Growing up on a Concord grape farm, Donniella Winchell never had the desire to pursue a career in the grape or wine business. Instead, after college, she took her talents to the classroom and taught history in public schools. With 2000 years of dozens of civilizations and 180 students per semester, there was never a dull moment and always something new to learn. “Eventually, there was some kind of ‘wine gene’ that brought me back to the industry,” Winchell says. “Working in this industry—viticulture, winemaking, research, consumer events or wine education—I’ve embraced that there is always something more to learn, and then to share.”
Over the last 40 years, the Ohio wine industry has grown tremendously. With an initial reputation of producing only “sweet and jammy” wines, Ohio-grown viniferas are now winning top awards in the nation’s most prestigious judging competitions. When Winchell became executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association in 1978, there were only 13 wineries. Today, that number has grown to almost 400 statewide. While it may seem like an overnight success, Winchell says it has been a wonderful journey with the help of lots of partners to build this community.
“Our wineries are hosting millions of visitors annually, and I’m lucky to have the chance to share our stories at tourism and wine conferences across the country,” says Winchell. “Ohio wineries genuinely respect each other, and we mutually celebrate the successes of everyone.”
Like many industries during the pandemic, the Ohio wine industry learned to become agile and nimble in order keep business moving forward and serve consumers safely. Zoom and social media supported collaboration and productivity in ways that Winchell couldn’t have imagined and helped to make state and national wine communities stronger than ever.
“Ohio wines have flourished through the pandemic and brought thousands of new faces from across the Midwest to sip, relax and socially distance on 30 beautiful acres,” says Winchell. “Not only were our wineries deemed safe destinations tourism organizations, but we had incredible support from local elected officials and state alcohol regulators to expand our premises and offer to go wine. Most wineries’ bottom lines exceeded those of pre-Covid days.”
On a personal note, the pandemic has also sparked a new level of joy in her life over the past year. “Surely by being very careful, I didn’t miss out on my kids’ and grandkids’ activities,” she says.
The industry’s achievements are truly a testament to Winchell’s passion and enthusiasm for Ohio wine, her incredible leadership, and the long-lasting relationships she has built over the years. “The very best part of this job has been the friendships I’ve developed over decades. There have been so many special people to recognize, I am reticent to single out anyone,” she says. Specifically, Winchell credits Jim Trezise, president of WineAmerica, for his inspiration and friendship. “He has helped me through my biggest professional challenges: the ups and downs of association management as well as living through the perils of political winds,” she says. “I am forever in his debt.”
In addition to her role as executive director of OWPA, Winchell also serves on several boards, and lends her expertise to economic and travel councils. “When I left for college, my dad advised, ‘Find a job you love and you will never go to work,’ and I’m lucky that I seldom ‘work’ here,” Winchell says. “My job is wonderful because two days are never the same, so I’m never bored. My amazing board allows me to explore new projects all the time, so much so that I don’t think I’ll accomplish all that I hope to complete.”
When she isn’t keeping busy with Ohio wine business, Winchell enjoys spending time with her family and embracing her eclectic palate. A lover of Rieslings and other cool climate whites in the summer, she typically returns to dry reds when the weather turns cold. “When I travel, I always explore wines from the region I am visiting, but I do carry a lot of Ohio wine to share,” she says. “Wine appreciation is a journey of exploration, one which never grows stale.”
As she continues to uplift the Ohio wine industry, Winchell looks forward to exploring, learning, and accomplishing so much more. “I grew up on a small farm with immigrant grandparents and a very middle-class but hard-working family who always offered who lots of love,” she says. “All of that provided a strong foundation, but this industry opened doors to a career never imagined and I’m so very lucky.”
About Wine’s Most Inspiring People: Each year, Wine Industry Advisor chooses 10 individuals within the wine industry who showcase leadership, innovation, and inspiration. For the first time in 2021, WIA opened up the submission process to the industry at large. With over 100 nominees, the editorial team selected the top 10 individuals who they felt has truly positively impacted the US wine culture over the past year. Read more here.