The Innovators: Wine's 25 Trailblazers
Final Selections Made By The Editors, Reporting By Alia Akkam
One of the beautiful things about wine is how it embodies a commitment to tradition, to time-honored practices embraced by many of its greatest personalities. The world of wine, however, teems with trailblazers devoted to changing the profile of the humble grape in all forms, from viticulture practices to compelling wine lists.
We tapped into all reaches of wine — from wineries and restaurants to technology and social media sectors – to select the 25 people who have left a distinct imprint of innovation on an ever-shifting drinking landscape. This list recognizes the fearless leaders whose efforts in winemaking, marketing, retail, importing, media and education have altered our perception of wine and led us to appreciate it in new ways over the last ten years.
Selected by Grape Collective editors and writers, these are The Innovators. And to them, we raise a glass.
“Adi Badenhorst of AA Badenhorst Family Wines, in South Africa, is enjoying some well-deserved notoriety. He's a jolly chap who is about as humble as the dirt he grows grapes on. He is at the forefront of the Swartland Revolution, a small group of growers and winemakers attempting to reassert South African wines so they can be considered on a world-class stage. He describes himself as a guy who doesn't know much about wine making, but is a damn good farmer. His wines are unique expressions of the South African terroir, versatile for pairings — especially the family white and rosés. He becomes more and more famous in the wine world after each vintage is released, but he'll tell you he'd be just as happy hanging with his children, wife and dogs listening to Led Zeppelin at a barbecue.” - Brian Kane, sommelier, Zahav, Philadelphia
Heidi Peterson Barrett
Cult Cabernets are a Napa Valley hallmark, and the woman who helped put these must-have, will-pay-anything wines on the map is Heidi Barrett. Raised in a winemaking family, Barrett first made her mark with Buehler Vineyards before becoming an independent winemaker and crafting hits for Dalla Valle Vineyards and Screaming Eagle. The latter’s 1992 vintage sold at the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction for $500,000, the highest price ever paid for a single bottle of wine. Today, Barrett lends her rich expertise to her own label of small-production wines, La Sirena.
The mad scientist of the wine world who has achieved cult status with many wine geeks, Abe Schoener was a former professor of ancient Greek philosophy who mid-career became a winemaker. His obsessive experimentation is based on the philosophical belief that only by working at the edge of disaster can we challenge our perceptions of what wine can achieve. Though some of his boundary-pushing wines may fail, the energy and delightful detours provide an insight into the possibilities of wine. For a compelling insight into the thoughtful yet unconventional way Schoener approaches winemaking, just read what he has to say about the husbandry of microbes. Schoener is also planning on opening an urban winery in Los Angeles and is in the process of raising money for the project.
There is wine in its sought-after traditional form, and then there is wine as seen through the lens of the imaginative Charles Bieler. He travelled the United States in a pink Cadillac spreading the rosé gospel, made Chardonnay poured out of Bandit’s eco-friendly Tetra Pak containers desirable, and raised the profile of seemingly gauche wine on tap with Gotham Project. Bieler never says never; instead, he creates products imbibers never knew they wanted.
Gordon and Marjorie Burns
In 1978, when Napa Valley’s nascent wine scene was percolating, Gordon Burns opened ETS Laboratories with his wife Marjorie in the basement of their home. Through the years the technology became more modern — like the development of gas chromatography — and the facilities more advanced in order to provide top-notch analytical services and improved quality control for the state’s now myriad wineries.
How Laura Catena manages her frenetic life with such ease and grace is impressive. The San Francisco-based emergency room physician has also spent the past 13 years overseeing the research and development program at Bodega Catena Zapata in Mendoza, Argentina. The winery’s roots extend as far back as 1912, when her grandfather, an Italian immigrant, first planted Malbec there. Along with her father and brother, Catena has helped fuel the Argentine wine renaissance with high-quality, high-altitude Malbec, and other grape varieties, along with her own terroir-driven label, Luca.
“A German researcher and doctor studying sensory science (‘sensory evaluation with analytical chemistry devoted to sensory active compounds in grapes and wine’), Ulrich Fischer’s research is absolutely fascinating for me — especially with his studies of the perception of Riesling depending on the type of soils. Do we taste minerality? That question takes a whole other dimension with him.” - Pascaline Lepeltier, MS, beverage director, Rouge Tomate, New York
“Randall Grahm, winemaker of Bonny Doon, is a crusader, a student, and an erudite philosopher. He has always passionately pursued his beliefs from the championing of Rhône varieties in California to eschewing traditional cork for screw caps for even his most expensive wines to his current commitment to ingredients labeling on his wines. He is a self-described Terroir-ist, and the most thoughtful and humble winemaker I’ve met. “ - Devon Broglie, Associate Global Beverage Buyer, Whole Foods Market, Austin
Read our profile of Randall Grahm including a video interview by Dorothy J. Gaiter.
“Daniel Johnnes was a sommelier at a time when that was a fairly rare profession in the U.S. He was particularly interested in Burgundy and used his relationships there not only to establish his own import portfolio, but also to bring the Meursault celebration La Paulée here. I participated in Paulée as a sommelier for the first time this past year and it was a tremendous experience. What I'm told started out as a small event in NYC has now expanded to both coasts and lasts several days at a time. The producers, collectors and sommeliers involved are incredible. And now he's launching La Fête du Champagne later this year.” - Kelli White, Sommelier, PRESS, St. Helena, California
Eric LeVine was a Microsoft alum, a wine lover who couldn’t keep track of his own cellar. Building on his tech background, he created a website that would. CellarTracker launched in 2003, and what began as a mere hobby has blossomed into a robust management tool and expansive wine database. The site allows users to track their wines and share experiences. Cellar Tracker now has over 300,000 users, and 4.7 million tasting notes.
Sarah and Sparky Marquis
Mollydooker launched in 2005 with a seed stake of $1,000. Today Sarah and Sparky Marquis are producing over 70,000 cases of wine. The couple has used an innovative viticultural methodology called the Marquis Vineyard Watering Programme to achieve high critical scores on wines made with relatively young vines. It revolves around matching specific sugar levels with a specially administered watering program designed to allow the grapes to achieve intense flavor. Their 2005 Velvet Glove scored 99 points in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, subsequent years garnered a 98 point score and four 97 point scores.
What is most impressive about Mollydooker is the creative way Marquis' have marketed their brand. Mollydooker means “left-handed” in Australian slang and their marketing is lively, imaginative, and memorable. Their branding efforts even extend to visiting Mollydooker’s winery in McLaren Vale, where every visitor is greeted with a left-handed handshake.
Watch our video interview with Sarah Marquis.
When someone in the fine wine industry needs financial services, chances are they will turn to Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division, based in St. Helena. Rob McMillan first hatched the idea of a distinct wine arm in 1992, noticing the burgeoning wine industry in his California backyard. From investigating macro factors affecting the economy to publishing reports, he’s one of the wine biz’s biggest allies.
“Carole Meredith, who was a professor at UC Davis, did work on the DNAs of Vitis vinifera grape varieties that gave concrete proof necessary to better understand the origins of the common grapes we have come to love so much. Most importantly, her research on the origin of California Zinfandel that can be traced back to indigenous Croatia varietals is definitely eye opening.”—Arthur Hon, wine director, Sepia, Chicago
Sommelier-turned-filmmaker Jonathan Nossiter offered an engaging — and controversial — glimpse into the esoteric wine world with his 2004 documentary, Mondovino. The movie examined the role of flying winemaker Michel Rolland, who (brilliantly) served Nossiter's need for a villain emblematic of the homogenization of wine in pursuit of high scores who laughed all the way to the bank. Mondovino also skewered the gauche tendencies of Napa's wealthy winery elite, employing an unapologetically biased point of view and Michael Moore-esque tactics to illustrate wine’s transformation from tradition to globalization.
“Raj Parr was one of the first sommeliers in the U.S. to completely champion Burgundy, and stood up against domestic winemakers that insisted on producing overly alcoholic Pinot Noir. He has been a great mentor to many young sommeliers such as myself. Raj has also been the most successful at making the jump from somm to winemaker. His wines being produced from Domaine de la Côte and Sandhi not only rival, but exceed the quality level of big-named, well-established producers.” - Carlton McCoy, Jr., MS, wine director, the Little Nell, Aspen
Alexander Payne’s 2004 comedy-drama Sideways, in which two pals on a road trip discover wine and romance in Santa Barbara’s wine country, garnered Academy and Golden Globe awards. Beyond the accolades, it significantly boosted the mainstream perception of Pinot Noir. Merlot? Not so much…
Read our feature on the impact of Sideways ten years on.
"I think that Eric Solomon is one of the more visionary wine professionals out there – he has been for a while and continues to be. The amazing high-altitude Grenache wines (Jiménez-Landi and Commando G) he is bringing into our country from the small area of Méntrida, in central Spain, are from way off the beaten path, but are stellar examples of what he has always done: find wines that showcase a true sense of place and are made by small producers who put quality above all else. He did this with Priorat (another small region in Spain) back when nobody else knew about it, and after more than 20 years, he’s still uncovering gems for us all.” —Andy Chabot, director of food and beverage, Blackberry Farm, Walland, Tennessee
In 1987 Madeline Triffon became the first female Master Sommelier in America and the second in the world (after England’s Claudia Harris), passing on her first try. Such a groundbreaking accomplishment has inspired countless women to carve their own path across all spectrums of the wine industry. Today, she oversees the wine operations for Michigan-based gourmet retailer, Plum Market.
As a toddler, Gary Vaynerchuk emigrated to New Jersey from Belarus in the former Soviet Union. His entrepreneurial skills came to the forefront when he gave his father’s store, Shopper’s Discount Liquors, a reboot through the thriving E-commerce business, Wine Library. Vaynerchuk took revenue from around $4 million dollars to over $50 million. He also managed to break through social media clutter with his wine videos, a hit with oenophiles, on Wine Library TV. His communications savvy is now at the forefront of VaynerMedia, which he launched with his brother to help build digital brands, as well as VaynerRSE, a seed fund helping technology companies find their sea legs. Vaynerchuk has over one million followers on Twitter.
“Kevin Zraly, founder of the Windows on the World Wine School, spearheaded the sommelier position and developed it into a true career for professionals interested in wine. His humor, combined with humbleness, made him not only an excellent educator, but turned a potentially stuffy and serious career into a very fun one.” - Virginia Philip, MS, Virginia Philip Wine Shop & Academy, West Palm Beach, Florida
"With Rajat Parr in 2011, Jasmine Hirsch created In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB), an organization that celebrates California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir tasting of the vineyard, highlighting what they termed 'balanced' wines. Some of these, they contend, have been overlooked by critics and consumers who prefer over-ripe, super extracted, heavily oaked wines. The blowback has been fierce. In any case, IPOB opened an industry-shaking discussion at a time when Americans are more sophisticated in their wine drinking. In addition, Hirsch does millennial-targeted, social-media driven marketing for her family’s Hirsch Vineyards, a pioneering winegrower in the extreme-climate West Sonoma Coast." - Dorothy J. Gaiter
Tracy Genesen helped to overturn the archaic laws that prevented consumers from buying wines direct from wineries. The Daily Journal called her the "primary go-to litigator for American wine industry trade associations on constitutional issues." Genesen served as the American Wine Industry's litigation strategist for the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case of Granholm v. Heald. The eight-year case resulted in permitting out of state wineries to ship direct to consumers. In addition, she recently won the Family Winemakers v. Jenkins case in the First Circuit Court of Appeals which concluded that Massachusetts’ direct shipping law was discriminatory both in purpose and effect.
Trone Brothers David and Robert built America’s largest wine superstore, Total Wine & More. Founded in 1991 with a single store in Delaware, Total Wine & More today is the country‘s largest independent retailer of wine with 103 stores in 16 states. They have also developed a direct import model: among each of the close to 8,000 different types of wines a store carries, 2,500 of them are directly imported.
Sometime innovators can be so unintentionally. (Columbus was looking for China, right?) A billionaire who was scammed by fake wine, Koch has led the charge in exposing the vast amounts of counterfeit wine, with some experts projecting that as much as 20% of the wine sold on international markets could be counterfeit. Koch claims to have spent $4.5 million on 421 bottles of wine that turned out to be counterfeit, which instigated his crusade against fake wine. He estimates that eight wine-related lawsuits against Hardy Rodenstock and others have cost him 25 million dollars.
Today, with the increased focus on counterfeiting (in part because of Koch’s actions), wineries have taken a much more active stance in protecting consumers against fraud. Opus One, Chateau Palmer and Colgin Cellars are now using anti-fraud technology such as Kodak’s Traceless System, Prooftag’s BubbleTag, NFC Digital chips, holograms, and encrypted microtext.
Perhaps no other technology has changed the way one drinks wine than Coravin. The creation of former medical device inventor Greg Lambrecht, it solves the longtime conundrum of tasting wine without having to lose the entire bottle to unwanted oxygen contact. Who wouldn't want to be able to sample a bottle from their cellar without removing the cork?
It's a genius and cost-effective boon for sommeliers and curious drinkers alike, opening up a much wider, rarer, and more daring array of by-the-glass offerings. Salespeople and retailers can offer a "try before you buy" for bottles that would rarely, if ever, be sampled. A recent issue with exploding bottles has been addressed via a wine sleeve distributed to Coravin owners.