Wine Enthusiast's 2017 Wine Star Award Winners
Eighteen years ago, the editors of Wine Enthusiast conceived an annual-award program to honor individuals and companies that have contributed to the success of the wine industry.
Over the years, the size and scope of our Wine Star Awards have expanded to encompass spirits and beer, and to showcase hands-on consumer gatekeepers, such as mixologists and wine directors. We recognize how multifaceted and rich the wine culture and its peripheral facets have become, and continually embrace and acknowledge the trailblazers who are impacting what you put in your glass every day.
What does it take to be a Wine Star winner? Among other attributes, energy, courage, groundbreaking vision and business acumen.
Explore the 2017 Wine Star Award Winners by clicking to the next slide.
The head of Moët Hennessy North America is a humble force for growth and change across the wine and spirits industry, and beyond.
Some individuals who achieve tremendous success in their professional lives develop egos just as prodigious.
Jim Clerkin has never fallen into that trap. For him, humility, grace and goodwill have always been paramount.
Clerkin is not just president and CEO of Moët Hennessy North America. He also devotes his energy to a multitude of professional and charitable organizations, mentors many employees and youth, and is always generous with his time.
“Jim Clerkin has made an indelible mark on the wine and spirits industry,” says Wayne Chaplin, president and CEO of Southern Wine & Spirits, who was Wine Enthusiast’s Person of the Year in 2016. “His success can not only be attributed to his great talent and leadership, but also to his integrity, humility and commitment to helping everyone he works with reach their full potential. I consider it a great pleasure and honor to get to work with him and his team.”
Arguably, the best trait of a leader is embracing teamwork. This is a concept that Clerkin may take to the extreme.
When informed by Wine Enthusiast that he’d be honored as its 2017 Person of the Year, Clerkin dished off credit deftly.
“What an extraordinary honor this is,” says Clerkin. “There’s no chance I’d get that consideration without the great people I work with. I also feel very fortunate to represent some of the most iconic brands in the world. I truly see my role as being a caretaker, to protect the heritage and honor the pioneering spirit, and ensuring I leave them in a better place than I found them.”
That won’t be a problem.
Clerkin oversees a staff of 377 people. He’s running the North American region for iconic global brands like Champagnes Dom Pérignon, Krug, Moët & Chandon, Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot; Hennessy Cognac; Scotch whiskies Ardbeg and Glenmorangie; Belvedere vodka and more.
Also included in the prestigious portfolio are wineries like Cloudy Bay, Domaine Chandon and Newton Vineyard. Recent expansion has added superpremium spirits Tequila Volcán De Mi Tierra, as well as newcomer Woodinville Whiskey Company, acquired in July.
Clerkin was born in 1954 on a farm in the village of Rostrevor, in County Down, Northern Ireland. The oldest of nine children, Clerkin learned the value of family, friendship and hard work from an early age.
“My parents taught me that family really matters most of all,” he says. “I like to think I’m a great team player, and that I motivate very different people with very different styles to come together and harness energy as one team for a common goal. At Moët Hennessy, we continuously cultivate diversity and inclusive engagement through education, exposure and experiences.”
He credits his father as his first and most important mentor. As someone who appreciated Hennessy, and enjoyed it mixed with ginger ale and a single ice cube, Jim learned from him about the history of the Hennessy family, who left Cork in the mid-1700s to seek their fortunes overseas.
In 2015, Hennessy celebrated its 250th anniversary.
“A great milestone,” says Clerkin. “The brand has doubled its sales in the past five years. Last year, Hennessy VS crossed the three-million-cases mark and still grew 20 percent, a record for the brand. And not just VS, but VSOP, Hennessy Black and XO are also performing very well.”
Clerkin began his career with Guinness in 1976. He advanced quickly, joining its board of directors at age 36.
In 1994, Grand Metropolitan recruited Clerkin to lead its wines and spirits division in Ireland. Three years later, the company merged with Guinness to form Diageo, and he was promoted to executive vice president as well as president of its Western U.S. wine and spirits division.
In 2003, he joined Allied Domecq as president for North America and Canada, and after its acquisition by Pernod Ricard and Jim Beam, he was appointed CEO of The Jim Beam Company for Canada, Mexico and the U.S.
Moët Hennessy (the wine, Champagne and spirits division of LVMH Moët Hennessy – Louis Vuitton) named Clerkin its executive vice president and chief operating officer in 2008. Shortly after, he became CEO and president of Moët Hennessy USA. Most recently, Clerkin’s responsibilities expanded to include Mexico and Canada.
Clerkin takes much pride in the success of his staff, where the departments work alongside dedicated teams for areas such as business intelligence, digital, new business and strategic marketing.
While respecting the history and tradition of their brands, Moët Hennessy’s Champagne houses continue to strive for innovation, seizing creative opportunities to further the art of winemaking. Recent innovations include Moët Ice Impérial, the first Champagne designed to be poured over ice, and a Clicquot line extension called Rich, designed to be served like a cocktail.
“We’ve made Champagne less formal and more approachable and, as a consequence, we are growing in a steady, longer-term fashion.” he says.
Competition from other sparkling wines has increased in recent years, notably Prosecco. Clerkin embraces the challenge. “I take my hat off to competitors who have been innovative with packaging,” he says. “We see everybody, at any price point, as competitors. I would argue that this has inspired us to work harder at growing Champagne.
“I will take some credit, with my team, to talk about Chandon. This year we will sell six million bottles for the first time ever in America. A lot has to do with one-off special editions that have been remarkably successful. And I am excited for what will be coming in 2018.”
According to LVMH interim financial reports, highlights for the first half of 2017 include their Champagne sales volume up eight percent and a “very good first half” for Hennessy, “driven in particular by United States, where demand continued to rise.”
Overall, global profits in Wines & Spirits were up 21 percent and revenues were up 12 percent, with Europe and the United States particularly dynamic regions.
Clerkin also finds time to serve on several industry groups. Notably, he’s chairman of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS).
“Jim Clerkin is a key leader in our sector promoting modernization, innovation and social responsibility,” says Kraig R. Naasz, president and CEO of DISCUS. “Jim has helped guide us at the Distilled Spirits Council as our chair and active member of the board, where he has presided over an extended period of growth in market share and several significant public policy victories.”
The UJA-Federation of New York’s Wine & Spirits Division bestowed upon Clerkin its Samuel Bronfman Memorial Award after he helped raise a record-breaking $775,000 for the organization. He supported the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, where Hennessy, Belvedere and Moët & Chandon were featured and served.
A U.S. citizen, he retains a connection to his roots. Clerkin is involved in organizations like Irish America, Northern Ireland Connection and Co-operation Ireland, a nonprofit that promotes peace and a sustained reconciliation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which he serves as chairman.
Clerkin’s focus there, as in much of his charity work, is on youth leadership programs. It’s a way to pay back mentors like his father that helped pave his way. He’s also a board member at the Royal Academy America, a nonprofit that promotes the arts, as well as a supporter of the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City.
For his vast contributions to the wine and spirits industry, as well as his philanthropy, generosity and character, Wine Enthusiast is proud to honor Jim Clerkin as its 2017 Person of the Year. —Paul Gregutt
Louis “Bob” Trinchero and Roger Trinchero are well known and respected in the wine business for their giant California wine brands that include Ménage à Trois and Sutter Home. However, they’re perhaps even more respected by their employees and community members, a tribute that stems from lessons learned long before their family winery hit the big time.
Bob and Roger were children in 1947 when their father and uncle bought the Sutter Home winery in St. Helena, California, and moved the family from New York City to Napa Valley. Bob, 10 years older than Roger, became involved immediately in winemaking at the most basic level. Roger and their sister, Vera Trinchero Torres, would follow into family business when they were old enough.
Located on Main Street in St. Helena, Sutter Home was a small operation at the outset. In those early days, it sold 65 percent of its production direct to locals and passersby. That hands-on experience inspired the brothers later to take care of their employees as if they were family members.
“Since Roger and I and the family have worn all the hats, we were appreciative of our employees who were doing the work we once did,” says Bob. “We thought to ourselves if they are going to dedicate 20 or 30 years of their lives to our family, we should treat them right.”
The family instituted a profit-sharing program for employees many years ago.
“Today we have one of the best 401(k) plans in the industry, and we continue to contribute to the plan,” says Roger, the chairman of the board for the wholly owned and operated family company, Trinchero Family Estates (TFE). Bob serves as chairman emeritus.
Not only do the brothers invest in their employees, but they’re also extremely active in supporting their local communities. TFE created a Family in Need Fund that uses revenue from aggressive recycling efforts to help employees with unexpected crises like the Lake County wildfire in 2015. OLE Health, a community clinic in Napa, has received $2 million from the family.
“The Trinchero family’s wineries are places everyone wants to work,” says United States Representative Mike Thompson, Democrat of California, whose Congressional district includes Napa Valley. “They treat their employees like family, and their generosity to our community is second to none. Bob and Roger embody an incredible sense of loyalty, respect and ethics, and they’ve made it part of their business plan. I admire them more than I can express in words.”
Bob became winemaker in 1958, while beginning in the 1980s, Roger developed a world-class sales and marketing team and established national distribution for fast-growing Sutter Home White Zinfandel. The winery became America’s leading varietal wine producer.
Bob and his winemaking team mastered production and quality control on a massive scale. At the same time, Roger and his staff introduced a series of breakthrough packaging innovations and marketing programs that included single-serve varietals, a non-cork closure and award-winning advertising and promotions.
Today, TFE has 8,000 acres of vineyards and produces 17 million cases across 44 American brands like Trinchero Napa Valley, Napa Cellars, Terra d’Oro and Trinity Oaks. The company also markets numerous domestic brands that include Joel Gott Wines and Charles & Charles, imports wines from Australia and Chile, and has a growing spirits portfolio.
Despite all that branding and sales success, Roger says, “What Bob and I take the most pride in is that we’ve been able to recognize talent and hire it.” They mention standouts that include current CEO Bob Torkelson and longtime executives Jim Huntsinger and Hal Huffsmith.
Bob and Roger also take pride that they’ve provided consumers with high-quality, reasonably priced wines for their entire careers. They never thought they should dictate what people should drink, but as Roger says, “We always tried to see where the market was going, and make available to the consumer regardless of their taste, something that they will enjoy.”
A perfect example of this was the accidental invention of a pink, lightly sweet Zinfandel.
“We made this wine, and all of a sudden everyone wanted it, so we made more,” says Bob simply.
By always being able to serve such needs and meet many other challenges, these brothers played a critical role in the transformation of America into the world’s biggest wine-consuming country.
For these accomplishments and their dedication to prioritizing their employees and community, Wine Enthusiast is proud to honor Bob and Roger Trinchero with its Lifetime Achievement Award. —Jim Gordon
A visionary who elevated Monterey County wine to new heights.
When Nicolaus “Nicky” Hahn bought Smith & Hook Vineyard in California’s Monterey County almost 40 years ago, the region’s reputation for wine was in the dregs.
“There I was at almost age 50 and had no clue what the industry was about—I’d never sold a bottle of wine in my life,” says Hahn, who was told categorically by international distributors that Monterey would never excel in wine. “The reputation was such that somebody had to do something about it.”
He quickly worked to reset the narrative, most critically with the creation of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation in 1991.
“Thirty years later, we are recognized as one of the great growing regions,” says Hahn, whose Hahn Family Wines now produces more than 400,000 cases annually and distributes to all 50 states and 20 countries. “Depending on the context, you can place my name up with Piero Antinori. Who would ever have thought that was feasible? I think I am correct in calling myself the black swan of the American wine industry.”
Hahn’s early life reads like a midcentury novel. His father was a Jewish banker in Frankfurt, Germany, and they fled the Nazis to Switzerland, where Nicky was born in 1936. From there, it was on to England (where he remembers air raid drills), Spain, Portugal, Cuba (by banana boat) and Los Angeles. He then attended boarding school back in Switzerland, before heading to university in Munich to study economics like his father.
Then came brokerage jobs in Paris, London and New York City, where Chase Manhattan Bank trained him as a credit analyst. He ventured back to Switzerland, where he started his own firm and took over as chair of Computer Associates, which grew to be one of the largest software firms on the planet.
By the late 1970s, Hahn hunted for a legacy project. His dad didn’t drink much, but it was Haut-Brion when he did, and the younger Hahn remembers his own wine epiphany.
“It was Montrachet, and that’s when I learned that there is more than one way to get into heaven,” he says.
His search to own a piece of that heaven led him to Monterey, where in 1979, he bought Smith & Hook Vineyard as it slipped toward foreclosure.
“It was a mistake,” says Hahn. “It was the beginning of a whole bunch of headaches, and I had to work my way through them.”
He learned that much of Monterey was planted to varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon that made no sense for its chilly, windy climate. Much appeared to be planted as tax write-offs.
“If you have the wrong varietal, in the wrong place, planted for the wrong reasons, you’ve got a problem on your hands,” says Hahn.
So with moral support from the late Rick Smith and a few other vintners, Hahn spearheaded the late-1980s push to establish the Santa Lucia Highlands as a cool-climate region perfect for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
“Then things started to look up, because we didn’t have to fight a reputation that was, by the way, totally deserved,” says Hahn. The appellation is now home to iconic sites like Pisoni Vineyard, Garys’ Vineyard and Sleepy Hollow Vineyard.
Hahn, however, was late to re-plant his Cab-dominated property to Pinot Noir. He undertook that in the early 2000s, when they began ripping out 650 acres of the Santa Lucia Highlands property and planted most to the Burgundian variety.
“We did everything to make my piggy bank squeaky, and now we are known as a Pinot house,” says Hahn, who sells his top-end wines under the Lucienne brand.
He rebuilt Smith & Hook into a regionally sourced, affordable Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style blend powerhouse, now up to about 70,000 annual cases. “That’s the nearest we have to a dream wine,” says Hahn.
Experimentation and replanting projects continue, including recent tests of massal clonal field blends, and Hahn’s acreage has grown to more than 1,100 around the Central Coast. He was also an early adopter of the Sustainability in Practice program, which upholds stringent environmental and labor standards.
“I’d like to be known as a fair employer, and if you look at our employee list, many of them have been with us forever,” says Hahn.His colleagues are proud of Hahn.
“With Nicky’s intellectual and financial capabilities, he could have succeeded at anything he put his mind to,” says Jerry Lohr, founder of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines, who was honored by Wine Enthusiast as its American Wine Legend in 2016. “I am so pleased that he decided to focus so much energy on his winery in Monterey, which played an important role in helping to put Monterey wines on the map.”
For his countless contributions to Monterey and, by extension, the wine industry as a whole, Wine Enthusiast names Nicolaus “Nicky” Hahn as its 2017 American Wine Pioneer. —Matt Kettmann
A pioneer grows in the Pacific Northwest.
Do not call Christophe Baron, of Walla Walla Valley’s Cayuse Vineyards, a winemaker. “I cannot stand the word ‘winemaker,’ ” says Baron, his French accent giving the words a distinctive flair. “At Cayuse, there is no winemaker. At Cayuse, there is a vigneron.”
In a region where many purchase grapes to make wines, that distinction deserves merit.
“Buying grapes, you can get by, but it’s never going to make the best wine in the world,” says Baron, who is as opinionated and outspoken as he is playful. “That’s impossible. You have to tend your own vines. That’s what a vigneron does.”
Baron’s roots as a winegrower trace back to the village of Charly-sur-Marn in the Champagne region of France, where his family has tended vineyards since 1677. Rather than follow his father’s footsteps at the family vineyard—“I’m way too independent,” he says—Baron came to the U.S. in 1996 with the goal to plant a vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
On the way, a friend showed him an ancestral riverbed strewn with cobblestone on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley.
Reminded of the pudding stones of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Baron changed plans and decided to plant a vineyard in an area where no one had grown wine grapes in generations.
“I knew I had something special in front of me,” says Baron.
From the start of Cayuse Vineyards, Baron has focused on Syrah, a variety that had been introduced into the Pacific Northwest just 10 years earlier. He then planted a series of vineyards in the region that were devoted largely to craft numerous vineyard-designated Syrahs, a novel concept in the area at the time.
Baron’s success, first at Cayuse Vineyards and later with other projects that include No Girls, Horsepower Vineyards and, most recently, Hors Catégorie, has been otherworldly. He’s produced more than 50 wines rated at 95 points or above by Wine Enthusiast, including two with 100-point scores. The wines are so successful and so limited (production at Cayuse is a scant 4,500 cases) that there’s a seven-year waiting list to purchase them.
“The Cayuse wines are the top of the top in terms of quality,” says Chris Tanghe MS, also honored by Wine Enthusiast this year as its Sommelier of the Year. “As a variety for the state and for the industry, Christophe has brought to the table a specific expression of Syrah. . .The styles [of wines from the area] are texturally very interesting and really not replicated anywhere else on the planet.”
Indeed, the earthy, savory, mineral quality that this terroir creates has drawn a rush of growers and winemakers to the area. In 2015, the area was established as its own federally approved winegrowing region, the Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, a subappellation of the Walla Walla Valley.
Baron’s wines have not just raised the profile of Northwest Syrah, but helped establish the Walla Walla Valley as a premier winegrowing region.
Baron continues to innovate, as he experiments with trellising techniques, row spacing and horse plowing. Most recently, he has begun to explore another region of the Walla Walla Valley near the North Fork of the Walla Walla River with his Hors Catégorie project. The first wine was released this earlier year.
“You’ve got to be curious when you’re a vigneron,” says Baron. “It’s very important to take risks.”
As much as he may hate the label of “winemaker,” for the many risks taken, the subsequent rewards, and his contributions to the advancement of an entire winegrowing region, Wine Enthusiast names Christophe Baron its Winemaker of the Year. —Sean P. Sullivan
The visionary who moves E. & J. Gallo, the world’s largest winery, forward.
When E. & J. Gallo Winery brought on Roger Nabedian in 1986 as a neophyte sales and marketing hire, it was a big boom period for boutique wineries and high-end bottlings. Premium-priced dry, varietal wines in 750-ml bottles were growing fast. But Gallo enjoyed success with a focus on accessible, easy-drinking table wines in magnums and gallon jugs, as well as inexpensive fortified and sweet wines.
Today, of course, E. & J. Gallo produces and imports numerous premium and superpremium wines, and owns highly regarded wineries and vineyards in Napa, Sonoma and Washington State. The journey from its Hearty Burgundy brand to estate-grown Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has been monumental. No one outside the Gallo family has had a bigger hand in that transformation than Nabedian, the senior vice president and general manager of the company’s premium wine division.
“Roger’s dedication and passion for the premium and luxury wine business has been a significant part of E. & J. Gallo Winery’s strategic direction into this sector,” says distributor David C. Drucker of Empire Merchants in New York City.
“One needs to look no further than the past few acquisitions and partnerships that the Gallo winery has made to see Roger’s fingerprints and incredible vision.”
None of this was on Nabedian’s mind when he graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a B.A. in chemistry. At that time, he wanted to be a doctor.
“I got into the wine business totally by accident,” says Nabedian. It was a change that would afford him tremendous success.
Nabedian has spent his entire career with Gallo, and was put in charge of premium wines in 2005. Since then, he’s led the acquisition and integration of vineyards, wineries and brands that include Talbott Vineyards, William Hill Estate Winery, Columbia Winery, J Vineyards & Winery, The Ranch Winery and Orin Swift Cellars.
In March 2017, Nabedian completed one of Gallo’s most historic acquisitions: The purchase of the iconic Stagecoach Vineyard. A 1,300-acre hillside vineyard located in Napa Valley’s Pritchard Hill region and Atlas Peak appellation, it is also the largest contiguous vineyard in Napa Valley, with more than 600 acres planted to vines. The acquisition was a bold move, but one that would ensure the company’s footprint in Napa for many generations to come.
His division encompasses 42 brands produced at 34 wineries around the world, which includes the new LUX Wines portfolio that currently imports classic Italian brands from iconic appellations. The division represents more than 24,000 acres of land, of which 8,500 acres are under vine.
“I am very fortunate to be working at Gallo,” he says. “I have many friends that along their paths have changed jobs every five or 10 years to be able to grow. But Gallo has afforded me the opportunity to have so many varied experiences and responsibilities in my daily work without changing my business card. I’m just a lucky kid that that happened for me.”
Those around Nabedian describe him as insightful, intelligent, modest, generous with his time and a tough but straightforward negotiator.
“I felt like, with Roger, there was no such thing as a stupid question,” says Mike Forrester, Gallo’s western region managing director, who reported to Nabedian for five years. “His big saying is, ‘Never fail in silence.’ In other words, ask for help. It’s O.K. I think he learned a lot from Joe Gallo and the other senior executives. He watched and incorporated those traits, but he just did it faster than anybody else.”
Robert Nicholson, founder of International Wine Associates, has represented the sellers of brands and properties that Nabedian acquired for Gallo, such as Talbott Vineyards and, most recently, the Germain-Robin luxury California brandy.
“Roger is the real deal,” says Nicholson. “He frankly is the architect of the Gallos’ drive to be the long-term player in the U.S. premium and superpremium wine business. And when the Gallos are building business in the premium sector, it’s good for everyone.”
In recognition of his many contributions to the world’s largest family-owned winery and the growth of the premium wine sector, Wine Enthusiast is delighted to award Roger Nabedian as its Wine Executive of the Year. —Jim Gordon
This trailblazer keeps Shaw-Ross International Importers ahead of the curve.
Innovation comes in many forms. For Bruce Hunter, managing director of Shaw-Ross International Importers, it begins with the ability to spot trends and problems. It ends with solutions that help sell hundreds of thousands of cases of wine.
“Part of my philosophy is if everything you do is in your comfort level, then you don’t go anywhere,” says Hunter. And this man, who worked in his father’s wine and liquor shop in a New York City suburb “delivering orders in the rain, snow—nothing stopped me from my appointed rounds,” wanted to go somewhere.
So he went to work for Almaden Vineyards, where he became the New York representative and gained experience pounding the pavement. His territory ranged from small corner stores bedecked with bulletproof glass to Manhattan’s white tablecloth restaurants.
“It was great experience,” he says. Along the way, he realized that wine had become his foremost passion.
“You have to believe in the product, because if you don’t believe in a product, you’re not going to be able to sell it,” says Hunter.
After a few years, Hunter headed west to join Parrott & Company, a California venture then owned by the Martini and Wente families. He would soon rise to become president of the marketing and national sales company that represented the two families’ wines, as well as other wineries, imports and spirits brands, a role he held for 10 years.
Hunter’s career with Shaw-Ross International Importers followed. He returned to the East Coast with not just his passion, but the tips and skills learned along the way.
Take Château d’Esclans Whispering Angel rosé, for example.
He muses that it would be great “…to say I spotted the rosé trend 10 years ago, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.” Instead, he simply met with Château d’Esclans’ owner, Sacha Lichine, who had his own idea of how he wanted to evolve the winery’s reputation.
“Now, Sacha is a winemaker, but he is also a businessperson,” says Hunter. “And he wanted to make a serious wine, a serious rosé, not a White Zinfandel wannabe.”
Hunter and his team took 1,500 cases of the brand’s wines “to the right places, to the Hamptons, to Beverly Hills, to the right areas, to the right people and the right events. We kept our prices right. We kept our marketing philosophy. We never wavered from it. We never wavered in our pricing.
“If it’s going to be serious, it has to have a chance at being successful.”
That was 10 years ago. In 2017, Whispering Angel was on track to sell 300,000 cases, and Hunter predicts it will sell 400,000 cases in 2018. The brand’s other rosés, Rock Angel, Les Clans, Esclans and Garrus, also enjoy impressive sales and consumer demand.
His wife used to consider him crazy to spend a weekend visiting retailers to “just look around at the prices and the shelves and what people are looking at,” he says. “What are they hovering around? What are they buying? What’s the price point they are buying? To me, that’s fun.”
Sometimes, being an innovator means being a problem-solver. When Shaw-Ross took on Gekkeikan sake two years ago, Hunter visited many Japanese restaurants to see what people drank with sushi. He noticed that it wasn’t often sake. When he asked the owners, many believed it was because the sake was typically served warm.
“I asked how do you drink sake in Japan, and they said they drink it chilled,” says Hunter. “So we came back with an idea. Gekkeikan is a premium sake, so serve it chilled and drink it out of wine glass. The result? We’re selling 500,000 cases.”
The company’s current portfolio of wine, spirits and sake includes other iconic brands, like Marquès de Riscal from Spain and Viña San Pedro from Chile. Recent additions to their portfolio, which Hunter helped to secure in 2017, include the Bordeaux brand Mouton-Cadet and Pays d’Oc varietally labeled wines of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, as well as Italian wines from Frescobaldi and Danzante.
Another part of his philosophy is something he learned from his father. “He told me ‘Leadership is not about being great. It’s about enabling others to be great.’ And I have a great team of people, because behind every great brand is a great team.”
For his numerous accomplishments and continued success to grow business by staying in-tune with the current U.S. wine landscape and market demands, Wine Enthusiast is happy to name Bruce Hunter as its Innovator of the Year. —Leslie Gevirtz
The iconic Sonoma estate produces the top-selling wine in America today.
The meteoric rise of California Chardonnay over the last several decades has much to do with one producer, Kendall-Jackson, and one wine, Vintner’s Reserve.
In California, Kendall-Jackson is a testament to family-owned success in the wine business, an example of consistent quality. This year, it celebrates the 35th anniversary of the release of its Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, the top-selling Chardonnay in America for the last 25 years.
“Since the first vintage, Kendall-Jackson’s Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay has made a mark on the consumption of wine in America,” says Barbara Banke, chairman and proprietor of Kendall-Jackson. “Our consistent commitment to quality, starting with our impeccably farmed coastal vineyards, has made Vintner’s Reserve America’s favorite wine for over 25 years. This is no easy task, but as a family-owned company, we are here for the long run.”
Today, Chardonnay is California’s most widely grown wine grape, with more than 94,000 acres planted. It’s also the most popular white wine in the United States, representing an estimated 20 percent of all table wine purchased. And sales have increased every year.
Kendall-Jackson has a lot to do with the growth and collective love for Chardonnay.
“It has transformed Chardonnay and Chardonnay drinkers,” says Randy Ullom, who was brought in as winemaker for Kendall-Jackson in 1993 and promoted to winemaster in 1997. “It has become an accepted mainstay.”
Jess Jackson and original winemaker Jed Steele began Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay in 1982. Its central conceit—to blend across appellations and varieties (at the beginning, not everything was Chardonnay)—broke established norms and was a bold swipe at tradition.
A book about Kendall-Jackson’s rise, A Man and His Mountain: The Everyman who Created Kendall-Jackson and Became America’s Greatest Wine Entrepreneur (PublicAffairs, 2013), by Edward Humes, describes the early growth of Vintner’s Reserve. It details how the original 1982 run of the wine grew from 18,000 cases to 36,000 cases the next year. By 1986, sales had already reached 85,000 cases.
“The rise of Vintner’s Reserve helped define a new movement in California winemaking, which came to be known as the era of ‘fighting varietals,’ ” wrote Humes. “Jackson brought Chardonnay into this mix in a big way, with Vintner’s Reserve emerging as one of the biggest winners.”
The wine began earning awards early on. In 1983, it won the first-ever Platinum Award for an American Chardonnay at the American Wine Competition. Then, it took home top honors at the Los Angeles County Fair.
Before long, former First Lady Nancy Reagan became a fan, and cases of Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay were shipped directly to the White House. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen referred to it as “Nancy’s wine.”
In 1992, Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay became the country’s number one Chardonnay in sales. In 2014, it became the top-selling wine in America.
Today, Vintner’s Reserve is 100-percent coastal Chardonnay, 95-percent barrel fermented in up to 1,000 small lots, where the lees is hand-stirred once a month.
“We source all of the fruit along the cool coast of California, and we keep every lot separate, from so many different vineyards, from Santa Barbara to Monterey to Sonoma to Mendocino, and the majority of the vineyards are ours,” says Ullom. “Working with all the different barrel profiles and toasts is a challenge, too, as we use real barrels.”
Asked why the wine appeals to so many consumers, he says, “It has a kiss of butter, a kiss of toasty soft oak, and it’s very fruit forward. It’s round and lush on the palate, with a long-lingering finish that beckons for another sip.”
For its profound effect on the growth of Chardonnay, California winemaking and how Americans enjoy wine, Wine Enthusiast is proud to name Kendall-Jackson Winery as its American Winery of the Year. —Virginie Boone
This champion of Barolo and the Langhe hills has brought both to the global spotlight.
Made with the native grape Nebbiolo, Barolo is Italy’s most esteemed and storied wine. Known as “the King of Wines, the Wine of Kings,” Barolo has never been more in demand than now. And no other winery in the celebrated denomination has had more of an impact on Barolo than Fontanafredda.
Purchased in 1858 by Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of Italy, the magnificent Fontanafredda estate became the residence of his mistress, Rosa Vercellana, and their two children. The king planted vineyards on the property to make wines for his own consumption and serve at his royal residences.
In 1878, Count Emanuele Alberto Guerrieri, the son of Vittorio Emanuele II and Rosa Vercellana, expanded production. He created the Casa E. di Mirafiore winery with the goal to not just make wines, but also sell them, with a focus on Barolo. Thanks to this business venture, connoisseurs from around the world—and not just members of the royal family—were finally able to enjoy Barolo.
The firm has changed ownership several times since then, and today, Fontanafredda is owned almost entirely by Oscar Farinetti, founder of Eataly, and Luca Baffigo Filangieri. Quality has never been higher than it is under their guidance, thanks in part to an increased focus on sustainable viticulture.
“Our journey along the path to sustainability started long ago with ‘Vino Libero,’ an integrated certification created to reduce the use of chemicals in the vineyards and in the cellar,” says Roberto Bruno, the winery’s CEO and commercial director. “After starting the conversion to organic farming in our estate’s vineyards, in 2017, we extended the project to the whole network of our 350 vine growers in the area, who are asked to progressively implement organic growing practices throughout their parcels.
“This is the continuation of the social role that Fontanafredda has historically played to safeguard the wellbeing of the community and the beautiful Langhe landscape.”
Located in the commune of Serralunga d’Alba, Fontanafredda, with its stunning beauty, large park and iconic, striped buildings, is the largest contiguous estate in the denomination. The firm has hundreds of acres across several townships dedicated to the production of local classics like Barolo, Barbera, Moscato and Dolcetto. It also makes metodo classico sparklers from its vineyards in Alta Langa.
Besides using estate grapes, the winery also sources grapes from more than 350 trusted growers that have supplied fruit for generations.
The firm’s primary focus remains Barolo, and the firm makes about 800,000 bottles of Piedmont’s flagship red each year. Its calling card, the elegantly structured, single-vineyard Barolo Vigna La Rosa, is one of the most sought bottlings in the denomination.
Fontanafredda is the denomination’s undisputed leader in hospitality and boasts two hotels on the property. It also has a small theater that hosts musical artists such as celebrated tenor Andrea Boccelli.
“Hospitality has always been a fundamental part of Fontanafredda and is the best way to promote wine, food and culture,” says Bruno. “Besides our two on-site restaurants and guided tastings and tours of the cellars, we also open our doors to the public who can walk in our Wood of Thoughts…it’s a trail for meditation and contemplation that winds through age-old woods, vineyards and hazel groves, with signs along the way about the landscape and the history of the estate and Barolo.”
In 2018, the estate will celebrate its 160th anniversary and will host a number of special tastings and events.
In recognition of all the winery has achieved, contributing to the renown of both Barolo and Italian wine, Wine Enthusiast is proud to name Fontanafredda as its European Winery of the Year. —Kerin O’Keefe
This historic winery established Australia’s Margaret River region.
When he stuck grapevines into the ground in Margaret River, Western Australia, back in 1967, Dr. Thomas Brendan Cullity couldn’t have known that it would foster both a world-class winery and wine region.
But 50 years later, the region’s oldest winery, Vasse Felix, and the Margaret River wine region are both widely regarded for production of singular, long-lived Cabernet Sauvignons and complex, textural Chardonnays that hold their own against the world’s best.
“Vasse Felix [has] done really well maintaining a progressive approach, yet at the same time preserving a wonderful sense of history,” says Glenn Goodall, senior winemaker at fellow Margaret River winery Xanadu. “[It has] continued to be an iconic presence both locally and overseas.”
Although the winery’s first vintage in 1971 was a disaster due to disease (“I will not forget the exhaustion and disappointment,” Cullity once said), the wines soon hit their stride. By 1973, awards, particularly for its Cabernet, began to arrive.
In 1987, after three years under ownership by former winemaker David Gregg, Vasse Felix was sold to the Holmes à Court family. When Paul Holmes à Court became CEO in 2005 (and sole owner in 2008), Vasse Felix stepped up its game up.
Seeing the potential of Margaret River on the world wine stage, and Vasse Felix as its most historic estate, Homes à Court invested heavily to increase quality and promote innovation in the vineyards. That also included the purchase of more vineyards—the winery now owns four around the region—to become self-sustaining and 100-percent estate grown. Holmes à Court is supportive of the region as a whole, regularly hosting industry events to help other producers grow and improve, such as expansive regional tastings with local producers.
“With Paul Holmes a Court’s commitment to Margaret River and making the best possible wine, we have come a long way in the most recent 10 years,” says Winemaker Virginia Willcock. “Paul is the owner, but feels more like a custodian, and this award feels like the commitment is worthwhile.”
Holmes à Court, however, is quick to credit these achievements to his team.
“There’s something about [Vasse Felix] that always seems to attract a special kind of person, and in the end, they are what makes the difference,” he says.
It was Holmes à Court who brought on Chief Viticulturist Bart Molony in 2004 (who started as vineyard supervisor and worked his way up), and, in 2006, Virginia Willcock as chief winemaker. Both have gone on to garner many awards. In September, Willcock won Winemaker of the Year at the Australian Women in Wine Awards.
Molony and Willcock have taken the quality of Vasse Felix wines to new heights. They’ve also championed organic practices in the vineyards and a more hands-off approach in the winery. Willcock has become passionate about the use of native yeast and has experimented with things like whole-bunch fermentation and skin-macerated whites. The two styles Vasse Felix is most famous for—elegant, savory Cabernet Sauvignon and textural, mineral-driven Chardonnay—remain some of the best in the region, if not the world.
“Vasse Felix is in the most pristine wine region in the world, the sun and the breeze off the ocean give us the most consistent vintage conditions,” says Willcock. “Add to this our stunning vineyards with great clones, we are blessed with winemaking freedom to make the most naturally expressive wines of a beautiful place. Where else would a winemaker want to work?”
For its outstanding contributions to the Margaret River region and raising the bar of quality Australian wines, Wine Enthusiast is thrilled to honor Vasse Felix as its New World Winery of the Year. —Christina Pickard
Innovative wines from this region are rooted in the ancient past.
In less than two decades, Southwest France has been transformed into a hotbed of dynamic innovation and new wines. At the same time, it has retained its roots and a history that stretches back into the origins of French winemaking.
The Southwest is a wide region. It spans from the Atlantic coast of France in the west almost to the Mediterranean in the east, and from the mountains of central France in the north to the Spanish border in the south. In this vast region, the fourth-largest wine-production area in France, with 43 different geographical designations and over 300 varieties planted and counting, vineyards appear like islands, relatively isolated from each other.
Despite that, they have some commonalities. All of the appellations are steeped in history. Some were first planted by the Romans, like Cahors. Gaillac is even older, originating with vines brought to France by the Phoenicians. Irouléguy and Béarn were created by the Basques, the native inhabitants of the far southwest.
While the range of vines planted is enormous, the region essentially acts as one of the wine world’s great indigenous vine incubators.
Familiar vines like Merlot, Tannat and Cabernet Franc are native to the Southwest, as are lesser-known varieties that deserve appreciation, like Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, Braucol, Négrette and Prunelard.
There are efforts to preserve this diverse viticultural heritage. In Gascony, the local Plaimont cooperative has revived the vineyard of Saint-Mont. It has discovered a parcel of vines planted in 1830, now registered a national monument (a first for a vineyard in France). The cooperative has also established a viticultural conservatory where it preserves vines, some with no name. The better vines are now grown commercially.
This wide range of territories and vines makes drinking through the Southwest a voyage of discovery—one made easier by the dynamism shown in winemaking and marketing.
Thanks to enterprising importers and the region’s recently established promotional body, Wines of Southwest France, the wines have now become widely available in the United States. Certain regions have become otherwise internationally recognized. Cahors, with its Malbec-based wines, was the first, aided by smart marketing that aligned the region with Argentina amid the Malbec boom. That’s been followed quickly by Madiran, with its powerful Tannat wines.
More recently, Gaillac has stepped into the spotlight, thanks to an impressive roster of producers and the ability to make every style of wine. Not far behind is Fronton, close to Southwest France’s regional capital of Toulouse, with fruity reds based on the Négrette grape.
To the west in Gascony, the Côtes de Gascogne has become a staple of wine lovers in the search for light, fruit-forward white wines. Meanwhile, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Jurançon is widely recognized for its intense, crisp sweet wines.
For its wide range of wines and styles, combined with improved quality and innovative marketing that’s increased sales throughout the U.S. and world, Wine Enthusiast is delighted to name Southwest France as its Wine Region of the Year. —Roger Voss
A top-shelf wine importer of impressive presence, growth and vision.
Like many accomplished individuals in the wine business, Michael Quinttus took a winding path to discover his true calling: the creation of VINTUS. Based in Pleasantville, New York, the wine importer and distributer currently represents 40 estates from 10 countries.
Born in Germany to wine-loving parents, Quinttus moved with his family to Dayton, Ohio, when he was a young boy. Quinttus later graduated from Ohio State University and then pursued advanced degrees in law and public administration at Yale and Princeton, respectively.
What followed were several unfulfilling years of work at big law firms in New York City and Washington, D.C., which led Quinttus to seek a career reboot. A long-simmering passion for wine that began at home, grew in college and blossomed thereafter, drove Quinttus to seek advice and a little help from legendary wine importer Peter Sichel, a client of his at the time.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
“In 1985, I started working for Kobrand as a salesman in Boston,” says Quinttus. “I stayed at Kobrand [Wine Enthusiast’s 2012 Importer of the Year] for 18 years and left in 2004 to start VINTUS. Peter has been a career-long mentor—he calls himself my rabbi. It was Peter who wrote the letter of introduction to Kobrand for me.”
So, why the name VINTUS?
“VINTUS was a name that occurred to me during a solo bike ride,” said Quinttus. “I was searching for a Latin name, because my family name has Latin roots, and because of the importance of wine in Roman culture.
“All the Latin words I considered were taken, so I made one up that was a reference to wine, but with the last letters of my name.”
Today, VINTUS has about 50 employees and works with dozens of top-shelf properties, a number that doesn’t include the classified Bordeaux wines it purchases from négociants. The longest-standing member of the VINTUS portfolio, represented by the importer since its founding, is the Burgundy producer Lucien Le Moine. Starting in 2018, VINTUS will represent the most prestigious estates of the Tuscany-based Frescobaldi Group, namely Ornellaia, Masseto, Luce della Vite and Attems.
Other established names in the VINTUS portfolio include E. Guigal and Champagne Bollinger from France, Sandrone from Italy, Errazuriz from Chile, and Chateau Montelena and Ponzi Vineyards from the United States. This year, VINTUS helped put approximately 500,000 cases of wine in front of American consumers.
With no defined motto or mission statement, Quinttus says VINTUS’s lone goal is to represent the finest estates from the world’s most prominent wine regions.
“We see ourselves as a national sales and marketing company,” he says. “Our emphasis is not on geographic specialization, but on family ownership and benchmark wines that are of a place. Our estates inspire us, because to produce and sell extraordinary wine takes extraordinary focus, passion and vision.”
While Quinttus, as company founder and CEO, is the driving force at VINTUS, no successful importer is a one-man show. Several key associates helped make VINTUS the midsize powerhouse it is today. Quinttus cited Alexander Michas, senior vice president and chief operating officer; CFO James Federico Jr., CPA, the company’s CFO; and Michael Gitter, vice president and director of marketing, as pillars of the operation.
“We have a relentless drive to excel at everything we do,” says Quinttus. “That means having the finest wine portfolio in the business, hiring smart and motivated people, and working with wine distributors that are knowledgeable and have strong relationships with the best accounts in their markets.
“Our company culture is one of inclusion and empowering everyone to excel in their roles. We have more of a horizontal structure than a vertical one.”
What has not been flat is the 13-year trajectory of VINTUS, which has gone in just one direction: upward. For its monumental ascent, Wine Enthusiast names VINTUS as its Importer of the Year. —Michael Schachner
A booming retailer with an unmistakable commitment to its “guests.”
Safeway, one of the largest grocery chains in the United States, can trace its roots back almost a century, when it started in Idaho. And for much of that time, following the repeal of Prohibition, it has sold wine and spirits wherever local laws allowed.
Albertsons Companies acquired Safeway in 2015 for $9.2 billion, having recognized the power behind the Safeway brand and its appreciation for the communities its stores served. Safeway’s existing name and branding were presevered, with more than 900 locations as part of Albertsons Companies’ family of 2,300-plus stores. The retailer’s beverage focus has continued to increase in tandem with their physical expansion.
Prior to the purchase, Safeway had been steadily increasing sales in the wine, beer and spirits categories, setting category gains every year over the past decade. Many of the stores have since undergone makeovers, with particular attention paid to the wine aisles. Safeway’s beverage stewards—customer service specialists hired specifically to educate and aid wine shoppers—can be credited for part of the growth, as they are the ones who interact with shoppers on a day-to-day basis. These individuals are brought on exclusively to help guests with their selections and are trained to suggest wine pairings for various foods. Their friendly yet knowledgeable demeanors help ensure each visitor to Safeway turns into a repeat customer.
Safeway seeks value at a variety of price points and, because of the chain’s frequent need to secure large orders to accommodate placement in multiple stores, volume pricing often trickles down to thirsty shoppers. The retailer offers its own wines as well, managed under the company’s Own Brands organization, which is expanded on a regular basis. Most recently, a line of wines called Box Wize was introduced and is available in three varieties—Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay—all produced by a California vintner for the chain.
The store also searches for unique limited-release or boutique selections, to offer its customers something special that can’t readily be found elsewhere. This is especially true within California, where the company strives to build and maintain relationships with many prominent winemakers and estates and support iconic regions like Napa and Sonoma.
A range of in-store events, tastings and educational opportunities are also encouraged throughout the chain to better serve consumers and local communities. In 2013, Safeway became the exclusive wine-retail partner for the Sunset International Wine Competition, launching a series of dedicated in-store promotions and wine tastings tailored to the wines of the competition. This kind of selection and unique access to special buys is part of what makes Safeway’s wine customers loyal.
It is the company’s attention to the personal, relationship-driven aspect of the wine industry and how people buy wine that has made it so successful—acting as stewards of the category, hunting out treasures to share with their guests and ways to educate customers about wine, rather than simply agents of transaction.
It’s this commitment to their guests and a drive to better serve the wine industry through strategic partnerships and promotions that Wine Enthusiast names Safeway as its Retailer of the Year. –Leslie Gevirtz
A Master Sommelier who leads the Guild of Sommeliers.
“What’s more impactful than education?” says Chris Tanghe, chief instructor at the Guild of Sommeliers (commonly known as GuildSomm), a nonprofit educational and networking organization for sommeliers and other wine professionals. “I travel to most major U.S. cities and teach classes to 40 wine professionals at a time. In a given year, I will have influenced, to at least some small degree, a few thousand somms, who will then take that knowledge and experience to their guests.”
The role of a sommelier is evolving. There are many wine-related businesses that can benefit from a sommelier’s wide-ranging skills, like wineries, schools, distributors, importers and retailers. Many sommeliers have also started wine clubs or become winemakers. Thanks to the popularity of films like the documentary SOMM and publications that highlight the profession, the intensified attention given to sommeliers recalls the rise of the “celebrity chef.”
“With a bit of drive and skill-set expansion, sommeliers can now branch out to work for a winery, importer, distributor, educational entity and elsewhere,” says Tanghe. “Hospitality extends to all of these avenues, which makes a sommelier relevant to these positions.”
When he was just 13, Tanghe lied about his age to land a dishwashing job at a Cape Cod, Massachusetts, country club. The next year, he moved to line cook.
While he studied at the Culinary Institute of America, he took the Introduction to Wine course and was inspired to apply for the introductory class with the Court of Master Sommeliers, only to be forced to wait until he was 21. Once he was finally of legal drinking age, he pursued his wine education with passion while he worked as a cook, server and, eventually, sommelier, at some of the Pacific Northwest’s most acclaimed restaurants (The Herbfarm, Canlis, RN74, Aragona).
Tanghe passed the Master Sommelier exam in 2013. The next year, as he sought a new challenge and relief from long restaurant hours, he moved to Vinum Importing to become a portfolio manager and educator for the sales teams.
The transition to a broader educational role set the stage for Tanghe’s work with GuildSomm, which created the chief instructor position for him. He conducts master classes and webinars for GuildSomm members internationally, and contributes study guides and other materials (some of which are publicly available at GuildSomm).
Tanghe also works with GuildSomm’s partner organization, the Guild of Sommeliers Educational Foundation (SommFoundation), which offers scholarships, enrichment trips and access to other wine-focused events. He’s a tireless advocate for Washington State wines, but speaks to other passions, like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Spain and Italy, with the same authority.
“The same skills that made Chris successful with restaurant customers—enthusiasm, clarity and approachability—now benefit our members,” says Geoff Kruth, president of GuildSomm.
For Tanghe, the education of a sommelier never ends. He emphasizes that you don’t become a true sommelier by simply passing exams.
“A great sommelier doesn’t just possess wine knowledge or tasting experience,” says Tanghe. “It’s a collection of skills learned over time that include hospitality, folding linens, sweeping floors, knowing how a reservation book works, washing dishes, polishing glassware, navigating Excel, learning how to lead a team and on and on and on. My hopes are that people put in the work, remain humble and always keep their guests at the top of their minds, not their egos.”
For his tireless work to promote wine knowledge and service skills that advance the wine industry across all job types and employers, Wine Enthusiast is pleased to recognize Chris Tanghe, MS, as its Sommelier of the Year. –Nils Bernstein
This mezcal mogul launched the category in the U.S.
Before Del Maguey, few U.S. consumers knew about mezcal. The agave-based spirit wasn’t seen in many bars or liquor stores, and it sure wasn’t used in cocktails. Ron Cooper, founder of Del Maguey, changed that, blazing a path for other mezcal producers.
He didn’t set out to do that. Cooper started his career as an artist, and he enjoyed great success. His work has appeared in museums throughout the world, and he’s won awards from the National Endowment for The Arts (for painting and photography) and New York City’s Guggenheim Museum (for sculpture).
For the last 30 years, Cooper has resided and worked in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. Since 1995, he’s also lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, where his entry into the wonderful world of mezcal began.
“In 1990, I spent three months living and making art [in Oaxaca],” says Cooper. “It was one of the most profoundly satisfying times in my life. Before I left New Mexico, I had decided on several projects that would keep me busy.”
Producing 50 hand-blown, blue-glass bottles featuring the profile of Ometochtli, god of intoxication and ecstasy, was one of these projects. The bottles were to be filled with high-quality mezcal.
“When not creating art during those three months, I traveled far into the countryside surrounding Oaxaca,” says Cooper. “About three days a week, I followed rumors of great pure mezcals made by farmers, hours down dirt roads far from the capitol. I tasted, spoke with many makers, collected and vowed to return as I had discovered an incredible elixir.”
He traveled back to the U.S., his pickup truck loaded with mezcal samples, and customs officials would only allow one liter across the border. That difficult moment proved to be a career catalyst.
“I decided then and there to make this fine liquid available to me and my friends,” he says. “That is how Del Maguey began.”
By 1995, Cooper had begun to export mezcal to the U.S. under the Del Maguey label. And it wasn’t just any mezcal—these were spirits made by individual family palenqueros (producers) in old-style villages.
Del Maguey became the first producer to credit specific villages, effectively creating the “single village” designation for mezcal.
In June 2017, Cooper surprised the industry when he announced that Pernod Ricard had purchased a majority stake in Del Maguey.
“I have received many inquiries and offers for investment into Del Maguey, but I have always said, ‘No, thank you,’ ” Cooper said in a statement after the sale. “We did not believe that anyone could ever completely understand, appreciate or fully buy into our mission to preserve this culture and to protect the ancient process of making mezcal…until now. Indeed, finally, after 22 years, we have found a true partner.”
Cooper has no intention to step away. Part of the sale included a guarantee that Cooper and the rest of the Del Maguey management team would stay on for at least five years. That’s just fine with Cooper, who’s enthusiastic about the reach and support that the partnership can provide.
“We’re already working in a village where Pernod had a trial run; we’re figuring it out and the opportunities we have with them,” says Cooper. “It’s exciting. You never know what’s in the future.”
And as far as Cooper’s concerned, the future should contain plenty of good mezcal and opportunities to make art.
For its tireless work to create the premium mezcal category in the U.S., honoring Mexico’s artisanal family producers, Wine Enthusiast is proud to announce Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal as its Spirits Producer of the Year. —Kara Newman
A world-class mixologist who’s making a difference beyond the bar.
“You know the saying, ‘If you want to get something done, ask a busy person?’ I say if you want to get something done, ask a bartender.”
That’s the mantra of Sother Teague, partner of the groundbreaking charity bar Coup, head bartender at Amor y Amargo and co-producer and co-host of popular podcast “The Speakeasy” on Heritage Radio Network.
In between everything else, the New York City-based Teague serves as president of the New York chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, wrote his first cocktail book (I’m Just Here for the Drinks, scheduled to be released in August 2018 from Macmillan Publishers) and created an app for bartenders and spirits professionals called Batch.
All that is enough to make anyone’s head spin, but Teague thrives on the numerous challenges.
After he graduated from the California Culinary Academy in 1994, Teague spent several years as a “journeyman chef,” traveling and cooking his way through a total of 13 cities. He also was the research and technical chef for Alton Brown on the Food Network show Good Eats and a chef-educator at the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont.
When Teague moved to New York City, he landed behind the bar at seafood restaurant Atlantic Grill, a turn of events he describes as a “happy accident.”
“I spent that first year asking, ‘Why am I not going back to the kitchen?’ ” says Teague. “But I really like talking to people. That was what held me behind the bar.”
Teague stayed at Atlantic Grill for nearly three years. He learned the business first, then worked with Eben Klemm (who was assistant beverage director for the BR Guest Hospitality group before moving into a consultant role for various hospitality groups) to overhaul the drinks menu, adding fresh-squeezed juices, house-made grenadine and making other improvements to the bar.
“I learned to be a ‘bartender’s bartender’ at that job,” says Teague.
A series of stints at high-end bars across Manhattan and Brooklyn followed, including Dovetail, Gin Palace, Prime Meats, White Star, Rye and Booker and Dax.
In 2011, he joined the opening team of bartenders at Amor y Amargo in NYC’s East Village, a bar dedicated to bitter spirits like amaro and cocktail bitters, created by Avery and Janet Glasser (now of Bittermens) and Mayur Subbarao.
“It was going to be a six-month pop-up [bar],” says Teague. “It was something we did on all of our nights off, and we were very much exploratory. It was our clubhouse.”
Guests embraced the concept, and as the other partners were poised to exit, Teague signed on with restaurateur/bar owner Ravi DeRossi and became head bartender.
In 2017, Teague and DeRossi teamed up again, this time as co-owners of Coup, a charity bar. Inspired by OKRA, a Houston-based bar that donates proceeds to nonprofit organizations, Teague and DeRossi planned a similar concept.
But the bar’s concept took a more politically minded turn. Opening in NYC’s East Village in April, Coup donated all profits to various left-leaning nonprofit organizations. It garnered headlines and standing-room-only crowds for six months—and then Teague and DeRossi abruptly shuttered the brick-and-mortar location, opting to turn the operation into a nonprofit organization that will pop up at various cocktail bars across the U.S.
Inside the bar, a hand-lettered sign once read: “Do What You Can/ With What You Have/ Where You Are.” Teague says that sums up his approach to both Coup and bartending in general.
In fact, he encourages colleagues to adopt a similar mindset.
“We have a community, a catalyst for doing good,” he says. “We have an audience who listens to us. You need to recognize that you have a voice and you can use it for the greater good.”
For his work to raise awareness for the betterment and social responsibility of the bar industry, as well as his support of numerous charitable causes and organizations, Wine Enthusiast recognizes Sother Teague as its Mixologist of the Year. —K.N.
After 20 years, the brewery has remained true to its roots while moving craft beer forward.
Twenty years ago, Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens decided to open a brewery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They had no idea what they were in for, but both were ready for the ride of their lives.
The duo met at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where they developed their love of beer and how it brought people together. After graduating, they drafted a plan and found investors to start a brewery of their own.
The first year was rougher than expected, full of long days spent pounding the pavement and contract brewing at another location. Sleeping at the brewery and showering with the brewing equipment was the norm.
The business struggled to be profitable, and a few years after opening, things weren’t looking much better. While Founders was releasing well-made—though unexciting—brews, the brewery was facing bankruptcy by the early 2000s. With checks bouncing, bills unpaid and lenders threatening to lock their doors, Engbers and Stevens started selling non-crucial brewing equipment to make ends meet.
After selling their filter to pay their brewer, Nate Walser, Walser had to modify production to accommodate. The resulting beers were fuller and more intense. Founders unintentionally joined the unfiltered beer movement.
With nothing left to lose, Founders embraced that bolder taste profile and began brewing the beers that Engbers and Stevens loved: big-bodied brews that weren’t shy on personality, complexity or flavor. It was the start of their next chapter, based on the co-founders’ “Brewed for Us” philosophy.
“We made a strategic decision to brew beers that were interesting to us, which typically meant they were stronger, more complex, innovative and had a distinctive aromatic [profile],” says Engbers.
That attitude shift brought Founders back from the brink, ultimately shaping the identity of what the brewery stands for today.
The brand was gaining traction and coast-to-coast recognition, so the brewery moved to an expanded facility in 2007, starting what the co-founders coin the third chapter. The owners thought it could finally meet the increasing interest in their brews.
But demand soon outpaced the growth again, and Engbers and Stevens had to figure out their next steps.
In December 2014, Founders entered an agreement with Mahou San Miguel. The 125-year-old, seventh-generation-family-owned Spanish brewery became a minority investor, with 30-percent ownership. The partnership was aimed at increasing Founders’ international distribution while allowing Mahou to gain traction in the U.S.
Since then, Founders has continued to flourish. The brewery’s facilities expanded, growing to an entire city block. An additional building was purchased for warehouse and distribution needs, as well as to act as Founders’ second brewery, dedicated to the barrel-aged, experimental and specialty beers that encourage the innovation the brand is known and loved for.
“Somehow, someway, what we’ve done along the way is created a lifestyle,” says Stevens. “One that defines us and this company with a no regrets attitude.”
Founders now produces more than 25 packaged beers, distributed in nearly every state. In addition to its year-round lineup, the brewery produces a Barrel-Aged Series (including the killer classic KBS), seasonal selections, specialty brews and limited releases.
“We have strived for decades to become known as one of the country’s greatest beer makers,” says Stevens. “To us, this means more than just making one or two great beers. It means being able to brew world-class beers from one end of the spectrum to the other. At Founders, we can appeal to the most discerning beer geek, to the transitional craft drinker.”
“Over the years, craft beer has hit the mainstream,” says Engbers. “We are now considered veterans of our industry and should lead as an example to inspire our fellow brewers to bring the category to the next levels and start looking at the big picture. Today, our charge is to continue to innovate, grow the category on a global scale and protect our culture and reputation.”
For its role in driving beer culture forward and protecing the reputation of the high-end beer category through quality and innovation, Wine Enthusiast awards Founders Brewing Co. as its Brewery of the Year. —Lauren Buzzeo
- 1Person of the Year: Jim Clerkin
- 2Lifetime Achievement Award: Bob and Roger Trinchero
- 3American Wine Pioneer: Nicolaus ‘Nicky’ Hahn
- 4Winemaker of the Year: Christophe Baron
- 5Wine Executive of the Year: Roger Nabedian
- 6Innovator of the Year: Bruce Hunter
- 7American Winery of the Year: Kendall-Jackson Winery
- 8European Winery of the Year: Fontanafredda
- 9New World Winery of the Year: Vasse Felix
- 10Wine Region of the Year: Southwest France
- 11Importer of the Year: VINTUS
- 12Retailer of the Year: Safeway Inc.
- 13Sommelier of the Year: Chris Tanghe, MS
- 14Spirit Brand of the Year: Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal
- 15Mixologist of the Year: Sother Teague
- 16Brewery of the Year: Founders Brewing Co.