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Donnie Winchell with the Rich Smith Award.

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA, 20. January 2021 – Ohio Wine Producers Association (OWPA) Executive Director Donnie Winchell received the fifth annual Rich Smith Distinguished Service Award yesterday for his outstanding contribution to the American wine and grape industry. The award was presented at a surprise ceremony by the Smith family, the National Grape Research Alliance, WineAmerica and Winegrape Growers of America – organizations of which the late Richard Rich Smith was a founding member and driving force. Donnie is the first woman to win this award.

Donnie has been with the OWPA since its inception in 1978, making him the longest serving head of the wine trade association in the United States. She has served as president of the advisory board of regional and national wine associations in the United States. The award was presented at a virtual meeting of this group by her brother, Tony Debewk, founding president of WineAmerica, who surprised her on the spot.

Watch the video of Donnie receiving the award.
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Donnie’s efforts are widely recognized for growing Ohio’s $6 billion* wine industry. She created the first wine advertisement (Ohio Wines – from the Heartland), was the catalyst for creating wine tourism trails and organized Vintage Ohio, one of the first national wine festivals. Outside of Ohio, her “License to Steal” initiative, which began as an informal one-day conversation between a few members of friendly industry associations, has grown into a national wine marketing conference. Donniella Winchell was inducted into the Ohio Wine Hall of Fame in 2002 and was named one of the Wine Entrepreneur of 2020.

While the PBJA focuses on advocacy, Donnie also plays an important role in public policy development and research/outreach. She has made frequent lobbying trips to her state home, Columbus, hosted themed wine tastings for state legislators and worked closely with WineAmerica to gain support from Ohio legislators for initiatives to promote the wine industry at the federal level. In terms of research and expansion, it hosted numerous winter meetings with Ohio State University scientists to raise awareness of the industry.

Donnie has served on the board of the American Grape Growers, the Ashtabula County Visitors Bureau, the Ohio Tourism Association and the Ohio Division of Tourism and Travel Advisory Committee, as well as several other travel and economic development boards. She is a regular speaker at regional and national conferences on wine and tourism and is an assistant professor at Ashtabula, Kent, where she teaches marketing and wine courses.

At the award ceremony, Rich Smith’s wife, Claudia Smith, said when I met Donnie in the late 1980s, we were just starting to produce our own wine in Monterey County (a wine region then as little known as Ohio). At the WineAmerica meeting, it was like a balm on a snowy day in Washington, D.C. As we shared what we do by state to promote our wines, she listed all sorts of brilliant grassroots projects she’s making in Ohio. His enthusiasm, energy and success knew no bounds. Years later, at a WineAmerica meeting in Ashtabula, we experienced firsthand the incredible hospitality of the Ohio wine region and its incredible wines. Donnie embodies the collaboration, passion, and dedication that so characterized Rich in everything he did.

Donnie Winchell is the spiritual sister of Rich Smith in terms of the passion, commitment and collaboration that have made them such valuable and inspiring leaders in the American wine and grape industry, said Jim Trezise, president of WineAmerica and recipient of the Rich Smith 2020 Award. For over 40 years, she has tirelessly built and promoted the Ohio wine industry, created the popular License to Steal conference, held leadership positions in various industry organizations such as WineAmerica, and brings incredible energy and infectious enthusiasm to everything she does. She’s my hero.

Donnell Brown, president of the National Grape Research Alliance, said Donnie works closely with his state’s viticulture and oenology scientists to ensure that research contributes to the quality and competitiveness of Ohio’s wine industry. And he proudly pours, at national conferences, Ohio wines made from new cold-resistant varieties that rival those of other regions.

It is symbolic that Donnie Winchell is the first woman to receive the Richard Smith Award, said Vicki Scharlau, executive director of Winegrape Growers of America. For more than forty years, she devoted her heart and soul to building the wine industry in Ohio. She is a role model for all leaders in the wine industry, men and women.

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