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Rich Thomas Toasted & Roasted as Recipient of the “Leadership in Agriculture” Award

600 people attend Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce’s Agribusiness BBQ honoring Thomas

By Tim Tesconi

Rich Thomas
Rich Thomas, retired viticulture instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, received a watercolor painting of the vineyards at SRJC’s Shone Farm as the recipient of the 2012 Leadership in Agriculture award, sponsored by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce. Rich is joined by his family, wife Barbara, right, daughter, Mara Georgiadis, and sons, left to right, Sean, Michael and Rich Thomas.  (Photograph by Steven Knudsen of the Farm Bureau staff).

There were 600 people attending the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce’s 40th annual Agribusiness Barbecue where Rich Thomas, the longtime viticulture instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College who became a dynamic force in the Sonoma County wine industry, was honored with the Chamber’s “Leadership in Agriculture” award.

The annual event was held on Aug. 29 at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard  near Windsor. For the last 40 years, the Santa Rosa Chamber’s Agribusiness Barbecue has brought the agricultural and business communities together, bridging the relationship between urban and rural sectors of the county’s diverse economy.

Thomas was joined at the Chamber event by his family - wife Barbara, his sons, Sean, Michael and Rich Thomas and his daughter Mara Georgiadis, who lives in Australia, and by hundreds of friends, supporters and former students.

Thomas, who is 71, was recognized for his pivotal role in transforming the Sonoma County wine industry from a backwater jug wine purveyor to one of the leading grape growing regions on the world’s wine stage. Thomas educated thousands of students in viticulture during his 30 years at Santa Rosa Junior College and had a major impact on the way that vineyards look today. The majority of the county’s more than 60,000 acres of vineyards are owned or managed by students who learned the ways of the vine under Thomas’ tutelage. He was never boring when lecturing on trellis systems, chardonnay clones and disease resistant rootstocks, always boisterous, irreverent and opinionated in conveying his on-target messages.

Thomas, who sports the personal license plate “Dr. Vine,” is an unabashed champion of  Sonoma County wines, saying it has the soil, microclimates and people to produce top-tier chardonny, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and other varietals.
“I personally think we are No. 1 in the world right now in terms of quality,” said Thomas, a native and lifelong resident of Sonoma County.

Steve Olson, a retired dean at Santa Rosa Junior College, was chairman of the SRJC agriculture department when Thomas was hired in 1973 as the college’s first full-time viticulture instructor. During the evening’s awards presentation, Olson talked about Thomas’s many accomplishments. He chronicled Thomas’s life and times as Thomas made the transition from livestock cowboy to grape guru in Sonoma County, reinventing himself when the county’s agriculture shifted from cows and sheep to chardonnay and cabernet. Olson characterized the theme of Thomas’s remarkable life as “Local Boy Makes Good.”

Rich Thomas Award
Brett Martinez, left, president of Redwood Credit Union who serves as chairman of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, congratulates Thomas as the recipient of the Chamber’s Leadership in Agriculture Award. Thomas’s wife Barbara and Steve Olson, a lifelong friend and SRJC colleague, join in the presentation. (Photograph by Steven Knudsen of the Farm Bureau staff).

Thomas grew up in a family of modest means but early on showed his determination to succeed. He began to really shine as a freshman at Herbert Slater Junior High when he enrolled in agriculture class and found his calling.

“Rich was hooked from the beginning and quickly joined the Future Farmers of America and became involved in leadership and livestock projects,” said Olson. Thomas then went to Santa Rosa High School where he continued in agriculture and studied under the legendary agriculture instructor, J. Wesley Jamison, a great judge of man and beast. Jamison realized Thomas’s keen intellect and determination, taking him under his wing to groom him for leadership roles in the FFA and for an agricultural education at U.C. Davis. Thomas studied animal science at Davis and earned a teaching degree. He returned to Sonoma County and taught agriculture at Healdsburg High School for 10 years. During that time, he also served as the Livestock Superintendent of the Sonoma County Fair, working under Wes Jamison, who was the fair’s livestock manager and director of premiums.

The 1960’s were a time of rapid change in society and in Sonoma County’s agricultural landscape. Thomas saw the sweeping changes taking place in Sonoma County agriculture as dairies, beef cattle ranches and prune orchards were converted to vineyards. He wanted to be part of the change, refusing to be left behind in the dust.
“The dominance of animal agriculture and fresh fruit production were being challenged by the development of the premium wine industry,” said Olson.

In the early 1970’s, Thomas returned to U.C. Davis to earn a master’s degree in viticulture. He had the credentials and background to become the SRJC viticulture instructor when that position opened in 1973.

Olson said when Thomas started the viticulture program at SRJC he had an immediate impact on the college and the future of the county’s wine industry.

“Rich quickly developed new and innovative curriculum and began the establishment of an instructional vineyard at the college farm on Eastside Road. The vineyard quickly grew to over 60 acres thanks to Rich's leadership and the generosity of dozens of wine industry supporters,” said Olson.

Olson said the viticulture program prospered under Thomas’s direction and earned an international reputation as a place where students would learn both the
theory and practical aspects of premium wine grape production.

“Theory is important but there is no substitute for extensive hands-on training,” said Olson. “Rich could give a five hour viticulture lecture without missing a beat but he was at his best in the field - pruning, irrigating, training young vines and,  of course, harvesting fruit.”

Olson said it might be pouring down rain and the students would ask "aren't we staying in the classroom today"? He said Thomas’s comment would be "grab your boots and raincoat, we have vines to prune".

“Students quickly learned that agriculture was 24/7 rain or shine,” said Olson.
Olson said Thomas’s teaching and know-how went beyond the college classroom. Thomas believed the SRJC faculty should be part of the community. He spent many hours in the field, advising growers, helping establish professional associations and representing SRJC as "the place" to go if you wanted an outstanding education in viticulture.

Thomas was a co-founder of the Sonoma County Grape Association and the Sonoma County Vineyard Technical Group, which shared information for producing high quality, high-yielding wine grapes. He was the coordinator of the Sonoma County Harvest Fair Wine Competition and served as a consultant specializing in innovative trellising systems, canopy management, drip irrigation and many other practices related to the production of ultra-premium Sonoma County wines.

Thomas retired from the SRJC in 2001 but remains both connected and active in the wine industry. He coordinates several wine tastings a year for Vineyard & Winery Management Magazine. He judges in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and other wine competitions. He writes a regular wine column for North Bay Biz magazine.

Olson said 2012 marks the 25th year the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce has bestowed the “Leadership in Agriculture” Award on a person who has made outstanding contributions to the success of Sonoma County agriculture.

“I think it is only fitting that the 25th recipient, Rich Thomas, was mentored by our very first recipient, Wes Jamison,” said Olson. “This is but one more example of the importance a teacher can make in the lives of their students and the ultimate
Contributions these students make to the economic viability of our community.”

Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership in Agriculture Award recipients over the last 25 years.

  • 1988   Wes Jamison, deceased
  • 1989    Louis Ricci
  • 1990    Bob Young, deceased
  • 1991   Gene Benedetti, deceased
  • 1992     Donna Furlong
  • 1993     Larry Bertolini, deceased
  • 1994     Bob Kunde, deceased
  • 1995     Louis Giacometti, deceased
  • 1996     Joe Vercelli, deceased
  • 1997     Cecelia Mello
  • 1998      Louis Foppiano, deceased
  • 1999      Mitch Mulas, deceased
  • 2000      Fred Groverman
  • 2001      Kip Herzog
  • 2002      Rich & Saralee Kunde
  • 2003      Earl & Dot Holtz
  • 2004      Al Grove, deceased
  • 2005      Dale Goode
  • 2006      Tom Crane
  • 2007      Joe Imwalle
  • 2008      Angelo Sangiacomo
  • 2009      Dominic Carinalli
  • 2010      Arnie Riebli
  • 2011      Carmen Kozlowski
  • 2012       Rich Thomas

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