Barbara Richards, who founded Paloma Vineyard in Napa Valley with her husband, Jim, and created one of California’s finest sources of Merlot, died of complications from a stroke Monday. She was age 83.
Barbara was a dedicated farmer who tended the couple’s 15-acre vineyard at the top of Spring Mountain for three decades. Gracious and humble, she could often be found driving her ATV through the vines, armed with pruning shears on one hip and a revolver for the rattlesnakes on the other. “She was Paloma,” her son Sheldon Richards told Wine Spectator.
Together, Barbara and Jim proved what Merlot could achieve when planted in the right location and meticulously farmed. Within seven vintages of bottling their first Merlot, the Paloma Spring Mountain Merlot 2001 scored 95 points. It was named Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year in 2003 and remains one of California’s elite Merlots.
Born in California, Barbara met Jim in Okinawa, Japan, while they were serving in the U.S. armed forces during the Korean War. Later they lived in Midland, Texas, where Jim worked as a petroleum geologist, and shared a love of gardening and fine wine. In 1983, the couple decided to pursue their passions, buying a property on the top of Spring Mountain to start a small vineyard.
“For the first decade, Dad stayed in Texas and paid the bills and she worked the vineyard,” Sheldon said. The couple planted Merlot on the steep tree-lined ridge, having acquired a taste for versions made by local vintner and friend Dan Duckhorn, along with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The first few growing seasons were a wash, producing little fruit. Despite fears that the grapes were planted at too high an elevation—the vineyard sits more than 2,200 feet above the valley floor—they stuck with it. And quality picked up as the vines matured under Barbara’s watchful eye.
Barbara had the green thumb. She was tenacious when it came to thinning the Merlot in the more vigorous portions of the vineyard. The Richardses sold their grapes to Duckhorn and Pride Mountain Vineyard, and bottled some under their own label. Besides Merlot, they also produced Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. In 2000, ready to stand on their own, they built a small winery with Jim as winemaker.
They were modest despite their success. While they could have demanded more for their Merlot, they chose to slightly increase the price from $45 for the 2001 to $57 for the 2011. For Barbara it was a matter of fair pricing. “I think $57 for a bottle of wine is high enough. You drink it and it’s gone forever,” she told Wine Spectator in 2014. “I just want to make a living.”
Barbara continued to guide the winery after Jim died in 2009. Their son Sheldon took over as winemaker. Through it all Barbara cared for the vines, maintaining the standard of quality Paloma had set early on. She also personally greeted wine lovers who braved the windy drive up Spring Mountain, inviting them to taste in her home. She is survived by her son and grandsons Jace and Caston.