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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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