Judge Palmer: Truth, Justice & California Cabernet

Palmer Emmitt in his barrel room.

Palmer Emmitt in his barrel room.

Friends don’t let friends drink bad wine—and great friends help you find the good stuff. So, on a friend’s recommendation, I headed out to Sonoma last fall to investigate Judge Palmer.  It was a misty Sunday, just after harvest when the air in wine country is filled with the delicious smell of wine fermenting on the skins. Owner/Winemakers Palmer Emmitt and Michael Scorsone graciously made time for the visit—from the first pick until the wine is in barrel for aging work is non-stop at a winery, especially for a two-man operation—and when I drove up to the cozy-looking cottage winery, I found Michael sanitizing barrels and Palmer punching-down a fermenting bin of cabernet.

Located just outside of Healdsburg, the winery overlooks their estate Vinegrove Vineyard planted with Cabernet, but Palmer and Michael source the majority of grapes for their wines elsewhere. Including several Beckstoffer vineyards, Blau Vineyard, Ellis Alden Vineyard, Stagecoach Vineyard and more—their wines are made from vineyards with known pedigree. I tasted through several finished wines (plus countless barrel samples) and made a mental note to send a ‘thank you’ bottle to my friend for the incredible find. In the debate over ‘single vineyard’ wines (marketing ploy or indicator of quality?), Judge Palmer’s wines are evidence that the fanfare is justified.

When we eventually sat down to chat, I found Palmer’s story familiar. Before getting into wine, Palmer spent a decade in a totally different industry: feature film development. From the outside, his career looked great—he was successful, and working in movies just must be creatively rewarding. But as Palmer explained to me, he had grown weary of the business, “I was tried of pouring my soul into a film project only to have it end up mired in development hell. With Judge Palmer, I am able to see each wine—each creation—through to the end. It’s much more fulfilling.”

“My road into wine was long and winding, from interest to hobby to obsession and finally to profession over the course of ten years or so,” explained Palmer Emmitt, half of the owner/winemaker team at Judge Palmer. He’d grown up with an appreciation for wine thanks to his father, who was a collector of vintage Bordeaux. But, it was the infectious passion of friends already in the wine industry that turned his appreciation into something more. One of those friends was Michael Scorsone, who has made wine at Failla Wines, Boar’s View and Adobe Road Winery. Over the years, the two had spent countless hours tasting together, and when Palmer finally left his prior career and moved to wine country, it wasn’t long before Michael asked him if he wanted to make some wine together. Palmer replied, “I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that for 5 years.”

However, Palmer isn’t the first in his family to find a second career calling. His grandfather and the winery’s namesake, Judge James Palmer, was an electrician before wielding a gavel. After an accident left him paralyzed and unable to continue as an electrician, James Palmer was looking for a new purpose in life when his small California town (Placerville, aka Hangtown, a historic gold rush site) suddenly found itself short of a judge. While James was not a lawyer, he was known around town as an honest man and was asked to fill the role. He studied to take the bar exam, passed, and sat on the bench for the next twenty years.

In addition to the familial inspiration, Palmer and Michael believe the winery’s name draws a parallel between the judge’s role in a courtroom and how they approach winemaking –natural, authentic, transparent and with minimal intervention:

The duty of a judge is to maintain order and ensure that justice is done while remaining fair and impartial. We feel that the role of the winemaker should be the same – an expert yet unbiased observer who allows the vineyard, varietal, and vintage to testify for themselves in the finished wine.

Palmer and Michael describe their philosophy as “flexibly natural.” In the vineyard, they only work with growers who are responsible stewards of the land, and who care deeply about growing the best quality wine grapes possible.  The vineyards they source from are either certified sustainable or farmed organically, as is their estate vineyard.

Once in the winery, Palmer and Michael strive to produce wines using native yeast fermentations and without any chemical or enzyme additives, but they’re not rigid in their wine ideology. They prefer to make decisions in the winery based on their senses and experience, “it’s not a paint-by-numbers approach, we treat each lot as a unique entity and don’t follow a set recipe.” Their goal is to “make wines that express their terroir as much as any California wine can, while also striving to make wines that are flavor intense, i.e. delicious.”

Judge Palmer wines reflect Palmer and Michael’s obsessive attention to detail and unquestionable passion for crafting wines with distinction. Their portfolio includes several vineyard designate Cabernet Sauvignons, Malbec and Sauvignon blanc. I urge you to (as they say) try a bottle with a jury of your peers.