Wine Enthusiast’s Person of the Year 2022 Wine Star Awards – Jeff O’Neill

By Matt Kettmann September 27, 2022
Wine Enthusiast Magazine

‘We’re the Ones That Can Make the Biggest Impact in the Industry,’ Says Jeff O’Neill, Person of the Year. Jeff is CEO & Founder, O’Neill Vintners & Distillers
After building Golden State Vintners into the country’s fourth largest winery, taking it public and then selling it, Marin County native Jeff O’Neill founded O’Neill Vintners & Distillers in 2004. It’s steadily grown into the 10th largest winery in America, with 13 nationally distributed brands and two dozen private-label wines—all amounting to more than seven million cases produced annually.
“We basically brought coastal winemaking techniques to the Central Valley,” says O’Neill of the value-minded wines he makes primarily in Parlier, California. “We’re trying to please many consumers rather than a few upper luxury consumers.”
Pledging a philosophy of “no drama,” he’s proud of treating people right. In an industry still dominated by white males, almost half of O’Neill’s 350 employees are female, 40 of them in executive-level roles. Alongside former NFL star (and Intercept vintner) Charles Woodson, O’Neill started four-year scholarships for BIPOC students at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo and Sonoma State. And this year, O’Neill Vintners became a certified B Corporation, putting transparency, charity and equity above the bottom line.
O’Neill’s sustainability initiatives may change the entire industry. He installed enough solar panels to power the company’s bottling, cooperage and storage operations and created the country’s largest worm-powered wastewater treatment system in the wine industry. He’s testing the effects of large-scale regenerative farming at Robert Hall Winery in Paso Robles, which he purchased six years ago, and just launched ingredient-labeling on his Harken Chardonnay. By 2024, 100% of the grapes that they purchase from more than 200 farmers across 15,000 acres of vineyard will be certified as sustainable.
He’s already eyeing the next challenge: “Can growers sustainably grow grapes and be carbon neutral?” asks O’Neill. “I don’t know if that’s the holy grail, but it will be an important element in the future. The industry can go to the next level, but somebody has to show that it’s possible.”
Wine runs in O’Neill’s blood—his Armenian grandfather turned leftover Central Valley table grapes into dessert wine—but the need to help others may be a deeper family trait. “He was a smart guy and he loved helping growers succeed,” says O’Neill of his late grandfather. “Today, we’re doing the same thing. Fast forward 50 years, and it’s really all about creating community around our industry. It’s about sharing breakthroughs in technology. If we can wake up in 10 years and see that we did our part to create a carbon neutral environment, then I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit.”
He hopes the other big companies are watching. “There are about eight wineries that produce 80 percent of the wine in California—we need to make sure that all of those folks are thinking about this,” he says. “We’re the ones that can make the biggest impact in the industry.”
For that, Wine Enthusiast is honoring Jeff O’Neill with our Wine Star Award for Person of the Year.
O'Neill's brands include Harken, Line 39, Back house, Camelot, Rabble, Intercept, Robert Hall, Day Owl, Accomplice, Curmudgeon, Gravelly Ford, Nvinophobia, Redtree, Just Bee, Evening Shade, Wellesley Farms, Game Box, and Omage.