Leadership in Agriculture award for retired SRJC viticulture teacher, Wine Country pioneer Rich Thomas

The Sonoma County wine grape has no greater expert and advocate than Rich Thomas, who taught ever-innovating viticulture to generations of growers and vintners.

But suggest to the robust, 71-year-old Healdsburg resident that the Sonoma grape is so precious it deserves to go only in bottles of $50 or $60 top-shelf wines, then hold onto your seat. His gravelly laugh may blow you out of the room.

An internationally known vine authority who taught at Santa Rosa Junior College nearly 30 years before retiring in 2001, Thomas certainly believes Sonoma grape-growing conditions and practices are unrivaled: "I personally think we are No. 1 in the world right now in quality."

Back when the ex-Future Farmers of America sheep raiser turned his attention to grapevines in the early 1970s, Napa Valley was refining the art of making world-class cabernet sauvignon and Sonoma County grew a mishmash of jug-wine grapes.

"There was one modern vineyard, of cabernet, in the county and that was in Robert Young's backyard (in the Alexander Valley)," Thomas said.

He's proud of all that SRJC's viticulture program and working, experimental vineyards on Eastside Road have done to advance high-yield, high-grade growing.

"We were the very first to use drip irrigation," he said. "We were the first to test the modern trellis system. We were the first to use non-till farming."

Thomas has visited winegrowing regions across the country and around the world, and he's convinced that Sonoma County's variety of conducive soils and micro-climates is unique.

But the former suburban farm boy and 1959 alum of Santa Rosa High said he would be sorry to see Sonoma Wine Country become too full of itself or price itself out of the market.

"The $15 bottle is the hot commodity today," he said at the kitchen table of the airy hillside home he shares his wife, Barbara. He holds that if Sonoma becomes elitist about its wines, it will lose further ground to competing regions -- think of nearby Lodi and Clarksburg -- that produce and aggressively market high quality, reasonably priced wines.

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