Word just arrived that Jim Richards died a few days ago, at age 77. Jim and Barbara started and owned Paloma Vineyard, way up Napa's Spring Mountain.
If you never heard of Paloma, no big deal. They're tiny and very much out of the wine mainstream.
But they did make the 2003 Wine Spectator Wine of the Year. That 2001 Paloma Merlot still holds the record for the highest score the Spectator ever awarded the varietal.
Jim also provided one of my more valuable wine lessons.
Like many first-rank wine folks, Jim came from a scientific
background; his first career was as a petroleum geologist in Texas oil country. Through a well-connected friend, I tasted and began to buy Paloma with their first releases, in the mid-90s. Back then they also did a mini-production Syrah -- and I still curse the day Jim tore out those vines so he could plant more Merlot.
In late fall, 2003, I joined some mutual friends, one of whom arranged to drive us up to Barbara and Jim's place and cook dinner for the group, made seven by the Richards' son, Sheldon.
Though the rest of us didn't know it, this was a mighty strange moment for them. They'd recently nabbed an unheard-of (for Merlot) Spectator 95 points, and had just been notified of the impending Wine of the Year honor -- but were sworn to secrecy.
They did, however, let me leave with another six bottles at the original $45 release price. Two weeks later, I could have flipped them for $250 apiece, if I'd been so inclined. Such is the nutsiness of the wine marketplace.
We sat around the dinner table, munching on Allan Bree's feast. I asked Jim how his wine got so good, so fast.
When they began to harvest their vineyard, Jim said, before they permanently left Texas and moved to the mountaintop, they used to sell their grapes to the winery just down the road -- a little place named Pride Mountain, not exactly known for shabby products.
But Jim wasn't happy. He had an itch to make his own wine from his grapes. And though he greatly respected Pride's world class winemaker, Bob Foley -- who also made Paloma's first few vintages -- the way they harvested Paloma's fruit drove him nuts.
"They'd have someone take measurements on a few grapes, and if the sugar was right, the next day they'd send over a large crew and pick the whole vineyard," Jim told us.
Now, let's step back a second. A fair description of Jim and Barbara's 15-acre mountaintop vineyard might be "cubist painting" -- the kind with the crazy angles and fractured planes facing in every direction.
Setting out rows and trellises must have been a nightmare. And there was exactly zero chance that all the grapes in that crazy-quilt of slopes and elevations reached perfect ripeness at the same instant. Yet a larger winery, like Pride, simply didn't find it practical to monitor every tiny block -- sometimes just a few rows -- and send a crew to pick each at its peak.
But that's how Jim did it. He claimed to have tossed out the measuring equipment -- something I never believed, given his scientific bent -- and simply walked the vineyard daily during harvest season, sampling grapes. When his palate told him that a block reached optimum physiological ripeness -- never mind the sugar or acidity measurements -- he'd scramble for pickers who were willing to drop everything to come by and harvest it.
He said it took 13 separate trips into Paloma's 15 vineyard acres to gather the grapes for his Wine of the Year. To me, that sounded more like Chateau d'Yquem than Napa Valley.
More than a little obsessive? Maybe even monomaniacal? Sure. But that's how great wine, as opposed to merely very good wine, gets made.
And that's the lesson Jim Richards left with me, one I recall whenever a winemaker or grower talks about how they "have to" take a shortcut because doing it otherwise "wouldn't be practical".