Wine Enthusiast's 2015 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.
The winners will be honored at the Wine Star Awards Dinner on Monday, January 25, 2016 in New York City. To get more details or to RSVP, contact Jen Cortellini.
And the winners are…
His influence on Italian wine extends to far-flung global markets.
It is impossible to talk about the Renaissance of modern-day Italian wine without mentioning Angelo Gaja. Trailblazing, creative and influential, during his half-century career, Gaja has been a fundamental force in ushering in the New Age of Italian wine and in raising its image around the world.
Gaja’s quest began in 1960, when he graduated from the Enological Institute of Alba with a diploma in enology.
In 1961, at the age of 21, Gaja joined his family’s winemaking firm in the heart of Barbaresco. Founded by his great-grandfather in 1859, it’s the region’s oldest producer.
Before Gaja took the reins in 1969, his father had already improved winemaking practices and acquired some of the area’s top vineyard sites. Gaja took a more drastic approach to upping quality, including advocating short pruning and lowering grape yields—unheard of in Italy at the time. He began experimenting with French oak barriques in the late 1960s, and in 1978 released the first Barbaresco aged in both barriques and in traditional, large Slavonian casks.
Gaja was also an early advocate of terroir. In particular, he focused on the Langhe hills, home to the Nebbiolo grape, the sole variety in two of Italy’s greatest wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. He shocked local winemakers when he planted tiny amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in the late 1970s to “demonstrate that even international grapes would excel in Langhe’s extraordinary growing area,” he says.
But perhaps Gaja’s most important contribution to Italian winemaking was his devotion to individual vineyards. His Sorì bottlings from the 1967 vintage shook up the entire wine world for their finesse, structure and hefty price tag when they debuted in 1970.
Soon, producers across Italy began adopting the practices that Gaja innovated. His world-class wines inspired a generation of winemakers.
But Gaja didn’t just focus on winemaking. Early on in his career, he embarked on a quest to improve Italian wine’s image abroad.
“Up until the early 1980s, Italian wine suffered from the ‘cheap and cheerful’ image and finely crafted Italian wines were almost unknown in export markets,” says Gaja. “One of my goals has always been to demonstrate Italy’s ability to produce elegant wines like Barbaresco and to confirm Italy’s role as the leader in making wines that pair beautifully with food.”
To this end, Gaja has traveled the world, educating consumers and the trade alike on the excellence of fine Italian wine.
“One of my father’s unique qualities is his all-out conviction that if you really try, you can change things,” says Gaia Gaja, Angelo’s eldest daughter, who works at the firm alongside her father and sister Rossana, while her younger brother Giovanni attends university.
Today, the Gaja family also owns estates in Tuscany, where they make Brunello di Montalcino at Pieve Santa Restituta, and in Bolgheri, where they produce Toscana IGT and Bolgheri DOC at Cà Marcanda winery—but wine is more than a family business for Angelo Gaja.
“My father always says, ‘Chi sa bere sa vivere’ or, ‘Whoever enjoys wine knows how to enjoy life,’ because culture and values are the true riches of wine,” says Gaia.
Wine Enthusiast is thrilled to honor pioneer Angelo Gaja with our 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award.
With global alcohol sales totaling more than $3.6 billion in 2015, Costco can move mountains—of wine.
Annette Alvarez-Peters (front right in the photo) is Costco’s assistant general merchandise manager for beverage alcohol. But that unassuming title belies her actual role. Peters has been called the most influential wine buyer in the country.
Alvarez-Peters oversees 12 U.S. and eight international buyers. In the U.S., 401 Costco stores (out of 480) sell wine, while 413 locations offer beer and 282 stock spirits. Add 206 stores in nine other countries, and in 2015, her department’s global sales will top $3.6 billion, built upon aggressive pricing and constant rotation of stock.
Roughly 250 items are on display at any given time. Those chosen few, she says, must fulfill “the six rights of merchandising:” the right merchandise for the season or demographics, the right price, the right time, the right quantity, the right place in the store and the right condition. Quality and value are paramount.
“We want to exceed our members’ expectations on every item we carry,” she says. “Due to our limited item selection, we prescribe to the ‘early in, early out’ philosophy, constantly rotating new items in and out of the system. Our members know that they should buy an item when they see it, or they may miss out.”
Although Costco has the purchasing power to place an order for a vendor’s entire production, they may take as little as two cases and place it in a single store.
“We would consider this a ‘treasure hunt item’ for our members,” she says.
In 1983, Alvarez-Peters started with Price Club in San Diego, a decade prior to its merger with Costco. From 1995 to 2005, before her most recent promotion, she was the beverage alcohol buyer for Costco’s Los Angeles division.
Apart from overseeing purchasing, she has led Costco’s house brand, Kirkland Signature, into the production of wines, spirits and beer; initiated new supplier relationships; and assisted in the legal, accounting and marketing aspects of the company’s beverage alcohol departments.
In her “spare” time, she contributes a wine column for The Costco Connection, the club’s in-house magazine.
Kirkland Signature items are especially important to the company because they offer exceptional value to consumers and top profit margins for Costco—up to 15 percent, the limit that the club allows. They account for 12 percent of total alcohol beverage sales.
Recent best sellers include Kirkland Signature Prosecco Asolo, a DOCG bottling that sells for $7 per bottle, and Kirkland Signature Cabernet Sauvignon, at $8 per magnum.
Premium spirits are another success, experiencing double-digit growth with a focus on vodka, Bourbon, single-malt Scotch and Cognac.
But it’s not just bargain-bin bottles that customers seek. They may also discover rarities like The Macallan 62-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch ($20,000); Hine Cognac 250th Anniversary in Crystal Decanter ($12,000); or an entire barrel of Jack Daniels for $6,900. Imagine packing that into your trunk with 48 rolls of paper towels.
Never resting on her laurels, Alvarez-Peters, 54, points to “very successful” recent promotions for craft beer, local craft spirits and 90-point wine features.
Costco customers, she says, are affluent. The average member’s age is 52 and the average household income is $92,000. More than one-third show annual income over $100,000, while 86 percent own their own home and 71 percent are college graduates.
So, with all that inventory to choose from, what does Costco’s alcohol beverage maestro drink for her own enjoyment? It varies.
“When the weather is warm, I like a nice glass of rosé or a crisp Savvy,” she says. “For imports, I’m partial to Bordeaux, Italy and southern Rhône. I also enjoy domestic reds from Washington State and Pinot Noir from Oregon and California. And I am a big fan of Champagne.”
Congratulations to Costco Wholesale, Wine Enthusiast’s 2015 Retailer of the Year.
“Steaking” out a new approach to the corporate wine list.
“I feel very strongly about having a wine list that is extremely accessible and right at the heart of where our guests are,” says Helen Mackey, vice president of menu strategy and food and beverage innovation at Ruth’s Hospitality Group, Inc., the parent company of Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Ruth’s Chris is the largest upscale steakhouse restaurant chain in the world, with more than 140 restaurants in 12 countries.
Mackey started at the company in 2010 as director of beverage strategy. Now, she takes a holistic approach to the guest experience.
“The best thing you can do is read your guests,” she says. “What are they asking from you? Where do they want you to take them next?”
Mackey first began exploring the world of wine through a monthly wine club shipment that she and her husband received.
“Every month that shipment would come and we would dig into the box and make a big deal out of it,” she recalls with a laugh. “It was a two bottle shipment, so we would open both of them and act like we were wine professors.”
That wine club shipment planted a seed. Mackey and her husband moved to Napa Valley in 2001 to start a wine club business with a unique twist: it would focus on video.
“You would actually see the face of the winemaker and hear their story,” she says.
While the wine world is now awash with clubs, at the time, they were a novelty: “It was California Wine Club, Bounty Hunter and us.”
Mackey has always been on the cutting edge. After selling the wine club company, she moved to Diageo, partnering with companies like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s to develop virtual brands.
“It was really this entirely new business model,” she says.
At Ruth’s Chris, Mackey works to promote the beverage program while staying true to the company’s DNA.
“What we stand for is something that Ms. Ruth stood for on day one, and that is a place where you are completely welcome,” Mackey says.
For Mackey, that translates to her approach with the wine, beer and spirits list, which is full of classics like Antinori, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Louis Jadot. Still, she doesn’t shy away from experimentation.
“I try to reflect accessibility as well as adventure,” she said. “If the consumer feels like journeying somewhere else that night, they can.”
At the company, Mackey has developed a series of highly popular educational wine-pairing dinners that take place five times a year, occurring simultaneously at over 100 restaurant locations.
“People cannot get enough of that kind of interactive education,” she says. “We’re happy to be the leaders in providing that to them.”
Mackey’s innovative and ambitious approach has allowed her to rise to the top of the field.
“Helen has developed and executed some of the most interesting and innovative food and drinks programs,” says Claudia Schubert, general manager of continental Europe at Diageo. “What sets her apart is how she pairs her passion for the subject with a keen understanding of the business of wine, cocktails and food.”
And Mackey is always looking to innovate. “No idea seems impossible when working with Helen,” says Schubert. “She is a great ambassador for our industry.”
For her many contributions to putting more wine, beer and spirits into people’s glasses, Wine Enthusiast is thrilled to name Helen Mackey our 2015 Sommelier/Wine Director of the Year.
—Sean P. Sullivan
He’s spearheaded many of Chile’s most important wine-related innovations.
It has been 27 years since Aurelio Montes and three partners launched a startup winery named Discover Wine (now called Montes). The intent was to make high quality, internationally accepted wines that could help push Chile beyond its value-for-money roots.
Fueled by tireless worldwide marketing efforts, groundbreaking wines and a business model with innovation at its core, Montes, Wine Enthusiast’s New World Winery of the Year in 2003, is now one of Chile’s premier wineries. Approximately 95 percent of the 700,000 cases that Montes produces annually are sold in more than 100 countries, ranging in size from the Seychelles to the United States and China.
“No one is a prophet in his own land,” says Montes from his home in Santiago. “Locally, there are expectations for how things should be done. Internationally, however, one is free to make his or her own name. This was something we embraced from day one.”
What were things like for the Chilean wine industry on day one?
“There were maybe 15 commercial wineries in Chile in 1988, most selling wines for about $5 a bottle,” says Montes. “Now there are over 100 wineries in the Wines of Chile trade association. We’ve come a long way.”
Montes, 66, who began his career making wine at Undurraga and later Viña San Pedro, has been at the forefront of many of the changes and innovations that have helped place Chile among the world’s leading wine-producing nations.
There was the 1989 debut of the Montes Alpha line, which sold for $12–15 a bottle, prices considered high in those days.
“We were brave enough to put ‘expensive’ wines on the market,” he says. “We believed in our talent and terroir.”
Identifying new terroirs has been part of Montes’s focus since the beginning. In 1991, long before anyone considered Apalta in the Colchagua Valley to be Chile’s premier vineyard site, Montes acquired prime sections of the 1,200-acre property and immediately started planting on hillsides.
“We were the first in Chile to plant on steep slopes,” says Montes. “At the time, it was all valley floor plantings, which were easy to irrigate and maintain.”
The first tangible result of these hillside plantings came nine years later with Montes Folly, Chile’s original high-end Syrah.
In 2000, Montes began planting in the dry western reaches of Colchagua in an area called Marchigue, long thought to be too arid to grow premium grapes. Today, multiple wineries rely on Marchigue fruit, but Montes, with its 1,500 acres of vines in the area, was the pioneer.
Going further afield, in 2005 Montes began planting about 125 acres in Zapallar, a coastal vacation town north of Valparaiso. Today, Montes Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir hail from Zapallar, while a new Champagne-style sparkling wine is in the works.
Montes also embraces dry farming, though it’s more out of necessity than desire.
“About seven years ago, I concluded that we are in a new era in terms of drought,” he says. “So I’m trying to transition to dry farming wherever possible. We are actually blowing up granite base rock with dynamite to release minerals and water into the soils, and to allow roots to penetrate deeper. I’m quite sure we’re the only ones doing this.”
Montes could say the same thing about many of his winery’s other practices, be it making proprietary wines for the Hotel Burj al Arab in Dubai or starting new wineries in Argentina and California. Maybe no one is a prophet in his own land, but Aurelio Montes ranks as a true leader in his.
Born into the wine world, he’s working to transform it.
Gentleman. Winemaker. Businessman. Importer. Philanthropist. Father. Husband. Mentor.
Michael Mondavi is a man of considerable talents, one who is many things to many people. The common denominator that ties them all together is the almost universal respect and admiration he enjoys.
Michael was born into the wine industry as Robert Mondavi’s oldest son, but he’s always made his own way. He’s a quiet icon, a man who has been around wine for more than 70 years and is widely credited with helping establish the Napa Valley that we know today.
“As one of the great leaders in fine wine, Michael’s legacy endures as an influential trailblazer who has helped elevate the world’s perception of California and Napa Valley, not simply through his own ventures, but more importantly, through his active involvement volunteering and advocating on behalf of the industry and the community,” says Chris Indelicato of Delicato Family Vineyards.
“Michael’s greatest strengths are his diplomacy, gracious manner, resilience and work ethic,” Indelicato says. “He has an impressive ability to visualize all the aspects of opportunities and articulate them in a clear, precise and respectful fashion.
“In an era where big, bold, loud and bombastic behavior has become commonplace, Michael charts his own course with radiating grace, elegance, modesty, intelligence, warmth and charm. He is a true gentleman.”
With old-school smarts and manners, Mondavi’s success is proof that relationships still matter in the wine industry.
“I remember Michael seeing me at an event and going out of his way to say, ‘Thank you for continuing the legacy of my dad,’ ” says Genevieve Janssens, winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery. “He didn’t have to do that. He is genuinely kind—a legend—who is widely liked and respected.”
Starting out at Robert Mondavi Winery after graduating college, Michael brought with him lessons from his grandfather, Cesare, who stressed the importance of taking care of the soil in which grapes grow.
In 1966, he started out as Robert Mondavi Winery’s first winemaker, a position he held through its first eight vintages. From there, he went on to run sales, eventually becoming managing director and CEO, a title he retained after its public stock offering in 1994. From 2001 to 2004, he served as chairman.
A Family Affair
The first chapter of the Michael Mondavi Family Estate story happened while Michael was still busy building Robert Mondavi Winery. Along with his wife, Isabel, and their two children, Rob Jr. and Dina, Michael bought a vineyard in Atlas Peak called Animo, putting down the first stakes for what is now an impressive family-owned and estate-driven portfolio of wines.
Remembering his grandfather’s lesson about caring for the earth, his estate vineyards in Napa Valley are sustainably farmed.
In 2004, Oberon and Isabel Mondavi Wines were launched. In 2006, he bought the Oso Vineyard on Howell Mountain, as well as the Carneros Creek facility around the Gallery Vineyard in Carneros.
It wasn’t until 2008 that Mondavi launched his eponymous wine, M by Michael Mondavi, a single-vineyard, 100-percent Cabernet Sauvignon from the Animo Vineyard. He followed with Emblem in 2009.
The brand known as Animo was launched in 2014, the same year Michael sold the Carneros Winery facility and vineyard. He hopes to announce the location of a new winery and tasting facility for Michael Mondavi Family Estate in Napa Valley early next year.
Animo and M by Michael Mondavi sit within the portfolio of another of Michael’s successful enterprises: Folio Fine Wine Partners. Selling its first case of wine in 2005, Folio is a collection of imported wines made by family owned and managed wineries.
Among its gems are the wines of Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi, Ornellaia, Donnafugata and Palacios Remondo. Many of these partnerships were forged on a handshake, a symbol of how trusted Mondavi is as a businessman.
This past year, he added the wines of Susana Balbo and Charles Heidsieck. More additions are in the works for next year, particularly from France.
“Being able to attract Susana Balbo and Champagne Charles Heidsieck this year is a major accomplishment,” Mondavi says. “One of the things for me is I am doing a better job of delegating to the management team at Folio and to my son and daughter at Michael Mondavi Family Estate and acting truly more as a coach.”
“Sometimes, people my age or with my experience find it hard to let go and let other people run the business, but I’m having fun.”
Mondavi’s also continuing to excel at what he has always excelled at: relationships. Each month, he makes 150 phone calls to thank people for doing business with him. In addition, Folio is run like a guild, with each winery retaining its own brand identity and operating model.
“The team we have leading Folio is working well together and doing a spectacular job,” he says. “Our relationship with the wholesalers is better than it has ever been and is one of the best supplier-distributor relationships in the industry.”
Beyond the Business
In addition to founding Folio and Michael Mondavi Family Estate, Mondavi has served as chairman and CEO of the Wine Market Council, president of the Napa Valley Vintners, and chairman of the Wine Institute, Winegrowers of California and Napa Valley Wine Auction.
He received the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America award in 1997. He also sits on the board of Delicato Family Vineyards.
“Michael’s dynamic experience across all aspects of the wine business and his commitment to continuing a sustainable family legacy are invaluable assets to our board,” says Indelicato. “His industry knowledge is unparalleled, and it is a privilege and an honor to have him advise the family and our executive leaders on difficult decisions and long-term strategy, including outside perspective on the intricacies of family ownership and decision-making that works to keep the family unified, aligned and traveling on a secure course.”
Mondavi is an active philanthropist, devoting much of his support to Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, where he has served as a foundation board trustee and honorary trustee.
“Michael has continued his family’s tradition of giving back to the community,” says Elaine John, president and CEO of the Queen of the Valley Foundation. “He has also helped to develop a culture of generosity among his peers, stating that ‘there is scarcely a family in the Valley, including our own, whose lives haven’t been positively touched by the Queen.’ ”
In 2014, he teamed up with his brother Tim and his sister Marcia to donate $1 million to Queen of the Valley, creating the Marjorie Mondavi Center for Intensive Care in honor of their late mother.
“Dad was the energy, the visionary; our mother was the values and the stability,” Michael says. “She was the person who gave us the values by which we raised our own families.”
It’s the values he exhibits, the business acumen he demonstrates and the unyielding respect and admiration of his colleagues that make Michael Mondavi Wine Enthusiast’s 2015 Person of the Year. —Virginie Boone
He leads in Champagne with an historical vision and far-ranging foresight.
Going into Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon’s office at the Louis Roederer cellars in Reims, France, you’re confronted with piles of folders both on the floor and on shelves. All have dates on them.
“I’m going back over our harvest records since 1832,” Lecaillon says. “I’m putting them all on a spreadsheet. What they are telling me is that our ancestors were looking for ripe grapes to make wines first, Champagnes second.”
Which is exactly where Lecaillon is headed today. In many cases, he’s also using the same methods—biodynamic and organic farming, fermenting in wood, picking grapes for ripeness, not for acidity—to make a new-old style of great Champagne.
“I want to reconnect with the past to make the wines of the future,” he says.
Lecaillon, 49, is vice president of Louis Roederer and a native of Reims. The Rouzaud family, which owns Roederer, has been his only employer. He was recruited from oenology school by Jean-Claude Rouzaud, father of current managing director, Frédéric Rouzaud.
Stints in California (Roederer Estate), Tasmania (a joint venture with Jansz Wines) and Bordeaux (Roederer-owned Châteaux de Pez and Haut-Beauséjour in Saint-Estèphe) finally led Lecaillon back to Reims as cellar master and vineyard director in 1999.
“I learned a lot about the rest of the wine world,” he says. “I also learned how to do every job in the cellar and the vineyard, which really helps how you manage people.”
Since 1999, he has revolutionized the vineyards. He banished herbicides and, starting with trials in 2001, he converted 184 of Roederer’s 590 acres to biodynamics. The rest of the land is managed organically.
The heart of these biodynamic vineyards goes into Roederer’s flagship Champagne, Cristal.
“Straight away, I insisted only our own grapes went into Cristal,” Lecaillon says. “We had 45 parcels going into the wine. I wanted to make those grapes worthy of Cristal.”
With the vineyards working well, Lecaillon is back in the cellar.
“I am coming back to the cellar with a new vision, based on the new style of grapes we are getting from biodynamic viticulture,” he says. “They need to breathe, they are riper, with more structure, they are wine grapes not sparkling wine grapes.”
The new-old style was revealed with last year’s launch of Roederer Brut Nature 2006. A shock to those used to bone-dry Champagnes, it’s packed with ripe grapes that express pure fruit, freshness and richness.
“I am able to make the wines more approachable when they are young, while also having great aging ability,” says Lecaillon.
Lecaillon is also responsible for four other properties in the Roederer group: the Bordeaux chateaus (including Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande), Roederer Estate in Mendocino, Domaines Ott in Provence and Ramos-Pinto in Portugal’s Douro region.
But, he says, “I’m not a flying winemaker. Everybody on the spot knows much better than me. I see myself as the team coach.”
Today, with “many more vintages to go,” Lecaillon is one of a handful of winemakers changing the way Champagne is produced and how the region sees itself. He’s perhaps the most farsighted, seeing climate change as a major factor in how to approach vines and winemaking. While looking to the future, he has also learned to take from the past.
“Great winemaking is catching the moment,” he says.
Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon’s ability to catch the moment of Champagne’s revolution is why he’s Wine Enthusiast’s 2015 Winemaker of the Year.
See the full list of winners >>>
Prescience and plenty of hard work have propelled this Paso Robles winery to the top.
Paso Robles may be the poster child of overnight wine-country success in America, but the region’s rise to prominence is really the result of three-plus decades of pioneering spirit and visionary groundwork.
And no person deserves as much credit for elevating Paso Robles from a dying cowboy town to a globally recognized land of vineyards than Justin Baldwin, who founded Justin Vineyards & Winery in 1981 and grew his Isosceles bottling into one of the most popular luxury blends in the U.S.
Those early days were both fun and frustrating, says Baldwin, who remembers his neighbors—then growing barley, safflower and almonds—wondering why he’d ever buy a property full of useless limestone-studded hillsides.
“That was exactly why I bought all that,” says Baldwin, explaining that his previous career in banking opened his eyes to the chalky landscape of Bordeaux. “Now their properties have all increased 25 times in value per acre, and they’re growing grapes and even making wine.”
Five years ago, pressured by increasing competition to grow in quantity yet desiring to maintain high quality, Baldwin sold his winery to the Resnick family of Fiji Water fame.
The new owners have since planted hundreds of new vineyard acres and tripled the size of the winery. They’ve also hired the best talent they could find, including Winemaker Scott Shirley, whose 13 previous years in Napa Valley includes work at Opus One and The Hess Collection wineries.
Today, Justin (the winery) is as robust and relevant as ever, and Baldwin, now 69, remains a vital part of the organization. He participates in the blending process and travels more than 100 days each year to promote the brand that bears his name.
“We really believe in this market, and we’re very committed,” says David Ricanati, president of Fiji Water Company. “Our vision is very simplistic: a deep investment in quality, combined with a very dynamic selling organization.”
Those investments include increasing vineyard area from just 70 acres when Fiji purchased Justin in 2010 to nearly 1,000 acres today. The winemaking facility was expanded by an additional 100,000 square feet and the visitor experience was greatly enhanced: the winery now welcomes nearly 50,000 visitors to its tasting room annually, serves 10,000 meals in its restaurant and hosts 2,000 overnight stays at the Just Inn.
In 2012, Shirley was lured away from a comfortable life in Napa to become winemaker for Justin Winery.
“I had no intention of leaving Napa Valley, because it’s where Cab is king,” says Shirley. “But I caught the fever of what was happening in Paso Robles. It’s an amazing place to make luxury wines. And to be able to be part of that blossoming of recognition in the industry? It’s very exciting as a winemaker to be part of that movement.”
And Shirley couldn’t imagine a more fitting place to do so.
“Walking through these vineyard blocks is just incredible—with all the limestone, it looks exactly like Bordeaux,” says Shirley, who’s visited four of the five first-growth Bordeaux chateaus. “If I was a Cabernet Sauvignon vine, this is where I would want to be planted.”
Ricanati is bullish on that Cab, too. It sells at retail for $30, keeping in line with Baldwin’s desire for people to drink his wines rather than save them.
“We think the Justin Cab punches way above its weight because we don’t have to pay Napa prices for real estate,” says Ricanati. “Our aspiration is for Justin to be the number one Cabernet in America—no less. And it’s within our sights.”
Good thing Baldwin is showing no signs of slowing down.
“I’m gonna do this ’til the day I die,” says the pre-eminent pioneer of Paso Robles. “I love it.”
It’s that passion for winemaking and commitment to growth and quality that make Justin Vineyards & Winery our choice as Wine Enthusiast’s 2015 American Winery of the Year.
Thanks to over a century of experience, Ferrari has helped put Italian sparklers on the world’s radar.
It’s a great time for Italian bubbly. Thanks to worldwide demand, producers throughout the country are turning out sparkling wines, from lighthearted offerings refermented in stainless steel tanks to more serious-minded sparklers refermented in bottle.
But no brand has reached the luxury status and prestige of Ferrari.
Founded in 1902 by Giulio Ferrari, the firm is headquartered in the city of Trento, in the mountainous Trentino region of northern Italy. Here, in high-altitude vineyards surrounded by the soaring Alps, Ferrari planted Chardonnay grapes with the aim of producing sparkling wines on par with the best French Champagnes.
His small initial production quickly earned acclaim, and in 1906, Ferrari won a gold medal at the International Exhibition in Milan.
Giulio Ferrari had no children, and he wanted to find a successor to carry on his tradition of producing quality sparkling wines made in the classic method of secondary fermentation in the bottle.
He chose Bruno Lunelli, the owner of a wine shop in Trento whom he had known for years. After he sold the winery to Lunelli in 1952, Ferrari stayed on for the next several years to help. Thanks to passion and a savvy business sense, Lunelli increased production without compromising Ferrari’s high quality standards.
In the 1970s, Lunelli’s sons, Franco, Gino and Mauro, took over the company. Under their direction, Ferrari became Italy’s sparkling wine leader and the country’s go-to bubbly for celebrations, including Formula 1 and World Cup victories.
The brothers also created what are now Italy’s most iconic sparklers, including Ferrari Rosé, Ferrari Perlé and Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore, which is the firm’s flagship wine.
Made with a rigorous selection of Chardonnay from the estate’s Maso Pianizza Vineyard, Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore is aged on its lees for at least 10 years. Only made in outstanding vintages, it was first released in 1972 as a tribute to the company’s founder and was an overnight success among critics and connoisseurs. Thanks to its complexity and depth, it set a new benchmark for Italian sparkling wine.
Today, the third generation of Lunellis is at the helm: cousins Marcello, Matteo, Camilla and Alessandro. According to Alessandro, the key to their wines lies in the terroir.
“Trentino’s mountainous terrain is fundamental to the freshness and elegance of our sparklers,” he says. “The high altitude—1,148 to 2,296 feet—generates strong day and night temperature changes that allow Chardonnay and Pinot Nero to develop rich aromatics that set them apart.”
The Lunellis continue to take the winery to new levels. Alessandro says that all vineyards destined to produce grapes for Ferrari are now cultivated according to the principles of organic viticulture.
Among Ferrari’s many honors and accolades, a special edition of Ferrari Brut, Orgoglio Italia, is the official toast to welcome visiting celebrities and dignitaries to the Italian Pavilion at the 2015 Universal Exhibition in Milan.
In the U.S., the firm’s sparklers are also in high demand.
“The U.S. market is giving us a lot of satisfaction,” says Alessandro. “We’re really pleased that we’re expanding into more and more top restaurants, and that our Brut Trentodoc was the chosen as official toast of the 67th Emmy Awards.”
In recognition of all the firm has achieved for Italian wine, Wine Enthusiast selects Ferrari as its 2015 European Winery of the Year.
One of Chile’s original commercial wineries, Santa Carolina blends tradition with modernity.
Heritage in the wine business can be both a blessing and a curse. Many longstanding wineries often rely heavily on past accomplishments, and fail to evolve. On the other hand, with wide name recognition comes the opportunity to grow with the times and improve wine quality, distribution, marketing programs and consumer relations.
It’s the latter scenario that best describes Viña Santa Carolina, Chile’s third-largest wine brand. Founded in 1875 in the early days of the Chilean wine industry, it’s celebrating its 140th birthday this year.
Guided by the motto Herencia Viva, or “Living Heritage,” Santa Carolina, under the direction of General Manager Santiago Larraín, Commercial Director Christian Wylie and Head Winemaker Andrés Caballero, is growing sales and bolstering its image during a period when Chilean wine has been taking its hits.
Recent press reports note that international sales of Chilean wines have plateaued or dipped over the past few years. Yet Santa Carolina, fueled by expanded and improved product lines and savvy marketing, has seen exports grown by nearly 17 percent since 2013.
“Everything we’re doing comes off the Herencia Viva slogan,” says Wylie, speaking from the winery, located within Santiago’s city limits and accessible by subway. “Our wines are traditional, but with modern touches, and we are expanding our high-end offerings. Our main cellar is a national monument. But the massive earthquake in 2010, as unfortunate as it was, gave us an opportunity to rebuild and make improvements after much of it collapsed.”
Now open to the public for the first time in more than five years, Santa Carolina expects tens of thousands of domestic and international visitors per year, which is in line with its mission to bond more closely with wine lovers worldwide.
Prime examples of Santa Carolina’s image and relationship building are found in its new advertising, sponsorship and social media campaigns. The anchor brand of the larger Carolina Wine Brands group, Santa Carolina hosted 140 promotional events around the world this year to mark its 140th anniversary.
The winery is continuing its sponsorship of U.S.-based professional golfer Benjamín Alvarado, and was the exclusive wine sponsor of this year’s RBC Canadian Open PGA tour event.
“We are big golf fans and are committed to marketing ourselves through golf,” says Wylie. “At the Canadian Open, it was a thrill to see our name alongside Rolex, BMW and the Royal Bank of Canada.”
Canada is Santa Carolina’s largest export market, followed by Brazil and the U.S., where its self-owned importer, Carolina Wine Brands USA, will bring in about 170,000 cases in 2015.
As for its range of wines, which are tiered in typical Chilean fashion, Santa Carolina introduced its first icon bottling this year. Named Luis Pereira, after the winery’s founder, the Cabernet Sauvignon blend sells for $150, with only 3,000 bottles made.
Santa Carolina is also succeeding with Herencia Carmenère, the last three vintages of which have earned at least 92 points from Wine Enthusiast. Throw in the reliable, well-rated Reserva de Familia line of varietal wines and the company’s VSC blend, and Santa Carolina now has eight offerings priced at $25 or higher—quite a departure from its value-driven roots.
Engaging consumers in creative ways, boosting its image through major sponsorship and advertising campaigns, coming out with new, improved wines… if Chile is going through tough times, Viña Santa Carolina is bucking the trend.
It’s for this reason that Viña Santa Carolina is Wine Enthusiast’s 2015 New World Winery of the Year.
This hard-working region leads in innovation and sustainability.
In 1990, the Northern California wine region of Lodi housed just eight wineries. Its 80,000 acres of grapes were used largely for white Zinfandel, as well as low-cost Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot made by out-of-town wineries.
Today, after years of hard work, the Lodi American Viticultural Area (AVA) boasts 85 wineries and grows more than 100 grape varieties. It’s grabbed international attention for the quality of the new wines made from its legendary old Zinfandel vines and a profusion of young, diverse grape varieties.
The wine trade and media raved about the second release of the “naked” style Lodi Native wines in 2015. They also discovered wines from Albariño, Kerner, Graciano, Vermentino, Teroldego and other varieties being nurtured by a new generation of risk-taking innovators.
Star winemakers from outside Lodi began to set up shop in the region. Tegan Passalacqua, from Napa-based Turley Wine Cellars, purchased a winery in Lodi in 2012. Two years later, Morgan Twain-Peterson, from Bedrock Wine Co. in Sonoma Valley, followed suit.
This success could not have happened, however, without the seeds planted 25 years ago by the eight existing Lodi wineries and a few dozen grape growers.
They established the state-sanctioned Lodi Winegrape Commission in 1991 and promptly taxed their own production to sustain it. The goals were to educate growers, conduct grape-growing research, protect the environment and raise awareness of Lodi grapes and wines.
With the commission’s support, Lodi slowly raised its grape quality and price per ton and boosted the number of wineries tenfold. The region’s image soared above other grape districts within California’s San Joaquin Valley, achieving parity with better-known coastal regions.
Lodi sits near the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, 100 miles east of the San Francisco Bay. While it’s generally warmer than vineyard locations near the coast, Lodi benefits from cooling delta breezes.
Its climate bears little resemblance to the relentlessly hot conditions in the southern San Joaquin Valley, where table grapes, raisins and high-yield wine grapes grow.
Lodi further set itself apart from other regions with the establishment of the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing in 2005. These encourage sustainable farming, a lighter hand with pest management and better air quality and water management, among other benefits.
It was California’s first third-party certification program for winegrowing, and it inspired a statewide program a few years later. Today, more than 20,000 acres are “certified green” in the Lodi appellation, and about 25 wineries produce wines that carry the Lodi Rules seal.
At least one winery, Michael David Winery, offers growers a bonus for grapes produced under Lodi Rules. It also helped popularize Lodi Zinfandel as a bold, but fun premium wine with its 7 Deadly Zins brand.
But what makes Lodi special is more than just the sum of its agricultural and marketing advances. Grapes and wine were already in Lodi’s DNA before the current era. The first major vineyard was planted in 1852, and fourth- and fifth-generation Lodi farmers who make their living with wine grapes are commonplace.
“There is a tremendous history here as a farming and grape- growing community,” says Stuart Spencer, the winemaker and owner of St. Amant Winery, founded by his parents in 1979. Spencer is also program director of the winegrape commission.
“This is a place where the police cars are decorated with grape clusters and the high schools are named after grapes,” he says.
Twenty-somethings from Lodi grape-growing families often return to work in the family vineyards and cellars. Spencer was one of them.
“The kids come back and want to farm,” says Spencer. “It’s a rare thing, and you don’t see it in the rest of the country.”
It’s these young people and the youthful attitude of their elders that drive the innovation pushing Lodi forward. It’s a prime reason why Lodi is Wine Enthusiast’s 2015 Wine Region of the Year.
Founded in 1978, this father and sons team celebrates a long tradition of success.
Yale Sager, founder and president of Winesellers Ltd., could not be more proud of his sons, Adam and Jordan, as they assume increasing responsibilities at the Illinois-based importer.
When his sons first joined the company, Yale says he cautioned each: “You’re going to make mistakes. But better to make them earlier.”
“I was absolutely thrilled my sons came into the business,” says Yale. “We have a great portfolio, and a good number are brands that Adam and Jordan created with top-notch people like the Zuccardis [Argentinean wine producers] or Mel Master.”
According to Adam, a third of the importer’s total volume comes from brands he and Jordan created in cooperation with various international wine producers.
“Six years ago, we were selling virtually no Italian or Spanish wines,” says Adam. “Now, they are some of our fastest-growing categories.”
Sales will hit more than 650,000 cases in 2015, according to Adam, vice president of sales and marketing. Jordan, his younger brother and vice president, on-premise, is also involved in major decisions, says Adam, noting all activity takes place “under the watchful eye” of Yale.
Launched in 1978, the company’s wines from Argentina, Australia, Austria, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain and the United States continue to drive significant growth.
With 50 years experience in selling wine, Yale knows a thing or two about the “prescription” for growth. Graduating college with a pharmacy degree in 1962, he joined Walgreens in Chicago.
As a store manager on the city’s Near North Side, Yale worked to upgrade his location’s wine area to include higher-priced fine wines, observing how other area wine merchants catered to affluent customers.
Following a vacation in 1967 where he visited French, Italian and Spanish wine regions, the Chicago-based Jewel-Osco supermarket chain hired Yale as its wine buyer in 1968.
In five years, he built the chain’s wine operation into a $30 million-a-year business. In 1973, he moved to Shaw-Ross, a fine wine and spirits importer, as its Midwest sales representative, overseeing 15 states.
In 1978, eager to run his own show, Yale launched Winesellers Ltd. One of his first sales calls was to Melvyn Master, then a Denver-based distributor. Master introduced Yale to a number of his French wine suppliers, including Georges Duboeuf.
In the early years, Winesellers Ltd. represented Duboeuf. After parting ways in 2003, the company continued to work with many of its longstanding French, German and Argentinean partners, as well as with Master’s wines and many new wine proprietors.
“I am very proud that I have been able to give my sons a base, so that they could fulfill their careers in the wine business and take the company to the next level, which they already have,” says Yale.
Looking ahead, both Jordan and Adam see great potential in the growing selection of Argentinean, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish wines, as well as the French artisanal ciders that Winesellers Ltd. is now marketing across the U.S.
“These French ciders are a way to engage millennials, mixologists and consumers,” says Adam.
Most of Winesellers’ portfolio is priced between $10 and $20 a bottle at retail, a “sweet spot” for the company, says Adam, though he adds that additional emphasis is being given to more expensive wines.
Buoyed by his sons’ upbeat outlook, this is sure to be another area for growth, says Yale, and one to make a founding father proud.
It’s for this tradition of success, growth and expansion that Wine Enthusiast names Winesellers Ltd. its 2015 Importer of the Year.
—David Lincoln Ross
As one of the industry’s first brand ambassadors, she deserves pioneering credit.
If you want something, ask for it. That’s the big lesson to be learned from Claire Smith-Warner, head of spirit creation and mixology at Belvedere Vodka.
When she started with Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) in 2003, “brand ambassador” was not a standard career description in the liquor world.
After a postcollegiate stint in the hospitality business, Smith-Warner won “The Battle of the Giants,” a United Kingdom cocktail competition, in 2001 and her bartending career took off.
“That really catapulted me into the high-profile London scene,” says Smith-Warner. “I spent time working in bars in London, working with influencers like [London bartending legend] Dick Bradsell. That really shaped my early experiences.”
Shortly thereafter, LVMH approached Smith-Warner about working with Belvedere, which was about to launch in the U.K.
“They asked me to come in and do a simple vodka training,” she says. “I asked if I could join the company as their U.K. ambassador.”
It wasn’t a job that yet existed. “I convinced the marketing director that we needed to create that model, and the person in that position needed to be me,” Smith-Warner says. She was just 25 years old at the time.
These days, it seems like every liquor label has a fleet of brand ambassadors to work with bartenders and consumers. So leave it to Smith-Warner to change the game once again by adding product development to her job description.
In 2009, Smith-Warner began to work closely with Belvedere’s distillery team in Poland to create flavored vodkas that utilize fresh ingredients as opposed to artificial flavorings.
“We hadn’t launched a new flavor in six years,” she says. “When I got involved, it was an effort to accelerate the process.”
That yielded flavors like Black Raspberry, Bloody Mary, Lemon Tea, Mango Passion, and most recently, Wild Berry. Those support the existing core flavors, Citrus and Pink Grapefruit.
Smith-Warner is also credited with creating Belvedere Unfiltered in 2011, distilled with Dankowskie Diamond Rye, which she considers one of the highlights of her career.
“I feel like my role is to really be on the road, understanding trends and flavor preferences, and then translating that back to the flavor team that maintains our DNA,” says Smith-Warner, who lives in London when not traveling around the world.
Making a spirit—as opposed to just educating about it—is a line that few industry ambassadors have managed to cross. It’s one of the reasons that Smith-Warner is widely acknowledged as a leading authority on vodka. She talks the talk and walks the walk.
Smith-Warner expects to continue her focus on product development, looking at ways to extend the portfolio and create new flavors.
In 2011, she launched the Drink, Eat, Live program. It’s dedicated to educating bartenders on health awareness, including initiatives to remove sugar from spirits and cocktails as much as possible. She expects to continue working on that initiative.
“I’m very happy where I am and doing what I’m doing, just increasing our momentum and global awareness of brand,” Smith-Warner says. “I see only bigger and better things for the future, and I’m delighted to be a part of that.”
For her role in innovation, education and expansion of the brand ambassador role in the spirits industry, Claire Smith-Warner is Wine Enthusiast’s Brand Ambassador of the Year.
This fast-growing brand owes its success to its far-reaching distribution network.
E. & J. Gallo is best known for producing wine. But the company also has a thriving spirits division that includes New Amsterdam, a fast-growing success story known for gin and vodka.
The story starts in 2003, when the modern-day cocktail revolution was still in its infancy. Gin selections were considerably more limited than today.
“There had been very little innovation in decades,” says Ernest J. Gallo, vice president and general manager of E. & J. Gallo Winery’s spirits division, which also includes E&J Brandy and Familia Camarena Tequila.
In the years preceding today’s craft distillery boom, there were few American-made gin brands, as imported, London dry-style gins were the rule. After years of development, New Amsterdam Gin was introduced in 2007. It featured a more citrusy, less juniper-forward profile compared to the London dry standard.
New Amsterdam Vodka joined the lineup in 2011.
“We debated that for a while,” Gallo says. “Could you really have the same brand stand for vodka and gin?”
The vodka was an even bigger hit, selling one million cases in its first year. E. & J. Gallo claims it was the fastest spirits brand in history to hit that mark. A range of flavored vodkas soon followed.
Although the spirits business was built from the ground up, Gallo acknowledges that the more than 80-year-old wine business helped create credibility and goodwill for the burgeoning New Amsterdam brand.
“Quite frankly, if there’s a story behind why it grew so quickly, I really have to give credit to our distribution partners and customers who believed in us and trusted us,” Gallo says. “They gave us more support and more confidence than someone coming out of the blue, because of our coming out of wine.”
Without those relationships, he says, it would have taken far longer to build the spirits brand.
Part of the learning curve has been understanding the oft-vast differences between the wine and spirits worlds.
“They are extremely different—deceptively different,” he says firmly. “Most people, at first glance, think they’re both alcoholic beverages and would assume them to be very similar. But we’ve found almost every aspect to be different,” ranging from consumer behaviors to distribution and trade practices.
However, he says, “what they have in common is that they’re both dependent on the quality of the consumer offering and the hard work put in by your partners.”
What does Gallo think his grandfather, winemaking pioneer Ernest Gallo, would make of the company’s involvement in the spirits biz?
“He was entrepreneurial and pragmatic, so I think he would have supported the vodka,” Gallo says.
In fact, when Gallo started development of New Amsterdam’s angular, Art Deco-style bottle, he discovered a cobweb-covered bottle in a dusty basement of one of the buildings on the Gallo property. His grandfather had commissioned the bottle as a prototype—for vodka. It became an inspiration for the final New Amsterdam design.
“I don’t know why it didn’t progress at that time,” Gallo says. “But based on history, he wouldn’t have been opposed to us giving this a try, if it was done with the appropriate quality and attention to detail. That was how he liked to compete.”
This kind of vision that is why New Amsterdam is Wine Enthusiast’s 2015 Spirit Brand of the Year.
This groundbreaking company is at the forefront of beer trends.
Off-centered ales for off-centered people—that’s the mantra of Delaware-based Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, and its founder and president, Sam Calagione.
Based on the brewery’s success, there are a lot of off-centered people in the world.
“We have been focused on brewing creative beers outside of style guidelines and incorporating culinary ingredients into our beer recipes since the day we opened over 20 years ago,” says Calagione.
The brewery had humble, yet groundbreaking beginnings. In June 1995, Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats opened in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. It was not only the state’s first brewpub, but also America’s smallest commercial brewery.
Things have changed: Dogfish Head was ranked 13 on the Brewers Association’s Top 50 Breweries of 2014 list, based on sales volumes.
From day one, Dogfish Head has never been considered a brewery of simplicity, complacency or routine. It’s continuously pushed the boundaries of beer perceptions, cooking up new, exciting recipes and playing with worldly ingredients and brewing techniques.
There’s always something new and exciting to behold: experimental batches at the brewpub; ancient ale recipes; collaborations with wineries and other brewers. Take, for example, Noble Rot, a saison-esque selection that incorporates both Pinot Gris and botrytized Viognier must from Washington’s Alexandria Nicole Cellars.
“We appeal to adventurous foodies, wine and beer lovers who are looking for a wide range of flavors and choices within a single craft brewery’s portfolio,” says Calagione.
Indeed, there is something for everyone in the lineup, from the nearly 20 styles of beer to limited-edition bottlings and handcrafted spirits.
Beyond drinks, the brewery also has the food-focused Rehoboth Beach brewpub and the cozy, beer-centric Dogfish Inn in nearby Lewes, Delaware. It also has a line of foods inspired by its ales, including brats, chowder and pickles produced in partnership with Hans All- Natural, Sea Watch International and Brooklyn Brine.
“We’re more innovative and creative now than we were 20 years ago, when we were literally the smallest brewery in America,” says Calagione. “That’s because we now have world-class brewing equipment, four different brewing systems—two of which are tiny, for experimental brewing—a world-class, quality-control lab and relationships with growers of brewing and culinary ingredients around the world.”
Dogfish Head has also stuck to its guns, remaining true to its original mission and maintaining a relationship with the community it serves.
The company’s Beer & Benevolence branch allows the brewery to collaborate in unique, personalized ways with nonprofit organizations to foster community, nourish artistic advancement and cultivate environmental stewardship within Delaware.
Dogfish’s Milton-based brewery offers tours and sampling for visitors and the tasting room asks guests to bring something that speaks to their own personal off-centeredness for its Off-Centered Wall. There are also numerous events, tastings and parties held throughout the year.
“We’ll continue to innovate and bring off-centered goodness into everything we do: from beer, to spirits, to cider, to restaurants and hotels,” says Calagione.
Because of this endless drive to bring fun and innovative products to beer lovers, Wine Enthusiast names Dogfish Head its 2015 Brewery of the Year.
- 1Lifetime Achievement Award: Angelo Gaja
- 2Retailer of the Year: Costco Wholesale
- 3Wine Director of the Year: Helen Mackey
- 4Innovator of the Year: Aurelio Montes
- 5Person of the Year: Michael Mondavi
- 6Winemaker of the Year: Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon
- 7American Winery of the Year: JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery
- 8European Winery of the Year: Ferrari
- 9New World Winery of the Year: Viña Santa Carolina
- 10Wine Region of the Year: Lodi, California
- 11Importer of the Year: Winesellers Ltd.
- 12Mixologist/Brand Ambassador of the Year: Claire Smith-Warner
- 13Spirit Brand of the Year: New Amsterdam
- 14Brewery of the Year: Dogfish Head Brewery