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.
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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
“The wine and beverage industry is cutthroat,” says June Rodil, a Master Sommelier and vice president of operations/beverage director for Austin’s McGuire Moorman Hospitality group. She oversees eight restaurants, with more on the way.
“There’s a lot of operations and finances behind it, and I think that’s something we all need to share with each other,” she says. “The business aspect of it may not be our passion, but we need to know it so we can continue to work within the realms of our passion.”
Rodil left a budding law career to follow said passion, eventually working at some of Austin’s most acclaimed and influential wine-driven restaurants: The Driskill Grill, Qui, Uchi, Uchiko and the now closed Congress. She moved to McGuire Moorman in 2014, where she’s been vital to expansion that included opening June’s All Day in 2016. She began her role as vice president of operations in March and still acts as companywide beverage director.
“June is a force in the industry and such a strong voice for growth and professional advancement,” says Devon Broglie, MS, global beverage buyer for Whole Foods Market. “She sets the example for the responsibility of sommeliers to step up and contribute so much more to a hospitality experience than simply managing a wine list. She is truly a leader among peers.”
Rodil’s dedication extends far beyond Austin. She’s on the board of directors and conducts classes for the nonprofit Guild of Sommeliers (GuildSomm) organization. She’s also a team member of the annual TEXSOM conference.
“June’s work with TEXSOM, which, in my opinion, is the best wine conference in the U.S., has [raised] the bar for professionals and consumers alike,” says Chris Tanghe, MS, chief instructor for GuildSomm. “The volunteers that work the event, who come from all over the country, receive so much knowledge and positive work experience, in part thanks to June’s leadership.”
Rodil recognizes that spreading information and knowledge is key to the wine industry’s continued growth.
“I used to say, if I had a really special bottle of wine, what was I going to do?,” says Rodil. “Open it by myself, and pat myself on the back? Or was I going to open it with my friends? Our industry is so forward-moving right now that it doesn’t make sense to not share this knowledge and continue that forward movement.”
Rodil illustrates the broader roles that sommeliers have taken in restaurants and beyond, as businesses recognize the value of their unique skills.
“While I’m super proud to be a Master Sommelier, my passion right now as VP of operations is helping my whole team get to that level,” she says. “So many people are like, ‘You run this great program and now you’re giving it to somebody else.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’
“I want someone to take it and run with it, and I’m there to guide them. There’s no way you can run 20 programs if you’re not letting go of one.”
For her ongoing commitment to hospitality, peer education and broadening the roles of sommeliers, Wine Enthusiast is pleased to recognize June Rodil, MS, as its Sommelier of the Year. —Nils Bernstein
Despite its status as a Los Angeles-area institution since 1968, luxury retailer Wally’s Wine & Spirits has been on a tear over the last five years. The wine shop’s recent growth has been driven by its president and principal, Christian Navarro, and his partnership with Paul and Maurice Marciano, the founders of iconic fashion brand and retailer Guess, who purchased the business from Wally’s founder, Steve Wallace, in 2013.
The Marciano brothers were Wally’s customers before they became partners with Navarro, a Mexico City native who grew up in California. Navarro started at the shop in 1991 when he was just a teenager, and worked his way up from salesperson to buyer, managing partner and co-owner.
Navarro’s contacts in Hollywood and the hospitality industry, combined with the Marcianos’ business and retail experience, have tripled Wally’s Wine & Spirits revenues since the acquisition.
They’ve evolved what was a traditional retail shop—albeit one with white-glove service and an excellent selection of products—into a can’t-miss retail destination. And, under their watch, Wally’s has partnered with other luxury vendors to create fresh revenue streams.
Navarro is quick to credit the Marcianos’ business acumen, which, he says, has “allowed me to see things that no one at my level can usually get to see.” Their experience in real estate, foreign exchange and retail on an international level have propelled the growth of Wally’s.
“They’re not just passive investors,” says Navarro. “They’re active partners.”
In the past five years, Navarro has also created ventures that contribute to Wally’s eight-figure annual gross revenues. He has teamed with Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, for example, to curate exclusive suites called Elite Suites to entice world travelers.
“We built essentially a gastronomic suite,” he says. “In the suite, there is a wine cellar where I hand-selected what I feel are the greatest wines from around the world. We have an incredible bar and special glassware from Riedel.”
Suite guests can also tap Navarro to arrange private tours to any of those wine estates, if desired. Not exactly everyday service, even at the most top-tier levels.
Another important partnership has been with renowned auction house Christie’s. Navarro has known the family that owns the firm for some time.
“You’re always going to have some buyers, and you’re always going to have some sellers,” says Navarro. “I have customers all over the world. Sometimes, they buy. Then sometimes, they have a divorce or a change of taste, or frankly, they’re retiring, and they’re trying to free up some money to do other things. And so, we get those wines, and if they fit a certain niche, we will put them to Christie’s wine auctions.”
Worldwide wine-auction sales topped $381 million in 2017. At Christie’s-Wally’s New York auction in December of the same year, a case of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti 1990 Montrachet sold for $104,125, or almost twice its top estimate of $60,000.
The original Wally’s shop in Westwood closed this September. In its place came Wally’s Santa Monica, a complex twice the size of the original store. It’s not a wine shop, per se, but what Navarro calls “an interactive retail experience.”
“We have a restaurant, a bar, a cheese-and-food store, a wine store and a specialty liquor shop that all interact together from 10 am until 2 am,” he says. “Everything you eat in the restaurant, you can buy off the shelves. Everything on the shelves, you can take home. Our wine list is retail, plus a small margin for the glassware and a sommelier.”
From curated wine cellars to partnership with an auction house and the creation of “must have” experiences, Wally’s continues to add options that burnish both its image and bottom line. It’s for these reasons that Wine Enthusiast is pleased to name Wally’s Wine & Spirits as its Retailer of the Year. —Leslie Gevirtz
Bill Newlands likes to see results. In February, after just three years at Constellation Brands, where he began as executive vice president and chief growth officer and was then promoted to chief operating officer in 2017, Newlands also became the firm’s president in addition to his role as COO. On March 1, 2019, he will become the company’s CEO. Newlands now leads the wine and spirits, beer, national sales, finance, human resources and legal divisions, with 65-plus brands and 10,000 employees under his direction. Since his appointment to president, Constellation shares have gained an impressive 8.9%, and at $228.67 (as of Oct. 8), are up more than $18 a share.
Newlands joined Constellation Brands, the world’s largest publicly traded wine company, in 2015. Prior to that, he served as president, North America at Beam, Inc; president and CEO at Allied Domecq Wines USA; CEO and board director of wine.com; and managing director, U.S. and global marketing officer for LVMH Chandon Estates.
Newlands graduated from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and earned an MBA from the Harvard Business School. He applied his education to the wine business, starting in the mid-1980s at E. & J. Gallo.
“I was one of the first MBAs that Gallo hired,” says Newlands. “I liked the idea of going someplace where the sales and marketing functions were fairly integrated. I really knew very little about wine. It sounded like a fun category, people enjoying themselves when they’re experiencing your brand. That was something that appealed to me.”
Newlands is proud to name Ernest Gallo as one of his mentors.
“Ernest was extremely good at listening,” he says. “I remember somebody asking him why he didn’t speak more. And he said, ‘I never learn anything while I’m talking.’”
David Scotland, former president of Allied Domecq European, also guided Newlands.
“He was always interested in new and creative ways of thinking about things,” says Newlands. “And he was a little edgy, direct. Not the usual kind of corporate executive.”
A self-described “trend spotter,” Newlands has demonstrated an innate ability to spot growth opportunities. He added the red-hot Skinnygirl brand to Beam’s portfolio, and also expanded the Maker’s Mark brand in 2011, before the current surge in Bourbon sales took hold.
When he joined Constellation, CEO Rob Sands asked him to “raise our consumer awareness as well as our innovation agenda,” says Newlands.
Soon thereafter, Newlands noticed budding interest in craft spirits. In 2016, High West Distillery became Constellation’s foundational brand in the high-end spirits category. Today, the company also includes Svedka Vodka and Casa Noble Tequila in its portfolio.
Beer has become another important part of Constellation’s business model. Last spring, as sales of Corona, Modelo and Pacifico beers powered the company’s bottom line, Newlands introduced Corona Premier, a low-cal, low-carb entry, to positive reception. Now the third-largest beer company in the U.S., Constellation’s brands include California’s Ballast Point Brewing Company, acquired in 2015, and Florida’s Funky Buddha Brewery (2017).
Newlands also oversees Constellation’s wine portfolio, which includes high-profile brands like Robert Mondavi Winery, Clos du Bois, Kim Crawford Wines, Meiomi Wines, Black Box Premium Wines, Ruffino and The Prisoner Wine Company.
But what might perhaps become his best innovation is Constellation’s investment in Canopy Growth Corporation, the leading medical marijuana provider in Canada. Constellation bought just under 10% of Canopy in the fall of 2017 for $245 million. Ten months later, it raised its bet to $4 billion, as it sees a potential market for cannabis-infused drinks.
“The majority of Americans now prefer legalization,” says Newlands. “That wasn’t the case not that long ago. What I think you’re seeing is a rapid evolution—maybe a revolution—of the marketplace, and to what’s going to be done and how it will be done.”
Some 30 states now allow medical marijuana, and nine have legalized recreational use. “And Canada has been at the forefront of that,” says Newlands. “It’s going to be a big business.”
Since taking on the role of president, Newlands has made several crucial appointments, such as Kris Carey for Chief Diversity Officer and Sarah Bettmann for Director of Diversity & Inclusion, demonstrating his, and the firm’s, commitment to enhancing equality and inclusivity within the workplace and beyond. Along with Sands and Chief Human Resources Officer Tom Kane, he also championed the effort to add Jennifer M. Daniels, formerly of Colgate-Palmolive Co., to the Constellation Board of Directors.
For his tremendous successes and undisputed ability to remain at the forefront of the drinks business, Wine Enthusiast is proud to name Bill Newlands as its Person of the Year. —Leslie Gevirtz
Ask Deborah Brenner what she considers a major challenge for gender equality in the alcohol beverage industry today, and her answer is unwavering. “The pace,” she says. “[Equality] is moving at a snail’s pace. We know that in corporate America, at current rates, it will take over 100 years to reach gender equality in the c-suites.”
Brenner’s not willing to wait that long.
A sense of urgency drives the tireless advocacy she has shown over the last 11 years on behalf of women seeking a voice and forum in an industry rife with tradition. Her ideation and 2015 launch of Women of the Vine & Spirits (WOTVS)—a global, membership-based organization—arose from her own awareness that women were severely under-recognized in the wine and spirits industries, despite being a major force behind the category. In addition to offering a wealth of professional resources, the group holds an annual Napa-based symposium, which typically sells out to more than 700 attendees in a matter of hours, and has launched an annual London-based summit.
“Our mission is to empower and equip women worldwide to advance their careers in the alcohol beverage industry, fostering gender diversity and talent development across the industry at large,” says Brenner. “Women of the Vine & Spirits is a catalyst for the conversation to start, but most importantly, for individuals and companies to take action.”
Brenner, who holds degrees in English and journalism from the University of Delaware, experienced 20 years of male-dominated workplaces in the television and high-end technology fields before a seminal trip to Napa and Sonoma introduced her to the vibrant community of women working there. The experience was so moving that she was convinced to go public with their oft-untold stories.
Research for her bestselling 2006 book, Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women Who Make, Taste and Enjoy Wine, in which she profiled 21 of these individuals, inspired her to enter the wine business herself. The result of this, too, was special: a wine from a first-of-its-kind collective of seven artisan women winemakers from Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles.
Vineyards and tanks eventually gave way to a more expansive scope of work. Seeing the need for an international forum for women in the industry, Brenner organized the inaugural Women of the Vine & Spirits Global Symposium in Napa.
Its immediate success validated her instincts that a formal membership alliance needed to be developed. Today, that vision includes more than 3,200 members across 23 countries, as well as a foundation that offers scholarships and awards to industry women to encourage career advancement through education, leadership, professional development and education-based webinars.
The goal, stresses Brenner, is awareness, and then action. “Discussion about unconscious bias is the first step in recognizing it,” she says. “Once you start to learn about it and how we all have it engrained in us, it then becomes easier to become aware of it and how it can affect our decisions.”
That awareness, and WOTVS’s platform for creating a practical dialogue for women in business, is moving the needle at all levels of the industry. The change goes far beyond lip service.
“Since starting WOTVS, we’ve witnessed many companies starting their own women’s initiative programs internally,” says Brenner. “Almost daily, the team at WOTVS receives emails from women sharing their stories of how WOTVS has inspired them to get out of their comfort zone, take a risk, asking someone to be their mentor, asking for the promotion and more.”
Though personally passionate about gender equality, Brenner also shrewdly identified an opportunity to optimize success in the fast-growing alcohol beverage industry. Sexism or any exclusion in the workplace, she says, just doesn’t make good business sense.
“In a perfect world, everyone—women as well as men, LGBTQ, minority, disabled and more—would thrive in their careers and companies would be more profitable,” she says. “When you can bring your full authentic self to work, creativity, collaboration and innovation naturally happens, and that’s just good for the bottom line.”
For all her work in revolutionizing the alcohol beverage workforce for the greater good, Wine Enthusiast is honored to name Deborah Brenner our inaugural recipient of the Social Visionary Wine Star Award. —Susan Kostrzewa
Adam Mettler has his hands full. As director of wine operations for a fast-growing California winery, it’s his job to oversee a wine-production team of about 45 people, including winemaking teams in both Lodi and Sonoma.
Still, in the face of such daunting tasks, the winemaker at Lodi-based Michael David Winery stays calm, reasonable and modest.
The winery is anticipating a total production of 900,000 cases this year, with an average price of $18 per bottle, and Mettler says his main responsibility is to make sure the whole range “overdelivers” on quality.
Consumers often associate Michael David’s bottles with big flavors, brash labels and tongue-in-cheek names like Rage, Freakshow and Inkblot. But the quality of the juice inside should not be underestimated.
“I am not the fun guy, the creative guy,” says Mettler. “I am the get-things-done-behind-the-scenes guy. I like to think that our wine quality has gotten better over time even with the growth, which doesn’t always happen for people. That’s an awful proud thing and a testament to all the people working for me here.”
Mettler majored in viticulture and enology with a minor in chemistry at California State University, Fresno, where he also worked for Fresno State Winery and local wine shops.
After graduating, he worked a harvest in Australia before be returned to California and became assistant winemaker at Fenestra Winery in Livermore.
In 2005, after running in to his friend and Michael David co-founder Michael Phillips’ son, Kevin, at Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP), Mettler was recruited by Mike Phillips and Barry Gnekow to join Michael David.
The last five vintages of Michael David’s blockbuster red, Petite Petit, have earned 90–94 points from Wine Enthusiast.
The wine that kicked off the winery’s success in the early 2000s, Seven Deadly Zins, was designated an Editors’ Choice three years in a row. The Seven Deadly Zins brand was acquired by The Wine Group in October.
On the other end of the spectrum, Mettler also makes elegant, almost delicate wines from vines more than 100 years old.
Raley’s Family of Fine Stores, a supermarket chain based in Sacramento, counts Michael David as one of its top 10 best-selling red wine brands. “It is great to have a brand where the labels are fun and crazy, but the wines are still serious,” says Curtis Mann, Raley’s director of alcohol and beverage.
Michael Phillips, the winery’s founder and co-owner along with his brother, David, was originally in charge of winemaking.
“I set the tone for what the Michael David style would be, but Adam has taken it to a whole new level,” he says. “He’s the master blender, making the decisions for the final-final blends before bottling.”
“We try to have some structure in the wine,” says Mettler. “That’s definitely a stylistic point. We try to make a bigger, badder kind of wine. You know the old Ravenswood slogan of ‘No Wimpy Wines’? We probably fit that one, too.”
Beyond his overall protocol and winemaking strategy, Mettler acknowledges other factors that contribute to the success of his wine. He credits consulting winemaker Barry Gnekow for developing his skills and experience. He also mentions the high quality of the certified sustainable grapes that Michael David requires of virtually all its growers, which includes the Mettler family. The winery takes a proactive approach to land stewardship, and it was one of the first in California to pay a bonus for grapes with “green” credentials.
Mettler represents the fifth generation of Lodi farming families. He fermented beer and wine as a teenager, worked in his family’s vineyards and eventually made the wines for the Mettler Family Vineyards brand, a job that he continues today.
In recognition of his demonstrated professionalism and artistry to expand the availability of big, bold and affordable wines from California, Wine Enthusiast is proud to name Adam Mettler as its Winemaker of the Year. —Jim Gordon
Thirty years ago, Alex Ryan earned a degree from California State University, Fresno, in viticulture. Graduation was on a Saturday, Ryan recalls, after which he promptly called Dan Duckhorn, of Duckhorn Vineyards, in Ryan’s hometown of St. Helena, California. Ryan worked part-time at Duckhorn while in school, but this time he asked for a “real job.”
Duckhorn’s response? “Why don’t you start on Monday,” says Ryan. “Drive home and think of a salary, and I’ll see you bright and early Monday morning.”
Ryan has worked there ever since. And, just as he did to get that starting role, Ryan took his future in his own hands in order to forge the skills necessary to be president and CEO of one of America’s most successful premium wine producers.
“I learned on the job,” he says. “I was extremely blessed to be afforded the opportunity to see and touch everything that makes up the inner workings of a winery when I was young. You could call it a wine MBA course before there even was one.”
Founders Dan and Margaret Duckhorn promoted him steadily to vineyard manager, followed by vice president of vineyard and winery operations and, in 2000, general manager and COO.
Along the way, Duckhorn Wine Company became a prominent national brand, building its reputation first on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It added Sauvignon Blanc and then red blends when Duckhorn built Paraduxx in 1994. Two years later, Goldeneye was founded, where Duckhorn began to craft Anderson Valley Pinot Noir.
He’s also been front and center in the recent acquisitions of two luxury Pinot Noir properties: Calera Wine Co. in 2017 and Kosta Browne this year. And he stayed in the driver’s seat when Duckhorn Wine Company was sold to TSG Consumer Partners in 2016.
Together, the Duckhorn brands now produce more than one million cases.
“Gross and net income growth have followed and are probably in the top 10% of comparable wine companies,” says Dan Duckhorn, currently a board member, of Ryan’s efforts as CEO. “Translated to our employees, the result has been low turnover, high enthusiasm and a continuation of the positive company culture since its inception.”
Finding the best approach to support employees was a “huge learning curve,” says Ryan, but he believes that the effort has paid dividends.
“We believe if our employees get treated sustainably, compassionately and honestly, and our customers the same, then our owners and those that have a vested interest in the company will get their due and just reward.
“On the sales side, it was, ‘How do you treat the customers?’ You need the kindness, the sharing, the concern that goes with an extremely long-term, relationship-based business that parlays into what can be very lucrative for both sides.”
“Alex has created a template for our competitors which, I believe, has elevated the entire premium industry,” says Duckhorn. “His vision, work ethic and overall performance have commanded respect by everyone, enabling him to become an industry leader.”
For his vision, tenacity and ability to grow and thrive alongside the same company over 30 years, Wine Enthusiast is proud to name Alex Ryan as its Wine Executive of the Year. —Jim Gordon
When people speak of Terry Wheatley, the president of Vintage Wine Estates, they rave about how she’s an unbelievable boss and colleague, a loyal friend and generous philanthropist. Each of these things is worthy of recognition on its own.
But the driving theme of Wheatley’s professional life is out-of-the-box thinking and a restless, creative mind always open to the wider possibilities of wine’s place in American culture.
“She’s always pitching something revolutionary,” says Josh Phelps, owner and winemaker of Grounded Wine Co. He partnered with Vintage Wine Estates for sales and distribution of the Grounded portfolio. “Her brain works twice as fast as anybody else’s, and she’s hip and with it with trends. She’s able to blend an innovative mind with epic experience.”
Wheatley was raised on a ranch in the northern reaches of California. A rodeo trick rider in her youth, she attended California State University, Chico, and started her career at E. & J. Gallo Winery in Modesto. She spent nearly 18 years in sales at Gallo before she became director of marketing at Trinchero Family Estates in 1991. She was later promoted to senior roles in both sales and marketing.
“She’s always been an idea person, whether that idea is written on a cocktail napkin or one of her many, many legal pads,” says Tim McDonald, a friend who has known Wheatley for more than three decades and worked alongside her at Trinchero.
“Terry is always the curious one—she asks questions, she takes notes, she comes up with names,” he says. “Terry is never one to not try something new. She’s a creator, always looking for what’s next.”
In 2008, Wheatley founded Canopy Management Wine Company, which mixed wine production and marketing. She developed a portfolio for female drinkers that included the Middle Sister brand, with wines like Drama Queen, Smarty Pants and Mischief Maker. Two other brands created at Canopy, Monogamy Wines and PromisQous Wines, also proved successful.
The company built an impressive social media network under the name Wine Sisterhood. The website brings fans of the wines together in one place to also explore travel, food, entertainment and social causes.
Those causes include her primary charitable focus, breast cancer research and awareness.
A breast cancer survivor, Wheatley came up with the idea while working at Trinchero to bottle Sutter Home White Zinfandel with pink corks and the pink ribbon symbol to raise awareness and funds to combat the disease. Since its launch in 2001, the Sutter Home for Hope Campaign has raised more than $1 million.
Today, Wheatley’s charitable focus is on Tough Enough to Wear Pink. The national campaign, which Wheatley created with Karl Stressman, former director of special events at Wrangler and former commissioner of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, raises breast cancer awareness at rodeos and other western events across the United States and Canada.
Tough Enough to Wear Pink has raised more than $26 million to date for breast cancer charities. The goal is to reach $50 million by 2024, the 20th anniversary of the campaign. She also created Purple Cowboy Wines as the official wine of the charity.
“It’s how she rolls,” says Phelps. “She’s all about giving back in every way. She’s nice to everybody, she remembers names, she cares and knows a lot, but she’s humble.”
Wheatley sold Canopy to Santa Rosa-based Vintage Wine Estates in 2014, a company co-founded by its CEO, Pat Roney, and the late Leslie Rudd.
“When I acquired Canopy, I was most excited about bringing Terry and her visionary approach to the wine business to my management team,” says Roney.
With Wheatley, Vintage Wine Estates has amassed an impressive portfolio of legacy brands like B.R. Cohn Winery, Swanson Vineyards and Cameron Hughes, as well as spirits producer The Splinter Group. It has also created new products like the Game of Thrones Wines, and built the new Girard Winery in Calistoga.
For her remarkable ability to build brands, anticipate the future and help others wherever possible, Wine Enthusiast names Terry Wheatley its Innovator of the Year. —Virginie Boone
San Antonio Winery was founded in downtown Los Angeles in 1917 by an Italian immigrant and railroad worker named Santo Cambianica. Some 101 years later, it remains a rather limber competitor in the global wine industry.
Over the last decade, the Riboli family has planted and expanded its vineyards across California’s Central Coast region to more than 1,000 acres. They’ve opened an energy-efficient, 120,000-square-foot winery and hospitality center in Paso Robles that produces no wastewater, and their sparkling import brand, Stella Rosa, has grown to a production of more than 2 million cases annually.
“It’s an evolution story,” says Anthony Riboli, a fourth-generation vintner and great-grandnephew of Santo Cambianica. “It’s what my grandparents [Stefano and Maddalena Riboli] taught us: reinventing what you’re doing and never sitting back and saying, ‘It’s good enough.’ ”
He sees Stella Rosa as a great example of that pluck. “The innovation, the packaging, the concept—it’s all trying to push something new that’s not been there before,” says Riboli. “That’s been the secret to survival for us. You’ve got to keep trying new things. You’re not gonna hit a home run every time, but as long as you keep swinging, eventually you’re gonna hit one.”
The family’s estate-focused brands, San Simeon, Maddalena and Opaque, amount to about 150,000 cases produced annually and win accolades as quality wines offered at a fair price. And its nearly 20 other domestic brands, from small-batch Napa Valley and Santa Lucia Highlands bottlings to the San Antonio Winery collection, now total 350,000-plus cases produced annually.
“The new facility is allowing us to control our destiny from grape to bottle, and that takes quality to the next level,” says Riboli.
The winery’s original location in downtown Los Angeles, which survived Prohibition largely due to Santo’s relationship with the church and permission from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to continue to produce wines for sacramental and ceremonial purposes, is newly abuzz with hipster attention.
“In the 1980s, being a winery in Los Angeles was not cool,” says Steve Riboli, Anthony’s uncle and a third-generation vintner. “But today, we talk about the word ‘urban,’ and every millennial thinks that’s where it’s at.”
The family credits the operation’s survival to Maddalena, a progressive “poster child” who began work for the company right after World War II. “Here’s this very hard-working, direct, intelligent woman going into an all-male industry,” says Steve. “She had some brilliant ideas that probably kept the company alive during the really bad times.”
Those ideas included the launch of one of California’s first tasting rooms in 1948, and what might be the country’s first winery restaurant in 1974.
A steady family presence in the winery’s three tasting rooms is also important. “We’re available,” says Steve. “This family works in the tasting rooms. We are [interacting with] the customer, and that’s something we can never forget.”
For it’s uncanny ability to stay modern and relevant, Wine Enthusiast names Riboli Family of San Antonio Winery as its American Winery of the Year. —Matt Kettmann
For those who love Sherry, Spain’s famous fortified wine, the name González Byass is a gold standard for variety and quality.
Whether one prefers the freshness and consistency of Tio Pepe, the world’s best-selling fino-style Sherry, the intricacies of the Finos Palmas Collection or the unctuous richness of Noe, a dark, dessert-style wine that tastes like figs and chocolate, Sherry connoisseurs have continuously turned to González Byass since 1835.
Founded under a different moniker, the company became González Byass & Co. in 1870, when the sons of Robert Blake Byass, an Englishman who was the first to import the winery’s products to his country, and the sons of Manuel María González Angel, the founder, became part of the firm. Today, the González family owns 95% of the company, managed by its fifth generation. And the company itself is much more than a standalone Sherry producer.
Under the guidance of its chairman, Mauricio González-Gordon, González Byass has grown in multiple directions, a path that began in the 1980s.
Within Spain, González Byass owns wineries not only in Jerez, but in Rioja and Rueda (Beronia), Rías Baixas (Pazos de Lusco), Somontano (Viñas del Vero), Castilla-La Mancha (Finca Constancia), Cádiz (Finca Moncloa) and in the Penedès (Vilarnau Cava).
González Byass also produces a range of popular spirits products. High-end brandy Lepanto Solera Gran Reserva leads the way in terms of quality.
In 2016, González Byass expanded into Chile with the acquisition of Veramonte and its brands. Last year, it acquired the Pedro Domecq brand in Mexico, part of a larger deal that brought Domecq in Spain into the group.
The brands that fall under the González Byass umbrella can be found in 105 countries. In the United States, its wines and spirits are represented by Chicago-based González Byass USA (GBUSA), formerly known as Vin Divino.
However, González Byass’s identity stems largely from where everything began: the Andalucian city of Jerez de la Frontera. It’s here, in a room above where Tio Pepe was once made, that González Byass’s head winemaker and master blender, Antonio Flores, was born.
A gentleman of the first order, Flores is the ultimate ambassador for González Byass, but also for the Sherry category as a whole. His many wines, which range from Tio Pepe to the Palmas series to Noe (Pedro Ximénez), Matusalem (sweet oloroso) and Apostoles (Palo Cortado), are consistently excellent. González Byass has few peers when it comes to Sherry.
“There are many things to be happy about these days, but we certainly couldn’t have reached our current position without the people who work with us,” says González-Gordon, who claims that global sales for fiscal year 2017–2018 will top $320 million. “I am very proud of our team at González Byass, which amounts to 920 people around the world. It’s their experience, hard work and enthusiasm that make our company what it is today.”
When asked what being named Wine Enthusiast’s European Winery of the Year means to a Spanish company with roots that date back more than 180 years, González-Gordon called it the “ultimate recognition.”
“It consolidates our reputation and makes us proud to know that serious influencers believe in what we are doing,” he says. “To be successful in the United States market [which accounts for about 6% of global business], you have to be present and prove that you are investing time and expertise in making your brands pertinent. GBUSA gives us a solid launch pad to build our brands and distribution network.”
For its enduring pursuit and championing of unique, authentic wines of the highest quality, Wine Enthusiast honors González Byass as its European Winery of the Year. —Michael Schachner
Tucked between Brazil and Argentina, South America’s two largest countries, is tiny Uruguay, a nation of approximately three million inhabitants where wine has been made since the 19th century. Due to small-scale production, minuscule exports and quality issues, however, the country has struggled to register on the global wine map. At least, until now.
Today, Uruguay wine is on the rise as a still-small industry better understands the country’s Atlantic-influenced terroir and is employing modern viticulture and winemaking methods, all with the intent to produce cleaner and classier wines.
An undisputed leader in this movement is Bodega Garzón, conceptualized in 2006 and into 2007 by Argentine oil and gas billionaire Alejandro P. Bulgheroni and Italian enologist and winemaking consultant Alberto Antonini. It’s now, by far, the country’s top exporter of wine to the U.S. and 30 other countries.
In 1999, Bulgheroni and his wife, Bettina, began to transform a huge swath of land near Garzón, a small village in the department of Maldonado, about 10 miles north of and inland from the trendy beach resorts of Punta del Este. Nine years later, Bulgheroni’s team planted 370 acres of Tannat and other grapes. And just three years after that, an additional 220 acres of grapes were planted and construction on a 205,000-square-foot ultramodern winery began.
The first commercial Bodega Garzón wines, made offsite, were from the 2012 vintage, and the winery’s grand opening followed four years later. The $120 million facility, which is seeking LEED certification, includes a posh private club and a restaurant run by esteemed Argentine Chef Francis Mallmann. There’s also eucalyptus forests, olive groves, a commercial olive oil mill and a PGA Preferred golf course.
The winery may be architecturally impressive, but it’s highly functional, too. It currently produces about 120,000 cases a year, and the winery’s capacity can reach 200,000 cases annually. That figure will continue to rise as the younger vineyards mature and come of age for use.
The operation’s portfolio includes five reserve-level varietal wines priced at $20; single-vineyard varietal wines like Albariño, Pinot Noir and Tannat for $30; and an ultrapremium red blend called Balasto for $120. Just under 20% of total production is sent to the U.S.
One of the most important characteristics of Garzón is that 12 grape varieties are grown across 1,200 vineyard plots with myriad exposures and elevations. The common thread is that all are planted on ballast soils, which allow for Maldonado’s copious rains to drain, rather than collect and foster vegetation.
Ballast is the primary reason why Bodega Garzón’s wines are generally lively in style, not heavy or overripe, and that’s why it’s the namesake for the brand’s top wine, says Christian Wylie, managing director.
“Balasto is the name of the meteorized granite found in Garzón,” says Wylie. “It allows for superb drainage and provides minerality, tension and vibrancy. When you are only 10 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, you want freshness.”
“Bodega Garzón was my first wine project—I built it from scratch and have watched it grow,” says Bulgheroni, an admitted workaholic who owns 21 wineries or vineyard properties across six countries. “There were hundreds of steps, choices and paths to get it to where it is now. I am very passionate about this project, which is the crown jewel for Alejandro Bulgheroni Family Vineyards.”
For its vision, quality and ability to reshape a country’s winemaking reputation, Wine Enthusiast names Bodega Garzón as its New World Winery of the Year. —Michael Schachner
There are few sights that can quicken the pulse of a wine lover more than the rolling vineyards of Champagne. One of the most densely planted vineyard areas in the world, it has rounded chalk hills with woods and forests on top and slopes covered with vines. Small villages are packed tightly to leave more land for vines.
Centered on the two cities of Reims and Épernay, this is a region that never grows old. It holds remarkable beauty and quality of life, but above all, it’s home to some of the world’s greatest wines.
Americans can’t seem to get enough, either. Last year, Champagne sales to the U.S. exceeded those of the UK, Champagne’s traditional number one export market, by value. This is the first time in decades that any country has surpassed the UK.
And there’s another reason to celebrate with Champagne. This year’s harvest has been exceptional in both quality and quantity. It follows an increasing succession of great harvests of late: 2002, 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2013.
Champagne is in an enviable position, as demand continues to outpace supply. About half of its 2017 production of 307 million bottles will be enjoyed in France, while the other half are marked for export.
No other sparkling wine is more linked to celebratory occasions both great and small. While sparkling wines proliferate around the world, this region of northeast France remains the benchmark. Champagne is present at grand occasions, intimate evenings and any event in between.
Champagne, though, is more than just for special occasions or saying cheers. It’s a great wine for sipping, to appreciate its intrinsic qualities and wonderful array of flavors and subtleties.
The combination of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grown in a continental climate and chalky soils has evolved throughout the centuries. Wine has been made in Champagne for ages, but the creation of the méthode Champenoise, the second fermentation in bottle to create those bubbles, came about in the 18th century.
From this was born the bubbling industry we know today. It’s an intricate business that’s dominated by great producers, often identified as maisons or houses, but with plenty of room for Champagnes produced by growers. The diversity and range of offerings has added to the excitement of the region and a sense of discovery.
This is a region that, despite its history, continues to evolve. Outlying areas like the Aube to the south have taken on increased importance with their richer, warmer Champagnes. Overall, the wines have become drier as more ripened grapes are used and tastes have evolved. The wines have become better and better.
For its numerous achievements and long-term success both at home and around the world, Wine Enthusiast raises a glass to toast Champagne as its Wine Region of the Year. —Roger Voss
In 1992, André Shearer and his brother founded Cape Classics. A native of South Africa, he saw an opportunity to introduce the wines of his country to a new audience once trade between the U.S. and South Africa resumed following the end of apartheid. He never imagined just how much more the company would come to represent.
“We founded Cape Classics to take advantage of a virgin, post-sanctions South African wine export market, with cutting-edge producer families who were disconnected from the historical burdens of South Africa’s dark past,” says Shearer, the company’s CEO.
Today, Cape Classics is responsible for approximately 25% of South African wine in the U.S., making it the largest importer of wines from that country. Its portfolio includes top South African brands like DeMorgenzon, De Toren, Excelsior, Glenelly, Kanonkop, Raats Family Wines and Rudi Schultz, to name just a few, as well as the powerhouse Jam Jar line.
From the very start, Cape Classics’ principles have been fairly straightforward. “Spectacular juice, family owned, sustainable and socially responsible,” says Shearer. “Always show-stopping quality first. The wine had to captivate.”
The company looked for winery partners who embraced sustainable environmental and social practices, contributed to land preservation and invested in the greater good.
“Our culture is deeply committed to ‘the old fashioned way’,” says Robert Bradshaw, president and COO, who joined the company in 2009. “That ties into how we source wine, how we treat people and prioritize relationships over dollars. We are a deeply positive and human company, one that still believes that the collective ‘we’ can add up to something so much greater than the sum of our parts.”
A key component to the company’s social mission is the Indaba brand. A Zulu word that means “meeting of the minds,” Indaba was launched in 1996 as a high-quality value wine. Initially, a portion of the global sales was allocated to the Indaba Scholarship Fund, which helped children from disadvantaged backgrounds in South Africa.
The brand and the charity have significantly evolved in the last two decades. On the wine side, the Indaba line now includes a Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and a red blend called Mosaic, and three-liter bag-in-box packaging was just launched this year.
The charitable focus has shifted as well: In 2015, Cape Classics launched the Indaba Foundation, a U.S.-based 501(c)3 nonprofit that provides Association Montessori International (AMI) infrastructure, learning materials and teacher training to schools in the Winelands of South Africa. By 2016, the foundation launched the Indaba Montessori Institute, an AMI training facility, within The Sustainability Institute of Stellenbosch, South Africa. It is the only facility to offer AMI-accredited training in Southern Africa.
“I do not know of another wine brand, anywhere in the world, that has taken such a significant step…by building a world-class teacher training institute to tackle the problem from the grass roots themselves,” says Shearer.
“It’s about deeper meaning,” echoes Bradshaw. “Meaning matters. Quality matters. Honestly made wine matters. What we are trying to do is bring all of those things together in an effort to improve the outcomes of South Africa’s most vulnerable.”
“Cape Classics has the interest of South African wines at heart and has been [a] crusader in the U.S. for establishing premium South African wine,” says Bruwer Raats, the owner and winemaker at Raats Family Wines who has worked with Cape Classics since 2002. “André has the ability to infect everybody around him with his vision about creating a better future for all and have changed the way the U.S. thinks about our wine industry.”
In 2013, Cape Classics expanded its portfolio to include wines from France, due to the quality and stylistic synergies the countries share. It now represents iconic French wines from producers like Francois Lurton, Philippe Colin and Vincent Carême.
As a result, the company now works with 33 brands and estates from South Africa and France, representing more than 140 different wine products in total.
For its relentless drive to promote a burgeoning country and category of wines, as well as its endless mission to make a lasting impact and impression for the greater good of the world, wine and beyond, Wine Enthusiast is thrilled to honor Cape Classics as the Importer of the Year. —Lauren Buzzeo
Diplomático Rum, the first rum brand to receive the Wine Star Award for Spirit Brand/Distiller of the Year, has yielded rich, enticing rums from Venezuela since 1959.
Originally known as Licorerías Unidas S.A. (LUSA), the producer of Diplomático started as a collective of local rum makers working with Seagram’s International Ltd. It distilled sugarcane and molasses in the Planas Valley, at the foot of the Andes Mountains.
Seagram’s, the world’s largest spirits distiller at the time, helped the distillery bring in a Batch Kettle still, typically used to make whiskey, and a French-style Barbet Column copper distillation system that was designed specifically for the facility. This equipment is what first helped differentiate what would become a high-end, premium rum brand.
A small group of Venezuelan entrepreneurs bought the company in 2002 and renamed it Destilerías Unidas S.A. (DUSA). Though DUSA’s portfolio expanded beyond rum, the investors saw great potential in the Diplomático brand and began to build its international presence.
Starting in 2005, Diplomático was distributed in Spain and the U.S. Those countries were followed shortly by other European markets where the premium rum category was more developed and appreciated. Outreach to bartenders and venues was at the center of that effort, as it still is today.
“We started working a lot…with bartenders, the professional community, and got at the heart of a lot of people,” says Edouard Beaslay, Diplomático Rum’s global marketing director.
It’s not just brand ambassadors who spread the word out in the field, it’s also company executives that range from Nino Curbelo, the North American export manager, to President José Rafael Ballesteros Meléndez.
Beaslay points to Curbelo’s tireless efforts to showcase the drive to raise brand awareness.
“He was based in Florida and started one account at a time, forming relationships with the bartender community, little by little, going one state to the next,” he says. After Curbelo made progress in Florida, he moved on to New York, Texas, California and beyond.
“That’s how the brand got the attention of a number of companies in the U.S. who are looking for great partners,” says Beaslay.
One of those partners was E. & J. Gallo, now the exclusive U.S. distributor for Diplomático.
“We had the opportunity to meet with the Gallo family,” says Beaslay. “We thought they would be a great partner because they would respect our heritage and have the power to build a brand, but in a very qualitative way, which is very important for us.”
The timing was right for Gallo as well. The rum segment has surged in recent years, and it now challenges other aged-spirit categories like whiskey and brandy. For Gallo, a premium rum was a natural addition to its growing luxury spirits portfolio.
“Diplomático has built an incredible following among the leading mixologists and thought-leading bars and restaurants, and is one of the few brands that has the ability to transcend their categories,” says Bill Roberts, vice president and general manager for Gallo Spirits. “We look forward to continuing that direction as more and more Americans are introduced to luxury rum.”
The partnership means increased opportunities for Diplomático to focus on what it does best: develop community in an organic way. The focus will continue to be on tastings and events in bars and other venues, but the brand will also seek larger-scale sponsorships like the five-year agreement forged with Boston baseball team, the Red Sox.
But that doesn’t mean Diplomático has any intention to rush such efforts.
“We’re not in a hurry,” says Beaslay. “We just want to share our passion for rum with people for the long term, and little by little, get them to appreciate what it’s all about.”
For its efforts to expand the rum category and its tireless outreach to the bar community, Wine Enthusiast names Diplomático as its Spirit Brand/Distiller of the Year. —Kara Newman
- 1Lifetime Achievement Award: Mel Dick
- 2American Wine Legend: Warren Winiarski
- 3Cocktail Legend: Dale DeGroff
- 4Sommelier/Beverage Director Of The Year: June Rodil, MS
- 5Retailer of the Year: Wally’s Wine & Spirits
- 6Person of the Year: Bill Newlands
- 7Social Visionary of the Year: Deborah Brenner
- 8Winemaker of the Year: Adam Mettler
- 9Wine Executive of the Year: Alex Ryan
- 10Innovator of the Year: Terry Wheatley
- 11American Winery of the Year: Riboli Family of San Antonio Winery
- 12European Winery of the Year: González Byass
- 13New World Winery of the Year: Bodega Garzón
- 14Wine Region of the Year: Champagne, France
- 15Importer of the Year: Cape Classics
- 16Spirit Brand/Distiller of the Year: Diplomático Rum