The American wine and grape industry recognized Donniella “Donnie” Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association, with the fifth annual Rich Smith Distinguished Service Award. The award was given on Jan. 19 by the Smith family, WineAmerica, the Winegrape Growers of America, and the National Grape Research Alliance, who announced the award in a news release.

Donniella “Donnie” Winchell

“Donnie Winchell is the spiritual sister of Rich Smith in terms of the passion, commitment and collaboration that has made them both such valuable and inspiring leaders in the American grape and wine industry,” said Jim Trezise, president of WineAmerica, who received the same award in 2020. “For more than 40 years, she has tirelessly built and promoted the Ohio wine industry, created the popular License to Steal conference, held leadership roles in several industry organizations like WineAmerica, and brought incredible energy and infectious enthusiasm to everything she does.”

In this era of virtual gatherings, Winchell’s brother, Tony Debevc, the founding chair of WineAmerica, surprised her at home with the plaque as the award was presented in a virtual meeting. 

Winchell has served the Ohio wine industry since the founding of the Ohio Wine Producers Association, and her efforts are credited with the growth of the now $6 billion Ohio wine industry. 

The fledgling wine organization hired her in 1978, primarily because she knew how to type, Winchell said. But she and founding member Robert Gottesman, owner of Meier’s Wine Cellars, which was and still is the state’s largest winery, dreamed bigger and built out the organization, working with tourism committees and partnering with Ohio State University to learn more about growing European cultivars and hybrids in the region, Winchell recalled. 

“When I took the job there were 13 wineries, now we have 335, plus or minus,” she said. “I’m extremely proud of what our wines have done.” 

Today, Ohio vineyards grow native varieties, cold-hardy varieties, French-American hybrids and V. vinifera, she said, expanding the palates of local wine consumers. 

“Donnie works closely with her state’s viticulture and enology scientists to ensure research helps advance the quality and competitiveness of Ohio’s wine industry,” Donnell Brown, president of the National Grape Research Alliance, said in a statement. “And she proudly pours the Ohio wines made from newly developed cold-hardy varieties at national conferences, where they rival the wines of any other region.”

The Rich Smith award honors the legacy of Rich Smith, founder of Paraiso Vineyards, Smith Family Wines and Valley Farm Management in California. Three of the industry organizations he worked closely with over his career created the award in 2015 to recognize others in the industry who exemplify his ethos of collaboration, leadership and service to the industry.

“I was just incredibly honored and humbled,” Winchell said, adding that receiving the award in Smith’s name carried the weight of responsibility as well. “It’s a responsibility to try to do the best I can to tell his story. There’s a lot to learn for Rich and I hope to share his passion and ability.”

by Kate Prengaman