Leadership Conversations: Palmaz Vineyards

by in CustomerCase Study, Industry, People

Portrait of Christian Palmaz, co-founder of Palmaz Vineyards
Christian Palmaz, Co-Founder of Palmaz Vineyards

For Californians, wine is more than a way to destress after a long day at work; it’s a critical part of the state’s economy, contributing more than $50 billion annually through job creation, tourism and exports. According to recent estimates, California produces more than 80% of all U.S. wines and is the 4th largest producer of wine globally with local vintages being shipped to wine lovers in more than 140 countries.

Nested in the heart of Napa Valley — one of the world’s most renowned wine regions just north of San Francisco — Palmaz Vineyards elegantly blends the centuries old heritage and care of Napa’s winemaking tradition with the modern, tech-infused sensibilities of its neighbors to the south. Founded in the 1990s by Julio and Amalia Palmaz after decades of dormancy following Prohibition, the family-owned winery features an iconic, 18-story underground tunnel system build in and around Mount George, which provides a natural, temperature-controlled ‘gravity flow’ environment for producing some of California’s most beloved wines.

We recently spoke with Christian Palmaz, co-founder of Palmaz Vineyards, to discuss the impact Covid-19 has had on local tourism and the winery, which is currently unable to receive guests due to California’s statewide ‘stay at home’ order. Christian joined us from his office at the winery, where he and essential staff continue to tend to the estate in preparation of the fall harvest season.

Transcript

Note: Transcript has been edited for clarity

John Yarbrough: 
Hey everybody, it's John at Lifesize here again for another interview in our leadership series. Today, I am meeting with a very special guest, Christian Palmaz from the Palmaz Vineyards. Christian, how are you doing today? 

Christian Palmaz: 
Thanks John. Thanks for having me. We’re excited to be here. 

John Yarbrough: 
Well, we appreciate it. I have to start by asking you about the incredible scene behind you that is about the most stunning room that I think I've seen in recent memory. What can you tell me about it? 

Christian Palmaz: 
This is one of the rooms inside the winery. We have two dedicated Lifesize rooms that serve a lot of functions, from hosting customers to doing internal tastings as well. 

John Yarbrough: 
Wow, that's great. I skipped over this part; where is the winery located? 

Christian Palmaz: 
The winery is located on the Eastern side of the Napa Valley. You think about Napa Valley as obviously two mountain ranges flanking the Valley of Napa with a city and Yountville and all the way up to Calistoga. We are kind of parallel with Napa the city on one of the tolerant mountains called Mount George, our property goes up and over Mount George. 

John Yarbrough: 
We’ve talked to a couple of other leaders recently who have told us that their schedules have fundamentally changed over the past several weeks, for obvious reasons. Tell me a little bit about what a day in the life looks like for you right now. 

Christian Palmaz: 
Well, really right now it’s just been a change switching from a winery focused on, obviously, production and the cultural parts of managing our vineyards with the addition of all our hospitality. Our incredible marketing team is typically taking care of our guests who come from all over the world to visit us. 

With the recent changes, we have now transitioned to an ‘essential only’ team who’s running operations at the winery. Obviously, the family are still here because we live on the property. We cannot have any visitation from the public, so it’s been quite the adjustments for the entire wine industry. 

John Yarbrough: 
Yeah, that is a big change in a short period of time. Before all of this — the global health crisis, shelter in place and stay at home orders from local and state governments — tell us a little bit about what a normal day at Palmaz Vineyards would’ve looked like, perhaps six months ago. Also, just share a little bit of history on the business and your family and what inspired 
Palmaz Vineyards. What was the story behind what we're seeing here in front of us today? 

Christian Palmaz: 
Well, our family is originally from Argentina. We moved to the United States really for my father, his medical career brought us here. He was the inventor of balloon-expandable stent. And while he was doing his residency at UC Davis, my parents fell in love with the wine industry. This was in the late 1970s, early 1980s. After his medical career was successful, we basically made the decision, my parents made a decision, that they would dedicate their lives to the art of making wine. 

We were fortunate enough to acquire this property, which was a historic property in the Napa Valley. And we founded what is now Palmaz Vineyards in December 1996 and essentially began replanting the vineyards. 

The property is about 640 acres. It goes up and over Mount George. As I mentioned, we have 64 acres planted with all five Bordeaux, the three whites and a little bit of Grenache and essentially began construction on the winery, which is a pretty unique facility, fully underground, 100% gravity flow structure and began building our brand. 

To answer your question about what we would have been doing had this issue not occurred, the winery would be full of by-appointment customers going on extensive, fun tours of the facility and sitting down with their [estate] ambassadors to conduct a very high-end tasting. 

John Yarbrough: 
Yeah. Well let's get into that a little bit. For one, this is a beautiful time of year in the Bay Area, having been in Napa several times. I know it’s a stunning place to visit. It’s a vibrant part of the tourism industry in the West Coast, and you’ve built this incredible destination that, unfortunately, the general public is unable to visit right now. 

How has that impacted your team and you personally right now? What have you done since it became apparent that normal operations were going to be interrupted or suspended for a period of time? 

Christian Palmaz: 
Since we are essential team members only here at the winery, which really includes the wine making team and the viticultural team, those in charge of production, the ambassadors and their support staff are basically all at home, working from home. 

The majority of our business comes from direct-to-consumer relationships where the customer is traveling to us to visit. We have essentially transitioned our communications to essentially bring the brand to them. As you can imagine, people are at home, perhaps enjoying wines more than ever. These products are still very near and dear to our customers. We’ve just needed to become a little more innovative in how we maintain that connection. 

John Yarbrough: 
That brings us to the star of the show. I have to ask you about a fairly recent new marketing initiative that you're calling The Wine Stream. What is the story behind it, who gets credit for it and when did you know that this was going to be something that was going to allow you to stay in contact with your customer base? 

Christian Palmaz: 
Yeah, well definitely my sister deserves all the credit for this. I was not quite sure how this was going to work. I mean, we’ve never done anything like this before. The idea was essentially to stay connected in one form or another. And I saw a lot of our customers sending us emails and lots of pictures of opening awesome bottles of wine on the weekends and cooking great, wonderful things — and there’s still a sense of celebration to be with family and all of that. 

So we thought, well, what if we reciprocated that a little bit and built a show where we could meet at the same time every week and talk about all the good things in the world, and wine is certainly one of them. We never anticipated it was going to be so explosive.

Now, here we are in our third episode, and we’re nearly maxing out the concurrent connections that we can host on the stream. But, it’s been a total success, and it’s really changed the dynamic of how we can communicate with our customers and really have a direct connection with them because, as you know, it’s a bit of a two way experience. They have the ability to chat in concert during the stream, and then we kind of stay engaged with them and they’re sending photos on Twitter. It’s just a lot of fun. 

John Yarbrough: 
There’s a lot of competition for attention on the internet. Consumption of things to maybe take our minds away from everything happening in the world is at an all-time high. Many of us are looking for these small, brief moments to escape. You’re also competing with the video streaming services and any number of other places where people can consume content. What is it about The Wine Stream that you think brings your audience back and keeps them engaged? Is it something about the content itself? Do you think it's something about what you're able to offer them that’s not as easily replicated on a more mainstream consumer video service? 

Christian Palmaz: 
Yeah, I don’t really know what that formula is, I at least couldn’t verbalize it. I think it has a lot to do with the same reasons why the happy hour is such an important part of our day. I think a lot of our customers who have been coming to the winery over the years remember these really fun, interesting tidbits and The Wine Stream gives us an opportunity to dive into subjects that we don’t maybe have the time to do with the customer when they’re here for only a couple hours. It’s in a kind of an expanded format, or at least you try to make it an expanded format, on subjects that we believe they’re interested in. 

John Yarbrough: 
I’m going to switch gears a little bit. You’ve got these incredibly innovative marketing programs that are helping you continue to have this connection, or at least replicate some of the reasons why people come to the winery. As a leader, as somebody that’s faced with making these choices that impact your team and how they spend their time and the business, what are you personally taking away from the past several weeks of this experience? Is there anything that you’ve noticed that has been useful for you and your communication with your team internally? What do you think is replicable for other organizations that are experiencing similar challenges to yours? 

Christian Palmaz: 
I think some of these tools that we have we almost take for grante. We’re fortunate here at the winery to have twin 10-gigabit fiber connections, and we have all this bandwidth. The ability to stream HD video and have multi-point communications and host guests in and share dynamic content and do it without a production crew, these are tools that just frankly weren’t available 10 years ago. I think that through these challenging moments, there’s more opportunities than ever for companies to do innovative things with the tools they have at their fingertips. 

John Yarbrough: 
Yeah, that's a great lesson I think for anybody that’s experiencing disruption in their business is to really re-evaluate the tools at your disposal and see if there’s new creative ways to apply them. We’ll get you out of here, but before we do, for people that are wine enthusiasts that would typically be at your winery and sharing their favorite vintage with a friend and their families right now but are not able to due to the current climate, how can they support the industry at large? What are the proactive things that consumers can do to support their local wineries or some of their favorite brands across the country? 

Christian Palmaz: 
We’ve been very fortunate that the California government, when they determined essential and non-essential functions, allowed wineries to be able to fulfill orders. In other words, do logistics and ship orders out. That was extremely important for giving the wine industry a chance to be able to maintain. I mean, it may pale in comparison to their typical sales structures driven through tasting room sales, but it allows us to continue to fulfill [orders] for our very important club members, who rely on their annual shipments. But also, it allows people to place orders. 

I think one of the best ways you can support your favorite wine brand in Napa Valley is to place orders. And, it’s also probably the safest way to reliably receive the product and safely consume it because it’s coming right to your door. You don’t have to go out and potentially expose yourself in the community environment. But, it’s not just that, it’s all outlets — consuming the wines, enjoying them, I think all of that helps the wine industry. 

John Yarbrough: 
Well that sounds like about the easiest advice to follow — consume a little more wine right now. Christian, thank you so much for the time today. On behalf of everyone at Lifesize, we hope you and your team stay safe and stay healthy, and we look forward to talking with you again soon.