Paloma's Jim Richards' Battle With Cancer

Mar 26, 2009

Paloma’s Jim Richards has been battling cancer for more than a year. It’s his second go-round with this silent, deadly killer, and this bout has been tougher. But Richards, 77, is one tough guy.

The deck may be stacked against him now, but he’s fighting back. He and his family thought had this cancer been stopped a year ago, but it returned and the situation is now infinitely more complicated.

There are many incredible people in the wine business, and Jim and his wife Barbara are among the finest. They share a wonderful passion for life and love of the land. If you asked Jim about how he got into wine, and growing Merlot, he might have said, well, it just sort of happened. Not a word about Paloma being one of the sweetest spots on earth for Merlot.

The Richards have always seemed a bit surprised by their success on Spring Mountain. No wonder. They came from west Texas and weren’t cut out for a high-profile Napa Valley lifestyle. They're simple and modest; Jim’s accent has stayed with him like a well-worn pair of boots. Few people are as in sync with their land and vines, aware of the tricks and turns of nature. They're the kind of folks who tilt against those kinds of windmills. They know how to make great wine: You grow it.

Bob Foley introduced me to Jim and Barbara years ago. At the time, Paloma had just started making its own wine, and soon thereafter they were on their own. Barbara watched the vineyard like a hawk (occasionally armed with a revolver to ward off rattlesnakes) and they built a modest winery that Jim was very proud of.

In 2003 the editors of Wine Spectator chose the 2001 Paloma Merlot as our wine of the year, a fitting tribute to a magnificent wine. It remains an amazing Merlot, and to my mind Paloma is one of the greatest Merlot vineyards in the world.

As I began to think about how this publicity would impact their bucolic Spring Mountain lifestyle, I decided to give them a heads-up. I invited them to my office to give them an advance copy of the magazine announcing their triumph. They were quietly stunned, even speechless. But true to their style and calm demeanors, they humbly and simply said thanks.

We had occasional tastings and lunches, but about a year ago Barbara told me Jim had cancer again; he had it once before years ago but had beaten it then. When I invited the Richards to lunch one day shortly thereafter, and asked which day might be good for lunch, Jim quipped in his dry gravelly drawl, "How about tomorrow? I’m 76, Jim, and I’m not putting anything off." We met the next day.

Jim won the first few rounds with the second cancer and we celebrated that victory. But then it came back, and he's been in rough shape now for weeks.

When I spoke his son Sheldon yesterday, he said that everyone knew how serious this round was, and that there had been an outpouring of affection and concern.

"All of the other prior surgeries went well," he said. "But this one, well, nothing went right."

Just this week Jim signed off on another surgery. He’s a fighter, for sure. But his doctors said he wasn’t up to it.

Jim’s is hoping to go home to Spring Mountain this weekend. I’m sure he’ll be thrilled by the magnificent spring weather, happy to be back with his family and among his vines. I hope he’s back to work soon.

Top 100 Red Wines United States California Merlot

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