Wine and Grape Groups Honor Pete Downs

Richard Smith Distinguished Service Award goes to winemaker and industry leader

by Linda Jones McKee
wine richard smith award pete downs
Pete Downs (center) accepts the Richard Smith Distinguished Service Award from John Martini (from left), Claudia Smith, Jim Trezise and Donnell Brown. Photo: Courtesy of Donnell Brown

Sacramento, Calif.—The Richard Smith Distinguished Service Award for research and major contributions to the American grape and wine industry was presented to Edgar B. “Pete” Downs, president of the Family Winemakers of California. Smith’s wife, Claudia Smith, and their daughter, Kacy Smith, presented the award at the Board of Directors meeting of the Family Winemakers of California on Jan. 23.

Downs was also recognized today at the Winegrape Growers of America’s annual leadership luncheon. The award was co-sponsored by that organization, along with the National Grape and Wine Initiative and WineAmerica. The luncheon took place during the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, the country’s largest industry conference and trade show.

The late Richard Smith, founder and co-owner with his wife, Claudia Alexander Smith, of Smith Family Wines and Paraiso Vineyards in Monterey County, Calif., was an active member of the three sponsoring organizations as well as other wine industry groups on the state and local levels. He was known and admired for his passion for the winegrowing industry, commitment to enhance its future and collaboration with colleagues to achieve that goal. The award is given each year to a person who reflects Smith’s traits of passion, commitment and collaboration, as well as his accomplishments for the common good of the industry.

Downs began his career in the wine industry as a chemist with Italian Swiss Colony in Asti in 1973. He then became research director at Korbel, served as sparkling winemaker at Chateau St. Jean, and in 1992 became general manager of Kendall-Jackson’s Vinwood, Lakeport and Edmeades wineries before becoming the winery’s chief ambassador for trade organizations and community affairs.

After 20 years of service at Kendall-Jackson, Downs retired in 2012 to start a consulting firm. He also became an active member of the Family Winemakers of California, a trade organization of more than 400 wineries that are primarily family-owned and produce less than 5,000 cases annually. Since July 2016, Downs has served as acting president of that organization.

In the course of his career in the wine industry, Downs was president of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture, board member and chairman of the international committee of WineAmerica, and board member of the Sonoma County Wineries Association, the American Vineyard Foundation and the Coalition for Free Trade. The California Secretary of Food & Agriculture appointed him to the oversight boards working on Pierce’s disease and the glassy winged sharpshooter.

In accepting the award, Downs said, “It’s not very often I’m without words. I’m touched.”

Last year’s recipient of the Richard Smith award, John Martini, owner of Anthony Road Winery in New York’s Finger Lakes region, said, “Rich was a guy who showed up, stood up and spoke up. Pete also showed up, stood up and spoke up.”

Martini also noted, “When Pierce’s disease devastated many California vineyards, Pete went into high gear, working with colleagues to raise money, lobbying Sacramento for disaster-relief funding, and reaching out to the research community for potential solutions. He also worked to educate wine and grape industry colleagues—including those of us on the East Coast who were unaffected—that this was not a California problem but a national problem for which we all needed to work on together by asking our Congressional representatives to approve funding. With this kind of big-picture, collaborative perspective on issues that can and should be addressed collectively, Pete’s was a welcome voice as NGWI created its first set of strategic national research priorities.”

Claudia Smith recalled, “Rich spent decades working together with Pete with both WGA and WineAmerica, addressing issues of import to America’s rapidly growing grape and wine industry.

“Pete’s passion for the wine grape industry was always strong and couldn’t be more apparent than in his recent return from retirement to lead Family Winemakers.”

The National Grape and Wine Initiative, WineAmerica, the Winegrape Growers of America and the Smith family submitted nominations for the recipient of the Richard Smith Distinguished Service Award. These groups, along with the previous year’s award recipient, select the person to be honored. The nominee must have made major contributions to the American grape and wine industry while demonstrating the qualities consistent with Rich Smith’s memory, but is not required to be associated with any of the three organizations.

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