The wine industry’s most influential change-makers donned their best and came together on Monday, January 30th to celebrate Wine Enthusiast’s 23rd annual Wine Star Awards, which took place at the historic Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. The black-tie affair paid tribute to the companies and individuals who are forging their own paths and redefining the modern drinks landscape.
The evening began with a wine-splashed cocktail hour that featured sips from the event’s various winners. Guests schmoozed with honorees while enjoying wines that spanned Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County to Chardonnay from Argentina’s Uco Valley.
Soon after, the awards ceremony kicked off in a dramatically-lit ballroom festooned with beautifully set tables overflowing with wine bottles. Wine Enthusiast Chairman and CEO Adam Strum welcomed the event’s several hundred attendees and set the tone for the evening with inspirational remarks.
“Wine stands alone in so many ways,” Strum said. “It’s an agricultural product, a liquid food, a social ice breaker, a celebratory toast, an inspiration for poets and philosophers, a religious sacrament, a blend of science and art, a sensory adventure, a treasured gift and the most civilized—and civilizing—of beverages,” he said. With that, the audience erupted into cheers.
“I think that deserves a little applause!” Strum encouraged. He also paid honor to the galaxy of Wine Stars from the last 23 years in attendance, who each stood as their names were called.
Wine Enthusiast President, Editor and Publisher Jacqueline Strum handed the evening’s first award to Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin for Spirit Brand of the Year. Pat and Denise Rigney touched on the operation’s humble beginnings in Ireland as a family business. “Today we have a family-owned brand that has grown to over 250,000 cases sales per year being honored by my peers,” said Pat Rigney. “It is nothing short of a miracle. I am 40 years in the industry this year having started at 20 years of age—honestly, this is the pinnacle.”
Other poignant moments included when The Hue Society founder Tahiirah Habibi accepted the award for Social Visionary of the Year. She expressed the deep importance of creating safe spaces for women, people of color and other marginalized groups.
“If doing the right thing and caring about each other makes me a visionary, then we should all be visionaries,” she said to heartfelt applause.
The inclusion and elevation of women and BIPOC members of the drinks industry remained a moving theme of the evening. When Tonya Pitts accepted the award for Sommelier of the Year, she noted that there remains much work to be done in the fight to bring true equality to the industry.
“For every person who is recognized there are many many more quiet giants who are working diligently behind the scenes and it’s those people we need to raise and support in order to create a more vibrant industry,” she said. “This wine life is not a race, it’s a marathon, and I am just hitting my stride.”
Wine Executive of the Year winner Nicholas Miller of the Miller Family Wine Company echoed these sentiments when he accepted his award, stressing the deep importance of opening doors to women and people of color. “We also need to wrap our arms around members of the LGBTQ+ community,” he said to thundering applause.
Finally, Person of the Year Jeff O’Neill of O’Neill Wines made the case for increased focus on sustainability across the wine industry.
“We are, after all, a plant-based business,” O’Neill said. “We touch dirt, people and communities. It is our story, and I include everyone in this room, that should resonate with new consumers. Who else in the world can tell the story of a natural product, plant-based, sustainable, soon to be carbon neutral? While convenience and high-fructose corn syrup products seem to be the order of the day in some sectors, we have an opportunity to change the dialogue.”
After the awards, attendees kept the party going at the after-party sponsored by Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin. At the room’s center, a glistening ice sculpture resembling a bottle of gin captivated guests, capping off a beautiful evening full of fun and deeper meaning.
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This story was updated on February 3, 2023.