Rich Thomas, the longtime viticulture instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College who sports the personal license plate “Dr.Vine,” is the recipient of the 2012 “Leadership in Agriculture”Award given by the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.
The award recognizes Thomas’ 40 year agricultural career and his many contributions to the Sonoma County wine industry. Thomas, one of the most dominant figures in the Sonoma County wine industry, will be honored at the Santa Rosa Chamber’s 40th annual Agri-Business Barbecue on Wednesday, Aug. 29 at Richard’s Grove and Saralee’s Vineyard, 3575 Slusser Road, Windsor.
The event is open to anyone who would like to join in toasting Thomas and recognizing the lasting imprint he has had on grape growing in Sonoma County. The event begins with a reception at 4:30 p.m. followed by dinner at 6 p.m. and the program at 6:30 p.m.
Thomas retired from Santa Rosa Junior College in 2001 following a teaching career that spanned 28 years. His agricultural career mirrors Sonoma County’s transition from cow county to Wine Country.
Like many young people growing up in Sonoma County in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Thomas was involved in raising livestock as a member of the Santa Rosa FFA Chapter. He went on to study animal science at the University of California, Davis, and then became a vocational agriculture instructor, mostly teaching animal science to students who raised livestock projects for the fairs.
But when Thomas realized Sonoma County’s future was in wine, not livestock, he traded sheep and cattle for chardonnay and cabernet. He used his keen intellect to become an expert on all things grape. And he never looked back.
A resident of Healdsburg, Thomas is considered one of the major players in elevating Sonoma County’s status on the world’s wine stage. As the county’s leading authority on wine grape production while at SRJC, Thomas introduced growing techniques that improved quality. His influence was greater than just Sonoma County and he became recognized throughout California and in the world’s wine circles.
Thomas also is an unabashed booster whose mission is the unfettered promotion of Sonoma County wines. He concedes Napa, “that four-letter word over the hill,” produces excellent cabernet sauvignon. But, he said, Napa can’t match the perfection other grape varietals reach in Sonoma County’s diverse microclimates.
“God put Sonoma County on earth for only one reason — to produce great wines,” Thomas is fond of saying. `Unfortunately, people love the same climate as grapes so it leads to the conflicts we are seeing today.”
Thomas has educated and trained thousands of the people owning or managing vineyards on the North Coast. He estimated that 70 percent of Sonoma County’s nearly 60,000 acres of vineyards are either owned or managed by one of the students passing through his viticulture classes.
Before becoming viticulture professor at SRJC, Thomas was an agriculture instructor at Healdsburg High School and livestock manager of the Sonoma County Fair. But he didn’t see a future in livestock for him or his students.
“Basically, I told myself that raising livestock may be fun and you get to show at the fair but it’s not a vocation in Sonoma County. Grapes are the future,” Thomas said in an interview coinciding with his retirement in 2001.
A Sonoma County native, Thomas graduated from Santa Rosa High School, where he was an award-winning member of the Future Farmers of America and a livestock exhibitor at the fair. He has ribbons for the lambs, pigs and steers he raised under the tutelage of agricultural instructors the late Lyle Keller and J. Wesley Jamison.
Although he traded his cowboy hat for a growers’ cap, Thomas, the farm boy, refuses to be gilded by the wine industry’s glitz and glamour. He disdains pretension and shuns political correctness.
Thomas is more comfortable at a growers’ barbecue than a fancy winery soiree. He retains the rough edges of his country boy upbringing, proudly wearing his good ol’ boy image like a badge of honor.
“Rich Thomas is definitely a one-of-a-kind Sonoma County character and Sonoma County loves him. I don’t know if he would have been so loved in Napa,” said longtime friend and wine-tasting buddy Richard Kunde, a Windsor grape grower.
Thomas has lectured around the country and traveled the world to learn grape growing, bringing his viticultural knowledge back to Sonoma County. e founded the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association and the Sonoma County Vineyard Technical Group, an organization that shares information and the latest research on grape production.
For many years Thomas coordinated the wine judging at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair, developing the competition into one of the most prestigious regional competitions in California.
Over the years Thomas took two sabbaticals to study grape production. The first was in 1987 to study vine trellising in New Zealand and Australia and the second was to Europe in 1999 to look at vineyard mechanization.
It was Thomas’ yearlong study session in New Zealand and Australia that changed the look of Sonoma County vineyards. Thomas studied under the legendary Richard Smart, whose ideas in managing the grapevines’ leaf canopy were revolutionary to California growers.
The idea is to lift and open up the vines to expose the grape clusters to air and sunshine, making the fruit more flavorful and less susceptible to fungal diseases. The basis for this is a trellising system that includes metal arms, posts and wiring.
“I was in the right place at the right time and brought this information about canopy management back to Sonoma County and the North Coast at a critical time in terms of grape quality,” Thomas said in the 2001 interview.
Canopy management, he said, gives growers the ability to produce the highest quality and quantity of grapes.
Thomas preached the word about canopy management in classes and the concept caught on in the vineyards, making Sonoma County a leader in canopy management, which has greatly enhanced wine quality.
Thomas said it was the realization that there was no financial future in livestock that convinced him to go back to school, study viticulture and launch a new career. He earned a master’s degree from the University of California, Davis, where 10 years earlier he had studied animal science to get a bachelor of science degree.
Thomas was teaching agriculture at Healdsburg High School and working summers as the livestock manager of the fair when he took a sabbatical to learn about growing premium wine grapes. He went back to U.C. Davis at the urging of Healdsburg rancher Ruth Waltenspiel, a member of the Healdsburg School Board, who believed the high school’s agriculture program should include classes in viticulture.
“Ruth Waltenspiel saw the grape thing coming,” said Thomas. “I thank her every day for `demanding’ that I go back to school and study viticulture.”
The Santa Rosa Chamber’s Leadership in Agriculture Award” is the latest of many awards bestowed on Thomas. In 1999 he was named North Coast Grape Grower of the Year by American Vineyard Magazine.” In 1993 he received “Friend of Sonoma County Agriculture” from the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. In 1992 he was named Outstanding SRJC Instructor.