I know it is mid-February, and I know the weather we are having is a fake Spring, but I refuse to allow the fakery to sink in. Bike rides are occurring. Flowers are blooming. Flip flops are being worn, and I am sure shorts will happen this weekend. It also sounds like the indoor mask mandate will be on the side of the highway before March 31st. The tease of Spring with a sprinkle of normalcy is worse than being a four-year-old on Christmas Eve.
Living in Oregon, there is a funny haha, not funny uh oh, that Pinot Noir is on tap as a convenience in our houses. Pinot is abundant, and there isn’t a shortage of stellar selections. Myself, I am sure I don’t appreciate Pinot as much as I should. I am also ashamed to say I am probably too critical of Pinot. But Oregon is known for this grape varietal, and breaking out of that mold is a bit difficult for the wine world at large.
For example, Paul Gregutt published an article in the Wine Enthusiast titled, “Oregon Chardonnay is Evolving: 10 Bottles to Try” brings attention to something other than Pinot from Oregon. Counterbalancing the highlight on Chardonnay, LM Archer published a piece titled, “Ponzi Vineyards’ Next Chapter.” It’s a great read, and I am still on the edge of my seat with a tub of popcorn slathered in butter with a glass of Bubbles, curious to see what Ponzi looks like in 5+ years. Outside of the waiting, what I found interesting in the article is a quote from Etienne Bizot, Chairman/CEO at Societe Jacques Bollinger (SJB), saying, “And to be frank, the Ponzi Vineyards project was the one which best fit our criteria, because of Pinot Noir.
Don’t get me wrong one bit. It is an absolute honor for a Champagne house founded in 1829 to recognize the Oregon Wine Country for stellar Pinot. Don’t we want a little more recognition, though? I say yes, but this comes from the spoiled brat with Pinot Noir on tap in his kitchen. Perhaps a Willamette Whiskey from Willamette Valley Vineyards will do the trick? Maybe, but that is an entirely different tangent. Truth be told, I have been waiting for at least five years for another bourbon project to come online.
One of the things I enjoy about what I do is hearing different opinions on various topics regarding Oregon wine. A considerable majority of the time, I sit back to observe the presented information. Some people think Chardonnay is just now taking off, while others feel Chardonnay took off somewhere around 2009. The correlation between both of these stories is that the Wente clone wasn’t ripening enough in Oregon. It wasn’t until the Dijon clone was more suitable for our climate.
There are many camps in Oregon wine, with my favorite being Sparkling. With a region growing killer Pinot and Chardonnay, there is no other topic than Sparkling from my perspective!
I could ramble on and on about what varietals are best for Oregon. I mean, I didn’t even dive into the Rhone varietals of Southern Oregon. On an early Saturday morning, the last thing you need is one person telling you which wine is the best for Oregon. Instead, why don’t we dive into this year’s McMinnville Wine Competition to see what varietals brought home the gold!
You may remember, I was a judge last year at the McMinnville Wine Competition. This year I had the opportunity to volunteer and get a peek behind the scenes to see how it all comes together.
There are many differences between being a judge and being a volunteer, the first being arrival time. I was instructed to show up between 7:30 and 8:00. I have zero issues getting up early, but dang, my morning routine starts at 5:00, and I usually am not done walking Globgor until 8:00. Side note: I was nervous as all got out like last year wearing deodorant. Trying to find an effective non-scent deodorant is next to impossible! Zero difference this year. I was still worried as all get out. My arrival was ten minutes past 8:00. Nobody noticed my tardiness.
My job for the day was pouring wine and helping to remove glasses from the judges’ table. First, wines needed to be opened, and guess what, I didn’t bring a wine key. I love it when I come fully prepared and show up on time. Lucky for me, Karyn from Byrn Mawr was there to save the day. I first met Karyn at last year’s competition, and she invited me to a killer tasting the following month.
With a borrowed wine key, the foil was extracted, corks were popped, and I got a chance to see some of the wineries participating in the competition. One of the factors I enjoy about this competition is that I have never heard of a majority of the wineries. However, I was familiar with a nice handful of wineries such as Cristom, Benedetto, Bryn Mawr, Cathedral Ridge, Chris James, Lady Hill, Lenne, Red Lily, Potter’s Vineyard, Willamette Valley Vineyards, and Youngberg Hill.
I teamed up with a partner who rolled the cart out to the table, and it took us a few attempts to find our rhythm. I have to tell you before we got into our groove, I almost had a freakin heart attack. One of the judges, Michael Alberty, wine editor for the Oregonian, was sitting at the table we were responsible for almost took a wine bath. During one of the trips to the table, I went to grab a glass of wine from the cart, and the base of the glass caught on the rim of the cart, causing the wine to come within an inch or so of Michael. Luckily none got on him, but now my feeble attempt earlier to say hi and network went right down the drain. Needless to say, my job the rest of the day was to pour and remove glasses from the table.
Besides pouring wine and doing my best not to spill wine on people, there was some downtime between pours. At first, I followed the lead of veteran volunteer Karyn preparing glasses for after-lunch festivities. The gold and double gold wines would dwindle into Best Wine Blend, Best Sparkling, Best Chardonnay, Best Red Blend, Best Pinot Noir, Best Red Varietal, Best White Varietal, and finally Best of Show.
After a bit, the glasses were all caught up, the wines were ready for the next round, and I don’t do very well standing around twiddling my thumbs. So I decided to go out and listen to the judges talk about the wines. It is always fascinating to me to hear people talk about wine. You always learn something. There was one wine the judges were talking about. I peaked over the shoulder of one judge to get the number on the wine and walked back behind the curtain to check it out.
It was the 2020 Cuvee Blanc from Chris James Cellars with a blend consisting of 70% Sucheurebe, 10% Huxelrebe, and 20% Gewurztraminer. At this point in the day, volunteers were ok’d to sample a few wines. I was very intrigued and decided to grab a glass. Trying a blend of two grapes I never even heard of before was worth it on so many levels! I had an advantage the judges did not. I had the luxury of knowing more details about the wine, and I got to pick and choose what I wanted to try.
Once lunch was completed, all of the wines were tasted, and it was time for the judges to pick the best of the best. It meant there were fewer jobs for the volunteers, and I wasn’t about to stand around doing nothing. So I grabbed wine bottles and began pouring. I poured, poured some more, and guess what I poured some more. At one point, I thought I caught up, but nope I had to put my deodorant to the test. I seriously thought I would hold up the judges from tasting wines, but somehow, I barely managed to stay ahead of them.
Once I finished, it was coming down to the best of show. Here is what we already knew: the Best White Blend went to the Chris James Cuvee Blanc I mentioned earlier. Best Sparkling Wine went to 40:30 Wines and their 2018 Blanc de Noir. Best Chardonnay was the 2020 The Bard Chard from Cardwell Hill Cellars. The 2019 Treble from K&M Wines took home Best Red Blend. Best Pinot Noir was from Cubanismo Vineyards, with the 2016 Estate Pinot Noir. Melrose Vineyard took home Best Red Varietal with their 2015 Syrah, and finally, the Best White Varietal was the 2020 Pinot Gris from Iris Vineyards.
It is now time to pick Best of Show for the group. I finished pouring wines, and the only thing I wanted to do was sit down and hear the judges duke it. The two wines up for Best of Show are the 2020 Iris Vineyards Pinot Gris and 40:30’s Blanc de Noir. Carl Giavanti was the master of ceremonies for the event, he prompted some feedback from the judges, and there was silence. I couldn’t handle the silence and blurted out, “Hands down, the Sparkling is best, plus it goes to show how Oregon is becoming a Sparkling wine region.” I knew I should have kept my mouth shut, and Carl was very gentlemen-like, telling me I was not supposed to say anything. The following 10 minutes were fascinating to me. Judges kept changing their minds. Arguments were made we shouldn’t be picking a wine just because it is a Sparkling. Instead, we should be choosing the best wine. Ultimately, it came down to the Pinot Gris barely edging out the Sparkling. I was disappointed, but it was fascinating to see it unfold. If you are curious about the Gold and Double Gold winners, here is a list. For me, a few highlights were two Pinots from Potter’s, Chris James Cuvee Blanc, and Byrn Mawr’s Tempranillo.
I talked with a few judges, including Michael, with everything wrapped up. Thank goodness the spilling of wine earlier in the day didn’t cloud his viewpoint of me too much.
If you are not aware, this wine competition is part of the McMinnville Wine and Food Classic at Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. It is coming up on March 11 through the 13th. As of right now, I am planning to attend on the evening of March 11th. Friday night admission is $20, Saturday is $30, and Sunday is $20. There will be food, music, art of course wine. The event helps support children’s education at St. James School.
I’m circling back around real quick on my original rant. Oregon is not all about Pinot. I challenge you to explore the depths and beauty Oregon has to offer outside of the Pinot Winehouse.