Jim Richards, who with his wife, Barbara, founded Paloma Vineyard in Napa Valley and produced a Merlot that was one of California's elite wines, died Thursday after a lengthy bout with cancer. He was 77.
Low key and soft spoken, Jim's mastery of Spring Mountain Merlot reached an apex in 2003, when the Paloma Merlot 2001 was named Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year, chosen from nearly 15,000 wines reviewed that year.
"What stood out about Jim was his common sense," said his mentor and former winemaker, Bob Foley. "He called it like he saw it. He was the epitome of the other side of the wine industry, truthful and hands on. He's what makes the wine business so special, that connection of human beings with the soil and the plants in an egoless existence."
Transplants from Midland, Texas, where Jim worked as a petroleum geologist, the couple caught the wine bug and bought the property at the top of Spring Mountain Road in 1983. They sold their grapes to Pride Mountain Vineyard before starting their winery.
They proved what can be accomplished by this classic and recently much-maligned grape variety when planted in a unique site and farmed to perfection. With a 95-point rating, the 2001 remains California's highest-rated Merlot, and true to their modest style, the next year the couple raised the price of their 2002 Merlot by all of $6, from $45 to $51.
Despite their eventual triumph with Merlot, they had greater success early on with Cabernet and Syrah, both of which shared the Merlots' rich concentration of flavors. Jim harbored doubts about Merlot, but he stuck with it, encouraged by Foley, who worked at nearby Pride Mountain Vineyard and bought their grapes for several vintages.
Paloma (Spanish for "dove") sits on a steep, tree-lined ridge on Spring Mountain. It's seemingly miles away from anywhere, with sweeping vistas of the vine-carpeted valley floor. Spring Mountain is a cool spot and its grapes are often harvested late in the season, well after most vineyards have been picked. The first few crops produced little fruit. "I figured maybe Merlot won't do well at this elevation," Jim recalled in 2003.
The wine's success came down to two factors, Foley said: The vineyard, which is a mix of steep, well-drained soils, 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," Foley said. Jim was just as exacting in the cellar.
By 2000, the Richardses were ready to take the reins and bottled their first wine, later building a small winery on their property.
A native of Grand Fields, Okla., Jim grew up in Texas and met Barbara, a California native, in Okinawa during the Korean War, where they both served with the U.S. Armed Forces. Their son Sheldon has been overseeing winemaking during his father's illness.
"For the past six months it didn't matter what corner I turned in Napa—people said wonderful things about my father out of their love for him," Sheldon said.