Summer 2020

McMinnville Classic recognizes top wines

The McMinnville Wine and Food Classic, a charity-driven event in its 27th year, typically brings together 75 of Oregon’s impressive wineries, chefs, bakers, artists, musicians and wine professionals for ticket holders to engage with and enjoy. Sadly, this year’s event, scheduled March 13-15, was cancelled for the first time in its history by the coronavirus pandemic.

Proceeds of the event are the single largest source of contributions to the St. James School in McMinnville, established more than a century ago in 1906. The Catholic-based school, open to children of all religions, educates students from preschool through grade five. Upon hearing of the cancellation, my reaction was to hope ticket purchasers would not seek refunds, but allow their contributions to benefit the school, which helps prepare Oregon’s future leaders. I contributed, and hope many others will also support this historic institution in a challenging year.

On a brighter note, the official kickoff to the Classic, which is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, the McMinnville Wine Competition, took place in January as planned. It was my pleasure to judge at this Oregon-focused competition. Spearheading it were Rolland Toevs, wine competition manager, and Carl Giavanti, public relations and media relations consultant. The two, along with a competent team of dedicated volunteers, were on task and purely delightful to associate with, wearing their passion and their hearts on their sleeves.

This judging, one of two highly visible wine competitions focused on wines exclusively from Oregon, takes place in McMinnville. The other, the Oregon Wine Experience (OWE), is held near Ashland. Both discover and reward impressive, top-quality Oregon wines.

One key difference is each competition’s structure. The OWE invites six judges, each panel consisting of three members, one journalist/educator, one Master Sommelier and one Master of Wine. These experienced journalists and luminaries who have achieved the world’s top wine credentials (Master Sommelier and Master of Wine), bring a high level of technical expertise to the judging.

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The McMinnville Wine & Food Classic competition assembles 15 judges (five per panel), including wine journalists, sommeliers, educators, buyers and other industry influencers. Its panelists also are respected for their professional roles in the wine world and deemed experts in their fields, and five judges per panel offer a wider scope of perspectives. After judging each competition, I view both structures as having merit, giving every wine careful analysis and a fair chance of securing a medal.

Among the excellent wines at the 2020 McMinnville Classic competition were these winners, securing gold or higher awards:

August Cellars 2018 Gamay Noir; Willamette Valley ($25): The 2020 Best of Show top prize was bestowed upon this dazzling, immaculately balanced Gamay Noir. Alluring violet scents precede well-defined flavors of raspberry, Damson plum, cranberry/currant relish, gaminess and minerality. A distinctive wine to please a host of palates.

Willamette Valley Vineyards 2016 Brut; Willamette Valley ($55): This sur lie-aged sparkling wine (Best Sparkling award) was crafted in the traditional method. Expressive yeasty notes on the nose carry through the bright palate of Granny Smith apples, lemon zest, grapefruit and brioche. Lively with a long, elegant finish.

Awen Winecraft 2018 Grenache Blanc; Rogue Valley ($30): This Best of Show White Wine offers up an engaging floral aroma and refreshing entry. Pippin apples, Greengage plums, and a lemon twist join a thread of minerality and invigorating acidity exciting the palate. Vibrant and crisp, with divine balance and persistent length.

Phelps Creek Vineyards 2016 Lynette Chardonnay; Columbia Gorge ($38): Taking Best Chardonnay honors, this richly textured prize delivers orchard fruit aromas. Macintosh apples, apricots, a squeeze of orange and subtle herbs fill the mouth. French oak barrel aging adds caramel and vanilla accents. Bright and deeply flavored through the extended finish.

Bluebird Hill Cellars 2018 Pinot Gris; Willamette Valley ($22): A good swirl of this zesty Pinot Gris unveils its lovely citrus aromatic. Coating the palate are layers of Meyer lemon, starfruit and Cortland apples with a sprinkle of fresh herbs. Perfect balancing acidity carries it to a rewarding finale.

Cória Estate Wines 2018 Rosé of Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley ($24): Topping the Rosé awards was this snappy fruit-driven dry Rosé. Aromas and flavors of juicy red cherries, Twizzlers strawberry licorice twists and tart cranberries with hints of mandarin orange and spice. Crisp, vibrant and refreshing.

Alloro Vineyards 2017 Riservata Pinot Noir; Chehalem Mountains ($50): The enticing floral aroma wows the senses. Sun-ripened Bing cherries, allspice, forest floor, loganberries and underlying savory oak join lively acidity, refined tannins and a silky texture. Sophisticated and extraordinary with an everlasting finish.

Eliana Wines 2015 Cabernet Franc; Rogue Valley ($42): From this boutique winery comes an aromatic, finely balanced Cab Franc. Floral scents lead to rich flavors of black raspberry, chocolate-covered blueberries, savory spice and graphite traversing the palate. Firm, approachable tannins provide a fine backbone.

Cardwell Hills Cellars 2015 Estate Monet Block Pinot Noir; Willamette Valley ($45): Awarded Best Pinot Noir of the competition is this rich, sophisticated gem. Bing cherries, black raspberry preserves, anise and savory spice interlink with oak nuances and crisp acidity. Elegant and pure, and the flavors linger beyond the lip-smacking close.

The Classic gathers loyal followers from across the nation at McMinnville’s Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum. And it’s growing. From 4,200 attendees in 2019, the event was on track to welcome nearly 5,000 in 2020 before its cancellation. Organizers project surpassing that in 2021, expecting a celebratory mood after a lost year.

The event wholeheartedly appreciates volunteers and donations. I invite you to get involved and help young future leaders at St. James School develop the skills and acumen required to become responsible, respectable citizens. You can begin by visiting the Classic website at The school is grateful for your support, which could make a life-changing difference for its students.

ELLEN LANDIS is a wine journalist, Certified Sommelier (Court of Master Sommeliers), Certified Wine Specialist (Society of Wine Educators), wine educator and professional wine judge. She judges numerous national and international wine competitions annually. Reach Ellen at

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