Wine judge Dr. Liz Thach at the 2022 McMinnville Wine & Food Classic Wine Competition. ##PHOTO BY JASON KAPLAN
Behind the scenes, volunteer John Martinez prepares glasses for judging.##PHOTO BY JASON KAPLAN

Battle of the Bottles

Best-of-show showdown a thrill to witness

By Paul Omundson

It was a riveting drama, Shakespeare style, as two superb wines soared through their categories and locked horns for the top honor at the 2022 McMinnville Wine & Food Classic Wine Competition.

Neck and neck, Iris Vineyards 2020 Pinot Gris and 40:31 Wines 2018 Blanc de Noir battled for the top spot. But before the Best of Show tasting, the 12 judges evaluated their way through more than 200 bottles from 60 Oregon wineries, the deepest and richest field yet in the event’s 29-year history. Gathering submissions from around the state, not just the Willamette Valley, has strengthened the competition program, while making for a more interesting contest.

Late afternoon at Abbey Road Farm near Carlton, the dozen judges debated the final two wines, swirling and often gazing out the windows at the magnificent hilltop view of the Cascades. These sensory experts were committed to a wonderful, crazy drama of choosing just one.

An electrifying debate among the judges topped off the competition. Behind the scenes, volunteers sensed the tension, pouring in from their work stations to the periphery of the deliberation, watching in awe as the final discussion unfolded.

Judges argued two views: Those advocating Pinot Gris emphasized the important criterion of the wine being representative of its variety, a splendid example of what classic Oregon Pinot Gris can be: fresh, bright, crisp. Those favoring the sparkling agreed heartily with that assessment, yet they indicated when choosing the best of the best, a wine’s individual expression is also vital.

A pro-sparkling judge offered the last word as the debate ended. “I think the Pinot Gris is very good,” he stressed to his colleagues, “but I’ve tasted a lot of well-made Pinot Gris wines just like it. You’re voting for a wine that is a great representative, but I think for the top honor you need to go beyond that.” 

Winner by a whisker was the Iris Pinot Gris, the first time a Gris has taken “Best of Show” and “Best White” in the 29 years of the competition. (See sidebar for category winners.)

It was a formidable display of Oregon wines. The McMinnville message was heard loud and clear: Oregon wineries continue to diversify varieties at an exciting pace and world-class level.

A volunteer at the event summed it up best, chatting with his girlfriend as she looked over the expansive table of hundreds of opened competition bottles after the judging. Pondering which six to take home — a perk for the volunteers — she smiled and said, “Doesn’t matter what ones you choose. Every one of them is great.”

If you were not one of the lucky people attending the competition in January, don’t miss your chance to taste these wines and more at the main event, March 11–13, inside the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville.

Why not a tie?

“Both were outstanding and either could have taken the prize,” says McMinnville judge Ellen Landis about the battle for Best of Show. “Personally, I wouldn’t have minded a tie.” This bi-coastal sommelier, wine writer and author of the blog Ellen On Wine fits at least 18 wine competitions into her annual schedule. She says she’s rarely seen drama as compelling as the 2022 McMinnville contest. “A discussion like this is healthy and smart, and can often change the final choice,” she says. “There’s a lot of quality wines out there, and more and more there will be very close votes like this one. I think it’s not an issue when it’s this close to have co-winners.”

Fellow judge Hoke Harden explains why, in his view, the Pinot Gris edged past the bubbly. He’s done just about everything during his nearly 40 years in wine. However, Harden points out his background as a retailer, restaurateur, buyer, wholesaler and marketer gives him a “consumers’ view.” He explains, “What I bring to the table is a buyer’s perspective. Some judges can get lost in the technical aspects of judging. I’m aware of that. But I’m purposefully tuned to consumers, and I judge wine on what’s a pleasing, enjoyable, drinkable wine to them.” 

In other words, Harden explains, just because it’s simple and not complex, doesn’t mean Pinot Gris’ attributes don’t allow it to compete at the highest level “especially in this case,” he emphasizes, “where Iris made the 2020 vintage with exceptional skill.” Harden believes it deserves to win and, in the same breath, admits this turned into a close call. “The Pinot Gris represents its variety and place superbly, and the sparkling was just a notch behind.” 

The curtains closed on the McMinnville competition drama seven hours after it began. Judges and volunteers were exhausted. But they also seemed elated. After intense words had been tossed back and forth just a few minutes earlier during the final debate, it now all eased into warm camaraderie. Together, judges and volunteers lingered in the hall to enjoy the day’s success. They toasted a bold new era emerging in Oregon wines before heading out to their cars on a cold, crisp Oregon night.

Note: Omundson observed the proceedings as a volunteer at the McMinnville competition.

2022 Category Winners 

Best of Show

Iris Vineyards 2020 Pinot Gris

Best White

Iris Vineyards 2020 Pinot Gris

Best Sparkling

40:31 Wines 2018 Blanc de Noir

Best Red

Melrose Vineyard 2015 Syrah

Best Pinot Noir

Cubanísimo Vineyards 2016 Estate Pinot Noir

Best Red Blend

K & M Wines 2019 Treble

Best Chardonnay

Cardwell Hill Cellars 2020 The Bard Chard

Best White Blend

Chris James Cellars 2020 Cuvée Blanc

All results are listed on




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