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.

"Lodi's $15 zins are as good or better than anything we make," Thomas said, "and some of ours are twice the price."

In retirement, Thomas coordinates several wine tastings a year for Vineyard & Winery Management Magazine, he judges in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and others, and he writes a consumer-oriented wine column for North Bay Biz magazine.

On Aug. 29, the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce will honor Thomas with a "Leadership in Agriculture" award at its 40th Agri-Business Barbecue. Since getting his start in teaching agriculture at Healdsburg High after graduating from UC Davis, he's distinguished himself as a man of the earth who knows his stuff and talks straight.

"There are only three kinds of wine," he likes to say. "Good, bad and free."

Don't get him started on cult wineries that market their wines as hyper-premium scarcities worthy of waiting lists and lofty pricing, but don't enter them in competitive tastings.

Thomas also has no patience for winemakers who wax on about merely baby-sitting the juice while it's in their care, between the pressing and the corking. "They won't admit to all the technology they do use," he said.

He's deeply annoyed by restaurants that price a bottle of wine at several times its value, and on the flip side is thrilled to see that some restaurants are beginning to offer free corkage if customers carry in a bottle and also buy one.

He has little sympathy for anyone who bemoans the conversion of old apple orchards to vineyards, saying that Sonoma County apple ranchers were urged years ago to make changes to increase yields and variety, and they didn't do it.

He likes the agricultural diversity that grape-rich Sonoma has managed to retain, and he sees olives as "the next big thing."

"With our Italian heritage up," he said, olive oil and wine "kind of go hand-in-hand."

Thomas said there's still room for improvement for Sonoma growers to fully tailor a vineyard's soil and climate to the production of the ideal variety -- perhaps a currently lesser-known one. And he thinks the local wine industry's greatest current challenge exists in neither the vineyard nor the winery.

It's marketing, he said. Especially in a tough economy, many Sonoma County wineries struggle to get their wines noticed by distributors and consumers, he said.

"Their salvation today has been wine clubs," he said. "And the Internet (as a sales vehicle) is taking off."

What he knows of the Sonoma grape leaves him convinced that there's no better beginning to a delectable bottle of wine than it being affordable.

"I think anything over $25 is somewhat ridiculous," Thomas groused. "I can go out and buy two 750 milliliters of gin for the same price."

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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