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From Water to Wine

Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Christian Palmaz reviewing data in the fermentation dome

Christian Palmaz ‘07 builds intelligence technology that saved his family’s vineyards during Napa Valley wildfires

by Molly Mohr Bruni

Fermentation never sleeps, according to Christian Palmaz ‘07, CEO of Palmaz Vineyards. During harvesting season, fermentation happens when you’re sleeping, when you’re eating...or when you’re fighting fires.

Safely stored 18 stories underground, with fire unable to penetrate its stone-covered structure, “many millions” of dollars of wine kept fermenting while Palmaz, his sister Florencia Palmaz ‘98, and his wife Jessica Palmaz ‘07 hurried to save the family’s vineyard in Napa Valley, Calif.

Earlier in the evening on Oct. 8, Palmaz received a text from a friend asking if his family could evacuate to Palmaz’s guest house; wildfire was spreading rapidly on his property. Palmaz then looked toward the friend’s home, just over the ridge of Atlas Peak, and noticed the faint glow of fire, a sliver of orange pressing up against the night sky. Within just a couple of hours, he watched the fire trickle over the ridge of the hill and begin to race through his own property. Palmaz grabbed the fire tender—that he admits they probably bought only to get the reduction on their insurance, but still kept it loaded with water just in case—and used the fire-suppressing foam to try to protect his parents’ house on the property, the historical Hagen estate built in 1876.

Napa Valley wildfire creeps over the hills

After dousing the landmark estate with foam, the Palmazes worked until the wee hours of the morning stomping out embers and putting out small flare-ups with water from hoses. The guest house Palmaz offered his friend had burned down completely by 2 a.m. With one call to 911 futile, not even making it through, Palmaz says “we knew we were totally on our own.” At 4:30 in the morning, he saw five fire trucks whirring through the entrance. He breathed a sigh of relief—finally, some help had arrived—but was confused when they sped past him.

“I realized when they drove right on by us...they’re not here because of us. They’re here for the water,” Palmaz admits. It was no secret that the Palmaz property has one of the largest water reservoirs in the county because of its state of the art water treatment plant, with about 1.2 million gallons of reclaimed water at the ready that night, and Palmaz recalls the fire trucks were “like a conga line that didn’t stop...just truck after truck after truck.” For the next few days they would pull water from Palmaz’s tanks to fight fires around the area, fed by Palmaz’s mother and her famous enchiladas whenever they stopped in to refill.

Meanwhile, Palmaz says he was a bit preoccupied to be even thinking about the wine underground. The wine was in the middle of its fermentation stage, though, a time when it needs constant human attention. But police wouldn’t allow employees back onto the property to check on the wine.

“It wasn’t necessarily a high priority in the eyes of the officer that you were trying to convince,” Palmaz laughs.

So for 18 hours the wine was left unattended, a move that might have been disastrous for any other winery. But Palmaz had his fermentation intelligence logic control system on his side (FILCS, pronounced “felix”). Palmaz had spent the past five years perfecting the computer intelligence system that collects data from the fermentation tanks, adjusts temperature in the tanks, and uses error prediction technology to catch problems before they occur. While Palmaz insists FILCS isn’t an artificial intelligence system, he does call it a “machine learning” system that builds databases and gets smarter with the more information it acquires.

The fermentation dome at Palmaz Vineyards

In simple terms, FILCS measures two things: temperature and density. But this temperature reading “isn’t like your living room thermostat,” which takes the temperature at one point in your home and adjusts airflow accordingly. Rather, FILCS measures temperature constantly at three and a half million points in each fermentation tank, with the ability to adjust temperature in four different zones of the tank. Density of the wine, which indicates how much sugar has turned into alcohol, is measured ten times a second. All of this data builds a complex “cloud matrix of information” that helps winemakers manage fermentation on the technical side, freeing up their creative work.

“Winemakers don’t want to be chasing down temperature trends,” Palmaz says. FILCS helps “elevate the artistic element of the winemaker by focusing on tasks that are mundane.”

Hands-free so that the winemakers “can carry the only instrument they really like”—a wine glass—FILCS projects as a virtual workspace onto the fermentation dome, a structure that looks like something straight out of a James Bond villain’s lair. In fact, the entire system was built to be “transparent” to the winemakers, a tool that helps them by running quietly in the background.

Palmaz says that in the years he’s spent watching the “brilliant” winemakers, he’s noticed that constant distractions kept them from doing their job. “They would just get into that final moment after hours and hours of preparation, that sweet spot of creative thought, and then something would happen and it would take them away from it,” he explains. “And it was very frustrating to watch. So FILCS is built to be a system that gets out of their way so they can have more of those precious moments of creative direction.”

Palmaz sips wine while looking at his phone

More of a tech geek than a winemaking creative, Palmaz says FILCS was the way he could contribute to the winemaking process since he never had the “stylistic skill to play ball at the level of the winemakers.”

“If somebody made glasses for your palate, I would need them,” he jokes. “The winemakers have this incredible sharpness. If you can visualize with taste, they would have 20/20 vision. And I’m legally blind. I just wasn’t put on this earth to make wine in the traditional sense of a winemaker, so I decided to dedicate part of my life to playing a supporting role to those who do have that talent.”

Knowing he would be taking over the family business on the operations side rather than the winemaking portion, Palmaz worked toward a business administration degree with a management concentration at Trinity University. But he also deeply enjoyed computer science and geoscience, taking courses in the subjects while pursuing his degree.

“There was this emphasis to broaden your horizons a little bit while you were there,” says Palmaz. “You were constantly encouraged, if there was something you were interested in...you could deep dive into it as much as you wanted without having to commit to the whole career path.”

On top of that, Palmaz notes, the classes weren’t “snoozers,” either, with “quality and depth of information that was typically something that you wouldn’t normally get access to unless you were doing graduate-level.” Professors were “serious pioneers” in their subjects but also had a passion for teaching and were easily accessible, both of which Palmaz says “you just don’t normally see in the undergraduate level.”

He specifically reveres Glenn Kroeger, a professor in the geosciences department who “took [him] under his wing and helped [him] leave Trinity with the right kind of foundational understanding of some of these up-and-coming technologies and mathematical models that [he] would continue to study after Trinity.”

While the interpolated modeling Palmaz learned in Kroeger’s classes may have been surface-level at the time, it built the base for the eventual creation of FILCS and other products that his tech business, Vactronix Scientifics, builds.

“I have to hand it to Dr. Kroeger for helping me understand how to go about doing this,” Palmaz notes. “It may have been ocean temperatures at the time, but now...that interpolated model is how FILCS understands how heat and temperature conduct through a complex environment inside a fermenter.”

FILCS’ understanding of data, paired with level of leeway the winemakers’ allowed the system to adjust temperatures in the tanks, spurred it to take action the night of the fire. FILCS heated or cooled tanks based on patterns it had tracked in the weeks leading up to the fire.

For example, in one tank, the winemakers would drop in a ball of dry ice at the same time every day. The tank would cool down rapidly and slowly heat back up. The night of the fire, there was no winemaker around to drop the dry ice, but FILCS simulated the effect on its own, instigating a rapid burst of cooling with subsequent heating. The next day, the winemakers tasted the wine in that tank as well as the others—everything was normal.

FILCS had never run on its own before, and there are no plans to do so again in the future. According to Palmaz, FILCS is the “ultimate winemaker’s assistant,” but that’s all it is—an assistant. He reprogrammed FILCS in the days following the fire so that it can’t “take things too far in one direction” should a crisis ever occur again.

When asked if he plans on using his business administration degree to package up and sell FILCS, Palmaz says no. He freely shows the fermentation dome and FILCS’ capabilities to anyone in the wine industry who visits his property. They even open-source the data FILCS captures to serve as a teaching tool. But there is one product that Palmaz eagerly looks forward to selling.

“The 2017 vintage doesn’t have to just be remembered in infamy,” he says, implying that the wine could have been ruined if not for FILCS. “It gets to actually be a pretty darn good vintage, and I’m going to be proud to put the last foil on those bottles in 2020 when they come out to the market.”

Case of wine bottles from Palmaz Vineyards