Marked glasses and wines line tables behind the scenes at the 2021 McMinnville Wine & Food Classic Wine Competition. ##Photo provided

Sniff, Sip, Spit, Repeat

All in a day's work at McMinnville competition

By Paul Omundson

Twelve wine experts with amazingly refined palates will convene Jan. 8 for the annual McMinnville Wine & Food Classic Wine Competition, the early kickoff for the consumer event, March 11–13, at Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum — winners will be announced at the three-day public celebration.

Throughout the day, the judging panel will sniff, sip and spit, evaluating about 200 wines. Key criteria include appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel and body.

Welcome to the utterly unique world of wine competition judges. In their daily lives, they are winemakers, writers, marketers and other skilled practitioners in the industry. But during competitions, their gift of extraordinarily developed sensory skills is on full display. A competition’s reputation and impact rests on their tongues and how well they perform their duties.

Using that measure, the McMinnville contest is on an ascending arc.

“One of the areas we wanted to improve was attracting the best judges possible,” says Carl Giavanti, longtime wine public relations and media consultant who works with wine competition manager Rolland Toevs in adding continual enhancements to the 29-year-old event.

“We’re getting there,” Giavanti adds. “We’re attracting more outside judges and ones who are very influential in the wine world.” That effort goes hand-in-hand with the competition’s foundation in evaluating beyond Pinots grown and made in the Willamette Valley.

“Reaching out to all the AVAs, we continue to receive a wonderful richness of diversity with entries from all around Oregon.”

Judges are drawn to the McMinnville contest for a variety of reasons, including an overnight experience at the chic Atticus Hotel in downtown.

But it’s more than just the perks. Maxine Borcherding, sommelier, hospitality education guru and co-founder of the Taste and Compare Academy of Wine, Spirits & Food, would be a returning judge, except she’s in the middle of moving to the Silver Coast of Portugal to start a new career in wine tourism there.

“I think over the past few years, the McMinnville competition has grown in prestige as it draws a better and broader range of wines,” Borcherding says. “It’s become an important venue especially for new and small producers to get their names out. The judges are a wonderful group. They’re among the best and they come here on their own dime. They like the St. James School connection. But most of all, they like the opportunity to see the next generation of Oregon winemakers. They can get an eyeball on new talent.”

What the judges say

Portland native Eric Degerman, a five-time McMinnville Wine Competition judge, owns and operates a number of wine competitions, including The Cascadia International and Great Northwest Invitational. “I do this as a business,” he explains. “These competitions allow me to be good ambassador for the industry. The McMinnville event is the only nonprofit competition I’m involved in. I like the fact it’s a not-for-profit event and a big revenue generator for St. James School.”

There are good pickings in McMinnville for Degerman in another way, too. “The competition is a great resource for wine stories,” he says. Such fodder feeds his inner wine journalist passion through numerous platforms, including Wine Press Northwest, which he co-founded. “In McMinnville, I can see which producers are doing what, and I enjoy being a judge in the competition, too.”

Michael Alberty returns for his third McMinnville competition in January. The wine editor for The Oregonian also pens a regular column in the Oregon Wine Press. Alberty wishes to expand to international publications and savors the idea of writing a book about Oregon wine. “We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the history of wine in Oregon,” he says. “There’s a lot of intriguing stories out there.” He’ll be sniffing for them in and around McMinnville.

“I love coming to McMinnville,” adds Chris Sawyer, who returns for his second year of competition. The sommelier, wine judge and consultant waxes poetic about wine and food via his online Sommelier Files and The Varietal Show. He now lives in Sonoma County and treasures his Oregon visits. “I can’t believe how good Oregon wines have gotten,” he says. “In the old days” — he’s been a wine judge for 25 years — “it was hit and miss. Today, the quality is so high.” He especially values the camaraderie among judges and interesting table talk. “There will be three judges per table at McMinnville. We each have our own diversified palates, and the discussions will be great.”

Ken Robertson, retired editor of the Tri-City Herald in Washington, will also add his expertise to the panel. He’s written about Northwest wines since 1978. “These days I’m discovering Oregon Chardonnay, and I look forward to judging some of them in January. Every time I come to McMinnville for the competition, I learn so much from fellow judges. And I love seeing things winemakers are doing that’s different.”



McMinnville Classic Wine Competition 2022 Judges
Deborah Parker Wong  WSET educator, Slow Wine USA editor, writer
James Melendez  James the Wine Guy wine reviewer, videographer
Dr. Liz Thach MW  Master of Wine, book author, educator, consultant
Christopher Sawyer  sommelier, journalist, public speaker, educator
Michael Alberty  The Oregonian senior wine editor, OWP columnist
Cyndi Gierok  Fred Meyer Stores wine buyer
Eric Degerman  founder, Seattle Times writer
Fred Swan  San Francisco Wine School educator, WWET founder, writer
Ellen Landis  sommelier, wine journalist, specialist, educator
Ken Robertson  Wine Press Northwest editor, Tri-City Herald contributor
Patrick McElligott  Chemeketa instructor, Sineann sales and marketing
Hoke Harden  veteran wine consultant, writer, educator, critic
Carl Giavanti  Carl Giavanti Consulting owner

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