In the spring, we planted 3,555 Merlot vines that were one-year old bench grafts. The Merlot Clone 6 on AXR-1 rootstock; at the same time we planted 945 Cabernet Sauvignon vines. The Cabernet was a clone from Germany that was planted in the original vineyard at Inglenook, also on AXR-1 rootstock. A small workshop and storage shed was constructed to house our tools and for a place where we can get out of inclement weather when working in the vineyard. By summer we found out that our well was not adequate to irrigate the new vineyard – we needed water in a hurry or the young vines would die. We drilled a second, deeper well and it too was inadequate. A move to the opposite side of the vineyard resulted in a deep (300 feet) well that is prolific-just in time!
We had been coming to St. Helena from Midland, Texas (our home at the time) since 1983, staying and working on the property from a few days to a few weeks at a time. This year we decided that the vineyard needed full-time supervision, so we rented an apartment in St. Helena and Barbara started working on the vineyard from January through harvest. Jim continued his business as a petroleum geologist in Midland, Texas and came to St. Helena to help as time permitted. This year we also cleared the last five acres of vineyard and burned the brush and logs during the winter. The most gratifying event of the year was our first small harvest, which sold to Conn Creek Winery.
We planted the last five acres of our vineyard with 2,300 Merlot vines on 110-R root stock. We used more Clone 3 and some Clone 6.
We bought a Fiat Crawler so we could do the spraying and other tractor work ourselves. Jim told the salesman that if he could teach Barbara to drive the tractor, we would take it. Before this year we had contracted with our friends across the road, the Schweigers, who sent their foreman and crawler over to do the work. We had to stop traffic and lay heavy boards across the road so he could drive from their vineyard to ours.
Carolyn and Jim Pride with their wine maker, Bob Foley, bought some bulk Merlot wine made from our grapes that we had sold to another winery. Bob finished the wine and blended it with Pride’s Cabernet Sauvignon. This purchase will be a major event for us, but we won’t know it for two more years. Last year we cleared some fir trees that were shading a block of Merlot; we decided to plant a small block of Syrah on the cleared area as an experiment.
In May, we finally started building a house at the vineyard. Jim closed his office in Midland, Texas and moved to California full-time. Andy Isdahl, our skilled builder and friend, built the house with us acting as his assistants and help from our son Sheldon during the summer. It took us nine months to complete the house while taking care of the vineyard at the same time.
In March, we moved into our home and acquired a new friend, Aussie, the vineyard dog. She is an Australian Terrier who loves to hunt; this trait will put her on a collision course with our local rattlesnake population. The Prides released the 1991 Merlot, which was made from our grapes and their Cabernet Sauvignon – it is a smash hit! We agreed to sell our grapes to the Prides starting in 1994 and their wine maker, Bob Foley, will make wine from part of the grapes into Paloma wine for us. We will increase our production each year as the Prides become more self-sufficient from their own vineyard. This arrangement has proven to be a great relationship with a fantastic team, Carolyn and Jim Pride, and Bob Foley.
Our first wine is released, the 1994 Paloma Merlot – all 575 cases of it. The wine is a blend of 88 per cent estate grown Merlot and 12 per cent estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a hit with the wine critics and, more importantly, with the public. This year, after three years of making non-commercial Syrah for ourselves, we made our first commercial Syrah.
This is the El Niño year; we fought the weather all year and dropped tons of fruit until harvest so the grapes would ripen. The big news is that we hired our first full-time helper. What a luxury to not worry about work that needs to be done at the vineyard! Our first Syrah is released and does very well; we have 150 cases and will never have much more or less as we have no more room to plant.
After a year and a half of filing forms and going to hearings we started construction of our own winery at the vineyard. It is barely finished by harvest, but we get to do our own crush. It is chaos, with equipment that we have never used before and our low-skill level; Bob Foley gives us guidance, helps us a lot and we bumble through. What a year to have a first crush! The grapes couldn’t figure out the weather and we had to pick thirteen times to get the fruit to the degree of ripeness that we like! Because we had help, we took our first formal vacation in fifteen years; the bad news is we had to let our helper go in December, so we are back to only us and Aussie – she is very bright, but has never learned to prune.
Our Canadian grandchildren always visit in the summer and help around the vineyard, but this year our oldest grandson, Caston Richards, 14 years old, from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, joined us for a strenuous ten days at harvest. He was a lot of help, but I think we wore him out.
In December, we had the most snow we have ever seen on Spring Mountain. We had six-inches in a very short time. We had several days without power and the roads down the mountain were blocked with fallen trees. Our old dog is at an age where strange lights (flashlights, lanterns, candles) drive her around the bend, so we spent several stressful evenings with her barking at anything and everything!
Our son Sheldon, from Canada, joined our business in August, just in time for harvest. Fortunately, he was here when The Wine Spectator magazine named our 2001 Paloma Merlot their "Wine of the Year" for 2003. We were pleased with the honor, but hardly prepared for the avalanche of calls, faxes and emails requesting wine or just to be on next year's mailing list. We sold out of wine in very short order. We don't like to be out so early, but it was a "good" problem to have. Our grandson, Caston, didn't realize when he helped with harvest in 2001 that he was contributing to such an award winning wine.
The Wine Spectator places Paloma Merlot in the top 100 again with the 2002 Paloma Merlot 54th of over 12,000 wines tasted this year. Another exceptional honor. We pulled our small Syrah block, which produced about 100 cases of wine per year and replaced it with Cabernet Sauvignon. There were many disappointed, loyal Paloma Syrah fans.
This year the Merlot suffered severe damage from “shatter”, which resulted in half the normal crop. Shatter is caused by excessive moisture during bloom, the blossom does not pollinate and the fruit does not set. It is common with Merlot, which is more susceptible to shatter than other varietals, but we have never been effected so adversely.
Again, we lost half the crop to shatter — two years in a row! We had a photovoltaic (solar electric) system placed on the roof of the winery, which provides enough electricity to power the winery, our home, and the house our son, Sheldon, started constructing this year.
Sheldon finished building his home in late September, just in time to help with harvest. Finally, after two difficult years, we had a good crop; in fact, it was the best crop we have had in years.
Aside from the usual farming and winemaking challenges that we face every year, my father, Jim Richards, was diagnosed with cancer in late 2007. He and mom spent the better part of two years in San Francisco, while dad underwent treatment. He fought it stoically, but sadly, he passed in May of 2009. The Wine Spectator was very generous in their praise of dad's respect within the wine community and once again a Paloma Merlot made the WS Top 100 (out of over 18,000 wines tasted)—the 2006 vintage. at #65 Three time Paloma Vineyard achieved that success in six years. A worthy tribute to a very special person and his extraordinary wife, my mother, Barbara.
photo courtesy of Kent Hansen