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The 2003 Wine of the Year


James Laube
Posted: January 20, 2004

Top 100 Wines of 2003: 1 | 2 - 10 | 11 - 40 | 41 - 70 | 71 - 100 | Full List in PDF Format

PALOMA Merlot Spring Mountain District 2001 95 points, $45

In the outstanding 2001 vintage, Paloma sets a new benchmark for California Merlot. Jim and Barbara Richards prove what can be accomplished by this classic grape variety when planted in a unique site high above Napa Valley. Our highest-rated California Merlot ever is also an exceptional value at $45 a bottle, holding the line in a 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 away from anywhere, with sweeping vistas of the vine-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 those 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 of the varietal bottlings are mass produced and rather ordinary. In fairness, California Merlot has had its share of successes, too, but none as impressive as the 2001 Paloma. The winery's eighth vintage brings it all together. Dark-hued and deeply concentrated, the wine gushes with gorgeously 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 an answering machine/ fax in the kitchen. Bob Foley, their former winemaker 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.

"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 his own wine under the Robert Foley 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 an ATV [all-terrain vehicle] with a holster that has pruning sheers in one pocket and a revolver for the rattlesnakes in the other. It's quite a sight."

The Richardses -- transplants 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 Road 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 Merlot 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 there 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 may have 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 Texas 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 in 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 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 comes 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.

Tasting Note

Top 100 Wines of 2003: 1 | 2 - 10 | 11 - 40 | 41 - 70 | 71 - 100| Full List in PDF Format


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