WINE OF THE YEAR
Wine Spectator Editors Select the Most Exciting Wines of 2003
Paloma Merlot Spring Mountain District 2001 • 95 / $45 California
Barbara and Jim Richards are the “mom and pop” behind family owned and operated Paloma Vineyard, source of the first California Merlot to earn a classic score and achieve the No. 1 spot in our top 100.
By JAMES LAUBE
In the outstanding 2001 vintage, Paloma sets a new benchmark for California Merlots. Jim and Barbara Richards prove what can be accomplished by this classic grape variety when planted in a unique site high above the Napa Valley. Our highest-rated California merlot ever is also an exceptional value at $45 a bottle, holding the line in market glutted with high priced wines.
Paloma Vineyard sits on a steep, tree-lined ridge on Spring Mountain. It’s a magical place, seemingly miles from anywhere, with sweeping vistas of the vineyard carpeted valley floor. Yet it’s very much home for the Richardses, its owners for 20 years. Paloma (Spanish for “dove”) Vineyard has grown into one of the sweet spots for Merlot, proving that when Merlot is matched with the right soil and climate, it can make a truly magnificent wine in California.
Merlot has had a bumpy ride in the Golden State. It’s not an easy grape to grow, and most varietal bottlings are mass produced and rather ordinary. In fairness, California Merlot has had its share of successes, but none are as impressive as the 2001 Paloma. The wiinery’s eighth vintage brings it all together. Dark-hued and deeply concentrated, the wine gushes with gorgeous ripe fruit. It delivers a bounty of opulent flavors that are wrapped in rich, polished tannins, followed by a long, chocolaty finish.
The Richardses are the husband-and-wife team that created this masterpiece. They live on the property and run a mom-and-pop operation with the answering machine/fax in the kitchen. Bob Foley, their former wine maker and guru through most of their career, believes the wine’s success comes down to two major forces — the vineyard, which is a mix of steep, well-drained soils that anchor the Merlot (along with a plot of potent Cabernet that makes up about 11 percent of the blend), and the Richardses’ dedication to farming.
Paloma vineyard sits high upon Spring Mountain in Napa Valley. Many would have planted the site to cabernet Sauvignon, but the Richardses took a chance with Merlot and have gone on to prove what can be achieved with the variety when the conditions are just right. “When you have a vineyard like this you really need people watching it, people with good eyes, and Jim — and especially Barbara — have eyes like hawks,” says Foley, who now makes wine under his own label, as well as the wines at Pride Mountain Vineyard, which is nearby. Barbara, 70, is especially tenacious when it comes to cutting the crop load in more vigorous portions of the Merlot vineyard, says Foley. “you can see her driving her ATV (all-terrain vehicle) with a holster that has pruning sheers in one pocket and a revolver for rattlesnakes in the other. It’s quite a sight.”
The Richardses — transplanted from Midland, Texas, where Jim worked as a petroleum geologist — got the wine bug in the 1980s and bought the property at the top of Spring Mountain in 1983. They planted it in 1985, choosing Merlot because they had tried Dan Duckhorn’s Merlot and found it to their liking. Duckhorn, a Napa Valley pioneer, encouraged them to plant, and even bought their grapes for a time. Still, as newcomers, the Richardses didn’t know how the grape would fare at the 2,200-foot elevation, or what kind of wine it would yield.
Spring Mountain is a cool spot and its grapes are often harvested late in the season. It’s typically cooler in the day and warmer at night than on the valley floor, and those factors come into play in the even-ripening that Paloma’s grapes enjoy. Yet after the first few crops, which produced precious little fruit, the Richardses were concerned that they had made the wrong decision. “I figured maybe Merlot won’t do well at this elevation,” recalls Jim, now 72, who speaks with a soft, west Texan accent.
But then, as the vines matured and Barbara cruised through the 15-acre vineyard on her ATV, quality picked up. The wine has earned outstanding marks on five vintages, and the debut 1994 is still awesome, says Foley. By 2000, the Richardses were ready to fly solo. Foley had helped them design a small winery and, Jim says, “I still ask everyone as many questions as I can” to find out how to improve on the grapegrowing and winemaking techniques. The Richardses’ son, Sheldon, recently joined the winery and is learning the ropes.
But there’s not much of a secret about where the wine’s quality come from. You can’t make a Merlot this delicious without a great vineyard; the Richardses do as much as they can to keep it in tip-top shape and to ensure that quality is captured and magnified in the wine. Once the neighbors taste the 2001 Paloma, they may be turning to the Richardses for advice.
Dec. 31, 2003 – Jan. 15, 2004 • WINE SPECTATOR