“To say 2020 was an unusual year is an understatement,” said Adam Strum, chairman and CEO of Wine Enthusiast Companies, after he removed his mask to deliver the opening remarks at the 2020 Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Awards ceremony. Held January 26–28, 2021, the annual gala was entirely virtual for the first time in its 21-year history.
Over the course of three days, thousands of industry members from around the world tuned in to watch exclusive video interviews with winners in 17 categories, meet and greet one another in the bustling virtual networking lounge, browse portfolio selections available for purchase in the tasting room, and explore decades of previous winners in the Wine Star Awards Hall of Fame.
Though encompassing all aspects of current affairs in the wine industry through its varied nominees and winners, the event pinpointed three crucial topics facing the industry in the daily introductions delivered by Strum: the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and the need for increased diversity and inclusion.
Award winners included luminaries like Heidi Scheid, Miguel Luna and Julia Coney, all of whom spoke about the importance of mentorship and cultivating community.
“Giving back is very widespread throughout the wine industry. I think it’s because we all take a long-term view of things,” said Scheid, executive vice president, Scheid Family Wines. She received the Wine Star Award for Person of the Year for her leadership in sustainability and industry guardianship as chairperson of the Wine Market Council, among other areas of focus.
Last year, Coney founded Black Wine Professionals to amplify the work of her community. “I just want to mentor people and bring their voice to this new wine table,” she said as she accepted the award for Social Visionary of the Year.
Luna, partner at Silverado Farming Company, was named Viticulturalist of the Year. His work includes mentoring young people to help them pursue college and careers in wine. “As the son of immigrants and an immigrant myself… it’s very important to me to improve our community,” he said.
Several Wine Star Award winners stressed ecological sustainability.
“There is no point in making wine if you don’t protect nature,” said Jean Claude Mas, founder of Domaines Paul Mas, as he accepted the award for European Winery of the Year. Currently, 60% of Domaines Paul Mas’ vineyard holdings are certified Agriculture Biologique and 80% are certified Terra Vitis and farmed organically.
Trentino, Italy, named the Wine Region of the Year, was the first Italian region to adopt integrated pest management in the 1980s, and today most of its farms are SQNPI certified.
The ability to adapt to rapidly changing conditions was key in 2020. This was especially true for Innovator of the Year Drizly, which grew 350% throughout 2020; and Retailer the Year Albertsons Company, which kept wine accessible to shoppers at Albertsons’ Safeway, Haggen, Shaw’s and other grocery stores throughout the pandemic.
In 2020, it was important to prioritize employee health and safety, said Gerard Thoukis, chief marketing officer of Foley Family Wines, as he accepted the award for Wine Executive of the Year. “As a leadership team we understood that, if our team members felt safe, secure and supported by the organization, we’d be able to navigate through anything that occurred throughout the year.”
Victoria James, the 2020 Sommelier/Beverage Director of the Year, is encouraged to see the industry becoming more inclusive.
“For a long time, wine belonged to a very small subset of the population, and I think now that’s finally changing. Twenty-twenty-one will hopefully be the year that people realize, the more people of different backgrounds that are welcome in the wine industry, the more innovation can occur.”
Lifetime Achievement Award winner Alan Dreeben, a partner in Republic National Distributing Company, expressed his support for future generations of wine professionals and gratitude for those who came before him.
“To be in the company of your past recipients blows me away—people like Ernest Gallo, who was a mentor to me, Robert Mondavi… Francis Ford Coppola,” he said as he accepted the award. “I am excited that I had 55 years to contribute something to our industry. I’m proud of it, too.”
After an exceptionally challenging year, the global members of the wine community have a lot to be proud of, and a year full of inevitable evolution ahead.
All of this year’s videos and event materials remain available for review at www.winestarawards.com.