Rhonda Smith, soon to be retired Sonoma County Viticulture Specialist for the University of California Cooperative Extension, has seen unparalleled changes in the industry during her tenure. Starting in 1986 Rhonda assumed a position as a full time Extension Viticulture Specialist. Prior to this time, the part time viticulture specialist was also the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Sonoma County Cooperative Extension County Director overseeing the specialists for agriculture, forestry, dairy, nutrition, and youth programs. In 1970’s the viticulture industry in Sonoma County began seeing a large growth in vineyard acres replacing pears, apples and rangeland. The vineyard industry also saw a change in the selection of grape varieties and rootstock being planted. There was a need for extensive field research and relevant viticulture education
Rhonda was just the right person for the job. A sincere workaholic who never turned her back on anyone who had a problem growing or wanting to grow grapes. She immediately started a grape grower newsletter that was sent to all of the 1800 or so Sonoma County grape growers. She was involved when a new vineyard technical education group was started in Sonoma County, similar to one that had been in existence in Napa County for several years. Annually she would host the Sonoma County University of California Agriculture and Natural Resource’s Grape Day. She would introduce the results of new research as well as having selected speakers on viticulture from all over the United States. This event was attended by several hundred grape growers, not only from Sonoma County, but from growers all over California. Many times, the event was full and many growers had to be turned away. The event would be covered by the press and trade journals.
The need for a full-time viticulture specialist was enhanced by a combination of things that took place almost at the same time as Rhonda was hired. A long-standing rootstock, AXR-1, that had been highly recommended by the University for years was failing. Newly planted or replanted vines were dying at an alarming rate. In December, 1989 the University announced its decision to withdraw its recommendation for the AXR-1 rootstock. Rhonda was faced with doing research to find a new replacement rootstock. In addition, recommendations for new vineyard spacings was needed to accommodate machine harvesting. New grapevine viruses were being identified that cause a host of growing problems. The list of new challenges to Rhonda to educate the growers went on and on.
Looking back, I don’t know how Rhonda accomplished all that she did in the 34 years of service to the industry. She has been an asset to all grape growers.
I personally will miss Rhonda. I was honored to sit on the selection committee when she was hired. We made the right decision. I am proud of her. I wish her a peaceful retirement.