Moraga Pear & Wine Festival on Sept. 26
By Lou Fancher
Among the three trillion trees a recent study by Yale forestry researcher Thomas Crowther says are on Earth, pear trees represent thousand-year histories.
Bearers of the simple, durable fruit that was cultivated in ancient China, recognized by Homer in "The Odyssey" as a "gift of the gods," painted by centuries of artists, imported by colonists and migrated to the West Coast, pear seedlings landed in the early 20th century most locally and notably in Moraga.
The 17th annual Moraga Pear & Wine Festival on Sept. 26 marks the occasion in the town's Moraga Commons Park with live entertainment, a pear recipe contest, wine tasting with the Lamorinda Wine Growers Association, grape stomping, kids activities, and local artist and community group booths.
Although the pear trees planted by James Irwin of the Moraga Company around 1913 are less glorious and prolific than in their heyday when Moraga Valley pears were shipped nationwide, celebratory traditions endure.
Pears in Moraga are a source of pride, and rescue missions -- from fire blight, drought, marauding pear snatchers and other dangers -- cause local residents' sense of ownership to swell most noticeably in the weeks and days before the six-hour festival.
"We make pear wine entirely from Moraga pears," says Tony Inzerillo, owner with John Piermattei of Vincenza Ranch Vineyard. The small vineyard tucked behind Campolindo High School and a stretch of Cottonwood trees produces 200 cases of wine each year: 50 of them are Pear Fest Wine at $10.99.
"We sell out every year," says Inzerillo.
A recipe developed and refined over the past four years includes 1,000 pounds of pears, 300 pounds of sugar, 150 pounds of golden raisins and 150 gallons of water.
"When you're working with fruits other than grapes, you have to have a recipe," he says. "Grapes are complete; you don't have to add anything. But you can make wine out of anything as long as you balance the sugar."
The careful balancing act begins with pears fermented in champagne yeast, followed by filtering and bottling after testing for sugar content to drop from 15 percent to close to 1 percent. All along, Inzerillo is reminded of pear wine history.
"It's a traditional wine in the Bavarian tradition," he says. "They take it to another level and actually put the bottles on the trees when the pears are very small. Each bottle has a pear inside of it. The bottles go for hundreds of dollars."
Pears' preciousness is also not lost on plein-air (outdoor) painter Teresa Onoda. The Town Council member is working with the Lamorinda Arts Council to expand its presence at the festival. She looks forward to the white blossoms that signal a coming crop every year.
"I've been painting the town's pear orchards for nearly two decades. The gnarly tree limbs and white blossoms are visually arresting yet challenging to present in oil paint," she said. "Because I'm a plein-air air painter, I can only improve my technique for a couple weeks every year when they're in bloom. On the plus side, it gives me something to look forward to, 50 weeks of the year."
At the festival, the arts council's influence will bring added value to the band shell and surrounding booths. Orinda Community Center Ukulele Musicians, Orinda Starlight Village Players, Rossmoor Community Chorus, Campolindo High School Jazz musicians, Orinda Ballet Academy and other groups will perform.
Onoda says that "mining the great resources" in Lamorinda doesn't mean telling artists their work must be pear-centric. Instead, the purpose is to support local singers, dancers and visual artists of all ages.
Arts-related organizations invited to participate include Saint Mary's College Museum of Art, several Lamorinda art galleries, Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (a Japan-based organization offering education about Buddhists) and other community operations.