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Thursday, September 15, 2016

MOVERS and SHAKERS: Palmer Emmitt, Owner and Artisan Winemaker at Judge Palmer Our Coverage Sponsored by Fresh Origins

Palmer Emmitt

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Palmer Emmitt was born in New York City and raised in New Jersey, attending high school at the Pingry School in Martinsville. His mother grew up near Lake Tahoe, and on family trips out west Palmer developed a love of skiing, later becoming a nationally ranked junior racer. A desire to continue his ski racing development while getting a top flight education led him to Bowdoin College, where he competed at the NCAA Division I level for all four years and was named captain of the alpine ski team. He graduated in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. Palmer continued to pursue the dream of making the US Ski Team after college, joining a corporate sponsored ski team called “Team GO!” and travelling the world competing in international level events for one year. 

While at Bowdoin, Palmer took advantage of the liberal arts education by falling in love with the study of film and undertaking an advanced independent study project in film comedy his senior year. The film bug stayed with him through his post graduate year of ski racing and he applied and was accepted to the Cinema Studies graduate program at New York University Tisch School of the Arts, where he graduated in 2001 after also writing, producing and directing a full length feature film. 

Palmer moved west in 2002 and began his career in the entertainment industry in Hollywood, working first in freelance production on films such as Cellular, Rumor Has It and MVP 2: Most Vertical Primate, and later as a development executive for a feature film producer based at Walt Disney Pictures. During that time Palmer pursued another of his passions in his spare time – wine – taking sommelier courses at night. He eventually received advanced certification with distinction from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET). Also during this period of growing passion for wine, Palmer contributed wine articles to several blogs and organized monthly wine tasting parties at his house for film industry friends. 

By late 2009, wine had surpassed film as Palmer’s chief passion and he transitioned full time to the wine business. He worked as a sales specialist at retailer Domaine LA, a sommelier and wine buyer for the Royal Gorge Resort near Lake Tahoe, and then as a marketing consultant for innovative online wine seller Palmer moved to wine country in 2011 to attend Sonoma State University’s Wine MBA program, where he was awarded the Donn P. Reisen Scholarship for Wine Business in recognition of his academic standing (4.0 GPA) and passion for the wine business. He was also named “Top Wine Student of 2012” by the French American Chamber of Commerce in a wine knowledge and blind tasting competition for San Francisco Bay Area wine students. 

Shortly after moving to wine country, Palmer reconnected with a friend in the wine business named Michael Scorsone, a winemaker for Failla Wines and Adobe Road Winery, who casually suggested they make some wine together. That germ of an idea blossomed into the Judge Palmer Wine Co., which produced its first wine in 2011, and released officially to the public in 2015. Named for Palmer’s grandfather, a former judge in El Dorado County, California, Judge Palmer produces Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietal wines from premier vineyard sites in Napa Valley and Sonoma County.   Whom You Know has been incredibly impressed with the Judge Palmer wines, and we are absolutely thrilled to present Palmer Emmitt as our latest Mover and Shaker.  Peachy Deegan interviewed Palmer for Whom You Know.  

Peachy Deegan: What is your first firsthand memory of Manhattan?
Palmer Emmitt: 
Growing up in New Jersey, we went into the city fairly often to go to shows or museums or sporting events. I have a distinct memory of a dinner at Carmine’s with my mom and two friends before going to see “Tommy” on Broadway – we walked past world champion boxer Evander Holyfield on the way in, and ate heaping plates of pasta and the biggest Caesar salad I’ve ever seen with what to me as a teenager was a frightening amount of anchovies on top.

What is your first memory of wine?
My dad built an amazing cellar when I was a few years old and started stocking it with first growth Bordeaux and Napa Cabernet. There was a trap door in the dining room floor and a spiral staircase leading down there and it was cold and musty. I knew the wine was expensive and that I wasn’t really allowed down there but it was just such a cool secret little spot that it was impossible to resist as a kid. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I was always intrigued by wine even before I was old enough to appreciate it.

How do you define artisan winemaking and what does it mean to you?
Artisan winemaking is I think about being personally connected to every lot, every barrel, every bottle. It’s about getting your hands so stained red during crush that they don’t come clean until Christmas. It’s about making every decision in the winery with quality in mind no matter the cost. It’s about following your inspiration, taking risks, and questioning the status quo. It’s about finding a world-class vineyard in an unlikely place, or discovering two rows of vines on a slightly different ribbon of soil that will make a wine of a completely different character than its neighbors.

What should the world know about your grandfather, Judge James Palmer?
He was a sweet, loving man but he did not suffer fools gladly. He was an all-time great as a bullshit detector – you couldn’t get anything by him, which served him really well as a small town judge. Everyone in town knew and loved and respected him. He’d take me for drives around town and we’d pull up somewhere and roll down the window and people would come out of the woodwork to talk to him. He had a great big warm smile, but not a toothy one. He loved ice cream – he used to say there was always room for ice cream no matter how stuffed you were because it would melt in your stomach and fill in the cracks. He did not go to law school; he owned some pear and peach orchards and had an electrical contracting business before fate intervened.
He was in a small aircraft accident when he was around 40 – he was flying and crashed on landing at South Lake Tahoe – and was paralyzed from the waist down, spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair, and had some other health problems as a result that persisted for the rest of his life. The doctors didn’t think he’d live more than another 5 years. It was during this time that the local judge passed away in the middle of his term and my grandfather got a call from a friend on the Board of County Supervisors who had to appoint a new judge to complete the term. He told my grandfather that he thought he needed a new challenge in his life after the accident and that he’d make a great judge – he was honest and fair minded and everyone in town trusted him – but he would have to pass the bar. So my grandfather studied his ass off and passed the bar. He was appointed to the bench, finished out the term, and was re-elected four times, serving for almost 20 years. He ended up living for 25 years after the accident, and would have lived longer but he lost his will after my grandmother passed away. Which is the other thing you should know about him – his wife Geraldine was a saint, and the best cook who ever lived, and his daughter Judy (my mom) is just like her.

Did your grandfather ever judge wine?
Not that I’m aware of. I know his father used to make wine out of the pears and peaches that they grew, but I’m sure it wasn’t all that great… A few wineries started popping up near Placerville in the Sierra Foothills during the last decade of his life and he used to take my father wine tasting.

What do you think your grandfather would think of the brand you’ve created, his namesake?
I think he’d be very proud. But I think he’d be dumbfounded that people pay $115 for a bottle of wine.

Looks like you attended a different BC; what should everyone know about Bowdoin College and how did you like it?
Bowdoin is a great school and Brunswick, Maine was a great place to spend four years. There’s definitely no substitute for a liberal arts education in the way it opens your mind to new possibilities and trains you not for a specific vocation but to think critically and creatively.

We worked with Warner Bros on The Judge where there is also a Judge Palmer: any relation and did you see the film?
I have not seen the film, but I did find out just before the release that there was a character named Judge Palmer. I made some calls to friends in Hollywood to send some bottles to the premiere party, but on short notice I wasn’t able to make it happen. I’m not sure if Robert Duvall is a wine aficionado or not but I’d love to send him a bottle.

Have you worked your product in Hollywood placement?
I haven’t yet. I’m sure an opportunity will arise at some point and I’d be happy to do it.

Will you combine your film background with your winemaking?
I feel like I already do – working in feature film development was a masters course in storytelling, and selling fine wine is all about telling a compelling story.

What would surprise people about the process of winemaking?
People are always surprised that we actually foot stomp grapes – yes, just like Lucy – not all of our wines but a few lots that we ferment whole-cluster. 
I think people have this view of a winemaker as this fancy guy with a sweater draped over his shoulders swirling a glass, but winemaking is hard, dirty work. My partner Michael and I do all the work in the winery ourselves, we don’t have employees or a big crew of harvest interns doing all the punch-downs for us. And most of the work is cleaning the equipment – that probably takes up 75% of our time during crush.
A few things would certainly surprise people about the way we make wine as opposed to a large commercial winery, or even a lot of well known smaller brands. Our process is simple and traditional, and our mantra in the winery is “do less.” We don’t add anything to the juice to turn it into wine, we let nature do that for us – “spontaneous” fermentations with the wild yeast that is naturally occurring in the vineyards. People tend to think it’s a big chemistry experiment in the winery or that there is some proprietary recipe, but the best wines are grown not made. We find unique vineyards and work with our growers to get the best quality grapes possible and then just try not to screw them up. 

How does one excel as a wine student?
Taste, taste, taste. Try new things. Try everything. And then keep track of what you taste. Write something down every time you taste a wine, even if when you’re starting out you don’t really know what to write. The writing down component is key to translate what your palate is experiencing so that your brain can commit those tastes to memory.

What challenges have you faced in building your brand that were a surprise to you, or like skiing, has it been all downhill?
I don’t think there have been any big surprising challenges, it’s just been new little challenges every day, and we just have to roll up our sleeves and do the work day in and day out. In that way, ski racing has been good training for business because it’s so unpredictable you have to be adaptable and persistent to succeed. It’s always something different but it’s all fun.

Before you created your own brand, which vineyards and winemakers in America did you admire most and why?
Before he passed away, I really admired Gary Andrus. He was on the US Ski Team in the 60s and fell in love with wine while racing in France. His daughter was my age and we were on a ski team together and he’d coach us occasionally – I had no idea at the time that he was a famous winemaker, I only discovered it later when I started to get into wine. He founded Pine Ridge in Napa and Archery Summit in Oregon, and near the end of his life a little brand called Gypsy Dancer. He built a house with an artisan winery basically in the basement – winemaking was truly an all-encompassing way of life for him – and I went to visit him there not long before he passed away. We talked ski racing and wine and had a blast. Like me he always followed his passion wherever it led him and he made terrific wines.
A brand I really admire is Diamond Creek in Napa – they’re one of the few producers in Napa that didn’t follow the herds towards over-extracted, showy, fruit and oak bomb wines in the late 90s to try to please the wine critics. Their wines now are similar in style to the ones they made in the 70s, and you have to age them for 10 or 15 or 20 years to truly enjoy them. That level of commitment is remarkable and the wines are tremendous.

Before you created your own brand, which vineyards and winemakers outside of America did you admire most and why?
Lopez de Heredia in Rioja, Spain is in my opinion the most fascinating winery in the world. They make wine in a way that no one else does and they’ve stuck to it for over a hundred years – it’s a “penicillin cellar” with mold growing on the walls in a 100% humidity environment and almost no modern sanitation. They age their wines so long before release that it would be absolutely impossible to start a business now doing what they do – you’d be a billion dollars in debt before you sold a bottle. It is still run by the same family; they have such rich tradition and history and the wines are truly unique and amazing.

What should the world know about your business partner, co-owner Michael Scorsone?
Michael’s palate is super-human; he can taste a wine and not only tell you the varietal and where it was grown, but what barrels it was aged in, how it was fined, and what additives the winemaker used to try to “make” the wine. But he’s also so humble that he’d never admit to any of this.

We agree that there is way too much BS in the world today. What can our readers do to promote our shared philosophy of straightforwardness?
I think it’s important to not get focused on one or two “go-to” wines. You should constantly try new things. Learn more about wine, and ask tough questions about how the wine you’re drinking is made. Demand stricter labeling laws so that you know what’s actually in the bottle. Taste more wines blind – put the bottle from the trendy winery in a paper bag next to one from a winery you’ve never heard of and judge them objectively. You’ll be shocked how much perception influences taste.

What do you think causes the BS the most?
In general, there’s a disconnect in all but the smallest producers between the people making the wine and the people marketing it. The marketers have a really tough job trying to separate their wines from a sea of similar products. Combine that with a consumer base that lacks knowledge and is intimidated, and you have a lethal environment for the spread of bullshit.

What can we do to help you minimize the sheep-behavior of the wine-drinking herds that need to focus on excellence and not trendiness, and convert them to be smart, independent wine judges?
Trust your own palate. Full stop.

Please tell us about your skiing career, if you still ski and if you also waterski, and if you do that do you slalom or barefoot?
New Jersey isn’t really a hot spot for ski racers, but I was lucky that my mom grew up near Lake Tahoe, so I got a chance to train there for a few weeks every winter with some great coaches and racers. I developed slowly and wasn’t anywhere near elite coming out of high school, but had a desire to keep working hard at it and race in college. Bowdoin was far from one of the best college ski teams, but they were Division I, so it was a great opportunity for me to make the team and compete right away against some of the best skiers in the world. I remember standing in the start freshman year next to UVM’s freshman recruit – I was 18 and weighed about 150 pounds, he was 22, had been on the US Development Team for 4 years and weighed about 220. It was not a fair fight. But I kept at it, trained my ass off, put on 40 pounds of muscle, and by junior year I was beating some of those guys from UVM and the other top programs. I was never close to US Ski Team consideration but I got a lot farther than a kid from New Jersey had any right to, racing in dozens of international events all over the world and competing against some of the best skiers in the world, including many times against Bode Miller. I still ski about 25 or 30 days per year and do some racing on the USSA Masters circuit. I haven’t been on water skis since summer camp in the 1980s, but once in awhile I get out on a wakeboard at Tahoe.

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence?
My dad. He has never let me take the easy way out. He also let me fail, which I’ve learned is an important component of success. 

What are you proudest of and why?
I am most proud of my amazing wife Heather and my beautiful baby girl Indie. They make me a better human.

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do?
I want to do a winemaker dinner where we pour a different Sauvignon Blanc with each of five courses. We’ve made it in such a variety of styles over the last few years as sort of a grand experiment and each one is so interesting and unique to me – varying degrees of skin contact, different fermentation vessels and degrees of barrel aging, we’re even working on a Madeirized fortified dessert wine version now. The different flavors and textures, but with the commonality of the varietal running through the meal, I think would make it so much fun for a chef to create a culinary experience. 

What honors and awards have you received in your profession?
I won a wine competition during grad school that the French American Chamber of Commerce of San Francisco organized. There were three rounds of wine knowledge tests and blind tasting, with the final tasting on stage at their annual gala dinner. The wine that I called in the blind tasting that put me over the top was a Grenache Blanc from Provence. I won a free trip to Champagne to visit G.H. Mumm and Perrier-Jouet; it was pretty unreal. 

What one word best describes you and why?
Intricate. This was a hard one for me to answer, but I really like all the words that my Microsoft Word thesaurus lists as synonyms for intricate: complicated, complex, involved, difficult, elaborate, convoluted, sophisticated, tricky, knotty, obscure. Taken as a whole, those words paint a pretty good picture of me.

What do you take your sense of identity from?
From the sum total of all of my experiences and all of the people I care about.

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan? And New Jersey? And California?
Manhattan: Having a slice at Joe’s Pizza.
New Jersey: On a golf course with my two best friends or my cousins.
California: Sitting at the dining room table at my parents’ house at Tahoe with 15 friends and family members.

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan? And New Jersey? And California?
Manhattan: Does Joe’s Pizza count?
New Jersey: The Wine Library in Springfield
California: K&L Wines

If you could hire anybody who would it be and why?
My sister. So she’d move back from Spain.

What is your favorite drink?
A Manhattan.

What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you at a cocktail party?
You had to be there.

What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan? And New Jersey? And California?
Manhattan: Can I say Joe’s Pizza again?
New Jersey: The Oldwick General Store. Best sandwiches on the planet.
California: Cotogna

What is your favorite Manhattan book or favorite character in Manhattan literature? And New Jersey? And California?
Manhattan & New Jersey: Amory Blaine in “This Side of Paradise” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. “I know myself and that is all.”
Manhattan & California: Sal Paradise in “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. “Everything behind us and entering a new and unknown phase of things.”

Who would you like to be for a day and why?
I’ll quote Peter Fonda from one of my dad and my favorite movies, Easy Rider, “I never wanted to be anybody else.” But now that you ask, maybe I’d be Sir Paul McCartney. My musical skills are certainly lacking so I’d love to know what it’s like to be a musical genius, not to mention what it feels like to be one of the most famous people in the history of mankind.

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why? And New Jersey? And California?
I don’t need anything named after me anywhere. I already kind of put my name in the winery, which was seriously pushing it.

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience? And New Jersey? And California?
Manhattan: I’ve never done anything athletic myself in Manhattan, and I can’t think of anything of athletic significance that I’ve witnessed either – I’m a diehard Mets fan so all of those experiences happen in Queens…
New Jersey: Breaking 80 at Baltusrol Lower
California: Winning a Masters GS race on Exhibition at Squaw Valley

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else? And New Jersey? And California?
Manhattan: Ride the 7 train (…out to Citifield for a Mets game)
New Jersey: A late night out with friends and far too many drinks in Hoboken
California: Hike and ski Granite Chief peak at Squaw Valley

If you could have dinner with any person living or passed, who would it be and why?
My grandfather Judge Palmer. I’d love to tell him what I’ve been up to for the last 30 years and ask him all the questions I never got a chance to ask.

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience? And New Jersey? And California?
Manhattan: Strangefolk concert at the Wetlands Preserve
New Jersey: Allen Ginsburg and Amiri Baraka speaking and reading poetry at my high school
California: The premiere of “Borat” at Mann’s Chinese Theater

What do you personally do or what have you done to give back to the world?
During high school and college I volunteered quite a bit for Special Olympics, running the local meets in Maine, and also at a summer camp for the “differently-abled.” Now I’m donating wine to as many causes as ask me to, probably a dozen just in the last month. Judge Palmer has been doing a lot of stuff with various Multiple Sclerosis charities, and I hope to do more of that. I also am planning to get involved with the Innocence Project or other criminal justice reform groups – something I’m passionate about and is a natural fit for our brand.

What do you think is most underrated and overrated in Manhattan? And New Jersey? And California?
Manhattan: Overrated – Andy Warhol; Underrated – Lou Reed
New Jersey: Overrated – the shore; Underrated – the people
California: Overrated – Napa Valley; Underrated – Sonoma County

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite​ column and what do you like about it?
Culinary Kings and Queens. I’m a foodie obviously. I have great respect for chefs and love to hear their origin stories – they are usually pretty unique characters…

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you?
I love meeting new people, I love being a host and I love teaching people about wine. Come visit me on your next trip to wine country!

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers?
By email at

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