The 1996 vintage started off with a warm spring and early bud break, but uncharacteristic rain in May caused problems with flowering and shatter, reducing the size of the crop by as much as 20-30% in some vineyards. A relatively hot summer followed, with several intense heat waves that pushed ripening ahead, but left the fruit in an uneven state of ripeness. Green harvesting, canopy management, and careful selection allowed growers to sort out the troublesome bunches, and those who meticulously worked their vineyards, as always, made the best wines. During the summer heat spikes, many vineyards suffered in the hot, dry conditions, and as harvest approached, some were pushed to pick early as sugars raced off and acids dropped.
Fortunately, a dry and mild September prolonged hang-time and allowed slow, steady, even-handed ripening, and the Indian summer conditions continued until after the harvest and into November. Those who made it through the late summer heat were able to take advantage of the fine conditions that followed, picking grapes at optimum maturity. The result is a somewhat variable vintage, with some good to very good wines that lack the stuffing to be great, and others that are excellent, with beautiful ripeness, structure, and depth.
Before he died in 2009, after a long battle with cancer, Jim Richards was known as a down to earth, call-it-like-you-see-it type guy. While living in Texas, he and his wife, Barbara, had caught the wine bug and decided to move to Napa Valley to follow their dreams. In 1983 they bought a choice, 20-acre property at the top of Spring Mountain, and planted 15 acres with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. What followed were some of the best Merlots California had to offer. Although Jim has since passed, the Richards still have a rabid following among those who prize sweetness of fruit, creamy texture and plenty of spicy oak. Sheldon, Jim's son, now works alongside his mom in the vines and in the cellar, carrying on the work, and good reputation of his dad's vineyard.
Medium to full-bodied wines with flavors of black cherry, plum, and tobacco
Roasts, hamburgers, other grilled meats
Merlot enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 1990s as consumers suddenly discovered that they could enjoy aromas and flavors similar to those of Cabernet in a fleshier, softer wine with smoother tannins. A wave of Merlot plantings followed, frequently in soils and microclimates completely inappropriate for this variety, and the market was soon flooded with dilute bottles from young vines and high crop levels, and weedy, herbaceous examples from underripe fruit. Many of these undernourished wines were overoaked in attempts to mask their deficiencies. Over the same period, a number of Cabernet producers began picking riper fruit and doing a better job managing their tannings during the making and aging of their wines. The result was an upswing of powerful, satisfying Cabernets that were far less austere in their youth -- and a sharp decline in interest in Merlot.
Still, California's best Merlots, some of which predated the vogue for this variety in the 1990s, continue to be some of the finest examples of this variety outside Bordeaux -- in the same quality league with wines from Washington State and Italy's Tuscan coast region. Expect to find broad, supple wines with medium to full body, typically with aromas and flavors of black cherry, plum, dark berries, dark chocolate, tobacco, and earth, and suave, fine-grained tannins. Merlot also rules in Pomerol, and nowhere in the world does this variety make more complete wines than on the flat, clay-rich plateau that lies at the heart of this appellation.