Wine Enthusiast's 2014 Wine Star Award Winners
Each year since 2000, the editors of Wine Enthusiast have honored individuals whose vision has impacted the wine and spirits industries with our Wine Star Awards. Over the years, we’ve showcased individuals and companies worldwide, each of them representing varied mindsets, origins, generations and business approaches. Our winners—past and present—are notable for their energy and groundbreaking vision, coupled with the courage to take risks and the skill to succeed.
In this, our 15th year of the awards program, we’ve added a category to highlight an exciting and emerging category of beverage culture: Brewery of the Year. Our winner pioneered the business of craft brewing and put beer on the connoisseur’s radar. This year we’re also tipping our hats to an Innovator/Executive of the Year whose environmental stewardship has set an example in the global wine world.
The winners will be honored at the Wine Star Awards Dinner on Monday, January 26, 2015 in New York City. To get more details or to RSVP, contact Jen Cortellini.
And the winners are…
From his humble beginnings at his father’s liquor store to his current role as chairman of the Terlato Wine Group, Terlato’s vision has influenced every facet of the modern wine industry.
Superlatives quickly pile up when encapsulating Anthony J. (Tony) Terlato’s half-century career in wine. Visionary, creative, proactive, inspiring and, above all, innovative, he’s been integral in growing domestic and international wine brand awareness in America.
“Once you start to drink wine,” says the man whose career has encompassed retailer, distributor, importer, marketer and winery/vineyard owner, “you start to have aspirations.”
Working in his father’s shop—Leading Liquor Marts, on Chicago’s North Side—during the 1950s, he began to educate himself by tasting wines and reading every book that he could find, discovering what wine experts like Alexis Lichine had to say about French wines and fine dining.
Terlato joined his father-in-law’s wine bottling firm, Pacific Wine Company, in 1956 and transformed it into a distributor of fine wines. He began to build relationships that would change his business and impact American wine tastes forever. Terlato tasted Bouchard’s grand cru Burgundy and wanted it for Pacific. Bouchard’s New York based importer agreed to work with him if he took 600 cases of a little known Portuguese rosé—Lancers—along with it. Terlato took the chance.
“We did such a good job with Lancers that Mateus came with us, and Blue Nun,” he recalls of the brands that would quickly become major successes.
This was especially true of Robert Mondavi, who became Terlato’s friend after the two met in the 1950s. Mondavi was launching his own winery, and Terlato was adding more prestige wines to his portfolio. They shared a similar vision about wine’s evolving role in American culture.
“Bob Mondavi and I would go to the Sherman House restaurant in Chicago,” Terlato says. “We’d order several bottles of wine, and after dinner we’d walk around the block and talk. He told me, ‘Tony, someday you’ll go to a restaurant and there will be a bottle of wine on every table.’ ”
In 1967, Mondavi’s Fumé Blanc became the first California wine represented by Pacific Wine. Mondavi pushed for more, telling Terlato he’d need more California wines once things took off.
“I visited Clos du Val, Schramsberg, Heitz, maybe a dozen wineries, and all with Bob’s blessing,” Terlato says. “That was the beginning of our California portfolio.”
While building the domestic portfolio, Terlato utilized the family’s import company, Paterno Imports (bringing in olive oil at the time) to build his international wine business.
He looked to Italy first, importing Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio in 1979. It became the most popular luxury import in the U.S. It led to an ever-expanding fine wine portfolio that grew to include legendary producers like Angelo Gaja, M. Chapoutier, Champagne Bollinger and more.
California continued to grow, too. In 1996, Terlato purchased the Rutherford Hill winery at the urging of his sons, both officers in the company since the 1980s. Today, their California investments include Chimney Rock, Sanford, Terlato Family Vineyards and many more.
Terlato’s vision and energy have helped to make wine into the global industry it has become today, and for that, Wine Enthusiast is proud to bestow upon Anthony Terlato its 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Someday,” Terlato says with a smile, “there will be two bottles of wine on every table.”
New York State
Home to world-class international and native varieties, top-rated culinary experiences and diverse tourism opportunities, New York State is fast-growing, fast-evolving and at top of mind for wine lovers.
Success stories seldom come in such a complete package as New York State. Once a minor blip on the state’s economic and tourism map, New York’s five internationally recognized wine areas—Long Island, Hudson River Region, Finger Lakes, Niagara Escarpment and Lake Erie—have flourished into internationally recognized destinations and now represent $3.7 billion annually for the state economy. Since 1985, the industry grew from 37 statewide wineries to 390-plus in 58 counties, and from 340,000 tourist visits yearly to over five million.
“The New York wine industry has made a remarkable comeback in the past 30 years in terms of the quality of wines, number of wineries, and economic impact,” said Adam Strum, Publisher and Editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine. “All of those positive indicators have accelerated tremendously during the past four years, making New York State one of the most vibrant and promising wine-producing destinations in the world.”
The impetus for positive change began in 1985, when former governor Mario M. Cuomo created the New York Wine & Grape Foundation for research and promotion in support of the state’s grape and wine industry. That strong growth has exploded since Andrew M. Cuomo became governor in January 2011: Cuomo has held two New York state Wine, Beer, Spirits and Cider summits; changed numerous laws and regulations; and launched an aggressive promotional program in support of the farm-based craft beverage sector.
The quality of New York wines has improved just as dramatically, thanks largely to research sponsored by the Foundation, projects spearheaded by Cornell University, and the growing expertise of committed vintners in the regions. Today, New York wines made of varieties including Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Riesling and native varieties such as Seyval and Traminette are garnering serious praise among sommeliers and critics alike, with consistently high critical scores and more than 700 top awards in major competitions around the world.
“This award literally belongs to hundreds of people who have worked together on many fronts to improve the quality of our grapes and wines to grow our industry, and to market the products, “ says Jim Trezise, president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, representing wineries statewide.
Robert D. Torres, Trinchero Family Estates
The senior vice president of operations is lifting Trinchero Family Estates to new heights.
Bob Torres of Trinchero Family Estates—the second-largest family winery in the United States—has a lot on his plate.
He manages macro projects for the company like its current $300 million winery expansion in Lodi, California, but he doesn’t lose track of the micro concerns like the company’s Family in Need Fund, which raises money for worker emergencies.
Trinchero has come a long way from its beginnings in 1948, when his grandparents bought the historic Sutter Home Winery in Napa Valley.
Torres, a principal and senior vice president of operations at Trinchero, began working in the winery as a teenager. The business has grown from a mom-and-pop entity on Main Street in St. Helena to the brand that made white Zinfandel ubiquitous in the 1970s and ’80s.
Trinchero’s now a leader in wine and spirits, with six production facilities, 40-plus brands, 9,500 acres of vines and a portfolio of imported products.
Bob’s uncles, Robert and Roger Trinchero, and his mother, Vera -Trinchero Torres, who died last summer, were the second generation of the family operation. Torres and his cousin, Carlo Trinchero, are -members of the third generation.
Reflecting on the family’s success, Torres isn’t sure if innovation sparked the company’s robust growth, or if it was the other way around.
“All we did is we just worked hard, had a little serendipity with the development of white Zinfandel, and that allowed us to spring forward to the company we are today,” says Torres.
He ticks off numerous developments that his team devised to make wine more efficiently, reduce costs and prioritize employee concerns. Vera Torres started many of these efforts, as Trinchero became a leader in environmental stewardship and charitable giving.
The company provides family health benefits and, profit sharing and matching contributions to 401(k) plans for eligible employees. It helped raise $900,000 to fight breast cancer, instigated the planting of 12 million trees through Trinity Oaks Wines’ One Bottle One Tree program and produces Newman’s Own wines, with 100% of the proceeds benefitting nonprofits.
Trinchero triggered the red-blend phenomenon with Ménage a Trois, which became the top-selling red wine in the U.S., according to the company’s analysis of Nielsen data. It also popularized environmentally friendly 187-ml PET bottles, and it put Bandit wines in Tetra Pak.
Under Torres’s direction, the company has reduced water, energy and chemical use and repurposed or recycled waste materials.
Looking forward, Torres plans to finish the Lodi winery expansion in 2015 and has targeted safety upgrades in other facilities following the August 24 earthquake in Napa Valley. But he takes his most serious tone when talking about the company’s 1,000 workers.
“When your employees are taken care of and their families are taken care of, that also pays dividends to the company in terms of their production and job satisfaction,” he says.
It’s that commitment to both its products and people that makes Bob Torres our 2014 Innovator/Executive of the Year.
Charles Merinoff, Chairman and CEO, Charmer Sunbelt Group;
Chairman, Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) 2012–13; Board of Directors, WSWA
The CEO of one of the nation’s largest distributors is an unlikely peacemaker in an industry roiled by strife.
When Charles Merinoff, chairman and chief executive officer of The Charmer Sunbelt Group, stepped in as chairman of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America in 2012, the industry was on the cusp of civil war.
The federal CARE (Community Alcohol Regulatory Effectiveness) Act, a proposed bill aimed at strengthening the power of individual states to control their alcohol and consumption laws, had electrified the already highly charged relationship between wholesalers, who backed the bill, and suppliers, who were steadfast in their opposition to it.
“Our fault was, we had given the solution without defining the problem,” Merinoff says. “It was as if we at the WSWA in the middle of the night said, ‘Here’s the CARE Act, it’s good for everyone!’ And no one was buying it. So, understandably, the suppliers saw all these boogeymen in the legislation and it just became so incredibly divisive.”
As the legislation kept inching closer to law, the vitriol between suppliers and wholesalers worsened.
“It had gotten to the point that suppliers were so angry, I told our wholesalers, ‘Even if it passes, it’s a Pyrrhic victory, because we’ll have created such mistrust with our supplier partners,’ ” Merinoff says.
So at the 2013 WSWA Convention in Orlando, Merinoff held a meeting and worked to convince members to the put the CARE Act on the back burner.
“We believed in the legislation, but we all agreed that this was not worth it,” says Merinoff. “We decided to bury the hatchet and really focus on the four or five industry challenges that we and the suppliers could agree to and work together on.”
Epitomizing his leadership style, Merinoff said his effort to help save wholesalers and suppliers from the divisive abyss was “far from heroic.”
“I didn’t really deliver some major solution,” he said. “All I did was just get people back to the table.”
But this keen diplomacy and his innate creative problem solving not only served him during his WSWA tenure, it’s also a major reason the family-owned Charmer Sunbelt Group continues to grow and remains one of the driving forces in the wine and spirits industry, delivering and marketing a vast array of both emerging and namesake brands, from Jack Daniels whiskeys to E&J Gallo wines.
Yet these well-honed diplomacy and business smarts weren’t always so sharp, admits the third-generation wholesaler, citing a funny gaffe he made while a young executive during his first Teamster’s strike in New York City.
The company’s payroll department came to him during the height of the strike with a question. The quarterly cost-of-living checks for the union workers were ready. What should they do?
Having literally grown up playing in the warehouses and working on the trucks after school alongside the same people picketing, he decided to mail the checks. It was an act of good faith, but more importantly, Merinoff says, they had earned it, it was in the existing contract, “and it was the right thing to do.”
Or so he thought.
Days later, while crossing the picket line, a man charged at Merinoff, barking at him for mailing the checks.
As Merinoff remembers, “He said, ‘I’m trying to get these guys organized and you take away their poker money?’ ”
The quarterly checks were usually handed out at the warehouse—and rarely made it home to the workers’ wives.
Laughs Merinoff, “It was one of those hard lessons, one you could never learn in business school.”
The Future of Wine
Whether you’re fan or critic, there’s no -denying Merinoff’s passionate belief that the three-tiered distribution system is best for America—and especially when it comes to wine.
“There’s no other product that I buy that I put into my body, where I walk into a store and have 150 choices of the same flavor,” says Merinoff. “The biggest challenge in the wine business is we’re drowning in an ocean of good wine, and the very nature of wine, and the fun part, is discovery.”
Merinoff says The Charmer Sunbelt Group and likeminded wholesalers are the answers to the age-old wine-marketing question: How to differentiate wine producers among the crowded pack?
“We handle the logistics,” Merinoff says. “But we’re also the storytellers of the brands. We’re there talking to the restaurant owners and buyers. And when we do our job, when we tell the story well, we not only can raise a winery’s volume, we can raise its value, as well.”
For his important role in promoting wine and spirits in the United States, Merinoff is Wine Enthusiast’s 2014 Person of the Year.
Jordan Winery, Sonoma, CA
More than 40 years after its founding, Jordan continues to shape the American wine landscape.
Combine decades of elegant winemaking, the tireless quest for better fruit each year and a little video mischief and you have Alexander Valley’s Jordan Winery, Wine Enthusiast’s 2014 American Winery of the Year.
Founded in 1972 by Tom and Sally Jordan, the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay producer has changed its image, upgraded its wines and entertained a new slew of consumers with a witty, inspired marketing approach.
The first step was a generational transfer. In 2005, Tom handed the day-to-day leadership to his son, John, a lawyer who was born on the day his parents signed the deed on the estate.
One goal? Don’t mess up the soul of the wines.
“We’ve always made our wine in a traditional, Bordeaux–inspired, food-friendly fashion and resisted the trend toward bigger, more extracted wines,” Jordan says.
Still, John’s not the kind of guy to put things on auto-pilot. Next was to make things more interesting for Winemaker Rob Davis—who’s been at Jordan 40 years.
Trained under the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff, Jordan’s consulting winemaker in the early days, Davis was itching to source grapes from outside the estate, and he asked John for permission.
“And he says, ‘I’m running the show now, go ahead and do it,’ ” says Davis. “I felt like I had four wings.”
Jordan’s Chardonnay now comes from Russian River Valley vineyards, allowing Davis to use less malolactic fermentation and oak, which allows the fruit’s intensity to speak for itself.
Making better wine is just half the fun now at Jordan. The winery has opened its doors to visitors, hosting regular ranch tours and dinners as well as tastings. Wines are paired with dishes from estate chef Todd Knoll, who taps the property’s gardens and groves for much of the produce.
Since bringing in Lisa Mattson as marketing and communications director, the winery’s story has gotten out to many more people. Visit Jordan’s Web site or social media channels and behold the revelry, including the winery’s famous “Gangnam Style in Wine Country” video, a take on Robin Thicke’s hit single “Blurred Lines” called “Blurred Vines” as well as a Star Wars tribute or two.
“We’re not resting on our laurels,” says Mattson. “We’re proving you can be an iconic, classic winery making two wines that aren’t the flashy new kids on the block and still be fresh and relevant, be exciting to people and fun.”
Château d’Esclans–Domaines Sacha Lichine–Whispering Angel
With an assist from Bordeaux, Sacha Lichine has helped put Provence rosés on the map.
While Provence rosés have experienced great success in the United States over the past few years, none has achieved the luxury reputation of Château d’Esclans’ Garrus.
Garrus lies at the peak of the rosés in the Château d’Esclans range—Whispering Angel, Château d’Esclans, Les Clans and Garrus. Together, they have reinterpreted our idea of rosé wine, giving Esclans the same prestige as any Bordeaux chateau.
Yet, it’s impossible to separate the success of the wines from the ambitions of its owner, Sacha Lichine. His background as the former owner of Château Prieuré-Lichine in Margaux, Bordeaux, has governed his approach to Esclans and its wines.
Esclans was run-down when Lichine bought the estate from a Swedish pension fund in 2006, but he says it was “one of the most beautiful vineyards I’ve ever seen.”
Lichine knew the Riviera from childhood vacations with his storied father, Alexis Lichine.
“My father drank rosé, and when I sold Prieuré-Lichine, I wanted to move to Provence and make rosé,” says Lichine. “But I wanted to make a real wine out of rosé. So I asked Patrick Léon, just retired as technical director from [Château] Mouton-Rothschild, to help me.”
Garrus, a $100 bottle of barrel-fermented rosé, was an immediate headline-grabber when it launched in 2006. Sourced from a parcel of old vines on the Esclans estate, Garrus was aimed straight at the luxury category—the Dom Pérignon of rosé wines, as Lichine describes it.
With his knowledge of the Riviera crowd, Lichine targeted ship chandlers, yacht brokers and the luxury hotels of Antibes and Cap Ferrat.
“I knew we had arrived when I got a call from one of the top yacht builders saying, ‘Could you please send me the dimensions of your three-liter double magnums?’ ” says Lichine. “He wanted to make sure he built a fridge on a yacht that was big enough.”
Extending the range from luxury rosé to ones that appeal to the broader market has been an easy step for Lichine. Whispering Angel is the entry-level wine in the Provence rosé range, retailing for $22. It’s tank-fermented and released in the early spring following harvest.
More recently, Lichine has donned a négociant’s hat and launched the Sacha Lichine Selections range of Vins de France, retailing around $12. Made by Léon, these are wines “aimed at catching new rosé drinkers on the way up,” says Lichine. “We want to be the rosé specialists for all occasions.”
Lichine and Esclans have created a buzz in the Provence rosé market, helping to elevate and expand the reach of rosé. A success story in both wine sales and quality, we’re delighted to name Château d’Esclans–Domaines Sacha Lichine-Whispering Angel as our 2014 European
Winery of the Year. —Roger Voss
Charles Smith, K Vintners, Charles & Charles, Washington
In going from 330 cases to more than 650,000 cases in 15 years, he’s having a huge impact on the wine world.
“It’s just wine. Drink it.”
That’s the motto of Charles Smith, as simple and direct as the black-and-white images that adorn his iconic K Vintners and Charles Smith Wines labels. This simplicity belies a diverse wine empire of seven brands that represent one of Washington State’s largest and most influential wineries.
Brash, outspoken and as irrepressible as his hair, Smith started his wine-industry journey in a modest manner, purchasing a wine shop on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1999. That year, Smith travelled to Walla Walla and made his first wine, a Syrah, utilizing fruit and inspiration from Christophe Baron of Cayuse Vineyards.
Two years later, he launched K Vintners.
“The K Vintners label began with the desire to tell an American story for American wine, simple and direct,” Smith says. The label evoked a cattle brand, and when paired with the varietal name, it delivered a whimsical message: K Syrah.
Smith has displayed marketing acumen that few in the wine industry can match. He’s created instantly recognizable labels, from Kung Fu Girl Riesling to House Wine, which was sold to Precept Brands in 2006.
“Charles cleared a path for a new way of marketing wine,” says Trey Busch, of Sleight of Hand Cellars. “He stripped away the stuffiness and presented it in a way that people can understand and not be afraid of.”
But Smith is more than just a wine-marketing savant, as his long list of 90-point scores attests.
“He has a strong sense of wine aesthetics,” says Winemaker Brennon Leighton, who’s responsible for implementing Smith’s vision on the Charles Smith, Charles & Charles and Sixto brands. “He has a very clear idea in his mind of what he thinks the finished product should be like and what he is looking for.”
And what exactly is Smith looking for?
“First and foremost, wine is grown,” Smith says. “I’m looking for purity, typicity and transparency. This is my Holy Grail.”
Nowhere is this quest more apparent than with his K Vintners offerings—small-batch, native-yeast fermented, foot-stomped, vineyard-driven wines.
At Charles Smith Wines, offerings range from the value-priced Boom! Boom! Syrah ($15) to the pricey Royal City Syrah ($140), which received a score of 100 points from Wine Enthusiast for its 2006 vintage.
Perhaps Smith’s greatest contribution, however, has been making wines that are equal parts accessible, affordable and top quality.
“Charles is a breath of fresh air,” says restaurateur and James Beard Award winner Tom Douglas. “Wine is for everyone, every day, and Charles is going to give it to us at a price we can afford without the panic. Just drink it, damn it!”
For this and his many other contributions, Charles Smith is Wine Enthusiast’s 2014 Winemaker of the Year.
—Sean P. Sullivan
Craggy Range, New Zealand
In just a few short years, this upstart winery has had an outsized impact on the global perception of New Zealand’s wines.
It might chafe the pride of a few Kiwis that an Australian-owned winery is taking top honors this year. But sometimes an outsider’s perspective coupled with local expertise is exactly what’s needed to carve a new path.
Owner Terry Peabody was already a successful international businessman in 1993, when his wife, Mary, and daughter, Mary-Jeanne, talked him into developing a family wine business.
“They were quite convincing over a long dinner and a couple of bottles of wine,” Peabody says. “We really wanted to create an enduring business that was conducive to family involvement.”
The brief from Peabody, when he first met Wine and Viticulture Director Steve Smith, MW, was simple.
“Create a wine estate that would compete with the world’s best within Terry’s lifetime, to have the wines served in the top restaurants and wine merchants of the world and to create an enduring wine business for future generations of his family,” says Smith.
Although initial explorations focused on France, America and Australia, when business brought Terry to New Zealand, he was struck by the potential to create something entirely new.
“We didn’t want to buy anyone else’s problems,” says Peabody.
“Canny timing,” Smith says. “He called a month before that last piece of land in what was to become the Gimblett Gravels came up for auction.”
Peabody bought the land sight unseen. Now with 250 acres planted, that vineyard in Hawke’s Bay focuses on Bordeaux reds, Syrah and Chardonnay.
“I believed that given time that land could create some of the most unique and compelling red wines in the New World, closer to Old World in style,” says Smith.
“However, once I understood Terry’s ambitions, it was very clear to me that we needed a distinctive piece of land for both Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir,” says Smith.
“They would always be the first wines to open doors … as [they are] what the world knew New Zealand for.”
Smith found Martinborough more attractive than better-known Marlborough and was able to find a large parcel of land along Te Muna Road that’s now planted to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
“They are my favorite Pinot Noirs in New Zealand and it’s truly a boutique wine village and has the Pinot Noir culture,” he says.
Despite the youth of the vines, Craggy Range’s wines have repeatedly leapt to the fore in Wine Enthusiast blind tastings, scoring 90 points or higher for 32 wines since the first releases from the 2002 vintage.
Not content with crafting great wines, the team at Craggy Range included ambitious restaurant plans in its Hawke’s Bay winery. Terroir has ranked among the world’s top winery restaurants ever since.
“The greatest experience you’ll ever have with our wine is when sitting in our restaurant with food cooked with the same values and sense of place that we have with the wines,” says Smith.
For its persistent pursuit of excellence, Wine Enthusiast is pleased to name Craggy Range our 2014 New World Winery of the Year.
While Italian wines have long been the foundation of this family-owned importer’s portfolio, recent additions from France, Spain and South America are raising the company to another level.
Last year, Opici Wines celebrated its 100th birthday, and there was plenty for the Opici family and its employees to toast besides simply surviving a century in the ever–changing, highly competitive wine and spirits business.
Topping the list, the fourth-generation New Jersey-based importer (and producer) has seen its business take off over the past five years. Under Don Opici, the managing director and great-grandson of founders Joseph and Esther Opici, revenue has risen by more than 40 percent since 2009. Annual case volume has gone from just under 500,000 five years ago to nearly 700,000 in 2013.
“Last year was our biggest year in terms of volume, but I could say that about each of the past five years,” says the 35-year-old Opici. “Our import company was established in 2000 as a stand-alone entity separate from our distributorship, but from 2005 to 2008, we had plateaued. That was when I stepped in, and my first goal was to immediately get us on a growth trend.”
Key was a major transformation of Opici’s import portfolio. Struggling wineries from Australia and South Africa were dropped and replaced by up-and-coming producers from Chile (De Martino), Argentina (Ruca Malen and Bodega Goulart), Spain (Dinastía Vivanco, among others) and France (Notre Dame, among others).
The Italian portion of the portfolio, which had included 26 producers in 2008, was refined and reduced to 22 suppliers, with longstanding, market-leading brands like Cesari and Carpineto remaining on board.
In 2014, Opici Wines strengthened its position in the industry with the creation of Market Street Spirits, which imports rum from St. Kitts (Brinley Gold Shipwreck) and produces its own Kentucky Bourbon called Rebellion.
Opici has also recently launched several proprietary wine brands, like Auspicion and Julia James from California and La Luca Prosecco from Italy.
“Throughout our history, we’ve been known for quality and value,” says Opici. “When it comes to prospective import brands, we look for home runs. The quality of the wines, the packaging and the pricing all has to be there.”
Today, Opici Wines represents more than 50 labels from around the world. The company employs 24 “team members,” as Opici prefers to call his sales managers, marketing professionals and operations staff.
“Even our new logo [the letter O forms the base of a sideways wine bottle] is designed to let people know that we are evolving with the times and that we seek to appeal to the modern consumer,” says Opici.
It’s Opici Wines’ commitment to growth and excellence that makes the company Wine Enthusiast’s 2014 Importer of the Year.
Total Wine & More
This two-time award-winner continues to take the country by storm, yet staff training and customer service remain at the forefront.
From its humble, two-store beginning in 1991, brothers David and Robert Trone knew that consumers were looking for more. More selection. More service. And, most of all, more knowledge.
They founded Total Wine & More to meet those needs. That seemingly simple formula drives a comprehensive, multifaceted approach to marketing wine, beer, spirits, cigars and accessories in its 113 stores across 16 states.
“Our stores are different in every state,” says David Trone, president of the company. “Consumer purchasing patterns are different, and we adjust the marketing to be uniquely different by state.
“The more we can localize our marketing and events, the stronger we’ll be,” he says. “And the more we can work with the community to become more intertwined, the more we’ll be successful.”
Local outreach is one of the key strategies of the growing chain. “We are not the out-of-town retailer,” David says.
“We are up to our shoulders working in each community in unique ways to focus on what’s important to that community, whether it’s a health organization or an arts organization,” he says. “That’s something we are really proud of, and gives our team members a chance to give back to their communities by being personally involved in events.”
In 2013, Total Wine & More worked with more than 4,000 nonprofits and donated over $4 million, along with many in-kind services like the “Book A Room” program that offers free meeting space and wine tastings.
“That integral, deep dive into our communities explains why in 23 years we’ve never closed a single store,” David says.
Another key strategy is employee training. Several dozen employees make biannual trips to California, semiannual trips to Europe and smaller excursions to regions like Washington State. And with a new $10 million Web site scheduled to launch in early 2015, that emphasis on education will reach consumers directly.
David promises it will contain a wealth of original content, providing educational material that speaks to all the important brands in the alcoholic beverage space.
Other initiatives include virtual tastings with winemakers, distillers and brewers from around the world, in-store mixology centers and brewery districts, upgraded interiors and smartphone apps that will deliver coupons, bring up reviews and offer shoppers recipes.
With its highly trained staff, an all-star board of directors (added in 2011) and the creative vision to make their stores even more entertaining and event-focused, Total Wine & More will post $1.75 billion in sales in 2014.
“Our mission is to put our people first,” David says. “They will put our customer first.”
It’s a prime reason why Total Wine & More is Wine Enthusiast’s 2014 Retailer of the Year.
Despite the effort behind Frasca’s wine list, this sommelier’s focus is squarely on the guest experience.
Even by today’s standards, Bobby Stuckey’s wine list at Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder, Colorado, is innovative. How else can you describe a list that groups Northern Italian and other worldly wines into categories like “Low Grip, High Pleasure” and “Black & Blue”?
Stuckey’s list appeals to wine lovers for offering insight that goes beyond variety and region, while novices appreciate its easy-to-understand approachability. But the principles behind his cutting-edge list were developed in 2003, when Stuckey partnered with Chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson to open Frasca.
“That list was written over a decade ago, and I’d been holding onto some of those topics for 15 years,” says Stuckey. “We still use them every day.”
Of course, game-changing creativity should be expected from the duo that opened a restaurant focused solely on Friuli in the early 2000s, a time when there were few regional Italian eateries in the country, and no one even took reservations in Boulder, a college town.
“People thought we were from Mars,” says the 45-year-old Stuckey. He says that Friuli serves as their “beacon,” allowing them to avoid the “slippery slope” of chasing the latest trend.
“We keep pulling back the skin of Friuli,” says Stuckey, who makes a wine called Scarpetta in that region. “It actually keeps us fresher.”
Stuckey began his hospitality life as a busboy in Phoenix. He worked tables through college in Flagstaff, where he found his calling in a Wednesday wine class.
“I thought it was the coolest thing,” said Stuckey. He decided to ditch a potential career in cycling to pursue wine, though his parents thought both professions were far-fetched.
Stuckey’s first true wine job came in 1995 at The Little Nell, where he studied under Jay Fletcher, the “Vince Lombardi of training sommeliers,” he says. In 2000, Stuckey went to work for Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, where his job was to globalize the wine list.
“I was the fortunate and lucky one hired to make that an all-world wine list,” he says, stressing the contributions of Thomas and Laura Keller. “They were so supportive of me and so into what I was doing.”
The French Laundry is where he met Mackinnon-Patterson, who recognized Stuckey’s uncanny ability to connect with guests.
“People don’t realize that hospitality isn’t the same as service,” says Mackinnon-Patterson. “Service is doing something to somebody, handing them the pizza or glass of wine they order. Hospitality is the way people feel. That’s what Bobby is really special at.
“He’s incredible at making people welcome, from the minute they walk into the restaurant till the minute they leave,” he says.
Ever hospitable, Stuckey, who earned his Master Sommelier pin around the time that Frasca opened, says he’s “sheepish” about being named Wine Enthusiast’s Sommelier of the Year. He credits his staff, especially Matt Mather and Carlin Carr.
“We have a lot of people who have the same mission every day,” he says. “We have just one rule: You wake up in the morning and think of Friuli first, Northern Italy second, and then the rest of the world.”
But Stuckey admits his impact goes beyond what people are drinking.
“I’m much more of a sommelier-maître d’,” he says. “That’s my hybrid role. I never wanted to just be the wine guy. I wanted to be taking care of people.”
Tito’s Handmade Vodka
This vodka helped birth the craft-distillery movement.
Produced by Texas’s first and oldest legal distillery, over a span of nearly two decades Tito’s has helped pave the way for the current craft-spirits revolution. Tito’s has inspired fierce loyalty among its consumers, who seem to identify strongly with founder Bert “Tito” Beveridge and his story.
Beveridge, a native Texan, was originally a geophysicist who worked around the globe in several capacities. In the early 1990s, he started to make flavor-infused vodkas in his spare time, giving bottles as Christmas presents.
Inspired by the success of the craft brewing industry, Beveridge sought to set up a similar enterprise for vodka—what is now called a craft distillery.
In 1996, this was a novel concept. Beveridge scoured the library for books on the process of distilling, and he perfected his own 100-percent corn-mash recipe. He pored over Prohibition-era photos to help design his original equipment, opting for traditional pot stills rather than the column stills used to make most vodkas.
In 1997, Beveridge opened the first legal distillery in Texas. Without investors, any formal training and on a tiny budget, Beveridge says he relied on 19 credit cards for funding. It took the company more than eight years to turn a profit.
“I listened closely to the advice of those who advised me to start small, saying, ‘Try to own your hometown. Then, if you do that, try to own your home state. Then, if you that, try to own your home country,’ ” says Beveridge.
Just mention Tito’s to a vodka-loving Texan, and the fervent response you’ll likely receive shows that he certainly owns his home state. Tito’s has enjoyed similar success throughout the U.S., becoming the exclusive vodka supplier to United Airlines in 2013.
Tito’s also has been active in bringing awareness to animal rescue causes. When he built his original distillery on an open field in Austin, Beveridge encountered scores of abandoned or stray animals. He made it his mission to rescue and care for each animal. Tito’s has also launched a “Vodka For Dog People” partnership with Emancipet, a spay/neuter clinic based in Austin.
For helping to spark a craft spirits revolution and opening the door for hundreds of other microdistilleries, Tito’s is the recipient of Wine Enthusiast’s 2014 Spirit of the Year award.
For more than a decade, Julie Reiner has been elevating the cocktail culture in New York City and beyond.
When she first opened Flatiron Lounge in 2003, it was challenging to find a well-made cocktail, even in Manhattan. No wonder it was so difficult to score a seat at that antique wooden Art Deco bar.
“There were only a few people who cared about putting quality in a glass at that time,” Reiner says. “There weren’t any high-end cocktail bars open yet…very few people were taking a culinary approach to drinks.”
Reiner started out as a cocktail waitress in her native Hawaii at 18, “but I always wanted to get behind the bar,” she says.
“I loved the action of it, that it was different every day.”
It wasn’t until she moved to San Francisco in 1994 that she discovered cocktails that were made with fresh juices rather than sour mix from a gun—and they were revelations.
Relocating to New York in 1997, she continued to work at restaurant bars, eventually becoming bar manager at C3 in the Washington Square Hotel.
That’s when the industry started to take notice.
“I started putting out seasonal cocktail menus and taking a more culinary approach to cocktails,” both novel concepts at the time, she says.
Before long, noted mixologist Dale Degroff, scouting locations for a “cocktail safari,” stepped into the bar.
“I was blown away immediately,” Degroff says. “She was working with exotic fruits when nobody else was. And she was having a blast. I started sending everyone there.”
Eventually, Degroff introduced Reiner to the burgeoning mixology community, including future business partner Audrey Saunders.
Reiner teamed up with Saunders and a small group of Flatiron partners to open New York’s Pegu Club in 2005. Later ventures included Brooklyn’s Clover Club in 2008, followed by Lani Kai in 2010, a tropical-drinks den that closed in 2012.
Looking back on the past decade, Reiner says she’s impressed by how entrenched cocktail culture has become. It’s possible to find a good drink in virtually any city, she says, as well as venues that aren’t purely craft cocktail joints.
Further, many new watering holes are being run by bartenders who learned their craft alongside Reiner. Good cocktails are now considered a requirement, fully incorporated into culinary culture in a way not seen only a decade ago.
“Restaurants and bars are finding that if you don’t have a cocktail program, you’re out of the loop,” she says. “People are demanding it.”
After all, Reiner says, “Once you have a really great cocktail, you can’t go back.”
For her role in building excellence in the cocktail world and mentoring others to do the same, Wine Enthusiast names Reiner as our 2014 Mixologist of the Year.
In growing from homebrew to international renown, Samuel Adams set the stage for the burgeoning craft-brew movement.
Beer culture wouldn’t be where it is today without key industry pioneers—most notably, the ever-smiling, immensely approachable, and always-ready-to-geek-out-with-a-glass-of-beer-in-his-hand Jim Koch and the brewery he founded, Samuel Adams.
Once a niche market, craft beer has exploded into the mainstream, grabbing market share from the big companies and turning beverage aficionados on to a new breed of beer. And much of that impetus has come from Koch.
Koch started off a homebrewer, like many in the craft-beer industry. He brewed the first batches of Samuel Adams Boston Lager in his kitchen in 1984, using his great-great-grandfather’s recipe.
Samuel Adams made its official debut in Boston on Patriots’ Day in Apr
- 1Lifetime Achievement Award
- 2Wine Region of the Year
- 3Innovator/Executive of the Year
- 4Person of the Year
- 5American Winery of the Year
- 6European Winery of the Year
- 7Winemaker of the Year
- 8New World Winery of the Year
- 9Importer of the Year
- 10Retailer of the Year
- 11Sommelier of the Year
- 12Spirit Brand/Distiller of the Year
- 13Mixologist/Brand Ambassador of the Year