Musings on the Origins of the Santa Cruz County Fair Amateur Winemaking Department
by Rudy Pedulla
It was in the spring of 1979 at an Open House at Watsonville High School, where I was teaching. One of the parents there was Gil Mello, who I knew to be the manager of the Santa Cruz County Fair. I remember saying something to him like, "Folks can bring their pickles, jams, garden crops and quilts to be judged and shown, so how about our wines?" "Good idea!" he answered. "How about you start an Amateur Winemaking Department of the Fair?" Well, he put me on the spot. I discussed it with my winemaking partners, my teaching colleague Bill Peck and my former student, Richard Lathrop, and we decided to see what we could do about getting the project underway.
This was obviously a challenging assignment, as we really knew nothing about how to set the thing up. We would have to establish rules and guidelines to be included in the Fair catalog, find qualified wine judges, and work out all the logistics such as time and place of judging, awards, display of the wines, etc.. Flying by the seat of our pants, we sought the advice of whoever could help us. Gil Mello and his talented assistant, Yvette Jordan, could fill us in about the workings of the Fair. Ms. Jordan went on to become Fair Manager. We did have a major disagreement with them, however, as to the timing of the judging. They wanted to stage it during the Fair days, and we did not think it would work out. We wanted to have the judging at least a week before the Fair so that we could secure our professional winemaker judges (I'm reminded of how a judge called me on the day of judging to say "I can't come today. I'm looking at 16 tons of Chardonnay to crush!) Those first few years were really touch and go. We initially made the mistake of having the judging and the public tasting on the same day, which made for a really long and tiring day.
As to establishing the parameters of cataloging and judging, we got a lot of help from our professional winemaking friend, Tom Kruse. Tom, an all-around great guy who had a small winery in Gilroy, helped us a lot. When I look back, I'm reminded of how there were no other amateur winemaking fair departments in the area, and of course, no internet. We almost had to invent it "out of whole cloth."
I am gratified to see that after having gotten the Department under way, it continues to flourish. After chairing it for ten years, I turned it over to my friend and winemaking partner, George Lerek. After George's tenure the chairmanship went to Jerry Starr, who expanded its scope. Charlie Rice, a Golden Apple Teacher, sailor, and amateur winemaker, did much to improve the whole operation. Ken and Mitsuno Baurmeister, Deborah Yakulis, and Greg Swim have recently taken over the duties of leading the Department. All of the chair holders have gotten much help from the Amateur Winemaking Committee. There have been many members, and I don't think I can remember them all, but certain individuals have contributed greatly, and they stand out: I'm remembering Dave and Barb Donofrio, Craig Vossbrinck, Ron Jones, Larry Hill, and Bill Peck.
One feature of our department that I am most proud of is the public tasting of the wines, following the judging. The event is held on the Saturday before the opening of the Fair, an has become quite a gala affair. It is not only a fun event, but it affords the opportunity to fulfill one of the chief missions of a local fair -- to promote arts and crafts, science, and hobbies. The amateur winemakers get to meet and talk with one another, and some of the judges even attend. At the public tasting, which is held in Heritage Hall at the Fairgrounds, score sheets are handed out to the entrants and ribbons and other awards are presented Committee members and entrants have traditionally provided hors d'oeuvres, and commemorative wine glasses are sold. It has been a most festive event which we winemakers enthusiastically look forward to. As I remember, the only time I missed participating was on the sad event of Bill Peck's memorial service.