The Orange County Wine Society and the Orange County Fair (Part 1)

Since the inception of the Orange County Wine Society in 1976, there has been a mutually rewarding association with the Orange County Fair.


In 1977, the first Orange County Fair Commercial Wine Competition was held at the new Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel and the first Orange County Fair Home Wine Competition was held on the grounds of the Orange County Fair.  It was chaired by Jim Graver, the first President of the Orange County Wine Society. Thirty-six (36) entries were judged followed by a potluck lunch.


As the Commercial Competition grew in number of entries and recognition, more funds were required to cover expenses. In 1981, the first Wine Garden was introduced during the 10-day Orange County Fair, featuring tastes of award-winning entries. To sell wine, the Fair Board required that some type of food must be available.


Kathi Horton organized a separate trailer called “The Yellow Submarine” to sell award winning sandwiches and cheese plates. Exhibits, built by member Dick Bird, featured award winning wines and Home Winemaking information. The Wine Garden was located on the main fairway outside the Fine Arts Building. Following the untimely death of Mr. Bird in 1981, Vivien and Charley Owens assumed the responsibility of assembling and setting up the annual display. During the mid to late 80’s, there were additional exhibits, displays and wine tasting in both the Wine Garden and the Flower and Garden Building. Booklets listing the award-winning wines were sold for one dollar.


By 1990, the Orange County Fair was growing and changing. The Orange County  Fair was expanded to 17 days, and the Wine Garden and other display booths were being discontinued. A committee, formed by David Hirstein, planned and designed a new larger venue, originally named the Wine Pavilion.  It was located outside the Flower and Garden Building and provided a temperature controlled wine cellar and storage areas. Every day during the fair, the Pavilion was managed by Marcia Brechtel and at night by John Goodnight or Al Barber. The requirement to sell food with wine was difficult to manage and was discontinued.


In 1996 the Wine Pavilion name was changed to the Courtyard and seminars were added on weekends featuring either wine varietals or wine regions. Commemorative wine glasses and award books were sold along with tastes of Award-Winning Wines. Varietal wines, wine coolers, and sparkling wine were sold by the glass. The Home Wine Competition was moved from the original Memorial Gardens Building to the Courtyard. Vivian and Charley Owens continued to build beautiful wine displays and exhibits.


As the century changed, the Orange County Fair continued to change as well. It was expanded to 21 days, credit cards were now accepted, and the award book went to a new book format featuring a color photo on the cover chosen from a contest among the OC Wine Society members. Manager specials were added, an Express Bar was created, and Featured Winery Programs were introduced. In 2008, the Orange County Fairgrounds changed its name to the OC Fair and Events Center to better clarify the many events that are accommodated.  Also during this period, the Orange County Wine Society served wines at the Barrett-Jackson Automobile Auction which was held at the Events Center.


In 2016, Kathy Kramer, the Chief Executive Officer of the Orange County Fair and Events Center, presented the Wine Society with a plaque commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the organization.

The Couryard Grows to Serve Many Purposes

In addition to the annual OC Fair, the Courtyard is used for many OCWS work parties, like sorting the thousands of wines that are provided for the Commercial Competition, Spring and Fall Festivities, the Chili Cook-off, and the Home Wine Competition.  Over the years, there have been many friendships made, occasions celebrated, and good memories fondly remembered at The Courtyard at the OC Fair.

Thank you to Larry Graham for providing the historical information used in this article.

Jane Goodnight, OCWS History Committee Member

A Brief History of the Commercial Competition

By Hank Bruce (OCWS History Committee)

Did you know the Orange County Wine Society was officially incorporated on June 8, 1976 through the efforts of Brant Horton and eighteen other local wine enthusiasts?

It all started in May 1976 when Brant Horton, an Orange County wine retailer in Tustin, formulated a plan to host a professional competition of California wines. Each year only certain varietals would be judged. Those varietals were organized into three price categories. All wines would have to be commercially available in Orange County, and all wines within the selected varietal would be judged, whether they were donated or purchased. The judges would either be commercial winemakers or winery principals.

The first annual Commercial Wine Competition was held on July 10, 1977 at the South Coast Plaza Hotel in Costa Mesa, California, with the support of the Orange County Fair and hosted by the OCWS. A total of 92 individual wines (59 Chenin Blancs and 23 Gamay Beaujolais) were rated by 18 judges. In 1986, the 10th anniversary of the Commercial Wine Competition, Jerry Mead, founding member and syndicated wine columnist in more than a dozen newspapers, headed the expected panel of 76 judges, who evaluated over 2,600 wines at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, California.

The initial three-day Commercial Wine Competition was reduced to two days in 1990 and entries stabilized at 2,400 with about 50 varietals and styles of wine. The host hotel has changed several times through the years to include the Disneyland Hotel, the Anaheim Marriott and the Red Lion (now called  the Costa Mesa Hilton), where it has been held for over the past 30 years, except for 2020, when due to the pandemic, the 44th Commercial Competition was not held.

The Commercial Competition is a nine-month, major effort requiring about 6,000 volunteer hours and about 200 volunteers. The volunteers make invitation phone calls; physically receive, catalog and input wine entries into a database; steward wines; run a commercial dishwasher; dry glasses; direct traffic; verify scores; input data entries; compile results; coordinate judges’ food, etc., etc.

Our Commercial Wine Competition is the largest of its kind in the world and the second largest wine competition overall in California. In the 47 years of competition, there have been over 460 judges for a combined total of 3,326 years of experience. A renowned list of judges and their associated wineries have kept the competition at the top of its game and made the competition one of the most widely revered competitions of California wines anywhere. Let us not forget, it is our volunteers who keep this huge event running (pun intended).


OCWS History & Fun Facts

The OC Wine Society has been around since the mid-1970s and was founded by a group of home winemakers. Over the years, we have developed into one of the largest wine enthusiast groups in the nation. As we approach our 50th anniversary, the History Committee is gathering information to share about our organization’s history.

The number of entries in the OC Fair Commercial Wine Competition has varied over the years. In the 1980s, we even had 16 wine coolers entered into the competition.

The committee is asking members to share their historical photos, event programs and fond memories. This month we would like to encourage long-time members to help us gather old paper issues of our newsletter, The Wine Press, from 1976 to 2005. You can either scan a good-quality copy of the newsletter or bring it to us to scan for you. Please contact us if you have any historical information to contribute.

–Carolyn Christian, Hank Bruce, Jane Goodnight, Linda Flemins, OCWS History Committee

OCWS History and Fun Facts

The OC Wine Society has been around since the mid-1970s and was founded by a group of home winemakers. As we approach our 50th anniversary, the History Committee is gathering information to share about our organization’s history.  Here are a few fun facts about the organization:

1976 – Orange County Wine Guild formed (now called Orange County Wine Society)

1977 – The 1st OC Fair Commercial Competition (hosted by OCWS) included two varietals: Chenin Blanc and Gamay Beaujolais

1981 – OCWS first began serving wine at the OC Fair in the Wine Garden

1997 – OCWS first began their website in 1997

Look for more exciting historical facts about the OCWS in the newsletter.  The committee is currently gathering historical information and would also like to ask members to share their historical photos, event programs and fond memories. Please contact us if you have any information to contribute.

OCWS History Committee: Carolyn Christian, Hank Bruce, Jane Goodnight, Linda Flemins