by Mark Fisher
No one has worked harder or longer to put Ohio wines and wineries “on the map” – inside and outside of the Buckeye State – than Donniella Winchell.
Winchell, known as “Donnie” to friends and colleagues, has served as executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association (OWPA) for four decades. Her involvement with the Association actually began a few years before that.
“In the late 1970s, each of the original OWPA board members put $20 on the table – for a total of $120 – to launch the Association,” Winchell told TheWineBuzz. “Then in March of 1978, the board hired me for $3 an hour ‘because I could type.’ And I’m not kidding,” she added. Her initial position as part-time executive secretary expanded to executive director in the early 1980s.
Needless to say, the Ohio wine scene has changed juuuuussssst a bit since then.
For starters, the number of wineries operating in Ohio has grown from 13, to more than 350. And Ohio’s early reputation as a wine-growing region that produced only sweet wines from native-American grapes like the Concord and the Catawba, has broadened exponentially as innovative winemakers throughout the state started fermenting world-class dry and sweet wines from European-style and hybrid grapes.
One constant presence throughout Ohio’s wine evolution – a revolution, really – has been Donnie Winchell. Her Ohio wine industry colleagues say the institutional knowledge and dedication that Winchell brings to her job, are invaluable.
“I have had the honor of working alongside Donnie Winchell for a decade-and-a-half,” said Christy Eckstein, executive director of the Ohio Grape Industries Committee, the quasi-state agency affiliated with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, which helps to promote Ohio vineyards and wineries. “Anyone who knows Donnie knows that her mind is constantly spinning with ideas for promoting Ohio wines,” Eckstein said. “We are all honored and very fortunate to have such a strong and well-respected advocate for Ohio wines,” she added.
Tony Kosicek said Winchell was instrumental in helping to guide him through some challenging regulatory obstacles a decade ago, when he and his wife, Mauri, were launching Kosicek Vineyards in Geneva. Winchell remains an important go-to resource for winery owners, Kosicek said. “If I need something, I can call Donnie, and she points me in the right direction,” he said.
Matt Meineke, founder and winemaker at M Cellars in Geneva, said Winchell “has been a great advocate for Ohio wine producers when it comes to government, legislation, promotion and other issues.”
In the last few years, Winchell’s advocacy has earned recognition well beyond Ohio’s borders.
In 2020, Winchell was named a “Wine Industry Leader” in the issue of Wine Business Monthly honoring that year’s “change-makers and influencers.” In 2021, Winchell received the Richard Smith Distinguished Service Award from the National Grape Research Alliance, WineAmerica, and the Winegrape Growers of America. And in early 2022, Wine Industry Advisor named Winchell one of the industry’s 10 “Most Inspiring People.”
“Certainly, the recognition has been wonderful, but beyond the personal perspective, it has made a much larger world aware that Ohio is doing some very creative and exciting things,” Winchell said of the awards. “I have had the chance to brag to people across and outside the country about Ohio wineries’ medals, about our vibrant tourism efforts, and about our family commitment to grape growing,” she added.
Winchell wears many hats: she serves as chair of the OWPA’s Vintage Ohio Wine Festival and as coordinator of the License to Steal National Wine Marketing Conference; she writes weekly wine columns for a dozen Ohio print and online publications and serves as an adjunct professor at Kent State University’s Ashtabula campus, where she teaches wine-related courses.
Not bad for a history major who did not initially pursue a career in wine, despite growing up on a Northern Ohio grape farm. Winchell’s father, Tony Debevc Sr., was a founding member of the Tri-County Grape Growers Association, and her parents and brother founded Chalet Debonné (now Debonné Vineyards) in 1972.
Winchell, a graduate of Allegheny College, taught high school history before stepping away, in part, to raise her family. “When I left for college, my dad said, ‘Find a job you love, and you will never go to work.’ As a history teacher, I had 2000 years of a dozen civilizations to explore, with something new to learn each semester,” Winchell said.
As OWPA executive director, Winchell says each day is different. “There is always something new to learn – maybe a challenge to face – so it is never boring. And our wineries are a community, all with different personalities, but a common love of wine and winemaking,” she explained. “It has been inspiring and joyful to work for the OWPA. I have been able to travel to some of the best-known wine growing regions in the country, to explore, to taste and to learn things to bring back to our community.”
Winchell and her husband own Adventure Zone, a family entertainment center in Geneva-on-the-Lake. The couple has three adult children and nine grandchildren, who Winchell loves to brag about in Facebook posts, especially when they are excelling in volleyball and wrestling competitions.
What keeps Winchell going? “That’s easy: I love what I do,” she said. “I love the people with whom I have the privilege of working. And I get to sip some amazing wines along the way.”
Mark Fisher is the former editor of TheWineBuzz and served as wine writer for the Dayton Daily News and Dayton.com.