The VinePair 50 - 2023

Welcome to the second annual VinePair 50 list.

The VinePair 50 highlights the talented individuals catching our attention across the drinks space right now. It’s a group of people on the up and up, ones doing cool stuff to make the drinks space and its immediate orbit better and more creative. You’ll notice that it’s not a list bound by age, category, or position, because we believe that being outstanding in your field can happen at any point in a career. Above all else, this is a list to recognize the achievements, innovations, and general greatness of people who truly deserve it.

We hope this accolade will stand as a meaningful acknowledgement of hard work, a medal of sorts to those included. We hope it can also be a resource for learning more about what people are doing across the industry and beyond. And, most importantly, we hope you like it.

The VinePair 50 - Categories


Danielle Grinberg & Sara Pinsonault


Nicolette Baker, Katie Brown, Tim McKirdy, Joanna Sciarrino, Olivia White


Meghan Spiro - Paul Brady, Daniel Turbert Photography - Paula de Pano, Amanda DiMaritno - Kristin Dave Dausch, Ellen Silverman - Lily Geiger, Emma K Morris - Jeremy Carter, Rama Sekhar - Shalini Sekhar, Gabrielle Johnson - Harrison Snow, Carl Johanesen Photography - Rae Wilson, Chris Toribio - Kelvin Uffre

Lily Geiger

Founder, Figlia

Figlia founder Lily Geiger did not come up in the beverage space. Perhaps that’s why her non-alcoholic drinks so defy expectations. While many non-alcoholic “spirits” attempt to mimic the essences of alcohol, Figlia’s aperitivo-like FIORE strives to provide a delicious alternative to booze without potentially triggering stark flavor similarities.

At 20 years old, Geiger lost her father to alcoholism, inspiring her to build a brand that gives back while addressing the shame around addiction. Figlia launched in 2021 and currently offers FIORE as both a still bottled aperitivo and sparkling RTDs. The former’s stunning design aesthetic and juicy, herbaceous profile have consistently impressed the VinePair team over the past couple of years.

A portion of every Figlia sale goes to Partnership to End Addiction, but perhaps just as important to Geiger are the conversations her products inspire. “It’s really refreshing in this space because I don’t think many brands are talking about it in this way,” she says. “It’s something that we’ve really taken with pride, not with shame.”

Drew Damskey

Winemaker, Palmeri Wines

“If you’ve ever listened to younger Stevie Ray Vaughn play guitar, it’s beautifully flourished with profound intensity,” Palmeri Wines’ Drew Damskey says. “That’s what I’m trying to shoot for with my wines.”

The third-generation, California-based winemaker grew up going to his grandfather’s small Sonoma vineyards, and his parents followed suit with a tiny family vineyard of their own. Damskey admired their work but wanted to chart his own path.

He pursued an MBA in wine and spent his early career working with large companies to launch mass-produced wine brands but quickly felt a calling to return to his roots. “If you see your parents working on a high-touch, homespun, artisan craft like Palmeri and you’re working for a big company launching a $12 bottle of Chardonnay — it just didn’t feel right to me,” he says.

Damskey soon got to work making wines that he was “stoked about” at some of the country’s most storied vineyard sites. His Monte Rosso Vineyard Old Vine Sémillon — VinePair’s No. 1 wine of 2022 — included grapes from the world’s second-oldest Sémillon vines. He plans to continue his exploration of wine sites with their own, beautifully flourished stories to tell.

Channing Centeno

Bartender, Bonnie’s

There were dozens of trendy Dirty Martini iterations that caught the public’s eye in recent months, but perhaps none were as culturally significant as the MSG Martini at Bonnie’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The drink’s creator, Channing Centeno, says that wasn’t exactly intentional: “I thought no one would wanna order it, you know?”

The cocktail serves as an ode to an ingredient that means a lot to his community — one that has for many years been misunderstood by American consumers. “Being half-Asian,” he says, “the falsity that MSG is so bad for you and will make you sick” inspired him to put the ingredient front and center in a beverage. He initially expected the resulting cocktail — a mix of gin (or vodka), olive brine, shaoxing wine, and MSG — to flop. Instead, it set the bar for ‘tinis around the world.

Centeno has been working in hospitality since he was 14, beginning as a dishwasher in Cleveland and working his way up to head bartender at one of NYC’s trendiest restaurants. That doesn’t mean he takes himself too seriously. His goal with every new cocktail creation is to “make something fun and crushable” for the folks who walk up to his bar. The best thing about his job? “It’s all very celebratory, and it’s not that serious.”

Aside from Bonnie’s, Centeno is currently working with Bar Lab Hospitality to help open up all four of its venues in the newly built Moxy Hotel in Williamsburg (Jolene, Lilistar, Bar Bedford, and Masiba) and acts as a brand ambassador for Copalli Rum.

Rae Wilson

Founder, Wine For the People

Minimal-intervention winemaking, uniquely Texas terroir, and environmentally friendly practices all form the core of Rae Wilson’s work.

Wilson is a dedicated winemaker and founder of Wine for the People, an organization that connects Texans with quality wines. She currently resides in the Austin area, but has previously worked in Napa and Portugal. Wilson’s passion for her work is palpable, as is her belief in Texas wine, which should be on the radars of more drinkers, she says.

Wine for the People was born in 2010, beginning as a consultancy and educational initiative before growing into an opportunity to “do something of my own,” Wilson says. She’s since opened a central Austin wine bar called Wine For the People, as well as a boutique wine club, The People’s Cellar. Wilson launched her approachable wine brand, Dandy Rosé, in 2014. A refined lineup of small-production wines, La Valentía, soon followed.

A member of the LGBTQIA+ community, Wilson also focuses on creating an equitable wine industry. She’s excited to bring wine to the people of Austin, across the state, and beyond.

Harrison Snow

Co-founder, Lullaby

Lullaby’s Harrison Snow may be one of the bar industry’s most prominent Gen Z faces, but his bartending philosophy is unmistakably old school. The 24-year-old came up in Boston, where he met (and quickly impressed) the late legend Brother Cleve. The two had an “instant connection” and soon teamed up to create Lullaby along with co-founder Jake Hodas. The East Village neighborhood bar has become a hotspot for cocktail lovers of all ages and generations.

Perhaps that’s because Snow’s philosophy — to “find where the beauty and excellence can be achieved [with] simplicity” — makes his creations timeless. He encourages his employees to study and master the classics, using those recipes as the foundation of their new creations — not “just throwing a bunch of things in a shaker because we think it sounds cool.”

As the bar comes up on its one-year anniversary, Snow’s goal is to nurture the next generation of great bartenders, just as giants like Death & Co. and Attaboy did before him. “I want [Lullaby] to be a place where not only can people come and experience really great cocktails,” he says, “but a place that’s actively trying to grow the industry.”

Justin Trabue

Founder, Ward Four Wines

Justin Trabue is building a global community of winemakers that think and look like her. The California Polytech State University grad is aiming to foster joy and diversity in the wine community.

Trabue is the force behind Ward Four Wines, a new label that’s debuting this year. She calls herself the “Head Wine Witch,” as she currently crafts up a line of several wines based on diverse and unconventional varieties. Her work is rooted in her love for Washington D.C., which she calls “Chocolate City.”

Trabue is a fourth-generation D.C. resident and shares great love for the capital, as it has deeply inspired her winemaking. Ward Four Wines’ first vintage, set to bottle in late April, will initially reach markets in the east coast city and retailers in California, Washington, Oregon, Maryland, Virginia, and New York. Trabue also has two sweet pet rats, both named after grape varieties, that she highlights on her social platform.

Through Ward Four Wines, Trabue leans on support from people in her queer, Black, and BIPOC communities, allowing her to prompt peer conversations about navigating the industry, connecting over loneliness, and words of encouragement. Trabue recalls the first instance where she met another Black person in the wine industry, during a harvest trip in New Zealand. “Sometimes, you can’t find your community until you really put yourself out there,” she says.

Allison Luvera & Lauren De Niro Pipher

Co-founders, Juliet Wine

Longtime friends Allison Luvera and Lauren De Niro Pipher came into the wine industry with one simple yet radical dream: to reinvent boxed wine. Putting wine in boxes rather than glass bottles reduces its environmental impact by 84 percent, they say, but a stigma around the category has for many years impeded its growth.

In 2021, the duo embarked on a mission to sell “super-high-quality wine in this innovative, never-been-seen-before, beautiful packaging,” says Luvera. And as the only non-box-shaped box on wine shop shelves, Juliet stands out as a truly elevated option that doubles as decor.

It’s safe to say they’ve achieved their goal of making boxed wine feel high end, as Juliet can now be found at curated shops across California, Florida, and New York as well as at some of wine country’s most exclusive resorts. The brand currently produces Provence-style rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir, all from California’s Central Coast in 1.5-liter boxes aimed at climate-conscious consumers who don’t want to compromise on quality.

Jeremy Carter

Founder and Winemaker at Tarpon Cellars

Even after spending over a decade in the industry working with winemakers everywhere from California to New Zealand, wine — and the culture surrounding it — still felt exclusive to Jeremy Carter, especially when it came to younger generations enjoying the beverage. Looking to increase wine’s approachability and attract a new generation of consumers, he created Tarpon Cellars in 2017, a wine label specializing in New World winemaking practices ranging from skin contact whites to carbonic maceration.

Carter’s goal is to introduce American wine lovers to grapes prominent in international regions but uncommon in California markets. Behind every decision he makes when producing his wines is the desire for them to remain accessible, whether in terms of cost, appearance, or tasting notes. “Even though we incorporate some unique winemaking methods, I want to do it in a way that is approachable even for the non-traditional wine drinker,” Carter says.

Beyond experimenting with unlikely techniques and grapes, one of Carter’s main goals is for Tarpon Cellars to become a point of human connection. “I am so proud of the relationships we have with chefs and independent wine shops, the music we have shared with people at our events, and with the Spotify playlists on our back labels,” he says. “I’m just so happy I’m able to connect with people through common interests.”

Nathan Kendall

Winemaker, Nathan K. Wines

Since high school, Nathan Kendall knew he wanted to have a career in winemaking. After graduating college and working with winemakers all over the globe, he began pondering which grape varieties would thrive in cooler climates, particularly the Finger Lakes region of New York. Since 2011, he’s been pushing the region forward by demonstrating the answers to this question with his wine label, Nathan K.

Using an Old World production style, Kendall’s main goal is to expand consumer awareness of the Finger Lakes and demonstrate the region’s terroir while using the least amount of intervention possible to allow the grapes to be expressed. “When I came back to the Finger Lakes, it was not common at all to do spontaneous ferments or lees-aged Riesling in barrels,” he says. “Whole-cluster reds weren’t being explored much at the time, and those were things I wanted to see personally.”

Today, Kendall produces three wines under his Nathan K. label: Riesling and Chardonnay, with robustness achieved through barrel aging and lees aging, and a whole-cluster Pinot Noir known for its lighter, more delicate profile.

When looking to the future of Nathan K., Kendall’s main goal is simple: “I always want to do better than I did last year.”

Dean Eberhardt & Andrew Markley

Co-founders, Hoplark

College friends Dean Eberhardt and Andrew Markley founded Hoplark in 2017 as a way to stay social while prioritizing healthy habits. Eberhardt had taken a month off of drinking when he realized he missed the celebratory feeling of sharing a beer with buds and teamed up with Markley, who had a background in biochemistry, to create the first hop-infused tea — later diving into the hop water category. It took them 18 months in Eberhardt’s garage to create their sugar- and additive-free HopTea, and soon, the Hoplark brand was born.

Today, innovation remains the name of the game at Hoplark. The brand will soon release Hop Sour, a sour beer-inspired hop water with no added sugar, and is also working with other beverage companies to help them utilize ingredients more efficiently and sustainably. Today, you can find Eberhardt in Hoplark Labs, where he experiments with unexpected flavor combinations and boundary-pushing creations outside the brand’s typical hopped, non-alcoholic beverages, while Markley continues to innovate in his work as a biochemist. “I get to create things that nobody on the planet has ever tasted before,” Eberhardt says. “That’s definitely the most fun part of my job.”

Amanda Gunderson

CEO and Co-founder, Another Round Another Rally

Amanda Gunderson’s greatest impact on the bartending community came after she stepped away from mixing drinks — not that she could have imagined things would turn out the way they have. The California native started in the industry like many others, working at a bar to help pay bills while attending college. She then landed her first job at a craft cocktail establishment in the late aughts, at L.A.’s Rivera under the direction of award-winning bartender Julian Cox.

In another life she might have remained behind the bar, and likely later opened her own. Instead, following multiple ambassadorial roles, Gunderson co-founded Another Round Another Rally in 2018. The nonprofit organization proved a vital resource before, during, and after the pandemic, offering financial aid, scholarships, and educational resources to all sectors of the hospitality industry. To date, it’s given out close to $4 million in financial relief and grocery assistance. The organization places a special emphasis on helping those from marginalized and diverse communities, including undocumented workers, who make up more than a third of the grant recipients to date.

With her work at Another Round Another Rally, Gunderson wasn’t just able to take care of those who typically take care of the rest of us during the industry’s most trying period; she continues to do so to this day. “We lost 3 million of our soldiers in our industry because of the pandemic,” Gunderson says, highlighting the vast number of workers who left hospitality because of its instability. “We are at a point right now where if we don’t keep working, we’re missing maybe the biggest opportunity for change that will come in the next hundred years.”

Kelvin Uffre

New York Rep, Tequila Fortaleza

Building a bonafide community has been a cornerstone of Kelvin Uffre’s life. Dominican-born and raised in an apartment in the Bronx, he recalls growing up with regular visits from fellow Spanish-speaking immigrants who stopped by to receive help from his mom while filling out English portions of various application forms, from citizenship to Section 8 housing. “Fifty percent of my neighborhood got their citizenship through my mom helping them out,” he says.

Now the New York representative for the beloved tequila brand Fortaleza, Uffre started in the bar profession early — young teens early, in fact. His time behind the stick saw him work at some of the city’s most lauded establishments, from the now-shuttered Max Fish to the award-winning Maison Premiere. Uffre rounded out his resume and gained invaluable experience by later working for a distributor. Gaining an insight into all facets of the industry has not only informed his current day-to-day work, but is something he calls upon while mentoring younger members of the trade during one-on-one Zoom sessions. As Uffre puts it, other professions have a set-in-stone career path, but most people in the bar industry get into it — intentionally or otherwise — with no endgame in mind. He’s aiming to change that, especially for those from traditionally marginalized communities.

“My entire career has been about bringing forth more equity — bringing up folks that wouldn’t necessarily be chosen to either bartend at these swaggy bars or given an opportunity because they didn’t look a certain way or have a certain background,” Uffre says. “All the people that get cast aside find their way to me and I find my way to them. It’s been amazing to share that community with them.”

Britt West

Senior Vice President and General Manager of Spirits,
E. & J. Gallo

For the past five years, Britt West has headed up E. & J. Gallo’s spirits division, Spirit of Gallo, and in that time he’s overseen some impressive achievements: growing New Amsterdam Vodka and launching a wildly successful flavored spinoff, Pink Whitney; almost doubling the size of Camarena Tequila; and expanding the brand’s luxury portfolio.

Most notable, arguably, has been West’s involvement in the launch of the vodka-based hard seltzer High Noon, a brand he rightly describes as a “juggernaut.” In 2022, High Noon sold a staggering 16 million cases, and in the process overtook Tito’s as the top-selling spirit in America by volume.

That landmark is even more impressive when considering that the timeline from concept to launch was just eight months, arriving on shelves in May 2019. While a self-imposed time frame, West describes the swiftness as being “absolutely critical.” Otherwise, the ship may have sailed to enter the already highly competitive seltzer market. High Noon’s success has also shattered the then-accepted notion that drinkers didn’t care about the base alcohol used in this style of beverage.

Rather than point to his own background in the nightlife industry, previous work for other spirits conglomerates, or experience launching other brands, West highlights the structure of Gallo as being a catalyst for the spirits division’s success. “Publicly traded companies have Wall Street demands put on them,” he says. But as part of a private, family-owned business, West’s team has been able to take a long-term, considered approach to brand-building, and adding coveted, luxury spirits to the company’s impressive lineup.

Andrew Merinoff

Founder, DisPact Ventures

Serial brand builder and venture capitalist Andrew Merinoff believes the key to assembling a successful team hinges on a few simple concepts. “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you built a pretty bad room,” he says. And if there are 10 people in that room and nine answer “how high” when asked to jump, that’s not conducive to a creative environment. “Even if you love my idea, poke one hole in it,” he says.

Merinoff honed these principles while working in almost every role in hospitality, from back-of-house to front-of-house, bartending, and kitchen work. “I want to know every discipline in order to put myself in everyone’s shoes,” he says. He later gained experience on the business side of drinks while working on brand and business development for Proximo Spirits, a role he maintains to this day as a consultant.

Merinoff’s biggest and most visible impact on the industry has come via his 2017 founding of DisPact Ventures, a VC firm with over a dozen drinks brands in its portfolio. That portfolio includes bartender favorite Chinola Passion Fruit Liqueur, as well as burgeoning RTD brands The Finnish Long Drink and SESH, and infused rum brand Coconut Cartel.

While the name of his firm might suggest otherwise, Merinoff’s aim with each of these projects is to have a lasting positive impact in the communities in which the brands were born. “I’m really against cultural appropriation,” he says. “If I’m going to go to the Dominican Republic and start farming [fresh passion fruit for Chinola], I want to build a community with me. I want to see them grow and prosper.”

Reggie Leonard

Co-founder, Oenoverse

Reggie Leonard, a data scientist who works in career development at the University of Virginia’s Data Science Institute (DSI), is nothing if not a cheerleader for the wine coming out of his home state. Like many, Leonard picked up a new hobby during the pandemic and began studying with Wine Unify in 2020. He soon got his Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 1 certification and became obsessed with creating a more diverse, welcoming future for Virginia wine. “There’s a space for everyone in wine,” he says.

The next step was founding Oenoverse, an inclusive wine club through Blenheim Vineyards that aims to give folks from underrepresented communities a seat at the table. The organization’s annual Two Up Wine Down festival educates enthusiasts and industry professionals about everything Virginia has to offer, spotlighting the diversity of the state’s wines and the individuals who make them. This year, the festival will even give attendees the opportunity to make their first-ever cuvées “under the hypothesis that the more people who are making wine in Virginia, and the more diversity we have in those people, the more we get to see what Virginia wine could be,” he says.

More than anything, Leonard welcomes drinkers to experience Virginia wine country for themselves. “We have great wine; come through. We have great opportunities; come through,” he says. Virginia is for (wine) lovers, after all.

Jill Cockson

Owner, Swordfish Tom’s, Chartreuse Saloon, Drastic Measures, and Anna’s Place

Anyone who’s worked in hospitality — whether as a server, host, bartender, sommelier, or chef — knows that the industry’s greatest ills stem from issues of accountability, as well as the perpetuity of abusive behavior and subpar working conditions. Yet, to hear Jill Cockson, the Kansas City-based entrepreneur and owner of Drastic Measures, Swordfish Tom’s, Chartreuse Salon, and Anna’s Place, talk on the subject of hospitality is as refreshing as a perfectly shaken Daiquiri mixed for Ernest Hemingway himself.

In regular Instagram “Hospitality 101” videos, Cockson outlines her best practices on topics such as how bartenders should present themselves, controlling the flow of guests into an establishment, and the importance of being “inclusivity-driven.” She is similarly frank on the industry’s most pressing issues — steadfast in her refusal to pass the buck and shrug her shoulders by saying, “This is how things always were.”

Instead, Cockson recognizes that things must change and change must happen now. Those responsible for this, she says, are bar operators and the mentors of future generations. “There’s a conduit of hospitality,” Cockson says. “You can’t expect your staff to offer hospitality any greater than you show them.”

Today, we recognize Cockson as one of the industry’s leading thinkers. “I’m not saying that we have it 100 percent figured out,” she says. “But I think that some of the changes that are happening are definitely for the better.”

Beny Ashburn & Teo Hunter

Co-founders, Crown & Hops Brewing Co.

For Beny Ashburn and Teo Hunter, co-founders of Crowns & Hops Brewing Co., the word “dope” embodies far more than something that’s cool. It’s a lifestyle, a mantra, an intrinsic part of Black culture, and a chance to redefine American craft beer as a more inclusive space for people of color. All of these ideals came together recently in the form of the brewery’s newest hazy IPA, The Dopest.

Long before they came up with the release, Hunter and Ashburn made a simple but alarming observation: “We would go into these beer bars and breweries and you wouldn’t see yourself anywhere, not just from physically seeing another Black or brown person, but from the music, from the art on the walls,” Ashburn says. “We just didn’t feel represented in the space.”

And so began their journey into the beer industry, beginning with the hashtag, #BlackPeopleLoveBeer, and then the additional #BrownPeopleLoveBeer. In 2016, the duo launched the lifestyle brand Dope & Dank, which connected craft beer culture and communities of color through branded streetwear, media, and pop-up events. As for the name, it represented their aim to “bridge dope culture and the dank world of craft beer.”

After gaining attention from Scotland’s BrewDog, the pair were able to secure funding for the 8 Trill Pils Initiative, which aims to achieve racial equity in the craft beer industry via financial support for business development. Launched in 2020, it kickstarted via a $100,000 grant from the Scottish brewery. Ashburn and Hunter simultaneously announced their next project, Crowns & Hops Brewing Co. When the venue opens later this year, it will become Inglewood, Calif.’s first Black-owned brewery. “This is not about tearing down what’s already there,” Inglewood-born Hunter says, “it’s about building what’s not.”

Keigan Knee

Co-founder, director of product development, former head brewer, Modist Brewing

At Modist Brewing in Minneapolis, modification lies at the center of every practice — and nothing is off limits. For Keigan Knee, co-founder, former head brewer, and now director of product development — or “the flavor overlord” as they call him in the brewhouse — crafting a truly creative beer goes beyond the constraints of traditional recipes and techniques. In fact, at Modist, developing inventive beers actively involves disregarding traditional ingredients, recipes, and even typical craft brewing equipment.

“The goal of the company was really to brew outside of the typical style guidelines,” Knee says. In doing so, Modist builds its beers around certain flavors or ingredients. Allowing Knee and the brewing team this creative ability is their custom-made brewhouse, which features a mash filter, a highly efficient piece of equipment that uses less grain, less water, and fewer hops, and reduces brew times compared to traditional practices. Some of the beers produced using this filter include a New England IPA made entirely from oats and wheat malts, a lager brewed from rice, and stouts aged in rye whiskey barrels.

“Myself and a few of the other owners come from the trades. I used to be a welder, a mechanic, and brewing is very much a trade,” Knee says. “Everything we do is all encompassed around that sense of discovery. That sense of innovation and inspiration. Hopefully our products get someone to feel that same way, and do something with that feeling.”

Kilolo Strobert

Owner, Fermented Grapes

Nineteen years ago, Kilolo Strobert walked into Fermented Grapes with her resume and freshly straightened hair under the impression that it would be challenging for a woman — especially a Black woman — to secure a position at a wine shop. She was instead welcomed into the space by its owners, an interracial lesbian couple who hired Strobert as the shop’s first full-time employee.

In 2019, after years working across the food and wine industry, she felt a call to return to her roots and told the couple, “Whenever you’re ready to retire, let me know.” Today, Strobert is the proud owner of the Prospect Heights wine shop — a turn of events she calls destiny.

Strobert carries on the legacy of the shop by continuing to make wine accessible and approachable to every consumer. She aims to highlight wines produced by female and BIPOC winemakers, the latter of which make up less than 1 percent of the industry.

As she looks to her future as the shop’s new owner, Strobert aims to make Fermented Grapes a hub for community-building. “Wine is really exciting,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to dialing into this space to provide an opportunity for people to enjoy every aspect of this beverage.”

Day Bracey & Ed Baileyn

Co-Founders, Barrel & Flow Fest

“Pay Black people” is one of the main themes of the Barrel & Flow Fest, and a personal mantra of founders Day Bracey and Ed Bailey.

Based in Pennsylvania, the duo first created The Barrel & Flow Fest through a series of collaborations with brewers, artists, and entrepreneurs. They got started with a custom-brewed, Hennessy-inspired beer, called “Bridge the Gap,” created in collaboration with a homebrewer from the Three Rivers Underground Brewers club for the pair’s podcast, Drinking Partners.

Having connected with a wide range of brewers through their podcast, Bracey and Bailey decided to unite the community through a greater event.

The annual Barrel & Flow Fest, first launched in 2018 as Fresh Fest, intentionally celebrates Blackness as a shared identity, Bracey tells VinePair. The motto, “Keep Black Arts on Tap,” informs their decisions in planning the festival, while pay transparency is also present in all of Barrel & Flow fest’s materials and submission guidelines.

“If we’re the only Black friends, let’s bring in more Black friends,” Bracey says. “Let’s bring more people into the industry. Representation is key.”

Sean O'Leary

Liquor License Attorney, Irish Liquor Lawyer

Alcohol is one of the most regulated consumer goods in America and Chicago-based Sean O’Leary, also known as the Irish Liquor Lawyer, wants to make it easier to get bottles into the hands of legal-drinking-age adults.

While his experience in the legal industry stretches back much longer, including stints as a prosecutor and working for the Illinois Department of Revenue, his focus on alcohol is now six years deep. His role as a “liquor lawyer” sees him help individuals get liquor licenses, and draft regulations and statutes on the sale and shipping of alcohol. Most notably, during the height of the pandemic he worked with bar owner Julia Momose and the organization Cocktails For Hope to pass a bill through Chicago’s legislature that allowed bars to legally sell cocktails to-go.

The provision offered a much needed lifeline for countless businesses navigating the choppiest of waters. It also captured the very essence of what he does on a daily basis, and why O’Leary ranks among the country’s leading advocates and voices for direct-to-consumer shipping.

“Cocktails to-go kept a lot of people in business,” O’Leary says. “I want to use my legal expertise to open up markets for people, because if a legal victory opens up the market for someone to make a great business for themselves and enrich themselves… well, that’s why I’m in liquor.”

Gabriel Maldonado

General Manager, The Wesley

Gabriel Maldonado isn’t concerned with personal prestige or fluffy titles. He’s passionate about doing the work to make wine more accessible to everyone.

After graduating from culinary school, Maldonado worked at Michelin-starred restaurant Le Coucou in New York as he discovered his love for wine. He assisted in opening a variety of other eateries and cocktail bars with STARR Restaurants, and soon moved to a hiring manager position overseeing some 30 restaurant locations.

Maldonado now curates the wine selection at The Wesley, a vegetable-focused restaurant in Manhattan where he works as general manager. Despite that title, he maintains a presence on the floor. “The way that I talk to my guests about food, I like to mimic the chefs I’ve worked with and the way they talk about cuisine,” he says. “You’re not just ingesting food, you’re ingesting someone’s work.”

Maldonado built his career up from working as a dishwasher and then server but hasn’t forgotten the experience from his early years. He prides himself on always being available to accomplish any task in every establishment where he works. At The Wesley, he also focuses his energy on making his workplace a comfortable and inclusive space, noting that he’s a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Michelle Tham

Head of Education, Labatt Breweries of Canada

Building a better beer industry doesn’t happen overnight. Cicerone and beer educator Michelle Tham strives to lay a foundation for a more inclusive tomorrow.

The Toronto-based educator was one of the first certified cicerones in Canada — and one of few females — and the head of education at Labatt Breweries of Canada. Her thoughtful approach to education leans into identity, considering the contributions of women, nonbinary people, and BIPOC people. Tham recognizes the Canadian land as belonging to indigenous peoples, and similarly educates brewers on how to be more inclusive.

Respect for beer — and the humans behind it — is Tham’s primary advocacy goal. “My job, essentially and in the broadest terms, is to lead a culture of education and appreciation around beer,” Tham says. “The more you know and understand about beer, and the more respect you have for it, the more we can build that [inclusive] culture and preserve the industry.”

Anheuser-Busch InBev owns Labatt Brewing. And given the company’s wide portfolio of brands, Tham’s educational platform is far-reaching. That gives her even more of an opportunity to share her values with brewers in Canada, the United States, and beyond.

Shalini Sekhar

Winemaker and owner of Ottavino Wines in the San Francisco Bay Area

As the owner of Ottavino Wines, Shalini Sekhar is passionate about partnering with boutique producers in Northern California to create unique expressions. Though she had always sworn she would never start a wine label of her own, time spent isolating from others in 2020 changed Sekhar’s mind and expanded her creativity. That year, she released two wines under the Ottavino label, despite the fact that up until that point, the brand had functioned solely as a custom crush facility. Now, whether they’re for her label or her clients’, Sekhar treats all wines made in her facility like her babies.

Though a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay lover at heart, Sekhar prefers to think outside the box with Ottavino, exploring uncommon California grape varietals. “To my knowledge, I am the first Indian-American winemaker, a mother, and an entrepreneur,” she says. “I am the less common, and my place and mission is to highlight that with my wines.”

Prior to breaking into the wine industry in 2007, Sekhar was auditioning for symphonies as a flute and piccolo player in New York City. Now, she’s able to reflect on the many similarities in her creative approach to both wine and music. “In music and wine, you learn about all of these parts to the whole, but you don’t learn why we as humans connect with it,” she explains. “In wine, you have the sensory bits — the grapes, the acid, the tannins — and you’re testing it against your own [senses],” she says. “There’s a framework there, but I can’t tell you how you’re going to connect with it. That’s exciting.”

Sara Morgenstern & Jen Reichardt

Founders, Little Trouble Wine Co.

When it comes to time spent with your bestie, what is there to do but get up to a little trouble?

That’s what Jen Reichardt and Sara Morgenstern, who have been friends since 2016, asked themselves when they created Little Trouble Wine Co, a label focused on producing lower-alcohol wines with bright flavors and a hint of Old World flair. At Little Trouble, Reichardt and Morgenstern are “looking to represent their old-school and new-school backgrounds by highlighting ‘traditional’ California grape varieties made in fun and fresh expressions.”

All wines by Little Trouble — including Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and both red and white blends — are produced from organic grapes using minimal intervention to preserve the “heritage and soul” of the vineyards they work with. Though the two are strict in their winemaking practices and produce wines that can be enjoyed by many generations of drinkers, they explain that they’re always looking for new ways to approach and build on the classics. “We try to aim for serious winemaking, but playful wines.”

Reichardt and Morgenstern say working together is “the most fun,” largely due to their differences that allow them to approach problems in new ways and come up with unique solutions. “Work dinners are usually a mix of waxing poetic for hours over winemaking along with snorting giggle fits,” they say. “We’re very lucky.”

Dave Dausch

Founder, Dave’s Lesbian Bar

Where can you find mutual aid resources, great music, and tight-knit queer communities, all under one roof?

The answer lies in a Queens, N.Y., pop-up called Dave’s Lesbian Bar. The brainchild of Dave Dausch, Dave’s launched as a space for queer folks to come together, day and night. “I just don’t want it to only be about alcohol when queers get together,” they say. “We have so few spaces, and they’re alcohol-centric.” Dausch’s goal with Dave’s was to offer a more inclusive third space for the queer community to congregate, day and night, and to let loose but also engage in important conversations.

Dave’s serves as a mutual aid, community programming, and work space when the sun is out and transforms into a true bar at night. It’s one of just three lesbian bars in NYC and the only one in Queens, which only further invigorates Dausch’s goal of fundraising enough to open a permanent brick and mortar location in the neighborhood someday. “Men have historically had all the money, and they do not prioritize femme space,” Dausch says, highlighting the reason lesbian bars are so few and far between. “We need a space — a place for us.”

Lindsay Malu Kido

Founder, Beer is for Everyone

Beer is for Everyone founder Lindsay Malu Kido is cultivating a more conscious beer community. The non-profit organization unites brewers and beer enthusiasts from all backgrounds to share information about inclusion in the brewing space.

What started as an Instagram page led by Kido — who uses the pronouns she and they — has since grown into a website, Facebook page, and support network. Diversity is at the core of the organization, influencing everything from its educational initiatives to its Writer Collective, a group of contributors who create activism-related content for the website.

Beer is for Everyone also has an ongoing partnership with Women of the Bevolution, a similar organization that supports female and non-binary individuals in the drinks industry. “From providing grants and mentorship to curriculum creation to in-person events, we would like to serve the community as a pillar for diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice,” Kido tells VinePair.

Kido mixes brewing education with advocacy work. They launched the Drinking in Another State initiative to spark conversations about abortion access in the United States, post-Dobbs ruling. She also participates in collaborative brewing projects with partners across the country. Currently, Beer is for Everyone is hosting a 26-brewery collab in New York City called “Have a Beer in NYC” to raise money for the Drinking in Another State fund.

Kido foresees the organization hosting a beer festival of its own in the coming years, uniting its virtual community in real life.

Stephen Tyson & Yves St. Amand

Co-founders, Karbon Brewing

With every business decision and new initiative, Karbon Brewing CEO Stephen Tyson and COO Yves St. Amand strive toward a more holistic future. The pair’s landmark brewery venture is one of the first in Canada to reach carbon-neutral certification, and the company is on track to be carbon-negative by 2024. Equity and best environmental practices were woven into the business from day one, as the duo navigated the nuances of creating an environmentally conscious brand.

“We wanted to set our company apart, not just as surface-level sustainable and slap some green labels on it, but as a research-focused company,” Tyson says. “There’s always new ongoing research happening from people way smarter than us — scientists and the like. What might have been sustainable in the ‘90s might not be sustainable now in the 2000s, and vice versa.”

For this reason, Tyson and St. Amand are tapping industry experts to learn more about packaging and responsible supply models. They’ve partnered with graduate students at Ontario’s Trent University to explore new practices and assist in research projects. After winning New Beer of the Year at the Canadian Brewers Choice Awards, the two launched and later judged the contest’s inaugural sustainability category.

Ultimately, Tyson and St. Amand’s aims don’t stop at their line of beers and hard seltzers. They intend to inspire a new generation of brewers — as well as long-established producers — to think and work in a more conscious manner.

Eduardo “Lalo” González

Co-founder, LALO Tequila

For Eduardo “Lalo” González, tequila represents the “distillation of an entire country, culture, and people.” And in a saturated sector dominated by celebrity endorsements and marketing materials touting well-dressed foreign investors posing in front of agave plants, his brand LALO Tequila is a breath of fresh air, complete with a traditional, “return-to-roots” approach to production.

González’s grandfather, the legendary Don Julio González, had a passion for the agave plant, while his father had a passion for building a reputable brand, according to González. So, along with co-founders David R. Carballido and Jim McDermott, he combined these two ideals and launched the additive-free blanco tequila that bears the nickname given to him by his grandfather.

While his family legacy features in LALO’s marketing materials and on the brand’s website, by no means is this a focal point for the brand. It doesn’t need to be — the minimalist packaging and quality of the tequila more than speak for themselves. (In honor of Mexican traditions, the company currently only produces a blanco, with agave sourced from the highlands of Jalisco.)

“For the last 10 years, tequila [has been] losing authenticity and tradition,” González says. “We want to bring people back to traditionally made, additive-free blancos.”

In just three short years since the brand’s late-2019 launch in the U.S. market, LALO has become widely recognized among industry professionals as a top-shelf product that bolsters tequila’s reputation as a premium category. In doing so, González has not only met his own goals, but built upon the work of his father — cementing a future where “tequila can compete against Cognac and compete against whiskey.”

Armando Cortes

Bartender, Katana Kitten

All too often, the narrative behind successful bars hinges on the contributions of founders, owners, and those in the hot seat who relay stories of their establishment’s philosophies and menu creations. One problem with this status quo is that it ignores the efforts of the workers who bring these concepts to life on a daily basis. Case in point: Armando Cortes, a bartender at New York’s leading cocktail spot, Katana Kitten.

Now, it should be noted that in the case of this bar, figurehead Masahiro Urushido is more than deserving of all of the accolades that have rightly come his way. He’s an almost singular figure in New York’s bar scene, someone patrons will never forget after meeting. But it’s also thanks to staff members like Cortes that Urushido is able to take care of the necessary media duties that help bring his bar the much-deserved praise.

Cortes’s story is as humble as they come. He came to the United States from Mexico City to earn money and in hospitality found his calling. Cortes worked his way through the various roles of bars and restaurants, including washing dishes and handling delivery, before making the jump to working behind the bar — taking a pay cut and increasing his hours in the process.

“I never thought that I was going to be a bartender,” Cortes says, looking back on his personal journey and career trajectory. Yet, with inspiration from mentors including friend Eduardo Hernandez and Urushido, he’s honed his skills and service to become one of the most revered and trusted on-the-ground mixologists in the city. Simply put, if you’re ordering a cocktail in New York right now, Cortes ranks among the top professionals you’d be honored to have standing across the bar from you.

Chas Smith & Nikita Salmon

Co-founders, Sap!

Vermont-based cousins Chas Smith and Nikita Salmon are changing the sap industry, one sip at a time. The two represent the eighth generation of Vermonters in their family, and both Smith and Salmon own sugar bush farms in Underhill, Vt. With Salmon coming from a long line of maple industry workers, the cousins recognized how little control Vermont producers have over the sap market. And so, Sap! was born.

The Canadian maple syrup market has historically been the main destination for Vermont maple sap — which the cousins say has created price uncertainty among local producers. Sap! — a line of maple and birch sap-based sparkling waters and sodas that was featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank” — serves as a new market for maple and has helped to stabilize sap prices; a win for local growers.

Sap! is truly a champion of its community. A renewable resource, it’s an inherently sustainable product (the same trees can be tapped for sap, year after year). The cousins also donate 1 percent of their revenue toward protecting Vermont forests. With all this in mind — plus its many antioxidant-rich, immunity-boosting properties — Sap! is a N/A option (or cocktail mixer) you can feel good about.

Chase Sinzer

Co-Owner of and wine director for Claud NYC

After years working in 2- and 3-Star Michelin restaurants like NYC’s Momofuku Ko and Brooklyn Fare, Chase Sinzer is looking to remove the dogma from restaurant wine lists. At Claud, an East Village restaurant and wine bar he co-owns with Joshua Pinsky, selecting bottles to feature on the list has more to do with introducing guests to wines they may not recognize rather than charging a premium for the top vintages of the most recognizable labels.

Beyond introducing guests to delicious new wines, Sinzer also aims to help instill confidence when it comes to tasting and selecting wines. In addition to expanding consumers’ access to and knowledge of new wines, he also makes a conscious effort to promote a healthy and supportive work environment for his employees. Currently, the young restaurant — which opened in August 2022 — is only open Tuesday through Saturday but is preparing to open seven days a week. Sinzer hopes this will promote a healthy work-life balance. “I just want to give my staff the opportunity to enjoy a better life,” he says. “Being able to have a 40-hours-a- week job in a restaurant where you’re able to have fun and make good money is the goal in the service industry, and I want to provide that for my employees.”

Paula de Pano

Owner, Rocks + Acid Wine Shop.

When sommelier Paula de Pano moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., to work as Fearrington House Inn’s beverage director, she noticed the college town’s shocking lack of small, independent bottle shops where people could be introduced to affordable, approachable, and delicious wine. Today, her very own wine shop Rocks + Acid fills this void by offering a wide selection of accessible, ethically produced wines while highlighting female and minority producers.

For de Pano, the ability to defend every wine she has stocked on her shelf is crucial. She investigates each winemaker, their philosophies, and how they treat their vines, fruit, and employees, before examining exactly why each wine costs as much as it does. “The question comes down to whether or not it’s affordable,” she says. “I don’t want people exchanging their grocery money for a bottle of wine.”

As she looks to the future, she hopes to change the assumption that the only wines worth drinking are over $100 by offering free wine classes and starting dialogues with customers. “I want people to be able to enjoy wine and defend the reasons why they love it, no matter the price,” de Pano says. “Wine is more interesting that way.”

Piper Kristensen

Beverage director at Place de Fêtes and Oxalis

At Brooklyn hotspots Oxalis and Place de Fêtes, beverage director Piper Kristensen aims to create drinking experiences you can’t find anywhere else. In building bar programs around proprietary distillates — raw spirits that he blends himself — and wine programs highlighting small producers only, he’s well on his way to doing so. At Oxalis, Kristensen wanted to stray away from “Mr. Potato Head cocktails” — drinks that can be made using any brand of spirit, by anyone, anywhere — as they’ve always felt limiting to him.

“Now, working with raw materials, I can build a cocktail from the ground up instead of deconstructing a product and figuring out how to work with something that’s already been fine-tuned by someone else,” says Kristensen.

The food and beverages lists at Place de Fêtes, a cozy Clinton Hill wine bar, focus on the Iberian Peninsula, a region Kristensen noticed does not get much attention in New York City dining. Beyond concentrating on Spanish and Portuguese wines, Kristensen looks to highlight small producers, now challenging himself to find wines with such limited production, they cannot be imported through traditional means.

“I just want to find ways to curate something that is really special and unique,” he says. “I want the people who are making the food, making the drinks, and curating these lists to be going out and adventuring. That’s how you create something special.”

Paul Brady

Owner, Paul Brady Wine

After a decade of working as a sommelier in New York City and later for the New York Wine and Grape Foundation where he served as a wine ambassador, Paul Brady became immersed completely in New York State wines. Now, with Paul Brady Wine in Beacon, N.Y., he celebrates and shares New York wines with every visitor who walks through the door. Open with a unique permit known as a Farm Winery License, Paul Brady Wine is able to operate as both a winery, bottle shop, and bar in the Hudson Valley.

In addition to producing five custom wines with grapes grown locally, all of which can be purchased at the shop and bar, the Farm Winery License also allows Brady to stock a number of other New York ciders, beers, wines, and spirits, as long as they are made from 75 percent New York-grown grapes for wine, and 100 percent New York fruits and agriculture for other beverages. Now, his main goal is to prove that the region’s wines deserve a spot on Americans’ dinner tables. “I don’t want New York wine to be a chore for sommeliers or a box to tick off,” he says. “I want it to be an opportunity. I want to create a movement for all restaurants and bar owners to feel proud to display a local wine on their list.”

Larry Haertel Jr. & Aaron Telch

Co-founders, Jiant

Unconventional RTD brand Jiant is growing larger by the day.

Led by longtime friends Larry Haertel Jr. and Aaron Telch, the duo introduced the brand in 2019. Telch started out home brewing kombucha in his Santa Monica apartment, launching as a company just prior to the pandemic. While botanical, real-fruit-based hard kombucha marked the company’s first release, the duo says they don’t necessarily think of themselves as a hard kombucha brand.

“When it comes to innovation, it’s a constant balance between creating things that are new and interesting, but also presenting them in a familiar way,” Telch says.

Prior to founding Jiant, the duo researched wellness-focused brands made using “better-for-you” ingredients, and noticed an opportunity in the alcohol industry. Telch and Haertel focused their personal wellness values to launch Jiant as a selection of hard kombuchas. From there, they gradually expanded into hard teas, RTD cocktails, and other fun spins on familiar classics.

Jiant continues to innovate and expand, with more better-for-you releases arriving in the near future.

Amanda Shulman

Chef & owner, Her Place Supper Club

What began as a hobby and side hustle for Philadelphia’s Amanda Schulman has become something bigger than she ever imagined — figuratively speaking. Her brainchild Her Place is a 24-foot supper-club-inspired restaurant near Rittenhouse Square, an extension of the dinner party series she’d thrown in her own apartment since her undergraduate days at Penn. “I grew up in a big Jewish family,” Shulman says, which inspired her love of cooking since childhood. After getting a job in a kitchen through an undergraduate food writing class, she says, “I never left. I was just completely addicted.”

The passion project has quickly grown into a highly-regarded restaurant with national acclaim from the likes of The New York Times. Her Place’s cuisine is flecked with Italian, French, and Jewish influences; the prix fixe menu changes biweekly and is staunchly substitution free, but a lengthy wine list gives diners the opportunity to get creative. The tiny space houses almost 200 bottles that range from traditional to unexpected. “But the most important thing is,” Shulman says, “it all needs to taste good with food.”

Rodney Hines

Co-founder, Métier Brewing

Métier Brewing is making “damn good beer” that’s full of purpose, too.

In 2018, Rodney Hines co-founded the Seattle-based brewery, which offers a diverse range of lagers, pilsners, and other popular beer styles. Métier shares a name with the bicycle shop of Todd Herriott, Hines’ business partner and friend. The word translates to “one’s calling” or “one’s destiny” in French, something Hines feels captures the spirit of Métier’s mission. He began homebrewing just after college, some 20 years ago, and continued to do so as a hobby over the years with friends. Hines likes to make beer “with the spirit of community,” he says.

Métier Brewing is one of the small number of Black-owned breweries in the country. The idea first struck Hines after he visited a Seattle craft beer event and realized he was the only person of color in attendance, an all-too-common experience shared by members of the BIPOC community. Various experiences over the years, such as a study abroad in London, also served as inspiration for the business. Hines was formerly the director of social impact at Starbucks, an experience he says also contributes to his leadership of the Métier team.

Métier’s flagship taproom is located in the historically Black Central District neighborhood of Seattle — a destination Hines wants more people to visit. It’s also the resident brewery at Steelheads Alley, a partnership that honors the Seattle Steelheads and recognizes the historic Negro League baseball team.

Max Rosenstock, Niki Nakazawa, Yuskei Murayama

Co-founders, NETA

Since 2012, Max Rosenstock, Niki Nakazawa, and Yuskei Murayama have worked with over a dozen family producers from the hills of Miahuatlán, Oaxaca and the 110-person village of Logoche to commercialize single-batch agave spirits via their brand NETA. The area’s complex terroir and deep-rooted traditional practices have made it one of the best regions in Mexico for producing terruño (terroir)-driven spirits.

Each of the three co-founders brings a different skill set and perspective to their negociant business. Rosenstock’s deep knowledge of the spirit and its sociocultural and agricultural context helped ingrain them in the community. Nakazawa arrived with over a decade spent living and working in Mexico City in the arts, natural wine, and restaurant world, while Yuskei’s experience in founding, scaling, and running a multinational import and distribution company brought “structure and strategy” to the company. “As is so often the case, many a shared copita initially brought the three of us together,” the trio says in a combined email to VinePair.

Notably absent on the bottles of NETA’s releases is the word “mezcal,” though each certainly qualifies from an aromatic, flavor, and production standpoint. The reason for the omission: The term mezcal is a protected Denomination of Origin (DOM), governed by often-changing and arguably restrictive production criteria. “Our use of the term ‘agave spirits’ is a community decision that enabled producers to focus on preserving the family recipes and practices that grew from their specific historical context, as opposed to navigating a set of externally imposed criteria,” the brand states.

NETA’s efforts have resulted in a win-win for spirits fans and small-scale Mexican distillers. A final, refreshing, aspect of the brand is NETA’s physical presence in Mexico. “Being here in Oaxaca is everything,” the trio says. “NETA is distilled from place and community. There is no substitute [for] being here.”

Tamika Hall

Co-author, “Black Mixcellence”

While the contributions of Black mixologists have historically been ignored or dismissed, Tamika Hall is working to bring those early innovators to light.

The longtime spirits writer co-authored the book “Black Mixcellence,” which was published in July 2022. Over the course of some 150 pages, Hall and co-author Colin Asare-Appiah explore the stories of Black trailblazers in the spirits industry, from prominent individuals such as Nathan “Nearest” Green to the narratives of lesser-known individuals like homestead distiller Bertie Brown and Mint Julep innovator John Dabney. In addition to historic innovators in the spirit industry, Hall explores modern-day gamechangers.

“It’s seeing that type of shine, that’s the main goal of the book,” she says. “It’s giving these mixologists a place; their cocktails are there, and their talent is documented.”

In the coming year, Hall’s looking forward to gathering mixologists at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in July 2023. The book’s promotional team plans to host more collaborative events, beyond Tales, to highlight the modern professionals mentioned in the book.

On the written side of things, Hall and Asare-Appiah aren’t done yet. They aim to work on a future edition of “Black Mixcellence” to ensure the important stories of Black professionals continue to be told.