Pairing Wine Education and Fun Since 1978
In my nearly 40 years in the wine industry, and 37 years with the Orange County Wine Society, I have seen many changes in the industry and with our organization. Some members say we are a social club that gets together to drink wine, while others point to our educational contribution to the wine industry with our competitions, educational wine events and scholarship donations. I say these are not mutually exclusive categories and the OCWS has been pairing wine education and fun since 1978. And we do it well!
When I first joined the organization in my early 20s, I looked up to the experienced members who ran amazing wine events throughout the year such as the monthly winery programs, the wine competitions and the OCWS “booths” at the OC Fair. The main location was at the end of our old trailer, and the second location was upstairs in the corner of the Flower and Garden building.
At the Commercial Competition, we had fewer varietal categories, significantly less wine to move and lots of strong young members to move it. It was at these events that I first met winemakers like Carol Shelton, Kent Rosenblum, Jerry Lohr, Gary Eberle, Dave Cofrane and Jim Prager, to name a few, and learned more about the exploding California wine industry. We have lost many of our beloved founding members and winemaker friends over the years but our organization remains strong with younger generations and winemakers joining us in our mission.
Between the 1980s and early 2000s, OCWS was the star of the wine universe in the OC, hosting mega-tastings called the Wine Extraordinaire (boutique wineries) and the Wine Classic (winners from the competition). Hundreds of people would flock to the Anaheim Hilton to taste varietals from more than 100 wineries and 20 to 30 local restaurants. We had to rent one of the largest ballrooms in the county just to accommodate the size of the event.
These were amazing tastings with more wines than one could taste in a day… although many people gave it their best shot! Alas, the word got out that wine tasting was a great way to raise money and many organizations started using the wine-tasting format to support their efforts. I have yet to see a wine tasting in the OC since that has had that number of wineries but with so many great causes competing with us in the wine-tasting arena, we no longer hold these events. The last Wine Extraordinaire was in 2015.
Tasting on the Road
In addition to hosting local events, OCWS members have traveled the state by car or bus and the globe by cruise ship with organized trips and tastings over the years. Sometimes we’ve had 50 to 100 people going to wineries at the same time or over the same weekend.
I can recall one trip to Sonoma during barrel tasting weekend where one of our members discovered a new winery that had just opened its doors that weekend. The breakfast room was abuzz the next morning as members shared their notes from great finds the day before. By the end of the weekend, most of us had visited that new winery and joined their wine club.
One of the things I love about this organization is its support for the smaller wineries as well as the large wineries.
OCWS has so much to be proud of as an organization, from celebrating our 47th year hosting the OC Fair wine competitions to donating over $780,000 in scholarships to eight California colleges and universities. Most recently, we instituted the Limited Production Winery Program for our competition to help smaller wineries enter the competition and be recognized.
Our efforts reach the public during the OC Fair through our educational and fun programming with tastings of award-winning wines to featured winery programs where the public get to meet the winemakers in person to the popular wine seminars that take a deeper dive into a particular type of wine or wine and food pairings.
Since its inception, OCWS has grown significantly. As long as I can remember, we have been hovering around 1,000 members, but the organization started with just a small group of home winemakers in the early 1970s. While many nonprofit organizations suffered greatly during the pandemic, OCWS tightened its financial belt, paused membership dues and temporarily moved their educational content online. We weathered the storm and now have over 1,000 members going into this year’s OC Fair, our biggest recruitment time, so we are on track to grow to our largest membership by August.
As an all-volunteer member organization, we rely on our members to put on amazing events and spread the word about our organization. I highly recommend becoming an OCWS ambassador by letting wineries know you are a society member when you visit them, taking photos of our ribbons and medals at the wineries and posting them on social media, supporting them by purchasing wine and promoting all that our organization does.
There are so many ways to get involved from volunteering at events or for work parties, volunteering for a committee or just attending one of our many events! It is through our amazing membership that we have been able to thrive over the past 45 years. It is through our members that we have been successful in pairing wine education and fun since 1978!
—Carolyn Christian, OCWS Vice President and Historian