Golden Opportunities

The OC Fair Commercial Wine Competition has long been a cornerstone of the Orange County Wine Society. What started out as a humble endeavor to feature California’s burgeoning wine industry has blossomed into one of the most revered competitions in the nation – due in no small part to the steady stream of volunteers who make each edition a success.

Now in its 47th year, the competition is more than winemakers anxiously waiting to see if their beloved handiwork will be rewarded with a medal. It’s a festive, yearly gathering of OCWS members that culminates with the big event the first weekend of June.

“It’s really very satisfying to see it all come together,” said Leslie Brown, who has served on the competition committee for 15 years. “I’ve never seen volunteers anywhere who have the devotion like ours do. It’s really enjoyable to be with all those people come competition weekend.”

The amount of time spent to successfully pull off the competition truly is a Herculean effort. Leslie estimates roughly 6,000 volunteer hours are needed from a couple of hundred volunteers along the way, beginning in the late summer/early fall when preparations begin for the next competition.

It wasn’t always that way. Only two varietals were judged at the first competition: Chenin Blanc and Gamay Beaujolais. At the time, the competition was created to mirror what was being done at the Los Angeles County Fair.

But while other competitions have wilted away, the OC Fair Commercial Wine Competition has navigated its way through hardships, including a global pandemic, to continue to serve as a shining beacon in the world of winemaking.

“No one dreamed of this in the beginning,” said Jane Goodnight, a longtime OCWS member who has been on the competition’s steering committee that is primarily responsible for tallying the judges’ scores and determining if a wine receives a medal. “It’s amazing to me that it’s still here. It has survived and thrived.”

In planning any big event, details are crucial. For the competition, updating the computer program for data entry was a monumental task but has been tremendously beneficial. Swapping out traditional wine glasses with Austrian crystal several years ago clarified the scores of good wines going up and bad wines going down.

“Good wines showed better and we started seeing more Double Golds,” Leslie said.

Beside the camaraderie, one of the biggest benefits is getting to take home recently opened bottles of wine to taste. As Brown puts it, “People really work hard for a third to a half bottle of wine.”

“It’s like you get a sneak peek of what’s going to be poured at the fair,” said Ms. Courtney, who has been a steward at the competition over the past five to six years. “At the end of each day of the competition, it’s like a treasure hunt during the bottle grab.”

Jane suggests members who haven’t yet experienced competition weekend give it a try because you not only are rewarded with free wine and the opportunity to rub shoulders with winemakers but you can create new friendships.

“I always recommend doing it because the organization was put together to run this competition,” she said. “It’s fun, it’s work and you may be tired because you were on your feet most of the day but if you are really interested in wine, you become more interested after talking to people.”