Founding of the Orange County Wine Society
It all started at Brant and Kathi Horton’s wine retail store in Orange called Brant’s Wine Rack. They hosted monthly meetings of home winemakers and wine enthusiasts to informally discuss wine and winemaking. Starting in 1976, the group was called the Orange County Wine Guild and included Bud and D Aust, Judi (Collins) Brady, and Jim Graver among its nineteen founding members.
Brant Horton had always been disappointed with the entry criteria used by other wine competitions and wanted to conduct a judging of wines readily available in the Orange County marketplace. During a meeting on May 24, 1976, with Jerry Mead, a noted wine columnist, Brant proposed that the Orange County Fair would be an ideal host for a professional competition of Orange County marketplace wines made using only California grapes. On May 27, 1976, they met with the Orange County Fair’s General Manager, Ken Fulk, and with the support of Warren Finley, President of the OCF Board of Directors, all agreed that a jointly-sponsored Commercial Wine and Homewine Competition would be held starting in 1977.
Brant Horton also recognized that a volunteer organization was needed to provide the staffing to conduct such events. At a meeting on July 23, 1976, at Brant’s Wine Rack, he proposed an organization that would co-sponsor both Commercial and Homewine Competitions while also promoting the education and appreciation of wine, winemaking, and viticulture. Brant Horton, Jerry Mead, and others went to work to form such an organization that was to be called the Orange County Wine Society. Eventually, Articles of Incorporation were drafted in January 1978 by Brant Horton and William Owen to form a nonprofit charitable and educational corporation under the laws of California including plans for a Wine Scholarship Fund. Fred Basom, Jim Graver, Brant and Kathi Horton, Jerry Mead, William Owen, and Mike Collins signed the initial articles. The articles called for the establishment of bylaws to guide the organization and its membership. The articles were subsequently registered with the California Secretary of State in June 1978 and the Internal Revenue Service approved a tax-exempt status for the OCWS under Section 501(c)(3) in 1980. As the membership grew, it was proposed that a logo be designed for the OCWS. Dick Hamm won the design contest. Early OCWS programs included wine tours at local wineries and food and wine tastings by Judi (Collins) Brady and Jane (McGrath) Goodnight.
In 1977, the first annual Orange County Fair Commercial Wine Competition was held on July 10 at the South Coast Plaza Hotel in Costa Mesa. A total of 92 wines were entered representing only two popular varietals—Chenin Blanc and Gamay Beaujolais. Brant Horton invited the wineries to submit their wines or planned to purchase them off the shelf of local retail outlets and confirmed their availability in the Orange County marketplace. Initially, only two varietals were selected due to the limited funds available to potentially purchase wines from the local market. Also, unlike other competitions, no entry fees were charged and wines were judged in three price categories—inexpensive, moderate, and premium. Wines were also separated into dry and off-dry categories. Jerry Mead invited 18 vintners, winery principals, or winemakers as judges. Many of the first judges included such recognizable names as Richard Arrowood, Steve Mirassou, John Parducci, Don Sebastiani, and Rodney Strong. Initial participants include Albert Cribari, Ray Krause, Jerry Lohr, and Phyllis Pedrizzetti. The tasting was done “blind” and scoring was done using the industry-wide Davis 20-Point System.
A Wine Steering Committee was appointed by the Orange County Fair to review the judges’ scores and award gold, silver, or bronze ribbons. The first Wine Steering Committee included Brant Horton and Jerry Mead and seven others including Jane (McGrath) Goodnight as a Commercial Wine Representative, Chuck Hanson as a Wine Retailer, and Jeri Wilson as a Restaurant Writer. A parallel Homewine Competition was also held on June 26, 1977, at the Orange County Fairgrounds. Jim Graver volunteered to chair the first Homewine Competition with the help of Brant Horton and the support of members serving as stewards. There were 36 entries in the first competition, mostly from the members, and it was followed by a potluck lunch and tasting of the entries. The Homewine Competitions were held for years in the Memorial Gardens Building and continue today at The Courtyard on the Fairgrounds. During the Fair, a booth was built and staffed by homewine members to display winners from both competitions and to educate the public with information about how home wines are made. As a result, several new members joined the OCWS and the membership gradually grew to become more wine enthusiasts than home winemakers.
Starting in 1978, Jim Graver was elected as the first President of the OCWS followed by Brant Horton in 1979 and Chris Cunningham in 1980. Subsequent Commercial Wine Competitions continued to grow in both number of entries and varietals judged.