Truth, Justice, and Making Great Wines with Palmer Emmitt

Palmer Emmitt (@palmnut) is the co-owner and co-winemaker behind Emmitt-Scorsone Wines, which make the labels, Judge Palmer and Domenica Amato, in Healdsburg, California.

In this episode, Palmer and I dig into how he went from working in the film industry in Hollywood to owning a winery that makes Cabernet harvested from the famous To Kalon Vineyard, and that’s just one of the wines he and his partner, Michael Scorsone. We also talk about the challenges of running a small winery that produces fewer than 2,000 cases per year across 10+ different wines. Not only is that a lot to keep up with, but also selling to distribution at quantities that small has proved difficult. Palmer then shares with us the winemaking approach that they take in the winery and how it helps to express the each wine’s terroir.

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Transcription

Palmer: My name is Palmer Emmitt. I’m owner and one of the winemakers at Emmitt-Scorsone wines. We have a little winery in Healdsburg in Sonoma County where we make wines for two different labels, Judge Palmer and Domenica Amato. I live in San Francisco with my wife and my two-year old baby girl. And yeah, just a really passionate wine guy who kind of followed my thoughts and dreams here in Sonoma County and few years later have a little winery and I’m making it sell my own wines.

Chappy: So, why wine? When did you first take an interest on wine?

P: Growing up, my father had a pretty cool wine cellar. He wasn’t really a wine geek but he collected some pretty good wines so I was exposed to it by him at first and he kind of introduced me to some of the Bordeaux varietals, and some Napa cab sauv but what I really sort of took a like into was Oregon Pinot Noir. And I just kind of started slowly after I turned 21 getting more acquainted with wine. Eventually, I was introduced to the guy who is now my business partner, Michael Scorsone. Michael was making huge successes in wine making extalia but their team had 13 years to go. He and I were introduced by mutual friend Ryder. At that time, my interest in wine was kind of turning into an obsession and meeting him really sort of inspired me to get more and more involved with it. So, getting classes at night from the WSET, took a few levels of their courses after work over the next few years. And then, eventually quit my job in the movie business in L.A. and move to Sonoma County. I came up here to do the wine business MBA program in Sonoma State and when I got here, I started hanging out with Michael more often and after a few months here he said, “Do you want to make some wine together?”

And I said, “F**k yeah! I’ve been waiting five years for you to ask me that.” So we made a little bit of wine that first year and then the next year he was the head winemaker at Adobe Road Winery. Next year, he hired me as his harvest assistant there and so I worked harvest with him and we made their wines, we made a little bit of our own wine and then it was kind of a bit growing since then. Then we quit our jobs at the Adobe Road about two years ago and found this little winery space in Pillsburg and started doing our own wines full time.

C: Very nice, very nice. Was it scary to, maybe not scary but, difficult and challenging and I’m assuming very expensive, to find a winery in Sonoma that you can actually start producing wine?

P: Well, we certainly got very lucky finding this place. We’re leasing the space that we’re in now. The previous owner of this property was a guy named Jerry Sporse who formed the vineyard and built the little winery here. He sold the property to a couple that was retiring here from Massachusetts who had really no interest in the wine industry commercially and after the winery sat vacant for years, they decided to find somebody to leave it out to and we were lucky enough to be the ones they chose to give the lease to. There was probably quite a bit of interest, not just available winery but also one’s that kind of on an estate vineyard where you’re kind of day to day involved in the romance of it. You know, a lot of people like us starting out making wines in warehouses in 8th Street East in Sonoma or something like that. So, to be able to not only be able to make our wines in our own community but also a little bit of estate’s root to work with is really special here. So, we were very fortunate to find this place for sure.

C: It’s good. I kind of want to go back a bit to when you were working in that kind of movie business in L.A., what drew you to that initially?

P: I started taking film studies classes as an undergrad and I just kind of appreciated the mix of sort of technical film making challenges with artistry. I think just kind of a parallel there with winemaking as well. I just kind of fell in love with movies, went to NYU and followed that out to the movie business in L.A.

C: Do you think what you learned in working in the movie business, do you think that helps you translate to how you make wines and kind of how you tell a story through wines?

P: Yeah, I mean certainly. Selling fine wine is in large part storytelling. And working as a story analyst in Hollywood for 8 ½ years, it was certainly a “Doctorate” in storytelling. So, yeah definitely it’s a plus in trying to market the wines for sure. And I think to some extent, may influence the type of wines that I want to make, wines that have a story. If I’m working in a vineyard that has a long history or long backstory, or working with a vineyard that I have a personal connection to or something like that definitely kind of deepens those bonds and deepens the ability to tell a compelling story without having to bullshit too much.

C: Yeah, that’s something definitely I have learned through your websites and your marketing is that you definitely try, there’s no bullshit, it’s a hundred percent honest, real stuff that you’re trying to do.

P: That’s the goal.

C: So, what wines are you making right now?

P: We’re making a lot of different stuffs. The Judge Palmer label has a Bordeaux varietal focus, so we’re doing mainly cabernet. Under that label, we’re working with a few grape vineyards in Napa Valley that stuffed Georges III, stuffed To Kalon, and Stagecoach would do each of those. Then on the Sonoma Cabernet side, we do from a vineyard in Alexander Valley as well as one from our estate vineyard here in Dry Creek. And then we make a couple of Sauvignon Blancs, one in a more kind of traditional style and then we do some skin contact in fermentation. Then we make some Mont Blanc from Knight’s Valley.

For our other label, the Domenica Amato, that’s our sort of passion project, passion-side project, and sort of experimentation lab so we’re making a bunch of stuff in small quantities. We’ve done some Pinot Noir, some Chardonnay from Bacigalupi vineyard. We’ve done Granache Blanc from Carneros, Sonoma Coast in Sonoma Valley. We did some brews on this past year from Dena Valley. We did some Syrah from the estate here which we’re going to move over Granache this year, so we’re going to do a Granache this year. We’re looking into the future to hopefully do, to add some Italian varietals to that mix. Michael’s father and grandparents are from Sicily and we kind of, he certainly has that connection with Italy and desire to do some Italian varietals so we’re looking into some other things in the future.

C: That’s quite a mix.

P: Yeah, that’s kind of a long list and you know, it may change over time, especially on the Domenica side at this stage in our business, and hopefully it will stay this way. We’re kind of driven, first and foremost, by passion and if something interests us, we’re going to do it.

C: So, some of kind of the main, especially the cab vineyards that you’re working with. It’s a pretty prestigious vineyard in Northern California, how did you cultivate those relationships with the owners to be able to buy fruit from them. I’m sure everybody in Northern California, in general, wants to buy fruit from these vineyards, how did you make that happen?

P: I think most of the credit there goes to my partner, Michael. He did some consulting work for Fred Straiter planting Fred’s Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir vineyard. He had a really good experience planting and farming some in the Sonoma Coast when he worked there.  So, Fred called him for help planting his Forest View vineyard out there and Fred happens to be one of his biggest clients. So when Michael got the head winemaking job at Adobe Road, Fred introduced him and the owner of the Adobe Road to offers and he started making George III Cabernet and the first few wines he made from there were really well-received by the wine press and the offers liked Michael personally so, when he came to them and said, “Hey, I have this side project. We sell some little bit of fruit.” And they said, “Sure.” And we tried to be good clients and good people to them over the years and it paid off in 2015 when they asked us if we want a couple of rows in Tokalon and it was hard to turn down so we moved over from George III to Tokalon starting 2015.

C: That’s incredible. I feel that if somebody offers you even half a row in Tokalon, you don’t say no.

P: Exactly! It’s a pretty special place to me, not that that other vineyards aren’t special as well. We certainly love the fruit from George III. It has really special character to it as well but, the Tokalon is kind of, definitely half a step up if not in quality, definitely in reputation.

C: So, Judge Palmer as a label is pretty young, is it five or six years old.

P: The first vintage was in 2011. We’ve really been only selling the wines for about a year and a half.

C: So, as a young winery, some of your first wines are cabs that were in new oak for two years. You know, spending that time and money on barrels and just the time to have it in barrel and in bottles, that’s a big investment for a side project in a small winery. Could you kindly take us through that thought process of making a decision of making a cab that is going to have that time frame as opposed to maybe just making starting off with Sauvignon Blanc, something that is quicker to turn around, you can get out the door and start making money faster?

P: Yeah, it is a combination of a few factors. I mean, one like I said, we’re primarily driven by our passion and certainly the opportunity to make that George III Cabernet was something I couldn’t turn down and to do right by that wine, it’s got to be in new French oak and it’s got to be there for a long time. To me, it was really no decision to make there. I would say also, in the beginning, I didn’t really know the long-term plan for us. I was just thinking short-term, “What’s it going to cost me this year?” I wasn’t thinking, “Alright, what’s it going to cost me in the next four years if a sell a bottle of it?” If I had known that in the beginning, I might have done things a little bit differently but you know, just kind of, the project just sort of flowed over time. We just kind of did it for fun and then later figured out to turn it into a business. It’s not necessarily the way that I would advise people to start out. You know, I’d probably say that to start with Sauvignon Blanc in the first year but we just do what we wanted to do and we’re kind of committed over the long term. You know, we may stay poor over a while but we think in the long run, we’re going to make better wines and it’ll work out for us.

C: Absolutely. So, kind of coming back to the, I guess you could call it the “ethos of no bullshitting passion” behind it, what’s the story behind the name Judge Palmer?

P: Palmer is my mother’s maiden name and her father was a judge. He ran Northern California so he was Judge Palmer, Judge Jim Palmer in a little town called Placerville up in the Sierra foot hills and when Michael and I were tossing names around, I was just sort of speaking about my family and I just spit out Judge Palmer and he said, “That’s it! That’s the name!” And it was kind of nice symmetry as well because he had already been making a little bit of Pinot in the side for a label that he intended to name after his grandmother, Domenica Amato. So, we have the grandma label and the grandpa label.  And just after we came up with the name, I just started thinking a lot about the kind of guy my grandfather was and sort of living up to the example that he set in the way we do business and the way we make wine. And since we kind of developed the rest of sort of brand idea that being no-nonsense and straightforward and just kind of old-school, small town, honesty and authenticity.

C: I’m curious about your winemaking style.

P: We are, we certainly are not wine ideologs. We’re not driven specifically by any sort of wine dogma but in general, we tend towards the minimal intervention and natural. We do all spontaneous fermentations with whatever wines that come from the vineyard. We’ve never had to buy any commercial yeast. We don’t do any sort of enzyme additions. We try to keep things as natural as possible but we’re not up close to it in principle if it would make better wine, using some sort of modern winemaking product or technique or equipment. We just tend not to have ever do it.

C: Have you found there to be a particular varietal that maybe is a bit more difficult to really get to that highest quality that it could be just with maybe zero intervention?

P: Not really. I mean they all are fermented a little faster and a little quicker and easier. In most part, we haven’t had problems with any one variety. I think it’s more of site specific than it is variety specific or kind of a combination between vineyard site and variety. Certainly on the valley floor in Napa over the couple of years with warmer climates and the drought we had, we certainly had challenges with getting the grapes to taste right by the time the sugars have creeped up to the point where you have to pick them. So, you little have a little bit of challenge in the balance there between sugar and flavor. We tend to pick on flavor which means we may have to, you know, add a little water or little tartaric acid which is again, something we’re not opposed to but has to make the best wine, but we try to avoid it.

C: How do you prepare for bringing in the fruit before harvest when you know maybe this grape varietal or this part of the vineyard isn’t ripening just enough, how do you mentally prepare or even physically prepare the winery to make those adjustments?

P: You know we kind of take everything day by day. Our thoughts on when to pick something or when to press something or any other sort of farming or winemaking decision, we try not to make rash decisions. We just kind of try to get it day by day and sort of see what Michael’s palette and our winemaking instincts lead us. I can’t consider any specific answer to that question, we just kind of take everything day by day and during the process of harvesting grapes, there’s just a lot of activity in the winery and especially making 12 different varietals from 15 different vineyards, there’s all sorts of legit reasons why you may choose to do certain things so we just kind to do flexible and take it day by day.

C: So, I’m curious as, froma marketing standpoint and just a competition standpoint, what are some of the ways that you market your wines, especially the cabs, because I mean, everybody knows about Northern California, Napa and Sonoma Cab. It’s good. There’s a lot of competition out there so how do, I guess, what’s your unique selling point? How do you differentiate?

P: I don’t know that there’s necessarily any big point of differentiation, I just think all the little things add up. Try to make good wines and a reasonable price point for the vineyard or for the AVA. I hope we don’t put all of our stock in the packaging but we try to put together a nice package. Again, we just try to be good, honest people and build relationships out in the market with the people selling the wines and people drinking the wines and just hope that doing every little thing right makes a little bit of a difference. Certainly one of the reasons we’re working with, there’s a built up marketing advantage to that. People may not know who Judge Palmer is but they know that stuff from To Kalon is and maybe a lot more are willing to give our wine a try because of that and hopefully discover the rest of our wines if they are a big Napa cab guy and they are willing to give our To Kalon Oak a chance at a $125 or $150 and they see that we also make this Sonoma County vintage select cab at $42, drink that and find that they like it just as much as the To Kalon one, hopefully they’llbe more inclined to keep buying our wines and doing business with us.

C: Do you allocate all your wines or a large portion of your wines?

P: We haven’t had to do that yet. We’re hoping at some point, if it gets to that point, we’ve been careful when we work for national distribution market without overextending ourselves. So, right now we’re really selling the wines in three states, Texas, Florida, and Tennessee because we want to be able to have enough wine for those markets, for those people who took a chance at working with us early on.  So, we’re being cautious about not going into 10-15 states when we’re not sure if we have enough wine to support them all. We haven’t had to allocate yet so, I think maybe at some point we will, especially with the To Kalon but so far, we’re not doing it.

C: So, how many cases across both labels do you make?

P: We produced about 1500 cases each of the last two years since we moved in to our new winery and we’re probably going to do a little bit more than that this year, maybe close to 2000 this year.

C: That’s tiny.

P: Yeah and most of that is Judge Palmer and probably half of the total is cabernet and the other half is equal amounts of all the other varieties that we make.

C: So, when you say that it’s a passion project, it is a passion project and that’s a tiny amount of wine to make.

P: Yeah, I mean, we’re hoping obviously to grow a little bit but not grow so much that we can’t continue to make the wines ourselves and have a personal connection, not just with every barrel of wine, but every person, more or less that drinks. We don’t want to hire a marketing team to do our tastings here at the winery. We don’t want to hire a national sales manager, we want to be able to do that ourselves. We’re doing it now and we think we can continue to do it up to three thousand cases and maybe even beyond that and that’s really the goal, keeping it small, keeping it personal, keeping it authentic, and keeping the quality.

C: Love that. So what have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in starting both labels?

P:  Let’s see. I mean, it’s just, there really hasn’t been any one big hurdle. I mean, certainly once we moved into this winery and started releasing the wines, it was definitely a bit of a panic moment when it didn’t start selling quite as fast as we wanted to. So, we had to figure out the best strategy for getting people here to the winery to taste our wines and to meet us. We were confident that once people did that, that they’d want to be a part of our wine club and want to be customers for everybody. It was a challenge at first to figure out how to get people here and it certainly a challenge at the national market trying to get distributors to want to work with a winery that produces 1500 cases a year.  We were lucky we had some relationships from Fortworth, Texas that are willing to take a chance on us. But in other states, it’s been bit of a challenge trying to convince people. So, we’re still working on that. We’re lucky in Tennessee, a couple that was starting a new brokerage there had our wine, had our Sauvignon Blanc at a restaurant in San Francisco at A16 and fell in love with it, called us up that night from the dinner table said, “We need to come up for a tasting tomorrow.” They came up and said, “We want to, we’re starting a new brokerage, we want you to be our first brand.” We weren’t even thinking about Tennessee as a place to sell our wine. They’re so passionate about our wine and about wine in general, we thought we’d give them a chance and it really worked out for us. We’re hoping to find two or three more of those in states across the country.

C: That’s really good. That’s a good story.

P: Yeah, they’re great. You should follow Wine Theory on Instagram. They’re really passionate about wine and great photographers and cool people and they’re really, really have a big impact in the wine scene in Chatanooga, Tennesse. It doesn’t seem like a big wine market but they’ve really done a great job of kind of firing the community there to want to drink quality wines from honest producers. We’re really grateful for that.

C: Chatanooga’s starting to blow up in a national scale I mean. A lot of big companies are going there and there’s just so much growth there. It makes sense that wine can naturally start to get into a market.

P: Absolutely. I’ve been to places like Asheville, North Carolina where there’s a lot of kind of little up and coming towns with passion for wines and products and I think people are coming more and more conscious about consumables whether it’s wanting to eat farm-to-table restaurants or drink craft beer or drink a coffee wherever it is, people want to know who it is who makes the product and know that it comes from a quality source. I think that artisan wine is going along that trend.

C: Yeah, for sure. So I’m curious why, I guess from a distribution standpoint, for distributors, is it hard to get them to take on the labels just because it’s a tiny quantity and that it’s not really worth their time to promote wine if they only get three or four hundred bottles of it?

P: Yeah, exactly. We’ll just not going to be big enough to make an impact in their bottomline. And to their credit, it’s also they don’t know that we’re going to be around in three years. They don’t know that we’re going to be making enough wine. If they could get out in the market and work their butts off and try to build our brand all of a sudden, we don’t have enough wines to sell in all the work they do. I understand the reasons why they’re reluctant. Again, it’s about relationships we can trust, trust that we’re not going to abandon them. Be committed and get out there and market with them and be able to back them up with a consistent product which is always not the case with small wineries.

C: That makes sense. We’re almost out of time. I’m curious what is the dream and the goal of both labels?

P: I think naturally we’d like to own our own winery on a tiny estate vineyard in the hills in Dry Creek or Alexander valley. We’d certainly like to farm some of our own vineyards, especially from the Domenica label but continue to work with the best offers and the other people we’ve worked with for a long time. It was great. More or less what we’re doing now is just maybe making and selling a little bit more wine and doing it on a piece of property that we own.

C: Sounds good. I think that’s the dream for most people in the industry, to have your own thing you can do whatever you want with it.

P: That certainly is, I mean, there’s people going to attack it from all different directions, certainly people with a marketing focus, you know, who want to sell a million cases. It’s just not going to be us. We’re definitely more into sort of the formative vineyard and making wines from and it having more of a connection to all those romantic wine things that may seem a little cliché if you’re not a part of it but we really do have a deep meaning for a fulfilled life.

C: Absolutely. On that note of a fulfilled life, what have you been feeling grateful for lately?

P: I’ve been feeling grateful that I have a beautiful wife, who loves and supports me and a perfect two year old daughter who’s healthy and happy and another daughter on the way and I’m also really grateful that people are starting to enjoy our wines in large numbers and I can transport a bit of my happiness to their dinner table, in their wine glass every night. It’s kind of awesome to come together in the last couple of months with the business and my personal life and just grateful for all these things.

C: Love it. So where can people connect with you online and buy your wines most importantly.

P: Our wine shop website is www.emmittscorsone.com.  There’s also a Judge Palmer separate website and from there, you can click over easily. We’ve got Facebook pages for both brands. Instagram accounts for both brands, Judge Palmer wine. One Instagram for Judge Palmer and Domenica_Amato_Wine on Instragram for that label.

C: Cool. I’ll post links so people can find you for that. And last question is, what everybody finds pretty challenging is what is one wine other than any of the wines that you make that you are excited about lately?

P: Lately? We had the winemakers at the winery here the other day from a little place just down the road called Davero. They do Italian varietals in Dry Creek valley and they sell one hundred percent direct so you have to be in their wine club to get the wines but they’re biodynamic and natural and very funky, very characterful wines and the one that I’m most intrigued by the other day is a Vermentino that they did fermented 50% pressed juice and 50% on the skins for two or three weeks and blended the two together very much the way we do our Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a really really special wine.