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Reigning Pinot Noir at The Joel Palmer House: A Once in a Lifetime Cellar Raid

Surrounded by hundreds of bottles of Pinot Noir, some dating back to the years when the ground breaking pioneers of the Oregon wine industry bottled their first vintages, I had to pinch myself more than once.  Floor to ceiling, earthquake-proof, custom-made wine racks, stocked with some of Oregon’s finest and rarest wines, I had just received clear instructions from Chef/Owner, Chris Czarnecki: “pick a bottle…any bottle.”  Pinch.  Dust covered bottles of early vintage Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noirs ( from the 1980s and 90s, and some even signed) filled the slots on one side.  The other side boasted a variety of vintages from powerhouse Pinot producers like Beaux Freres, Bergström, Domaine Serene, Elk Cove, Archery Summit, Lange Estate, Eyrie Vineyards and many, many more.  In front of me, countless wooden wine boxes labeled with Domaine Drouhin and Laurène lined a wall - an Oregon wine enthusiast’s dream for those who know Laurène is the flagship estate grown Pinot Noir produced by the quintessential Domaine Drouhin - named after owner/winemaker, Veronique Drouhin’s, eldest daughter.  My mind was spinning, my heart was racing - I was standing in one of Oregon’s most famous wine cellars, carefully pulling dust covered bottles from their slots, one by one, in an effort to find the one Pinot Noir that would fulfill this once in a lifetime opportunity.    

Magnum sized bottles from some of Oregon’s most well-known Pinot Noir producers lgrace one of the custom-made racks in the cellar

Full of excitement, deciding on which bottle to pull from the shelves was not an easy decision.

Peeking through the magnums to get a glimpse of what’s beyond.

Wooden boxes of Domaine Drouhin’s beloved Laurene  Pinot Noir

The Joel Palmer House, located in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine country, is not only one of Oregon’s most famous wine country restaurants, it is one of Oregon’s finest historic homes.  It’s on the Oregon Historic Register; as well as, the National Register of Historic Places.  Joel Palmer, one of Oregon’s renowned pioneers, made his way west in 1845 and co-founded the town of Dayton in 1848.  In 1857. he built the now-famous Joel Palmer House.

Signed private label bottles of the retired JPH PinotNoir. Priceless? Yes.

A dust covered 2005 Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir tempted me, but the stunning ‘99 I had in my glass pushed me towards another popular brand for diversity purposes.

Surrounded by bottles of Pinot Noir from a myriad of vintages and heralded producers was like being in an epic dream.

How was it that I happened to be surrounded by a massively impressive collection of Oregon Pinot Noir, each bottle and every vintage holding a story of Oregon’s history in wine held captive only by a single cork?  Well, luck was on my side; in fact, Chris Czarnecki was on my left side for the majority of the day as we shared panel member duties of judging select wines that were submitted for the SIP! McMinnville Food & Wine Classic wine competition.  It didn’t take long for us to realize that our palates were similar; more often than not, we were silently cheering for the same wines to achieve award-winning status.  

The walls of the steep stairway that descends into the cellar is plastered with hundreds of labels from Oregon wineries.

One side of the stairwell is covered in labels, while the other boasts written sentiments

When the wine competition was over, volunteers and staff had an after-party planned for the judges, but the fully reserved Joel Palmer House needed its head chef.  Not wanting to miss out on the festivities, Chris announced to the judges and competition coordinators that all were invited to an “after-the-after-party” at The Joel Palmer House.  And that’s how I ended up in a Pinot Noir enthusiasts’s dream, where Pinot Noir reigns king  - pinching myself as I sipped a 1999 Ken Wright Cellars McCrone Vineyard Pinot Noir that was handed to me upon arrival.  So, what wine did I end up dusting off and discovering the story of its vintage and terroir? A vintage 2005 Trisaetum J&A Frey Vineyards Pinot Noir. 

Sara mesmerized by the hundreds upon hundreds of Oregon Pinot Noir labels affixed to the wall of the stairwell to the wine cellar

“There will never be anywhere like this,’ wrote someone from WKE -Willakenzie Estate - (probably the winemaker at the time, the founder’s name is Burgundian-born Bernard Lacroute

The bottle I ended up choosing for so many reasons: Trisaetum 2005 J&A Frey Vineyards Pinot Noir.

Follow me over to to find out why the 2005 Trisaetum Pinot Noir that I chose plays a significent role in my decision to dive head first into the Oregon wine industry.  Also, discover how well this wine has stood the test of time and how well it paired with the delicious mushroom-centric tapas that Chris spoiled us with during our visit.  Also, get a close-up view of the 2017 Solar Eclipse from the heart of the totality path.  Why is this relevant to the Joel Palmer House?  It is the other once in a lifetime experience I had while spending time there - it’s an amazing place where even more amazing things take place.  

-Julia Crowley

Judging SIP! McMinnville Wine & Food Classic’s Silver Anniversary: Behind the Scenes

March 9-11, 2018, the much-loved SIP McMinnville Wine & Food Classic will celebrate its 25th anniversary event.  This fundraising festival draws thousands of attendees from all over the country while supporting the small independent producers (SIP) of Oregon wine, beer, liquor, food and art.  What began in 1993 as a small school fundraiser, is now one of Oregon’s most-beloved wine and food festivals.  Approximately 170 vendors will share their craft inside McMinnville’s incredible Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum for this three day event of tasting and toasting - a personal and convenient way for event goers to discover and celebrate Oregon’s outstanding bounty. 

On January 20, 2018, a group of eleven wine judges met to evaluate, judge and award select medals to a group of 118 submitted wines from small Oregon producers.  With event organizers taking the lead, twelve volunteers were in charge of filling each of the judges glasses with a flight of wine containing the same varietal poured from bottles that are stored in what is called, the back room (off-limits to wine judges) - where all of the submitted wines are stored and organized for the competition.  Take a rare behind-the-scenes look into the world of wine judging and what it takes for vintners to earn the medals that are proudly wrapped around the necks of the wine bottles that have been recognized by the judges for their solid qualities.  

Polished to perfection. Glasses used for judging must be clean and clear of any aromas or dust prior to being placed before a judge.

With so many bottles to pull the corks from, a vintage cork puller came in handy for event co-chair and volunteer, Jon Johnson.

Pulling the corks from 118 bottles requires strength and patience.

Brown-bagged to hide the identity of the submitted wines, this “Back Room” contains the 118 wines that will be poured for the judges to evaluate and score.

Glasses, spit cups and palate refreshers; such as, sparkling water, still water and crackers, are placed before each of the judges assigned seats.  Three panels of judges containing four judges per panel sit in u-shape formation - ideal for discussing the reasoning behind giving a wine a high (gold) or low (no medal) score.  Volunteers fill the judges glasses on a single panel with flights of wines that are the same varietal, and each panel receives a different flight of wines. 

Each wine judging competition has its own set of rules for blind tasting (meaning the judges know nothing of the wine but the varietal and vintage), and judges are responsible for scoring wines individually - not comparatively to other wines placed in the same flight.  At SIP, judging was to be scored with the following components in mind:

  •  Is the true to the varietal or category
  • Appearance
  • Aroma
  • Taste
  • Balance
  • Complexity
  • Overall Quality

Judges need to be able to defend the wines they appoint with high (gold) and low (no medal) scores; particularly, when two judges on the same panel give opposite scores to the same wine.  Taking notes when judging wine is vital; those notes can later be used when debating a wine’s score that may be in question. 

Judge, and well-known chef, Chris Czarnecki waits for the first flight of wines.

Event organizer, Rolland Toevs, explains the use of the ever-important spit cup.

Wine Judge, Patrick McElligott, is an instructor in the Winemaking and Viticultural Program at Chemeketa Community College.

Judge Maxine Borcherding, founder of the Taste and Compare Academy of Wine, Spirits and Food, shares a panel with Winery Publicist guru, Carl Giavanti, and Ted Lauder. holder of advanced WSET and FWS certifications.

To cleanse the palate and set the tone of the competition, Mike Miller (former competition organizer for 21 years), pours some sparkling wine for each of the judges.

The first wine to be judged is poured and the competition officially begins.

Prepping my score sheet while I wait for the first wine flight.

The first round of whites are poured: Pinot Gris

Mattie Bamman, a Portland-based culinary travel writer, checks out the aromas of a wine.

Mattie Bamman evaluates the color and clarity of a wine.

Chris Czarnecki takes notes on the first flight of white wines.

The vintners who submitted wines that received Gold, Silver or Bronze Medals will have the opportunity to showcase their award-winning wines during the three-day SIP! McMinnville Wine & Food Classic; including, a single wine that the judges unanimously awarded “Best of Show.”  Not only will the attendees of the 25th Anniversary event get to taste the Gold, Silver and Bronze Medal winners, but the vintners will take their award-winning wines back to their tasting rooms, where they will display and pour their wines with pride. 

At SIP 2018, we awarded a Best of Show, 10 Gold Medals, 18 Silver Medals and 30 Bronze Medals.  For a full list of the medal winning wines, click here

After the medals have been awarded and the judging competition is over, an after-party celebration is commonly hosted by the by the event organizers and staff.  At SIP, approximately 80 people attended the after-party.

On rare occasion, an After the After Party will take place. Thanks to fellow wine judge, panel member and my table-mate, Chef Chris Czarnecki (of the highly acclaimed Oregon wine country restaurant, The Joel Palmer House) invited SIP judges and event organizers to raid the famous wine cellar that sits below his restaurant - an unexpected and blissful way to celebrate the success of the 2018 SIP wine competition.  

A retired collection of private label Joel Palmer House wines age in the cellar beneath the historical landmark home that houses the restaurant.

The wine collection at the Joel Palmer House is highly acclaimed.

Magnums from various vineyards grace the walls of one of the most highly touted wine cellars in Oregon.

Dust on rare bottles of wine is not an uncommon sight in this exclusive wine cellar.

Stay tuned for an entire photo essay dedicated to the After the After Party raid of The Joel Palmer House’s famed wine cellar, where we pulled the corks on a 1999 signed Ken Wright Cellars McCrone Vineyard Pinot Noir, a 2003 Domaine Serene Grace Vineyard Pinot Noir, and the one I almost didn’t get away with: a 2005 Trisaetum J&A Frey Vineyards Pinot Noir - to name just a few of the wines we discovered over an array of mushroom-based specialties that Chris is well-known for.

  • For a list of the 2018 SIP! McMinnville wine judges and their biographies, click here.
  • For a list of the award-winning wines from the 2018 wine competition, detailed information on the three-day Sip! McMinnville Wine & Food Classic, and to purchase tickets…visit
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