Wine Enthusiast’s 22nd Annual Wine Star Award Nominees

Photo by Mark Tomaras

This year marks the 22nd anniversary of Wine Enthusiast’s Annual Wine Star Awards, honoring the individuals and companies that make outstanding contributions to the wine and alcohol beverage world. Here are the nominees across 14 categories for the 2021 Awards. The winners of these categories, as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award and American Wine Legend, will be announced in the magazine’s Best of Year issue and celebrated at our annual event in February 2022. We salute the dedicated beverage professionals who have innovated and flourished this year.

The Process

All full-time and contributing divisions (Sales, Events, Marketing, Editorial) of Wine Enthusiast Media were invited to submit nominees for our Wine Star Awards categories and submitted their nominations anonymously, with explanations of what made the nomination appropriate for consideration. That list of nominees was then sent to the group for anonymous voting to cull the larger nominee lists down. Final winners were chosen from the culled down list by the Executive Publishing team with selections based on many factors, including impact on consumers and trade in the wine, spirits, or beer space, commercial successes, company/brand vision, and trendsetting. The Wine Star Awards are an overall beverage industry awards program. While the editors are invited to participate, this is a collaborative program incorporating the input of all divisions of our company and is not a specifically editorial franchise. 

Explore the 2021 Wine Star Award Nominees

Person of the Year

Drew Bledsoe

In the past year, the former NFL All-Pro quarterback has continued to expand and improve his portfolio of wines within Bledsoe Wine Estates. Doubleback now features a new tasting room in Blesdoe’s hometown of Walla Walla, Washington, and it added a new winemaking project, Bledsoe-McDaniels, for which CEO and director of winemaking, Josh McDaniels, currently makes Walla Walla Syrah and Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. A third brand, Bledsoe Family Winery, completes the ambitious roster. Bledsoe was the first major sports star to found vineyards and a superpremium winery in Walla Walla, and it has blazed an important path for other celebrities. His hands-on approach with the winery is rare and admirable.

Theodora Lee

Lee, the founder, owner and vintner of Theopolis Vineyards in Mendocino County, California, is one of a handful of Black women who owns and operates U.S. wineries. In the spotlight since mid-2020, Lee seized the moment to advocate for Blacks and women to succeed in wine. She also scored 96 points for her complex and impressive Yorkville Highlands estate-grown Petite Sirah wines. The Texas native continues work as a senior partner and trial lawyer for Littler Mendelson in San Francisco, but she’s equally passionate about tending her vines atop a tractor and demonstrating that Black women can be award-winning vintners. The winery has also established The Theopolis Vineyards Diversity Fund at University of California, Davis to help create more diversity in viticulture.

Marc D. Taub

Sister organizations Palm Bay International and Taub Family Selections are progressive wine and spirits import companies owned by the Taub family, now led by Marc, the third-generation president and CEO. In recent years, the companies have produced a growing cache of California wines, including ownership of the Taub Family Vineyards brand. These domestic selections are complemented by imported wines and spirits from 16 countries, as well as a high-end American whiskey label, Jacob’s Pardon. Taub succeeded amid the pandemic with great performances from the company’s biggest brands, notably Cavit. He also led the charge in sweet wines with the Roscato and Confetti brands, and also added a Moscato to the sparkling Roscato line.

Jason Wise

The director of the SOMM series of documentaries, Wise was the creator of Somm TV, which launched in 2019. The network picked up serious steam and talent over the past year. With Wise as co-founder, president and chief creative officer, the subscription-based streaming platform offers all the wine- and food-themed watching one could desire. It boasts an ever-expanding library of documentaries, original shows, podcasts and articles. Its programming reflects a best-of list of personalities from the wine world today. Since early 2020, Wise completed The Delicacy, a documentary about sea urchin divers; directed The Whole Animal, which spans seven different countries; and filmed Somm 4: The Cup of Salvation.

Rodney Williams

As President and CEO of luxury vodka distiller Belvedere, Rodney Williams decided during the pandemic to welcome the challenge of change. He directed three major launches: a new strategic platform, Made With Nature; a new malted rye vodka, Belvedere Heritage 176; and construction of a new biomass capture facility that has enabled Belvedere’s production to become 100% energy carbon neutral and will eliminate 95% of carbon dioxide by mid-2022. The new Made With Nature platform emphasizes the natural ingredients in Belvedere, including only Polish rye, artesian water and fire. In 2017, Williams had become president and CEO of Belvedere, a division of LVMH, after a varied career in marketing and brand management for companies including Jackson Family Wines, Constellation Brands, General Motors, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble. Williams’ interest in environmental responsibility shows in the firm’s movement toward sustainable agriculture practices and the transition to organic farming underway by Belvedere’s rye-growing partners in Poland.

Lifetime Achievement Award

To be announced.

American Wine Legend

To be announced.

Winemaker of the Year

Michael Fay

As Vice President of Winemaking and Viticulture at Evenstad Estates and Domaine Serene Vineyards & Winery, Fay oversees production at one of Oregon’s most prestigious wineries, as well as for Château de la Crée and Maison Evenstad in Burgundy, France. Domaine Serene’s estate-based portfolio includes a robust array of blended and single-vineyard Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, a white Pinot Noir and sparkling wines from an ambitious new program with a dedicated facility. In 2021, Domaine Serene’s wines have garnered more than 20 scores of 92 to 95 points from Wine Enthusiast. Domaine Serene founders Ken and Grace Evenstad recruited Fay in 2017 to lead the winemaking and vineyard management efforts across Domaine Serene; Château de la Crée, in Burgundy’s historic Côte de Beaune; and Maison Evenstad. He gained prior experience in California at Cambria, Goldeneye and Sextant wineries. Fay is also spearheading a Pinot Noir barrel-aged spirits program, slated to launch in 2022.

Mac Forbes

The Yarra Valley in Victoria is one of Australia’s most innovative wine regions, and Forbes has played an outsized role to help make that happen. By mapping the intricacies of the Yarra through an array of prime sites that are meticulously farmed, the owner and winemaker of Mac Forbes Wines is a champion of subregional expression and indigenous land rights. He is currently trialing various native cover crops and seeks to create job opportunities for the refugee community. Forbes makes some of the best Chardonnay and Pinot in the region, but he also pushes boundaries with Germanic Riesling and skin-contact whites. Mac represents much of what’s exciting about the “new” Australian wine scene, yet he’s been at it for more than 15 years.

Fred Merwarth

The apprentice to Finger Lakes legend Hermann J. Wiemer, Merwarth became head winemaker, vineyard manager and co-owner (with Oskar Bynke) of Wiemer’s namesake winery in 2007. Since then, Merwarth has carried on Wiemer’s legacy, as he expanded upon the founder’s detail-oriented approach to viticulture and winemaking. Merwarth has worked extensively on understanding the relationship between the vines and soils of the Finger Lakes. He’s brought the New York State winery to new heights with a range of Rieslings, cool-climate reds, sparkling wines and rosés. They are benchmark standards for the state, and in the case of Riesling, for the country.

David Ramey

The owner of Ramey Wine Cellars in Sonoma County, California, has focused on introducing traditional methods to modern winemaking during his long and storied career. Forty years ago, Ramey committed to master the great grape varieties of the world, particularly Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Syrah, while he worked for Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill Estate and Dominus Estate. He succeeded with all four varieties, and this year earned 100-point reviews from Wine Enthusiast for two 2018 Chardonnays. Ramey’s efforts shaped the way that many U.S. wines are made today, which includes the use of oxidized juice to make white wine, sur lie aging of white wines in barrel, malolactic fermentation of Chardonnay and native yeast fermentations.

Luís de Sottomayor

Sottomayor joined the Sogrape winemaking team in 1989, and he’s served as head winemaker for the historic Douro valley wine producer of Casa Ferreirinha and Sogrape’s Port wines Sandeman, Ferreira and Offley since 2007. Sottomayor’s commitment to the Douro and Port wines is indisputable. His passion for the region, exceptional leadership and winemaking skills are demonstrated through world-famous wines like Barca-Velha, Sandeman and Ferreira vintage Ports. His high-rated wines include the Ferreira 2018 Vintage Port, which Wine Enthusiast awarded 100 points in late 2020, telling Contributing Editor Roger Voss that 2018, “produced elegant and harmonious wines that at the same time have great structure and amazing tannins that gave rise to a wine of rare completeness.”

Wine Executive of the Year

Michelle DeFeo

The president of Laurent-Perrier U.S. since 2014, DeFeo has consistently produced year-over-year growth in the market. The 209-year-old maison in Tours-sur-Marne, France, had a particularly strong performance over the past year, as Laurent-Perrier moved into fourth place in terms of Nielsen-measured sales volume among Champagne brands in the domestic market. DeFeo’s resumé includes work for a leading U.S. wine and spirits importer, as well as sales and consulting positions for a California distributor and several wine and spirits marketing firms. Prior to joining Laurent-Perrier as executive vice president in 2011, she was vice president of the Champagne, wine and vodka portfolios for Rémy Cointreau USA.

Lamberto Frescobaldi

One of the most storied names in Italian wine is today helmed by Lamberto, the family’s 30th generation to lead the winemaking dynasty of the Marchesi Frescobaldi group. He oversees nine winemaking estates that include Gorgona, an island penitentiary where inmates learn about viticulture and winemaking to help them find work upon their release. Under Lamberto, the firm now embraces more sustainable farming and production practices. It’s received AgriQualità certification from the region of Tuscany for almost a decade, and an emphasis on photovoltaic energy has decreased average annual carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 250 tons. The Frescobaldi estates of Castello Nipozzano and Castello Pomino were the first in Tuscany to receive sustainability certification from the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), and CastelGiocondo has cultivated grapes biodynamically since 2012.

Jon Guggino

Guggino, the executive vice president of marketing for Delicato Family Wines, just saw his job get a lot bigger. This summer, the California producer acquired Francis Ford Coppola Winery to become the fifth-largest supplier of wine above $11 per bottle in the U.S. Guggino, who joined Delicato in 2018 after almost two decades with Constellation Brands, oversees the brand marketing, direct-to-consumer, retail, hospitality and communication teams. The efforts are responsible for fast-growing brands like Bota Box and 1924 and now Coppola Diamond, the No. 3 brand in the superpremium category. Delicato continues to be one of the fastest growing wine companies in the world.

Dr. Margareth Henriquez

Capping an illustrious career as the leader of multinational companies, Henriquez received the French Legion of Honor this year. The president and CEO of Krug Champagne from 2009, her efforts guided her house to an impressive recovery from disruptions as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The wine and spirits group saw 12% revenue growth in the first half of 2021 compared to pre-pandemic 2019, which trailed only LVMH’s fashion and leather goods group. But it’s not all about the numbers. At Krug, she helped to provide transparency about composition of blends with individual identification codes on back labels and other luxury-consumer initiatives such as listening to music while tasting Champagne.

Eugenia Keegan

A 45-year industry veteran, Keegan has become a force in Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine community, where she manages an impressive portfolio of winery properties and brands for California-based Jackson Family Wines and volunteers for numerous industry and community organizations. As vice president of Oregon winery operations and business development, the Sonoma County native heads Jackson Family’s fast-growing Gran Moraine, Zena Crown, Penner-Ash Wine Cellars and Willakenzie Estate wineries. She also supervises Willamette Valley winemaking for Sonoma-based Siduri and La Crema. Civic-minded, Keegan chairs the Oregon Wine Board, and she serves on the boards of the Oregon Winegrowers Association, the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, the Chemeketa Wine Advisory Committee and the Linfield Wine Education Advisory Council.

Innovator of the Year

Coravin

Not satisfied with the success of its game-changing device that keeps still wines fresh after serving, Coravin mastered something even more difficult: to preserve sparkling wines in the bottle. This year, the engineering team of the Massachusetts firm introduced easy-to-use technology that can protect sparkling wines for weeks. The result, the Coravin Sparkling  System, which consists of a sparkling stopper that fits securely on bottle sizes up to a magnum and a sparkling charger, designed so bottles cannot be overpressurized. Through years of iterations, the engineering team have created a system that the company hopes will make even the finest prestige cuvées available by the glass. It’s just one of four new product innovations in 2021.

GoPuff

The instant-delivery app GoPuff grabbed the attention of the beverage alcohol industry, and in the process showed that Drizly wasn’t the only major player in the space. In December 2020, GoPuff purchased the BevMo! specialty beverage chain on the West Coast. That was followed up with the acquisition of Liquor Barn stores in Kentucky. The additions significantly extended the Philadelphia-based firm’s reach and yielded millions of new customers in BevMo!’s network of neighborhood stores. Meanwhile, technology investors embraced GoPuff this year to the tune of $1 billion in new funding, at a $15 billion valuation. Founded in 2013 by Yakir Gola and Rafael Ilishayev, GoPuff has also made moves this year to expand European distribution, including acquisitions of France-based Dija and U.K.-based Fancy.

Sans Wine Co.

A bold innovator in wine styles, packaging and marketing, Sans Wine Co. launched in Napa in 2015 by cofounders Gina Schober and Jake Stover. The brand emphasizes canned wines (and a few bottled ones) made without additives, chemicals or oak aging. Schober acts as CEO, while Stover is director of winemaking, producing the wines from organically farmed vineyards and using stainless steel fermentation and aging. Stover uses restraint by adding no sulfites to the wines and bottling unfined and unfiltered, and employes carbonic and native-yeast fermentations. It marks Sans as an innovator willing to buck the industry while it makes a big splash in the growing market niche for organic and natural wines.

Tastry

Tastry, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) and insights company, uses innovative machine learning and flavor chemistry to predict how consumers will perceive sensory-based products before they hit the market. Founder and CEO Katerina Axelsson leads perhaps the most advanced artificial intelligence-driven flavor analysis platform devoted to the wine industry. Based in San Luis Obispo, California, Tastry’s team created many of the algorithms that crunch millions of data points provided by wineries, retailers and consumers to provide an automated way to pick and rate wines. Axelsson likes to say, “We taught a computer how to taste.”

Vivant

Vivant started at Château de Pommard in Burgundy with an ambitious mission: to build a sustainable future for wine. Its digital platform, Vivant.eco, offers direct sales of wine, dozens of virtual experiences, many paired with tasting kits that can be ordered in advance, as well as live and on-demand educational experiences. In French, vivant means “alive” and “living,” a reference to its insistence to source only organic wines produced with no synthetic chemicals in the vineyard, no additives, and complete traceability of the grapes, the winemaking and the aging process. Vivant’s initiative, 1% For Wine, directs 1% of memberships and purchases to innovative ideas and research intended to make a positive impact on the wine community’s collective future.

Social Visionary of the Year

Dr. Monique Bell

In 2021, as businesses scrambled to understand the effects of the global pandemic and civil unrest, Bell, a marketing professor at California State University, Fresno, released a study that provided some answers. “Terroir Noir: 2020 Study of Black Wine Entrepreneurs” noted that fewer than 1% of all U.S. wineries are Black-owned. Some 43% of Black wine businesspeople surveyed said that capital is their main roadblock, while 20% said bias/racism was their biggest challenge. Bell formed Wyne Belle Enterprises to provide wine business content and consultation. She also serves as chief of cultural insights and partnerships for Uncorked & Cultured, home of the Sip Consciously directory.

FLOurish

FLOurish is the brainchild of The Millinger Group, a full-service woman-owned human resources consulting firm, and wine-adjacent nonprofit Dream Big Darling, which seeks to inspire and mentor the next generation of leaders in the wine and spirits industry. A new scholarship, FLOurish will mentor emerging women leaders in wine and spirits through personalized assessments, insights, coaching and mentorship. The professional development program was inspired by human resources executive Florence Pramberger, a former human resources leader for Seagram’s, Beam and Mast-Jägermeister. In August, Mast-Jägermeister US announced that it will invest $340,000 over the next six years to bolster the program.

House Wine

Washington-based House Wine partnered with the Human Rights Campaign to launch the limited-edition Rainbow Rosé Bubbles can to celebrate and support LGBTQ+ equality and love in all its forms. House Wine donates $2 for every case sold to the group, America’s largest civil rights organization working for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer equity. House Wine, founded by Charles Smith and owned by Precept Wine, makes great-value wines and packages them in cans, bottles and boxes. Wine Enthusiast reviewers have rated more than 25 House Wine products as Best Buys.

Murphy-Goode Winery

After more than a year of pandemic living, two young women in search of a fresh start in the wine industry got the opportunity of a lifetime when they won Murphy-Goode Winery’s “A Really Goode Job” competition. The Sonoma County winery reviewed more than 7,000 videos and interviewed 17 finalists before it selected Lindsay Perry of Austin and Veronica Hebbard of Orlando to be its newest employees. The winners were relocated to Healdsburg for their new $10,000-per-month jobs, rent-free living and a 12-month supply of Murphy-Goode wine. The winery said Perry brings Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 2 credentials and a diverse voice to its work force, while Hebbard, an engineer, is excited about exploring sustainability and innovation initiatives.

Sandra Taylor

Taylor is the president and CEO of consulting firm Sustainable Business International, and a devoted advocate for sustainable vineyards and wines. A former executive with Starbucks and Eastman Kodak, she founded DiscoverSustainableWine.com as a platform to educate consumers, wine producers and the industry about sustainability and promote her firm’s services. In 2017, Taylor authored The Business of Sustainable Wine. A popular speaker on the topic, Taylor moderated a panel for the Napa Valley Vintners this year. Through her writing and speaking, she seeks to serve the wine community by advocating for sustainable wine.

Wine Region of the Year

Lake County, California

Outstanding high-elevation vineyards, simmering seismic activity and one of the top 10 bass-fishing lakes in the United States make Lake County a unique, remarkable California wine region and a relaxed travel destination. The county’s steep volcanic hillsides yield Cabernet Sauvignon that can rival those of neighboring Napa County, and its lower slopes yield balanced, concentrated Sauvignon Blanc increasingly accepted as a prototype for the state. Local grape growers, through the Lake County Winegrape Commission, are well organized to continually improve the region’s wines and educate the public about their rising-star region. With the recent buzz about volcanic wines, Lake County’s obsidian-strewn hillsides, towering Mount Konocti and picturesque Clear Lake make it especially timely.

Marlborough, New Zealand

Few New World regions have had such a singular impact on the wine world as Marlborough. The cool-climate region on New Zealand’s South Island consistently produces high-quality wine from its 68,000 acres of vines. Wine drinkers in North America and elsewhere can’t seem to get enough of its bombastic, zingy and affordable Sauvignon Blanc since the region burst onto the world stage in the early 1980s. Marlborough is responsible for just over 70% of all New Zealand wine, and nearly 98% of its vineyards are certified sustainable. The region also makes delicious Pinot Noir and is home to numerous innovative producers that make a kaleidoscope of cool-climate wines from varieties like Riesling, Pinot Gris and Syrah.

Provence, France

Provence has been an enchanting destination for travelers since Roman centurions retired here, but the influence of its famous wines, notably rosé, has made it an international force in the industry. Exports of Provence rosé have grown 147% between 2015–2020, according to Vins de Provence, which inspired imitators around the world. The flavor, style and color of the region’s light-pink wines are what many rosé producers seek, even blatantly labeling them as Provence-style and unintentionally underlining the region’s dominance. But rosé from Provence is the one importers want to bring in, and that consumers want to drink.

Santa Barbara County, California

Santa Barbara wine country is one of the world’s most stunning wine regions, famous for its expansive views from the sandy Pacific beaches to the mountains inland. Within the region, the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys are open to the wind-whipped Pacific Ocean, so cool-climate grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive there. Warmer weather varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, succeed in Happy Canyon and Los Olivos to the east. In between, Ballard Canyon fosters grapes typical of the Rhône Valley and to the north, Alisos Canyon, Los Alamos Valley and Foxen Canyon grow everything from Albariño to Gamay Noir. For wine lovers, it means there’s something for every palate, often in the same tasting room.

Western Cape, South Africa

On the heels of outstanding vintages, especially 2017 and 2019, South Africa’s winelands have exceled of late, and there’s truly never been a better time to drink South African wine. From crisp Sauvignon Blanc, expressive Chenin Blanc and world-class Chardonnay to killer Cabernet, spicy Syrah, balanced Pinot Noir and uniquely South African Pinotage, there is a bevy of vinous beauty to behold from this vast wine region. The pandemic seriously affected the local market, due to authorities restricting local sales and even temporarily shutting down wine exports. Yet, local wineries have increasingly relied on export markets to spread the word of South African wine, especially to the U.S. Its growth in America has shined even brighter light on the quality and tremendous value that South African wine represents.s.

American Winery of the Year

The Duckhorn Portfolio, California

Duckhorn Vineyards, the iconic Napa Valley winery that popularized Merlot during the 1980s, continues to make waves 40 years later. The Duckhorn Portfolio has assembled a powerhouse lineup of top-end brands and vineyard properties beyond Duckhorn Vineyards, from California’s Central Coast to Red Mountain in Washington. The company accelerated its growth in recent years with the purchase of the former Starmont property in Carneros to create an upscale, leisure-focused tasting room for its Migration winery. It also unveiled new, state-of-the-art wineries for Paraduxx and Goldeneye, rolled out an expanded Decoy line to great acclaim, established Canvasback and Greenwing in Washington State and Postmark in Paso Robles, and acquired renowned Pinot Noir wineries Calera and Kosta Browne.

Josh Cellars, California

When Josh Cellars zoomed onto the Top 20 best-seller list of U.S. wine brands, the winery seemed like an overnight success. It went from little recognition several years ago to a leader in the Nielsen off-premise sales reports today. But winery founder Joseph Carr had worked on his dream since 2002 when he released his first Napa Valley wine under his own name. Carr followed by creating the Josh Cellars brand as a tribute to his father in 2005. Josh Cellars hit one million cases in sales in 2015 and, partnered with Deutsch Family Wine & Spirits, now markets 17 variants across its base and reserve portfolio. Known for consistently producing well-balanced wines that are bold yet approachable, Josh Cellars has received seven 90+ scores from Wine Enthusiast since 2019.

McBride Sisters Collection, California

McBride Sisters Collection is a true powerhouse. It is a multinational company producing wine in New Zealand and the Central Coast of California, with headquarters in Oakland, California. The business has grown into the country’s largest Black-owned wine company, as well as one of the largest woman-owned wine companies, but it’s also one of the most inclusive, accessible, socially aware and sustainable companies. These values show up in all facets of Robin McBride and Andréa McBride John’s company and the sisters’ work across the industry to date. Its signature McBride Sisters Collection of premium wines are reflections of the terroirs of the founders’ youths, one in New Zealand, and one in Monterey. The eco-friendly McBride Sisters SHE CAN collection of premium wines and spritzers are inspired by women who are breaking barriers daily. The McBride Sisters SHE CAN Professional Development Fund has raised more than $3 million and awarded grants to more than 2,000 women since 2019. The superpremium McBride Sisters Black Girl Magic collection is inspired by exceptional women, while a new luxury range of Reserve Wines line from Santa Lucia Highlands debuted in 2021, and Reserve Wines from Central Otago are set to arrive in early 2022.

McPherson Cellars, Texas

McPherson is a giant in the Texas wine community, with a delicious, wide range of wines helmed by two-times James Beard-nominated Winemaker Kim McPherson. Although he has painted the modern portrait of high-quality winemaking in Texas, his father, Clint “Doc” McPherson, provided all the requisite tools. What started out as experimental vine planting in the 1960s, at a time when there were virtually none in the state, evolved into an extraordinary framework that has shaped the Texas High Plains landscape today. Kim founded his own winery in 2000 and continues to play a dynamic role in Texas wine, which includes crafting Locations TX wine for E. & J. Gallo. One of the state’s biggest brands, it carries the Lone Star spirit to consumers around the country.

Newton Vineyard, California

Napa Valley’s Newton Vineyard, known for its sophisiticated Chardonnay, single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and The Puzzle Bordeaux-style red blend, suffered extensive damage in the 2020 Glass Fire, losing all of its 2020 red wines. But the Newton staff now welcomes guests for by-appointment tasting experiences at the Brasswood Village in St. Helena. This is a first step to move forward from the impact of the fire as the winery on Spring Mountain is rebuilt. Over the last two years, Newton trusted in digital marketing to promote the wines that were saved during the fires. As part of the Napa Green Certified Land and Winery Program, Newton meets a host of requirements that help preserve the ruggedly beautiful site and surrounding community, and all three of the winery’s estate vineyards in Spring Mountain, Mt. Veeder and Carneros are certified organic from California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).

European Winery of the Year

Aveleda, Portugal                        

Aveleda S.A. has been owned and managed by the Guedes family for five generations. The company, based in Penafiel, Portugal, is run by cousins Azevedo Guedes and Martim Guedes. Since its founding in 1870, the family’s passion for winegrowing, the sustainable treatment of the surrounding environment, biodiversity and attention to detail are still their guiding principles. The fruits of this passion are high-quality wines and renowned brands like Aveleda, Adega Velha, Quinta Vale D. Maria, Quinta D’Aguieira, Villa Alvor and Casal Garcia. The group is active in four Portuguese wine regions: Douro, Vinho Verde, Bairrada and in the Algarve. The company is Portugal’s biggest producer and exporter of Vinho Verde, which it ships to more than 90 countries.

Barone Pizzini, Italy

Organic viticulture and winemaking are at the core of Barone Pizzini’s mission. Silvano Brescianini, the winemaker and managing partner, believes that “respect for nature is the best tool for obtaining grapes rich with life that truly express the land.” In charge of winemaking since 1994, Brescianini directs the production of sparkling Franciacorta wines and still wines with the Curtefranca and Montenetto di Brescia appellations. He practices low intervention in the cellar, which he says results in wines defined less by artifice and more by location. Beginning in 1870, Barone Pizzini incorporated Franciacorta’s cultural themes, which have helped shape both the region’s legacy and its contemporary character.

Bertram-Baltes, Germany

The wineries of the Ahr region, many which have have recently put German Pinot Noir back on the map, are facing unfathomable destruction in the aftermath of this summer’s floods. Some of the most acclaimed producers, known for their elegant, ethereal Pinot Noir, lost entire cellars and wineries. In mid-July, the Ahr received nearly twice as much rain in 24 hours than it normally gets in an entire month. The rain swelled the Ahr river into a monster that washed away the entire 2020 vintage, equipment and library wines of Bertram-Baltes. Fifth-generation Owner Julia Bertram-Baltes and husband Benedikt Baltes focus on organic, sustainable practices to yield authentic and expressive Pinot Noirs.

Château de Saint Cosme, France

Not only is Château de Saint Cosme consistently among Wine Enthusiast’s highest-scoring wineries in the Rhône Valley, Louis Barruol, the owner and winemaker, is an outspoken leader in Gigondas and throughout the region. He has elevated and distinguished Gigondas from the rest of the Southern Rhône. Barruol has inspired a new generation of winemakers to embrace his philosophies on sustainable winemaking, biodynamics and more. He’s president of the Gigondas wine growers syndicate and outspoken on climate change and other topics. Wine has been produced on the site of Saint Cosme since Roman times, and the property has been in Barruol’s family since 1490. Barruol took over from his father in 1992, and he proceeded to make a dramatic shift to higher quality. He converted to biodynamics in 2010 and added a négociant arm to the business in 1997.

Villa Sparina, Italy

Villa Sparina is a key brand in the Ethica Wines portfolio, one that showed agility during the pandemic when it shifted its U.S. focus to off-premise sales. The Piedmont winery vinifies its Cortese grapes in a variety of styles. It includes a lighter-style expression of a Cortese blend from vineyards approximately 30 years old; the richer, ageworthy Gavi Monterotondo, a single cru of Gavi, made from 40-year-old vines; and a sparkling wine aged on its lees for 42 months. In the U.S., Villa Sparina was 80% sold on-premise, but in collaboration with its New York City distributor, the brand quickly shifted focus to off-premise accounts upon the dawn of the pandemic, where its brand strength and loyal consumer base earned it a credible performance.

New World Winery of the Year

Antigal Winery & Estates, Argentina

Antigal is well known for its Mendoza Malbec and the eye-catching metal No. 1 that appears riveted to the front of its bottles. Antigal was hardly the first Argentine winery to export to the U.S., but after its introduction here in 2007, the brand steadily gained greater distribution and renown. While Antigal sits on the site of a historic winery dating to 1897 in the Mendoza subregion of Maipú, everything else about the facility is new. Its state-of-the-art facilities were constructed in the early 2000s to bring together the best of both worlds: high-quality, high-tech equipment within 120-plus-year-old architecture. Its gravity-flow platform system eliminates the need for forceful pumps and crushers to allow for a largely hands-off approach to winemaking by Winemaker Miriam Gomez and her team. Antigal has received multiple 90-plus reviews from Wine Enthusiast for its Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon-focused portfolio, which includes several single-vineyard bottlings from four estate vineyards.

Barramundi Wines, Australia

Barramundi makes affordable, accessible wines in the Murray Darling Region of Victoria. Named for a popular species of fish, the company doesn’t take itself too seriously, using humor, Aussie slang and illustrations to attract attention and disarm potential consumers. Barramundi’s inexpensive prices for varietal wines, from Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay-Viognier to Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, also make consumers happy. Barramundi launched in Australia in 1990 with two blends and labels illustrated by iconic Aussie artist Ken Done.

Henschke, Australia

The Henschke family has been making wine for more than 150 years in South Australia. Fifth-generation Stephen Henschke is at the winemaking helm. His wife, Prue, is a renowned viticulturist, with the sixth generation in children Johann, Justine and Andreas also involved in running the business. Henschke is home to one of the most famous single vineyards in the world, Hill of Grace, in the Eden Valley. The latest release of Hill of Grace, the 2016 vintage, has been praised as one of the best yet. Last year, the Henschke Lenswood Vineyard in the Adelaide Hills was destroyed by wildfires, yet life goes on—the vines are regenerating with a hopeful 2022 vintage. Henschke is among the most important and revered winemaking names in Australia, representing the country’s rich history, winemaking tradition, strong environmental values and innovation.

Kanonkop Wine Estate, South Africa

To many wine lovers, Kanonkop is considered the South African equivalent of a Premier Cru. Located in Stellenbosch, the family-owned wine estate has produced high-quality wines since 1973, and it’s now in the hands of the fourth generation, brothers Paul and Johann Krige. Known for its outstanding Pinotage and highly sought Paul Sauer Bordeaux-style blend, Kanonkop produces a range of offerings from the top tier to everyday values. The estate leads the conversation for what quality South African wine can be. Its wines are constantly at the top of the country’s auction resale figures.

Recanati Winery, Israel

The story of the Recanati Winery, a producer of high-quality Mediterranean wines, begins with a profound bond with the land of Israel coupled with a passion for fine wine. In 2000, Lenny Recanati and Uri Shaked began to pursue their dream of producing world-class wines, which has reached fruition today. Recanati’s wines can be found in the U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Japan. Head Winemaker Kobi Arviv, who has been in that position since 2017, has made it a mission to champion ancient native varieties like Marawi and Bittuni, in addition to classic Mediterranean grapes like Syrah, Marsanne, Roussanne, Carignan and more.

Importer of the Year

Bowler Wine

Based in New York, Bowler Wine, founded in 2013 by David Bowler, imports and distributes naturally made, small-batch wines from around the world. Working with importers and often directly with wineries, the company strives to supply unique wines that accurately represent the people that make them and regions from which they hail. Bowler’s portfolio consists of wines from the major European wine regions of France, Germany, Spain, Austria and Italy. In addition, the company works with small wineries from California, Washington, Oregon, Chile and Argentina. Most are family-run farms with owner/winemakers.

Pacific Highway Wines & Spirits

Pacific Highway Wines & Spirits is based in Greensboro, North Carolina, nowhere near the Pacific Ocean. But the specialized import, sales and marketing agency has a solid Pacific connection, as it’s owned by the winemaking Oatley family of Australia and the Giesen winery family of New Zealand. The company has enjoyed significant revenue and portfolio brand growth since 2016, says President Mark Giordano, having reached a company goal of 500,000 cases this year. Recently, Pacific Highway launched a new brand from Argento, called Minimalista, and took a position in nonalcohol innovation with Giesen 0% Sauvignon Blanc, with a 0% line extension to include a red blend and rosé. The company anticipates adding two new wineries this year and is dedicated to family-owned wines from Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Spain and Uruguay, as well as Oregon and California.

Santa Margherita USA

Santa Margherita USA (SMUSA) has pulled out all the stops to promote its entire portfolio, educating the U.S. consumer on both known and unsung Italian wine regions. Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2021. Since the importer’s inception in 2014, they have continued to maintain Santa Margherita as a luxury leader in Pinot Grigio and build momentum behind this respected and loved consumer favorite. In 2021, they regionally launched Santa Margherita Rosé, the brand’s first product introduction in the past decade.

T. Edward Wines

In this age of consolidation, T. Edward stands out for its independence and impeccable taste in wines from all over the world. The New York-based wine and spirits importer and national distributor maintains reasonable prices due to its direct importing structure. The firm takes pride to represent wineries that are predominantly family owned and either sustainable, organic or biodynamic in philosophy. Founded in 1994, the company takes one of the firmest stands on diversity and inclusion of any wine and spirits firm. It maintains a zero-tolerance policy with suppliers, employees or customers toward actions considered to be racist, sexist or discriminatory.

Vineyard Brands

Vineyard Brands, with offices in New York City and Birmingham, Alabama, continues to grow and diversify both its star-studded wine portfolio and headcount, now at 65 employees. Founded in 1971 by Robert Haas, the company has been employee-owned since the late 1990s. Its mission is to offer wines of the best quality and value from around the world and distribute them to all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The company represents more than 65 wineries from the major wine-growing regions throughout the world, including those in Europe, South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. These include elite stars like Château de Beaucastel in the Rhone Valley; Château Petrus and Château la Gaffelière in Bordeaux; Domaine Weinbach from Alsace; Warre’s from the Douro Valley; and Marqués de Cáceres from Spain.

Retailer/Marketplace of the Year

FreshDirect

With a surprisingly great wine, spirits and beer selection, online grocer FreshDirect was a lifesaver during the pandemic for customers in the Northeast. Along with produce, fish and meat sourced directly from farms and fishing boats, FreshDirect Wines & Spirits delivers over 800 wide-ranging products, including many organic and boutique selections to homes and offices in New York State. Over 300 beer, cider and alternative hard beverages are also available with a focus on local, craft and “better-for-you” offerings. FreshDirect supports the New York Common Pantry and partners with Operation 5 Borough Food Drive in their efforts to reduce hunger. The company also promotes dignity and self-sufficiency.

Gary’s Wine & Marketplace

With four locations in New Jersey and one in Napa Valley, Gary’s Wine stepped up during the pandemic, hired more people and improved logistics to get wine to consumers. Its California store is in St. Helena, where the doors had only been open for six months before the novel coronavirus pandemic turned wine shopping upside down. The New Jersey stores in Wayne, Madison, Bernardsville and Closter make Gary’s one of the largest fine-wine businesses in the New York metropolitan area. Gary Fisch and his team pride themselves on being well educated on both wine and its pairings with food, using their knowledge from frequent travel to international wine regions to taste and learn.

New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets

The New Hampshire Liquor Commission (NHLC) operates 68 consumer-friendly NH Liquor & Wine Outlets across the state. The stores offer a wide selection of more than 14,000 wines and spirits from around the world at competitive prices and no taxes. Since the first NH Liquor & Wine Outlet opened in 1934, more than $4 billion in net profits have been raised for critical state programs like like substance abuse prevention, education, natural resource protection and social services. New Hampshire was recently recognized as the best overall control state in the country by StateWays Magazine, the second time it was honored in four years, and has been named a “Top 10 Retailer in the U.S.” two years running by Beverage Dynamics.

The Urban Grape

Founded in 2010, The Urban Grape is a wine, spirits and craft beer store located in Boston’s South End neighborhood. In 2020, Fortune ranked it among the fastest growing inner city businesses in the U.S., citing its 430% revenue growth over four years. The Black- and woman-owned company applies the theme “drink progressively” to both its store design and community involvement. A proprietary shelving system sorts wine by body instead of by varietal or region. The Urban Grape is also deeply involved in its community. In 2020, husband-and-wife owners TJ and Hadley Douglas founded and endowed a wine studies award for students of color at Boston University.

Vivino

Vivino describes itself as “the world’s largest online wine marketplace and most downloaded wine app, powered by a community of millions.” The company uses crowd-sourced data like the 5-Star Vivino rating to provide personalized recommendations to every user. With the support of venture capital investors, cofounders Heini Zachariassen and Theis Sondergaard, CEO Olivier Grémillon and the company’s 300-person team have grown Vivino into a global marketplace with a community of 53 million. Vivino lists more than 14 million wines on its platform, hundreds of thousands of which are available to purchase from hundreds of producer and retailer partners. A big part of Vivino’s success can be attributed to the app’s label scanning technology, which helps users find pertinent information about wines before buying.

Spirit Brand/Distiller of the Year

21 Seeds Tequila

A woman-owned brand, 21 Seeds is an all-natural, fruit-infused Tequila that answers public interest in cleaner ingredients in craft spirits and small-batch bottlings. Founded in California in 2019 by sisters Kat Hantas and Nicole Emanuel and longtime friend Sarika Singh, 21 Seeds boasts year-over-year business growth of 260%, with latest Nielsen data showing them the leader in the flavored Tequila category as well as a top 10 blanco Tequila in nationwide chains. The brand’s  three signature infusions—Grapefruit Hibiscus, Cucumber Jalapeno and Valencia Orange—are available in 45 states and distributed nationally by Southern Glazer’s. Each has slightly lower than usual alcohol levels at 35% alcohol by volume, and they’re also gluten-free, keto and non-GMO, making them an ideal base for easy-to-make, low-calorie cocktails for the at-home mixologist. Produced at a woman-owned distillery in Mexico, 21 Seeds is one of the few spirits products that keeps women top of mind in production, packaging, design and drinking occasion.

Banhez Mezcal

The cooperative behind Banhez Mezcal is a consortium of more than 36 families, farmers and mezcaleros in the central valley of Oaxaca, Mexico. Francisco Javier Perez Cruz founded Banhez to challenge the inconsistent work, low wages and uncertain future that had been associated with the mezcal industry. The co-op members put great effort into fair trade and sustainability practices, while they use underground wood-fired pits, donkey-pulled tahonas (stone-wheel mills), fermentation in wooden tanks and small-batch distillation in copper alembics. At least eight expressions of Banhez are offered, with the most popular being its base blend of Espadín and Barril. Global marketing and distribution rights have been managed since inception by CNI Brands.

Disaronno

Illva Saronno’s flagship Italian Amaretto with the original square cap is iconic. Its comforting consistency and name recognition is something to honor, especially after a pandemic year. Described as 100% natural, Disaronno Originale is sweet and fruity, with a distinctive flavor profile that defines the amaretto segment, with notes of apricots, Madagascar vanilla and cocoa. Disaronno International is the U.S. subsidiary of Illva Saronno and imports a premium portfolio of wine and spirits, including Disaronno Originale, Disaronno Velvet Liqueur, The Busker Irish Whiskey, Tia Maria Coffee Liqueur, Tia Maria Matcha, Engine Gin, Rabarbaro Zucca Amaro, as well as Florio Marsala and Corvo & Duca di Salaparuta wines from Sicily.

Maker’s Mark

Maker’s Mark is the small-batch Bourbon whiskey that predates the craft spirits revolution by a generation, as Bill Samuels Sr. and his wife, Margie Samuels, conceived it in 1953. Part of the Beam Suntory portfolio and produced in Loretto, Kentucky, Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon is bottled at 45% alcohol by volume and in packaging thought up by Margie. It features a squarish bottle sealed with red wax that leaves tendrils dripping down the bottleneck for a lasting visual impression. In more recent years, the lineup has extended to Cask Strength, Maker’s Mark 46 (first of the Wood Finishing Series), Private Selection (also part of the Wood Finishing Series) and Maker’s Mark 101.

Sorel Liqueur

When author, speaker and serial entrepreneur Jackie Summers debuted his craft liqueur, Sorel, in 2012, he became owner to the first known licensed Black-owned distillery in America. Based on sorrel, a 500-year-old red-hibiscus tea popular in the Caribbean, Sorel lapsed out of production for five years until revived in 2021. The brand relaunched as a beneficiary of the $50 million Uncle Nearest Venture Fund, a fund devoted to supporting Black and minority-owned spirits businesses. An award-winning writer and advocate, Summers is a cochair of the education committee for the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, a member of the education committee for Bar Convent Brooklyn, and an advisor to the inaugural James Beard Legacy network program, institutions he’s pledged to help make more progressive and inclusive.

Beverage Brand of the Year

Haus

A new line of California-made apéritifs between 15%–18% alcohol by volume, Haus includes invigorating flavors like Ginger Yuzu, Citrus Flower, Bitter Clove, Peach Passionfruit, Lemon Lavender and Spiced Cherry. The brand aims to introduce a culture of apéritifs to a new generation via direct sales and communication with customers. Founded by Woody Hambrecht and Helena Price Hambrecht in 2018, the spirits are made with all-natural fruits, herbs and botanicals, as well as with the intent of keeping the alcohol level below spirits and above wine. Haus does an amazing job on social media, where it provides recipes, lifestyle ideas and a sense of fun under the motto “less hangovers, more hangouts.”

High Noon

In 2019, E. & J. Gallo Winery launched into the hard-seltzer category with High Noon. Created with the intent to build and lead the premium segment, High Noon offers a differentiated position by being made with real vodka and juice as opposed to the malt or fermented cane sugar and artificial flavors that some of the category’s sales leaders employ. The Modesto-based brand has since seen explosive growth and solidified its place as a leader in the premium hard-seltzer category. The brand’s creative national and local partnerships work strongly to build awareness and encourage consumers to trade-up from mainstream seltzer brands.

Ramona

When Ramona Wine Spritz launched in 2016, there was little competition in the ready-to-drink beverage category. So this certified organic, low-alcohol creation by award-winning sommelier Jordan Salcito made a big impression and inspired others to offer similarly convenient drinks in cans. Salcito imagined Ramona as a sort of cross between Italian spritzes and an upgrade on the now-quaint California-style wine coolers. Ramona comes in several flavors including Organic Ruby Grapefruit, Organic Blood Orange, Organic Meyer Lemon and Organic Dry Sparkling Rosé, and the brand will be launching Organic Amarino on November 1. There’s also Ramona Dry, which has only 90 calories and is low in sugar. During the novel coronavirus pandemic, Salcito turned her attention to supporting industry organizations like the Independent Restaurant Coalition and Speed Rack, a cocktail competition for women that raises money for breast cancer research. 

Recess

Recess is a sparkling beverage in a can, flavored with black cherry, strawberry, pomegranate and hibiscus, to name a few. What Recess does not do is contain alcohol. It gets its promised vibe of “calm, cool, collected” from natural ingredients like hemp, ginseng other purported adaptogens. Recess has two sparkling beverage lines: the original six-flavor Recess line, which utilizes hemp (CDB, or cannabidiol) and adaptogens to deliver a calming feeling, and the four-flavor Recess Mood line, which is made with magnesium and adaptogens for a mood-lifting effect. The brand is based in New York City and made in the nearby Hudson Valley, mostly from sparkling water. Fans say it provides a soothing break from their hectic lives, which was the aim of founder Benjamin Witte, a former tech-industry marketer in San Francisco.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

After more than 40 years in brewing, the company that practically invented craft beer continues to innovate and not take the easy path or one with compromise. Long known for its Pale Ale loaded with Cascade hops, Sierra Nevada now makes Hazy Little Thing IPA that is introducing the company to a new generation of drinkers. Also expanding the base is the Strainge Beast line of hard kombucha, which added three flavors in 2021. To the original brewery built by founder Ken Grossman in the college town of Chico, California, Sierra Nevada has added a tap room in Berkeley and a second brewing site in Mills River, North Carolina. Leaders in sustainability, the firm has slashed the environmental impact at both breweries and now generates alternative energy onsite.

Sommelier/Wine Director of the Year

Yannick Benjamin

Benjamin, a New York City-based sommelier, is the cofounder of Contento in East Harlem, which opened in 2021. He is also a cofounder and director of development for Wine on Wheels, an organization that helps recently disabled people. In 2003, a car accident left Benjamin paralyzed, but he pursued his dreams to attend college and become a sommelier. Having worked in his early years at Le Cirque, Jean-Georges, Felidia and Atelier at the Ritz Carlton, Benjamin went back to wine service at Le Dû’s Wines for more than seven years and also became an accomplished athlete. Benjamin and partners opened Contento with the ethos and tagline “accessible for all.” It is a stunning example of quality hospitality designed with a broadly inclusive approach.

Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, CSW

The former sommelier at Elaia, Olio and Reed’s American Table, Blackwell-Calvert has gone solo as a private wine consultant in St. Louis while in preparation for the Advanced Sommelier exam. Blackwell-Calvert, a Certified Sommelier and Certified Specialist of Wine, is at least as passionate about wine and food pairing as she is about her avocation, the care and training of draft horses. She studied equestrian science and biology at William Woods University, but she caught an interest in wine while she waited tables. She went to work in sales for Ionia Atlantic Imports in 2012, followed by wholesale distributor Vintegrity Wine & Spirits. In 2015, she began serious sommelier work and soon received accolades from Feast magazine and was named to Wine Enthusiast’s 40 Under 40 Tastemakers of 2018 list.

Miguel de Leon

The general manager and wine director of Pinch Chinese in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood is a polymath born in Manila, raised in California and who studied linguistics and city planning at the University of California, Berkeley. He became a sommelier, earned multiple certifications and then blossomed as a writer in 2020, as he advocated for social justice and equity in the wine space. Currently, de Leon sits on the resource council for the Hue Society, an organization that promotes and prioritizes BIPOC professionals in the wine industry. At Pinch Chinese, he developed a wine program with a focus on exciting, natural, international wines and a section dedicated to female winemakers. He edits and contributes to Disgorgeous, a podcast and magazine about wine, and advises the viticulture and enology program at the University of California, Davis, for its seminar work in the field of Critical Wine Studies.

Gina Netisingha

Topping a career of almost two decades in hospitality, Netisingha recently signed on as beverage director at the luxurious The Seagate Hotel & Spa in Delray Beach, Florida. She grew up in Bangkok and Chicago, worked at restaurants in Carmel, California, and in New York City that included Tom Colicchio’s Craft, and often found talented female sommeliers to serve as mentors. Netisingha had worked as food and beverage manager for the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore for three years just before she joined the Seagate team. As someone who never hid her bisexuality, she says she has been fortunate to find organizations known for their diverse and inclusive cultures.

Tonya Pitts

The sommelier and wine director at One Market Restaurant, Pitts also consults, speaks, writes, judges and reviews. Her prominent position at long-running One Market Restaurant calls on the experiences of a lengthy career in San Francisco and opportunities to learn from great food and wine professionals like Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café and Jeremiah Tower of Stars. Soon, Pitts was running the wine program for Loretta Keller at Bizou Restaurant. Today, her involvement goes beyond the cellar and floor. Pitts is a member of the Bâtonnage Forum, Les Dames d’Escoffier San Francisco and a board member of The United Sommeliers Foundation, as well as  a mentor with Wine Unify, a Napa Valley-based organization that mentors people in the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities who pursue education and careers in the wine industry. She’s a vocal advocate for equity and diversity in wine.

Published on October 7, 2021
Topics: Wine Star Awards