Wine Enthusiast's 2018 Wine Star Award Winners
Nineteen 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 to showcase hands-on consumer gatekeepers, such as sommeliers. 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 2018 Wine Star Award Winners by clicking to the next slide.
For event inquires or to attend, please contact Jen Cortellini, director of special projects & events, email@example.com.
If it weren’t for Mel Dick, much of America might still drink jug wine.
As the head of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits wine division since 1969, Dick single-handedly built a portfolio of wines from around the world and spread them across the U.S. The year he took the helm, Southern’s wine sales were around $890,000. By 2017, the company and its 22,000 employees tallied $6.6 billion in annual sales to 44 states, the District of Columbia, Canada and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Dick, the ambitious son of Jewish-European immigrants, was born and raised in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. His eyes were opened to the wine and spirits business while working Saturdays at his future father-in-law’s store in New Jersey in 1956.
“I always loved history and geography, and I loved looking at the place names on the bottles, especially the faraway places,” he says. “I found the brands enjoyable.”
At age 21, after six months in the Army, Dick reached out to a distributor for a job. He was granted an interview as a favor to his father-in-law, where he was politely told that he had no experience. So Dick offered to work for free.
It was a bold gamble. At the time, he had just $30 in his bank account, as well as a young bride, Bobbi, with whom he celebrated 61 years of marriage in March 2018.
The man took a puff of his cigar, leaned back and said, “Young man, I’m going to hire you, and I’m going to pay you $41.92 a week, plus $15 for the car.”
After he had trouble getting his union card, Dick’s good friend, boxing legend Sugar Ray Robinson, called in a favor. He received his card shortly after, and his career was off.
Six months later, Dick became a sales rep for Gallo Wine Distributors of New Jersey. He began to send letters to co-founder Ernest Gallo in search of a bigger role at the winery. Two years later, he corralled Gallo in the bathroom during a sales conference. There, an impromptu interview was sparked.
Gallo asked Dick, “Will you go anywhere, any place, at any time for me?” He responded, “Yes sir.” Soon after, Dick began to sell wine in Texas, Chicago, Indiana, New Jersey and Florida for E. & J. Gallo Winery.
In Florida, he was approached by a new company called Southern, but he couldn’t imagine leaving what he thought was a dream job. The upstart business was persistent, though. Dick recalls a company representative even told him, “Please come with us. We need you. We promise you will never have to look back. We’re going to be big.”
After he talked it over with his wife, Dick started with Southern on March 16, 1969. He quickly created the company’s wine division.
“I had the ability and the O.K. to go anywhere in the world, anywhere in America, get wine brands and build a portfolio,” says Dick. “That’s what we did.”
Dick became a partner in Southern in 1984. He worked hard to improve staff education, where 10,000 or so employees have benefited from formal wine training. In 2001, France also honored Dick for his promotion of its wines with that country’s top award, the Legion of Honour.
Currently the SVP and president of the wine division at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, 82-year-old Dick shows no signs of stopping. He still heads in to his Miami office every day.
“I can’t wait to get to work in the morning,” he says. “I love the business. It’s who I am, and it’s part of me. I found out a long time ago that in order to succeed, I was going to devote all of my time to the business and to family, and not make room for anything else. There isn’t anything we will not do to make our organization better.”
Wayne Chaplin, CEO of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits and son of founder Harvey Chaplin, has known Dick his whole life, and worked with him since 1984.
“It’s easy to look back 50 years and forget about what the wine business looked like,” says Chaplin. “Today’s huge wine list, the huge by-the-glass list, varietal wines—all of this stuff is second nature now, but in those days, it really wasn’t. Mel saw that way before anyone else and transformed the business.”
Dick has served as mentor to Chaplin and countless others in the company.
“Mel just never took no for an answer,” says Chaplin, who can run off a long list of “classic Mels,” or short sayings that Dick loves to repeat. “Those life lessons that he taught me over the last 34 years are things I will never forget.”
“It’s been a wonderful life,” says Dick. “I’ve made lifelong friendships with the greatest producers, the greatest entertainers, athletes, kings and queens, all because they loved wine and wanted to talk about it.”
For his countless contributions that have changed the way that we enjoy wine today, Wine Enthusiast is honored to bestow upon Mel Dick the Wine Star Lifetime Achievement Award.—Matt Kettmann
A Chicago-born, Polish-American student of the classics, Warren Winiarski ventured to California in 1964 where he would ultimately help propel Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon onto the worldwide stage. And that’s just one of the unexpected acts of brilliance from this year’s American Wine Legend Wine Star honoree.
Winiarski is the founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in the Napa Valley. His vision, tenacity and winemaking brilliance spurred the creation of the Cabernet Sauvignon that won the 1976 “Judgment of Paris,” the seminal moment when New World producers declared they could not only compete against the Old World, they could surpass it.
A bottle of that winning 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon is now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Ever energetic at almost 90 years old, Winiarski has since transitioned from grape grower, winemaker and vintner into a mentor, preservationist and icon. Over the last several decades, his focus has been to ensure that the culture of wine remains firmly rooted in American tradition.
After attending St. John’s College in Maryland, where he studied philosophy and literature, Winiarski went on to pursue a master’s degree in political science at the University of Chicago, with the goal of becoming a professor. After studying abroad in Italy for a year, where he became accustomed to regularly enjoying wine with dinner, he returned to Chicago only to have an epiphany moment there about his desire to change professional course.
So he moved to California, driven by a deep interest in wine’s affinity with food. He served an apprenticeship under Lee Stewart at Souverain Cellars, and moved on to become Robert Mondavi Winery’s first winemaker in 1966.
Just four years later, the iconoclast broke out on his own and founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. His first decision was to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in a prune orchard within what’s now the Stags Leap Wine District. He thought the spot would help him conjure wines of structure and softness that were graceful enough to enjoy without excessive aging.
“History is made by visionary people with innovative spirit, pioneering in their respective fields,” says Piero Antinori of Marchesi Antinori. “Warren has been all this for Napa Valley and is, therefore, as a protagonist, part of the extraordinary history of this area and of this wine.”
This year, Winiarski celebrated five decades of contributions to land conservation, back to the establishment of the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve in 1968.
On a mission to preserve open space and prevent future overdevelopment, Winiarski, fellow Napa Valley vintners and other community members enacted a landmark piece of legislation to create the nation’s first agriculture preserve. The Napa Valley Ag Preserve protects agricultural and open-space land within the valley floor between Napa and Calistoga. Winiarski was one of its first supporters, and he’s one of its last surviving original advocates.
In that same spirit, he was also the first person in Napa Valley to place his vineyard land into a conservation easement, and since 1990, he’s donated six conservation easements for a total of nearly 200 acres to the Land Trust of Napa County. The land includes the vineyard that produced that famed 1973 bottling, as well as his Arcadia Vineyards, ensuring they will remain agricultural forever.
In 2017, Winiarski and The Winiarski Family Foundation, worked with the Smithsonian Institute to recognize Mexican-American winemaking families from California. Their stories and oral histories were added to the museum’s permanent collection.
His quest to document the state’s wine history has continued with a collection of historic wine writing works from Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson and others, now housed at UC-Davis, where Winiarski has established an endowment to develop and build the most comprehensive collection of wine writers’ papers in the world.
That same year, Winiarski became the second-ever member of the wine industry to be inducted into the California Hall of Fame. In support of Winiarski’s nomination, Mike Thompson, the U.S. Representative for California’s 5th District that includes Napa Valley, called him, “the living embodiment of the California dream.”
“I have made it part of my life’s work to preserve Napa Valley, which I consider a national treasure, with land conservation, world-class wine and cataloging its historical significance,” said Winiarski. “It’s not enough to make fine wine. We can be stewards of this land that gives us the opportunity.”
For that foresight and more, Wine Enthusiast is honored to present Warren Winiarski with our American Wine Legend award.—Virginie Boone
Without Dale DeGroff, the cocktail world likely wouldn’t be what it is today. His substantial work elevated cocktails from mere drinks to works of “mixology,” and he promoted the concept of hospitality behind the bar at a time few others did.
Like many bartenders, DeGroff’s career began as an actor, working shifts behind the bar between stints on the stage. Things changed for the Rhode Island native when he took a job at Charley O’s in New York City and met restaurateur Joe Baum.
Baum is the one who pointed DeGroff toward classic cocktail manuals, which were out of print in the 1980s and nearly impossible to obtain. He also insisted that drinks be made with fresh juices instead of sour mix, a practice that is now standard at craft cocktail bars, but was revelatory at the time. And when Baum reopened the 1930s-era Rainbow Room, he brought in DeGroff to helm what would become a nightlife showcase.
DeGroff helped transform the Rainbow Room into a mecca for cocktail enthusiasts, resurrecting long-forgotten cocktail classics and turning them out with precision, style and elegance.
In the process, he reinvented the art of bartending and set in motion a chain of events that ultimately transformed the industry. The Rainbow Room offered a glimpse of what would become the world of craft cocktails.
This enduring legacy encompasses his mentorship of other bartenders. Julie Reiner (Clover Club, Leyenda) and Audrey Saunders (Pegu Club), now well-established bartenders and owners, are among the many who count DeGroff as an influence and inspiration.
“I met Dale DeGroff in 1998, early in my career,” says Reiner. “He said, ‘Hey kid, tell me about this Blood Orange Cosmo you’re making.’ He had heard about it from the theater group next door.
“From that moment on, he became a mentor to me, guiding me through my career. He even put that Cosmo in his first book. I didn’t know anyone who cared about high-quality cocktails as much as I did until I met Dale.”
Three decades later, Reiner says DeGroff is “like family.”
“I’ve never known anyone more abundant with patience and encouragement,” says Saunders. “He’s larger than life, and yet incredibly humble of soul all at the same time… His passion for craftsmanship has always been one of my greatest sources of inspiration.”
The founding president of The Museum of the American Cocktail, part of the National Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans, DeGroff continues to work with up-and-coming bartenders through Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR), a program that provides training and credentialing in spirits and mixology, in addition to consulting work.
He’s been working with Ted Breaux, an absinthe distiller, to develop Dale DeGroff’s Pimento Aromatic Bitters and a soon-to-be-released amaro. And he’s written two best-selling cocktail books, The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail, both from Random House, with an updated edition of the latter scheduled to be published in 2020.
Above all, DeGroff’s warm, welcoming personality is renowned. A notorious raconteur, storyteller and self-described “saloon singer,” he exudes finesse and warmth. His guests and friends feel like they’re receiving not just a delightful cocktail, but also the gift of his attention. His presence is one that subsequent generations of bartenders strive to emulate.
“Dale’s work changed the way we look at drinks in America and spawned the current cocktail revolution,” says Reiner.
For all of these reasons, Wine Enthusiast is proud to present Dale DeGroff with our first-ever Cocktail Legend Award.—Kara Newman
- 1Lifetime Achievement Award: Mel Dick
- 2American Wine Legend: Warren Winiarski
- 3Cocktail Legend: Dale DeGroff