The drive to the Spring Mountain district from downtown St. Helena is not for the faint of heart. Climbing ever higher through narrow winding roads, my backseat driver averts her eyes from the unfenced drop-offs, while I apologize silently to the locals in the rear-view mirror. They are clearly irritated to be stuck behind a visitor abiding by the posted speed limits.

It is hard to fathom that such a challenging vertical natural piece of land has been developed into one of the most respected Californian appellations.

Visiting wine country? Sniff, Swirl, Sip, and Save with The Priority Wine Pass. Save up to $150 in tastings per Day! It’s good for the year at 250 California wineries.

Upon arriving at the inconspicuous entrance to Paloma, there is a precipitous climb to a series of three gates

which bring us to the home and vineyards of Barbara and Jim Richards, the husband and wife team behind the winery. Barbara greets us at the front door with her friendly Australian terrier, Aussie, and graciously invites us out to the front deck overlooking the vineyard. The view is spectacular.

This is by no means a typical “commercial” winery location. One look off the deck fills the eyes with manicured vines, hummingbirds, geckos, and a high canopy forest, all fronted by the hills and valleys of Sonoma and Napa. We are told there are frequent local sightings of mountain lions, and that the visiting deer can be a real nuisance until properly upgraded to tender venison.

Adding to the sense of the small country feel, Paloma focuses on only one primary release each year, their estate Spring Mountain District Merlot. The production is microscopic by Napa/Sonoma standards, never exceeding 2,500 cases.

For such a remote location and limited production, Paloma has reached some remarkable heights. The 2001 Spring Mountain District Merlot was named Wine Spectator’s 2003 wine of the year with a 95 point rating. The 2004 Spring Mountain District Merlot was also well reviewed, achieving a 93 point score. Paloma’s mailing list is full and there is a waiting list for future releases. It is a testament to the Richards’ down-to-earth philosophy that despite the accolades, they have kept the release prices very reasonable, still under $60.

After tasting a remarkably velvety barrel sample of the 2006, I asked Barbara a few questions about Paloma.

Tim Halloran: How did you end up making your own wine instead of selling the grapes to other wineries?

Barbara Richards: “We sold our grapes to large wineries for years. In the early 90's we sold some grapes to Pride Mt. Vineyard and Bob Foley made the wine. It was the first good wine made from this vineyard. Bob picks only when the grapes are ripe, unlike the ones before him. At that point we knew good wine could be made from this vineyard so in 1994 Bob made the first Paloma release. He continued to make the wine until 2000 when we completed our winery. Since 2000, Jim Richards has made the wine.”

Tim Halloran: Do you feel that small-lot Merlot is an undervalued wine, on its own and juxtaposed against the hefty price-tag of cult Cabs?

Barbara Richards: “I think the answer would be yes. There are some really good Merlots out there and others are not so good, but that is equally true with Cabernet and other varietals.”

Tim Halloran: With your fair approach to pricing, does it bother you when you see your wines “flipped” for two to three times their release prices at auction?

Barbara Richards: “I do get angry when people flip the wine, but unfortunately when someone buys the wine it is theirs to do what ever they want. If I knew who was doing the flipping I would not sell to them. I do not consider it an honor at all.”

Tim Halloran: How much wine are you currently producing each year?

Barbara Richards: “Our production varies terribly because of weather at bloom. If Merlot gets any moisture at bloom it shatters and the crop can be way down. In 2003 production was around 2100 cases, but the 2004 was only 1100 cases. 2005 was also down around 1370 whereas in 2006, we had no moisture at bloom and ended up with 2500 cases. This year is an unknown since we do not have bloom starting for a few weeks. We always hope for the best.”

Tim Halloran: Do you have any plans to increase your volumes or emphasize add other varietals?

Barbara Richards: “Not really. We designed the winery facilities for the existing vineyard size. The last two years we did buy some Syrah and made wine but just a small amount.”

Tim Halloran: Do you ever get used to driving the Spring Mountain roads?

Barbara Richards: “You just learn to be careful and stay on your side of the road. It really is a very nice road, both sides, from St. Helena and Santa Rosa. Very scenic.”

Visiting wine country? Sniff, Swirl, Sip, and Save with The Priority Wine Pass. Save up to $150 in tastings per Day! It’s good for the year at 250 California wineries.