By Curt Sandman and Jennifer Barron
Jenny and I were educating ourselves about wine. We had begun to appreciate the companionship between good food and great wine, and since we did a fair amount of cooking, we decided it was time to start collecting wine that we enjoyed. I had a research project that included a site in Sonoma and required several trips a year from Southern California to the Napa/Sonoma area. That was a perfect opportunity to synchronize our palette with wines from the region. The initial guides were the experts at the Sonoma Wine Exchange where we were introduced to Kistler Chardonnay, precipitating the initial entries into our infant wine collection. Our palette expanded with encouragement from the Wine Exchange and it must have been around 1996 or 1997 when our “consultant” highly recommended a new Merlot, a 1994 vintage Paloma, that they believed was worthy to enter our collection. We bought a case and like fools, drank it within a couple of months and because we were still naïve, sort of forgot about it. Not long after the case of Paloma was gone, we began to take our wine education more seriously and took a week to explore the Northern California wine and food paradise. One night we dined at Tre Vigne in St Helena (unfortunately my favorite restaurant has become basically a pizzeria) and the sommelier suggested a 1994 Paloma Merlot to pair with my lobster pasta dish (an unforgettable entrée). Well, it was an unforgettable dinner because of the entrée and the Paloma. I kept the cork with a phone number on it and we called the next morning.
I got Jim on the phone and asked about the possibility of coming for a visit. Jim said they did not do tastings. I said that I just had the best wine I have ever had and would like to see the vineyard and inquire about access to this extraordinary wine. I was probably persistent, so Jim agreed that we could visit, but he said he was in the vineyard until 4 PM. We drove the narrow scenic Spring Mountain Road to a modest house late that afternoon. We were unsure if we had the right address because this did not look like the typical winery. We knocked on the door and were greeted by Barbara who escorted us to the deck overlooking their 15 acres of vines. We were treated with wine from other vintners because they were out of the 1994 Paloma Merlot and some appetizers. We were told that we were their second visitors. Jim and Barbara gave a condensed history of their retirement (Jim from geology) to grow grapes and said they were working harder than they ever had. Because there was no Merlot to buy, we put our names in to receive notifications of future allocations.
Over time, we periodically visited Barbara and Jim just to socialize. We always brought chocolates and cheese and sat on the deck and chatted when we visited. Barbara told us about her favorite, special very small number of zinfandel vines. She pointed out the vines that were just off to the right of the deck. She said she shot deer that encroached to dine on their grapes and that she dressed the deer herself and enjoyed the venison with the special zin.
For my 65th birthday (17 years ago now), we decided to take our family (8 of us at the time) to the Napa/Sonoma area for a week of wine tasting, chocolate, cheese, and oysters. Jenny and I had made several pilgrimages to the areas over the years to eat, taste and buy wines so we knew the best places to host our family. The afternoon at the Paloma Winery was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the highlight for our family of an unforgettable experience. For my birthday celebration, Jim and Barbara hosted a barrel tasting and a visit with Barbara to the vineyard to demonstrate how she tested the maturity of the grapes. Jim and Barbara were so humble and polite and treated our family to stories as well as wine. Jenny and I always received a double allocation, and despite the acclaim of the wines (the 2001 vintage Paloma Merlot had been rated the best wine in the world by Wine Spectator), the prices did not zoom into the stratosphere.
We now have over 2000 bottles of wine and I would estimate at least 150 of them are various vintages of Paloma Merlot, and probably 30 or so Cabernets (a special treat). Tonight, I had a 2010 Merlot, and about a month ago, a 2006 Merlot. Both had perfect corks, and both were the robust distinctive stone fruit, anise, expresso, and balanced wine we are accustomed to.