann: We’ll talk to him next week.

Florencia Palmaz: Yeah, get the story straight from him. So I would say we’re about 32 individual parcels. Of those, we maybe have 15 different root stalks, and another 15 different types of fruit wood. So that mosaic of “what’s the right type of grape for the right location?” is an incredibly complex one and a very daunting one when you first start out. Technology was very helpful there. That was just the technology of core samples and databases and reading and being educated about what was available.

But then, fast forward to when you’re actively farming and the vineyard is established. Now we’re dealing with a vineyard that’s spanning over 1500 feet of elevation, 28 little parcels or 32 little parcels, depends on how you count them. And you can’t physically, in 1500 feet of elevation, walk the entire place. I agree with you. In “A Good Year” it gave you a very romantic notion, and we wish we could walk every single vine and touch it and say, “Good morning,” and say good night every day. But you can’t. You can’t, practically. So we actually leverage technology in the use of, actually, photography. So we’re using UV photography.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh. Interesting.

Using Aviation Technology to Scan Vineyards

Florencia Palmaz: To try and lower the carbon footprint and to be as efficient as possible, we have small airplanes from flight schools actually flying over this vineyard. So the same people who are training to be pilots – and they have to do their hours – are now flying over vineyards here in Napa Valley and taking pictures of the vineyards that we ask for.

Twice a week, we have a plane come and fly over and take pictures of the vineyard. Those pictures, then, are done with UV cameras. So the UV tells us the photosynthesis vigor of the plant. How much green is being popped back up at the camera. That gives you a notion of how strong the plant is. How happy is the plant. And when you have high enough resolution, we can go all the way down to the vineyard and maybe two or three vines next to it. Then, at the same time, we go through the vineyard and we actually take soil moisture samples. So those moisture samples will help us understand the correlation between how much moisture the land has and whether the vine is corresponding similarly.

The technology comes in that we’ve actually run – and this is my brother’s technology – we run a series of algorithms and visual tools for us to have. VIGOR, which is our Vineyard Infrared Optical Growth….something R. Oops.

Kirk Bachmann: You’re the creative.

Florencia Palmaz: Exactly! Sorry. The creative again. So anyway, VIGOR is this incredible algorithm that runs. It takes the data of the photograph, and takes the data of the soil samples, marries it to understand: are we aligned, or are we misaligned? If we’re misaligned, it gives us a cue to go out into that location and focus our attention on it. It could be a broken pipe. It could be a lack of micro-nutrients and maybe we need to deal with a cover crop or something else that would help the vine be happy.

Influencing the Wine with Eucalyptus and Other Flavors

Kirk Bachmann: That’s absolutely, absolutely fascinating. I never would have guessed that. Years and years ago when I was just starting to come up – and I mean years ago – when I was just starting to come up in this industry, I attended a wine dinner. And I remember the wine steward or sommelier was talking about how this particular wine was grown at a vineyard that once grew eucalyptus trees.

Florencia Palmaz: Oh, yes.

Kirk Bachmann: And back then, we’re all thinking, “Really? Really?” I mean, can that be?

Florencia Palmaz: Absolutely. Vines are susceptible, and because we’re a permanent crop, imagine that those vines pick up the characteristics of what’s planted around them. Eucalyptus is a classic example. There are some very famous vineyards in California – and of course Australia and New Zealand – that have eucalyptus groves next to them. And you can taste it and smell it in the wines. They pick up a classic minty flavor.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. After all these years. I never believed him!

Florencia Palmaz: In Provence, you hear about the lavender groves influencing pinot noir. And even here, at this vineyard, we are butting up against redwood forests. And I, to this day, feel like in the foundation in our wines, you smell just a hint of forest floor. A moist forest floor that gives you that – I don’t know how to explain it – like a walk in the woods overlaid with layers of fruit and the tones of the wood and the sunshine, and all the other fruit and harmonies. But right there in the very base of the wine you’ll always smell your place. You can’t get away from it.

The Gravity Flow Method

Kirk Bachmann: So beautiful. I read something about a gravity flow method. This is probably connected to high-tech solutions, right? Does that have to do with irrigation?

Florencia Palmaz: No. So what I was talking about with VIGOR was really about farming practices. How do we prioritize our farming time and how do we make sure that the grapes are the best quality. The gravity flow kicks in, actually, once the grapes are inside the cellar. The moment that you choose to pick that one parcel and bring it into the winery and start the process of making the wine is in fact the moment of the wine’s highest potential, I always say. Our jobs as vintners is to not mess it up along the way.

Kirk Bachmann: Okay. No pressure. Zero pressure.

Florencia Palmaz: No pressure. It’s kind of like looking at a newborn baby and saying, “This one could be a rocket scientist. And I’ll probably be a bad parent and they’ll end up being just a normal kid.”

Kirk Bachmann: Maybe more pressure on you! Mother Nature is watching, right?

Florencia Palmaz: Oh, indeed. Indeed. She gave us a perfect grape, now what are we going to do with it?. So what the gravity flow does, let me explain.

What we really wanted to do was try to make a wine-making environment, a cellar and winery that would try and not diminish that purity of fruit with its mechanical interruptions. It’s well known in the industry, and this was thanks to the work of an organic chemist in the U.C. Davis in the ‘90s, that the tannin structure of wine should not be overly beaten. Back in the day, it was always thought that wine needed to be suppressed and beaten and literally frothed and aerated during the process. We would as processors – not us, but my colleagues in the ‘70s – would splash wine and aerate wine. You would hear about micro-oxygenation. They would be literally trying to bubble the wine.

Well, it turned out that while that gives you a wonderful ability to smell the wine better because it’s infusing it with oxygen, it’s in fact diminishing its length of cellar ability. The wines were becoming less and less age-worthy. There was a wonderful chemist who discovered that, in fact, the texture of wine doesn’t come from beatings and oxygenation. It comes from being very peaceful, using as little bit of mechanical interruption as possible.

Gravity flow was a pre-industrial wine-making method, back before we had pumps. They were using levees and horses and slides, whatever they could to get wine into a tank, grapes into a tank, and wine in and out of tank without a pump. So we’re actually back to that. What’s old is new. What we had to do was leverage quite a bit of technology. We even spaced out the entire facility to be an underground cave with the staging of every process at different levels so we could physically just let the wine flow down via gravity to each one of the processes: grape receiving, grape sorting into tanks, fermenting, and then going into barrel, and from barrel into blending, blending into bottling. It’s all coming down an 18-story high – or low – cave structure that’s four stories. Each level is a different moment in the wine-making. It’s a pretty complex process. A lot of wine makers, they come to work for us and they think we’re just completely crazy, and then after a while, they realize that it’s actually pretty intuitive. But it takes a lot of space.

And the other thing that we wanted to use technology for in the cellar is FILCS [pronounced “felix”]. I don’t know if you saw that on the website, but FILCS is our other program. We have two algorithms running to help us technology-wise. One for farming, VIGOR, and then FILCS, which is Fermentation Intelligent Logic Control System. That one I remember.

Kirk Bachmann: You got that one. Christian will be proud of you.

Florencia Palmaz: Yes, he will not be rolling his eyes at this moment. What that does is it helps us monitor the tanks. The fermentation environment is very much like making a sauce. How high is the simmer? How low is a rolling boil? Same thing with tanks. We want to make sure that we have the environment of the fermentation tanks really ideal for expressing the kinds of wines that we want to make. We can’t impress too much about how we want them to come out. The grapes are the grapes; they come in from the field and all we try to do is not mess them up, but we do try to capture beautiful moments. And this is where the creativity comes from along the way.

Having a fermentation control system that allows us the time to taste and be in the cellar from a creative mindset and not be worried about turning on and off levers is incredibly important. When you have a creative mind, the worst thing you want to do is be worried about rote mechanisms all day long. It takes head space to be creative.

The Creative Peace and Experience of Wine

Kirk Bachmann: My favorite comment about the gravity flow method is your comment around the peaceful environment that the wine is in. I’m going to apply that to my own aging. I think I’m going to refer to my aging as gravity flow. I want peace. I love that.

Florencia Palmaz: I imagine in your career, you’ve had the same experience as I have. Chefs who are temperamental in a kitchen and what that does to the creativity of everyone else in the kitchen, versus the ones who are the peaceful ones in the kitchen.

Kirk Bachmann: 100 percent. Yeah, we’ve experienced it all. I’m glad you brought that up! it’s a different society today. No longer is the shouting and, heaven forbid, the throwing of utensils in the kitchen…

Florencia Palmaz: Knife throwing! I was just about to say knife throwing.

Kirk Bachmann: It can not occur.

So maybe even arguably more than the wine, your vineyard is about the experience for the guests that come to visit you, right? I’m pretty sure you shared that with me last week. The tour. The process. The dining. The pairing. The experience. Being the creative force in the family business, have you designed your guests’ experience to maximize the tours? No one’s there as long as you are. So a guest comes for a very exact amount of time. How do you maximize their experience while they’re with you?

Florencia Palmaz: I have to confess, we had the luxury of being a small operation for a long time. While we were under construction and just starting out and really an unknown entity, we never really did a lot of marketing. We didn’t come in to the industry with a big ego and say, “La, look at me! Here I am! Check out my wine.” We just started this process very slowly. It gave me the time to literally give every single tour for the first five years.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, wow! Wow!

Florencia Palmaz: We didn’t have a lot of them, so it was a real luxury. So my mother and I when we were first starting out, we would literally be in the back of the kitchen preparing a few hors d’oeuvres and then greeting everybody ourselves and sitting down at a table, which is one of the things we love to do, and just talking about whatever they want to talk about. It was an organic process to settle into. What are their interests? What are their needs? And really understand what is it that they’re searching for when they come to Napa Valley, and how is it that we can share with them in an authentic way the information that they want to learn.

Kirk Bachmann: The intention of connection.

Florencia Palmaz: Absolutely. And I have to confess, this is one of the most beautiful things about this industry. Boring people don’t come to Napa Valley. It’s just a truth. If you are a lover of wine, you are a sophisticated person in whatever you do.

Kirk Bachmann: I’ll be there tomorrow.

Florencia Palmaz: Yeah. I have been totally delighted and thrilled to meet every single customer that comes through the door. There is something about their lives I want to know, and I’ve learned so much from everyone who’s come to my table. It’s a joy. It’s an absolute joy. I guess you have to be a very social animal to take this approach.

Kirk Bachmann: Well, sure! Customer service at it’s best.

Florencia Palmaz: Absolutely.

A Cookbook Dedication

Kirk Bachmann: So in addition, obviously, to being a very talented business woman, you’re also a cookbook author. You found some time to put your thoughts on pages. Talk to us about “At the Table and Around the Fire.” Is this a memoir of sorts?

Florencia Palmaz: For me it’s a dedication of my mother’s cooking. We came to this valley. We literally worked, giving every tour and every tasting. As you can imagine, we learned this business by inviting people to lunch and inviting them to dinner and hosting parties for many, many years. And my mother was an incredible cook – is an incredible cook – even before we came to the valley.

But coming here and really connecting to one of the most extraordinary farming regions in the world where we can grow almost everything to the most delicious potential, cooking is a real joy. We have a beautiful culinary garden here, and of course our background in butchery. You can imagine we definitely know how to find some great steaks or, if anything, some great game meats for a meal.

So I think we really created ourselves. We had this great library in our heads of all the wonderful meals we’ve ever cooked, that she had ever cooked. So I started the book, really, as, “I’ve got to write down what Mom’s cooking because I’m going to forget one of these days.” And when we hit ten years of having the winery open is when I started really sitting down to write it. I wanted the book to be a dedication of my mother’s entertaining style and the cooking that we have done. And sort of an anthology of our evolution of food and wine pairing. That was the intention. Thankfully, I don’t sleep a lot, so a couple hour every evening, just sit down and write them out.

Kirk Bachmann: And it comes together. Are all the recipes your family recipes?

Florencia Palmaz: They are. I have to confess, there’s a couple things that I’ve just always depended on, a recipe that I reference in a couple cookbooks, that I, of course, credited to them. I think Thomas Keller has got the best potato blinis in the business, so we used his blini.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m not going to disagree. It’s okay to give Thomas a little love.

Florencia Palmaz: His potato blinis are reprinted in the book because why mess with perfection.

Elevating Products Through Intention

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. You touched on this earlier: you made the comment, “Connecting the land with your product.” So now it’s wine. Previously it was products that you shipped out to chefs around, venison primarily. What does that mean, especially for students, whether we’re thinking about a farm or a local farmers market, connecting the land to the product? It’s so robust, a beautiful statement.

Florencia Palmaz: It’s my life’s work. I have not figured it out yet. I’ll still be working on this for another 30 or 50 years. What I find is that it’s the discovery. When you really start understanding and respecting what it took to grow, or what it took to create something in a place, that sense of place gives you such a deeper understanding and appreciation for the products. I think it’s been pretty established now, and all the culinary trends today is that when you respect and elevate the ingredients, the appreciation even from the consumer standpoint, from the guest standpoint is elevated. When they understand where something comes from and see how it was respected in its execution, they understand it and connect to it, too.

At the winery, our guest experience is really all about that we want you to appreciate and understand all these crazy things we’re doing to make this beautiful bottle of wine. Is it making it more delicious? Maybe. But there’s so much intention placed in it, that the intention is what helps people appreciate the wines more and understand what’s involved. I see that same intention in so many beautiful industries in the culinary arts, it’s just a pleasure. And I’ll never stop learning about the intricacies of chocolates or herbs or salt. I mean, there’s so much to learn in every ingredient that when you start understanding the places that they come from and the people who are really working and doing good work to produce them, it’s fascinating. It just gives it so much more texture and depth of understanding.

Kirk Bachmann: And have you seen over the years that the consumer, the guest, is a little bit more open to product knowledge? They’re doing some research in advance, they’re using the internet, they know a little bit more. They ask the right questions more than maybe they did 30 years ago?

Florencia Palmaz: That’s an interesting question. I think that they are definitely much more information forward now. They come with a lot of information already in their heads. And that, of course, helps elevate the conversation. Rather than have to explain the basics, you’re straight into that second level of understanding.

Kirk Bachmann: You start at a different level with them.

Florencia Palmaz: Though I’ve never been a believer to say that consumers are more sophisticated now than they were before. Sophistication and appreciation is something that’s inherent. Just because they didn’t have all the nitty-gritty information about what kind of fertilizers were used or what kind of farming methodology existed didn’t mean that they were less sophisticated. Good palates are good palates.

Kirk Bachmann: Period. The other day when we were chatting, you mentioned that your copy of Escoffier’s Le Guide [Culinaire] was close by. Is that it?!

Florencia Palmaz: Yes!

Kirk Bachmann: On the shelf, the green.

Florencia Palmaz: It’s in my office.

The Importance of Classic Cuisine

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it! You kind of walked me through a tasting menu verbally which is, like, fascinating. How important is classical cuisine to you?

Florencia Palmaz: I’m deeply rooted in the classics. It goes along with this notion that I don’t think the past is less sophisticated at all. In fact, in culinary world, if we really want to look at extraordinary executions, I go to the past. I go straight to the classics. I got to Escoffier. My very first recipe that I really worked on and refined in his book was his demi-glace. It is the foundation to everything I do when it comes to the main course with the meat. It’s the best demi-glace that exists, period.

Becaus back then, they understood the classics – Escoffier, Vatel – these gentlemen understood the stakes that were present at the proper execution of their dinners. Their dinners were state dinners. Their dinners were the dinners where the fate of the entire country was being discussed at their tables.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.

Florencia Palmaz: So a bad meal was going to really wreck an entire economy.

Kirk Bachmann: Or more.

Florencia Palmaz: Or more. Execution for them was such a high art. It wasn’t an option. It wasn’t just a Saturday dinner. It was really important. So I appreciate their professionalism. And of course their dedication of craft was just amazing.

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Ironically enough, Escoffier’s great-grandson, Michel, is just to the north of you right now in California for a little event. He’s been in the States for about a week or so. I’m going to have to make an introduction. I think you two would talk for hours.

Florencia Palmaz: Oh my God! I would love to meet him. I can only imagine. He must have amazing stories!

Florencia Palmaz’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: He’s fabulous. He’s fabulous. Sadly, we’ve come kind of toward the end of our time together. However, the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. So Florencia, what is the Ultimate Dish, in your mind?

Florencia Palmaz: As you can imagine, the dish is only a moment in what I consider is the ultimate meal. For me, one dish isn’t long enough. I’ve got too much to talk about at a table. I’ve got too much to connect to with the people around me. So I am a huge fan of the multi-course long dinner that is a celebration of everything.

Kirk Bachmann: As am I.

Florencia Palmaz: As a vintner, we make several wines that are leveraging the different locations of our vineyard, but we actually crafted those wines to be the different courses of dinner. So I think the Ultimate Dish is my ultimate dinner, and it always begins with a little amuse-bouche. Just open up the palate, have a glass of Riesling. I like using Riesling for the first course because it’s got a little bit of sugar and it is a varietal that has lots of absinthe, just a smidge of sugar, like less than two percent, less than one and half percent. It helps open the palate up, it helps open your mind up to what’s coming up ahead. And also that high acid zinger of a crisp wine let’s you pair with chilies and gingers.

For me, it’s like a hamachi crudo with whatever is fresh and interesting and compelling both as an herb or as an infusion on the plate. So a little amuse-bouche.

From there, I want to then start opening up into something extravagant and exciting. I think I mentioned this to you earlier; if I’m going to have a second course, it’s not going to be a salad. How boring! Save that for lunch or when you’re on a diet. But the second course for me is, of course, Chardonnay, so now we’re getting into richer white wines that can handle either some roasted flavors, like a roasted game bird, of a light meat, or a fish course. Personally, what I love – the Italian heritage in me – I love risottos as a second course. A Taleggio-infused risotto, something with some depth and some real richness to it – not a lot, just a little – and a beautiful Chardonnay is a real fun pairing.

The Wines We Love to Make

Moving on from there, we start turning the corner into the big boys, the wines that we really love to make. I hate to have a red course with just one wine. I like to give guests the perspective of multiple vintages. It helps them connect in their minds not only the place but the time, and to see how over time every year is a different expression. The weather’s a little different. The wine’s a little different. What we’ll tend to do for our main course is in fact split them up into two tastings. We’ll have an early year and a later year. A generally later year first because the tannins are a little softer. So, I don’t know if we go a decade back or we go 15 years back, but just a beautiful vintage that we think is showing well.

Interestingly enough, this is a little secret that vintners know that a lot of guests don’t appreciate and don’t have the opportunity to appreciate because they’re not drinking the entire library all the time: wines don’t evolve in a consistent pattern. It’s not a line graph; it’s an evolution. The wines, just like people, have good years and bad years.

Kirk Bachmann: Good years and bad years.

Florencia Palmaz: And the bad year is never really a bad year, it’s just a tough year. As a vintner, it’s our job to really taste through the whole library, know what’s shining, what’s coming through and has hit its harmony. And they do; they hit harmonies throughout their evolution. For instance, about two years ago the 2004 for our estate was just glowing. We couldn’t get enough of ‘04. We keep about 300 cases of all of our past vintages on hand so that when we do dinners or when we’re doing these formal presentations, we have a little bit of history to dip into.

Right now my favorite has got to be the 2008. It’s a very warm vintage. It was always a very opulent and very fruit-forward vintage in it’s youth and now the tannins in the back of it have resolved into something incredibly elegant and long. So 2008. My favorite pairing right now with older Cabernets is squab with berries. In the land of fruit and nuts, literally, in California, you can’t go wrong with doing fruit-based sauces or even walnuts or walnut crusted things. Because they come from our land. These are the things that just marry with the products from this area.

And then I want to move into current vintage, which would be a 2018, a 2017, big vintage. You’ll just taste it and it’s got tannin and structure and it has an exuberance and you swirl the glass and it just, “Wow!” It wants to come out and greet you. So it’s always a lot of fun. Gravity flow wine-making in general is really about tannin management. Even though I say that it’s a huge wine, all of our wines are going to have a really graceful mouth-feel. We age incredibly well, and yet we’re not hard on the palate young. That’s the whole purpose of gravity flow.

Intensity of Flavor and a Light Finish

So I’ll take those and I’ll usually pair a little bit of Wagyu. They’ve got the tannin and the richness to be able to be cut with plenty of fat. We were talking about the venison back in the past – our current ranching project is in fact grass-fed Wagyu being grown here in Plumas County. We have a piece of land up in the far northeastern corner of California and we grow 100 percent grass-fed, range-fed, prime, high-prime Wagyu, which is an incredible combination. There are very few producers in the world who know how to treat a herd so well that they’ll take on weight gain without being confined and mistreated. It’s a lot about temperament and respect and, of course, having the land that can achieve it. So we’re very proud to be one of the very few prime grass-fed producers in America. So I will always feature a beautiful steak. And some killer demi-glace made from those bones.

Kirk Bachmann: There you go, I was waiting for that.

Florencia Palmaz: Something else that I love is that I really want to just push the umami on that last course as far as I can go. So things like porcini crusting or the use of morels in the demi-glace. I’ll definitely push roasted shallots. Anything that can really push the umami without being overly, high-calorically dense, but still give them that really big umami experience because when you have it paired with a young Cabernet, that just creates a magic combination. So for any chefs out there who are thinking about wine pairings, I always say the younger the wine, the more umami you want to push on your course. Especially in the reds.

And by then I’m full. I’m like, “Oh, my gosh! No more, please!”

Kirk Bachmann: That’s been a meal.

Florencia Palmaz: And yet, who wants to finish on the savory? You have to have a little bit of sweet. So we have one more wine that we make in our portfolio which is a muscat in the Italian style. So we make a very light semi-sweet muscat, very floral, very fruit-driven, almost like an end-of-evening aperitif. Not to shoot you in the head with too much sugar. I had a full meal. The idea is to be a fruit salad in a glass, something really light, something fresh, and pair that with something light and fresh. We’re sitting in Napa. Almost at any time of the year, literally, every month of the year there’s something delicious growing in the garden. Right now it’s pomegranates and persimmons, and I cannot get enough of pomegranate or persimmon trifles or pomegranate and persimmon just as a confit with panna cottas, that kind of thing. Of course, in the summer, we’ll do berries. We’ve got all sorts of fruits we can play with after that.

Kirk Bachmann: The passion is unbelievable. The way you take us on a walk. Raise your hand if you want to go have dinner at Florencia’s.

Well, thank you. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today. I will hold up to my promise to introduce you to Michel, maybe the next time he’s in California. He’d love to stop by.

Florencia Palmaz: And truly, we’d love to have you or any of your students or your guests, your listeners at the winery. We’d love to receive you at our table. And hope to meet you all and share a glass soon.

Kirk Bachmann: Thank you so much. We really, really appreciate it.

And thank you for listening to The Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast where you’ll find any materials mentioned in the podcast, including notes, links, and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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