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Behind the Scenes at a Wine Competition

Mar 16, 2022 | Business, Marketing

Wine competitions are a simple way for wineries to have the quality of their wines tested, judged and rated. And with hundreds of competitions to choose from, wineries often have their “go-to” competitions. Over the last two years, I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with the McMinnville Wine Classic Competition—it’s a “go-to” for many Oregon wineries, with more competing every year. In this blog, I interview two of the organizers to give you a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on and what it takes to put together such a competition.

This year’s competition judging took place January 8, 2022, at Abbey Road Farm, Carlton, in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Thanks to Carl Giavanti, competition publicist, and Rolland Toevs, competition manager, for their insights.

Carl and Rolland

Q: Please tell me a little about the McMinnville Wine Classic Competition—its mission, components and draw for Oregon wineries and the public.

Carl: There are two missionsfinancial and professional. Financially, the competition is a fundraising event for St. James Elementary School in McMinnville, (Ore.). We just completed the 29th annual! Professionally, our goal is to assemble the best and most influential judging panel available to all Oregon wineries who want their wines evaluated against their peers, and promoted to consumers at the wine festival in March. This drives participation, which fuels fundraising.

Q: What is your role in the competition (and festival)?

judging roomCarl: I focus on the judges panel selection and running “front of house” operations during the competition. In addition, I coordinate all marketing communications to get the word out about the competition. With help from my partner, Rolland, and Chris Cook, Capiche Wine Marketing & PR, we encourage Oregon wineries to participate.

Rolland: I manage the overall competition from start to finish. You could call it “back of the house.” This involves:

  • Working with Carl on vetting the judging panel
  • Financial; budgeting and managing costs
  • Task management and scheduling
  • Flighting the wines
  • Logistics and supplies
  • Coordinating the volunteers
  • Catering
  • Awards notification post-competition

Q: How and when did you come to be involved in the competition and what motivates you to participate year after year?

Pouring wineCarl: I was referred by a local wine writer about five years ago. At the request of the school’s board, we agreed to work together. I continue to contribute my talent because of the cause, and I also enjoy the spirit of volunteerism and camaraderie of the team.

Rolland: I will start with the last part of your question. My motivation comes from seeing the competition go from a homegrown, local competition to a professional competition. I am motivated by continual improvement and making the event better year after year.

I have always been enamored with the wine industry and originally got involved as a volunteer.  When the original competition coordinator stepped down, I took it over.

Q: What special experience and/or skills do you bring to the event?

Carl: I’m a winery publicist, so have relationships with wine writers, professional reviewers and critics who I work with to promote my winery clients’ interests. (Note: Carl’s company is Carl Giavanti Consulting, a winery media consultancy.)

Rolland: I grew up in the food industry and got into food service management after college. I eventually got into project management focusing on food systems and technology. I continued to gain more experience in project management eventually earning my PMP Certification (Project Manager Professional).

Q: Tell me about the challenges you face each year running the competition.

Rolland: It never fails that each year new wines get submitted that I am not familiar with and need to research to ensure that I put them in the correct flights. For example, Léon Millot, La Crosse and La Crescent. Keeping the wine at the proper temperature for judging is also a challenge.  Lastly, we continue to add new components to the competition to make it better such as the Judge’s Dinner, AVA tours, etc., and that’s simply more logistics and coordination but we get great feedback and it keeps people coming back.

Q: The quality and diversity of the competition judges are impressive. How do you select the panel?

Ellen LandisCarl: Over the many years, the panel was comprised of local boosters, wineries that agreed to judge and an assortment of local individuals. We wanted to elevate the competition to world-class standards (which I believe we have done on a small scale). The panel is now a balanced mix of wine writers, buyers, professional judges and influencers who we entrust to help promote the competition and the wineries that participate.

Rolland: I work with Carl when it comes to the selection process. We have a growing database of potential judges which we review during the selection process each year. We start by inviting our six core judges, then look at those who have judged before, and lastly, we look at new judges who have not judged with us before.

Q: Why do the judges come back year after year (and new recruits gladly accept the role)?

Deborah PWCarl: We keep a running “consideration list” of judges who have approached us about participating. We like to bring in new judges each year along with “returning champions,” judges that have exhibited professionalism and willingness to volunteer their time and travel—on their own dime. Of course, they are quite well-taken care of upon arrival in Oregon, thanks to special sponsors like the Atticus Hotel which hosts lodging, and Abbey Road Farm where the event takes place.

Q: Please talk about the awards. Are there surprises? Give me an example of a past award that was unique/unexpected. What do you hope for in future competitions?

Carl: There are surprises every year, especially from producers outside Willamette Valley. Unusual varietals and blends catch the attention of the judges and stand out in a competition. This year, a $17 2020 Pinot Gris from Iris Vineyards won both Best of Show and Best White Varietal. It competed with Chardonnays other white varieties of much high price points. For the future, I’m looking for growth in the number of entries that can be handled in a one-day competition.

Rolland: We have had several surprises over the years with “Best of Show” going to wines that are not a Pinot Noir—what we (Oregon) are best known for. Examples are a Muscat, a Gamay and this year, a Pinot Gris.

Q: I imagine that there are many people needed to support this competition. What roles need to be filled each year and how can someone who is interested in working behind the scenes prepare and volunteer?

Cart of WineCarl: Although this is really Rolland’s bailiwick, I’d like to see some of the local colleges like Linfield University and Chemeketa Community College help organize student volunteers/interns that are working on wine business or V&E certifications and interested in an educational experience and exposure to the wine industry.

Rolland: It takes approximately 20 volunteers to put on the competition. The roles include facilitating the judges’ area, scoring, pouring and serving wines, organizing the elimination round, and washing stemware. Before the competition can even happen, it takes a full day of volunteer work to get the back-of-the-house setup. Wines and supplies need to be transported to the venue, wines and stemware labeled, and wines arranged in the proper panels.

Q: The wine industry itself is growing each year. If you were to give advice on how to start a wine-related career, what are the top three things you would advise?

Carl: Look for internships or even volunteering to assist wine professionals in planning, research and marketing projects. It’s helpful to begin to hear wine business talk and interactions, which really can’t be fully taught in a structured learning environment.

Rolland:

  1. Become more knowledgeable of the wine industry by volunteering in winery events
  2. Gain experience by working in tasting rooms or at a winery
  3. Try experimenting with food and wine pairing at home. Instead of having “date night,” “have wine and food night”
This Year’s Judging Panel
  • JudgingMichael Alberty, Wine Editor, The Oregonian
  • Maxine Borcherding, Sommelier, Writer
  • Eric Degerman, President & CEO of Great Northwest Wine
  • Cyndi Gierok, Wine Buyer Fred Meyer Stores, CSW, CMS 1, WSET I & II
  • Hoke Harden, Educator, Writer, CSE, CSW
  • Ellen Landis, Certified Sommelier, CWS, Educator
  • Patrick McElligott, Educator and Quality Control Consultant
  • Ken Robertson, Tri-City Herald writer, Wine Press Northwest columnist
  • Christopher Sawyer, Sommelier, Journalist
  • Fred Swan, DipWSET, Certified Sommelier, Educator
  • Liz Thach, Ph.D., Master of Wine, Educator
  • Deborah Parker Wong, DipWSET, Educator
This Year’s Top AwardsBottles wine

Best of Show
Iris Vineyards 2020 Pinot Gris

Best White Varietal
Iris Vineyards 2020 Pinot Gris

Best Red Varietal
Melrose Vineyards 2015 Syrah

Best Pinot Noir
Cubanismo Vineyards 2016 Estate Pinot Noir

Best Red Blend
K & M Wines 2019 Treble

Best Chardonnay
Cardwell Hill Cellars 2020 The Bard Chard

Best Sparkling Wine
40:30 Wines 2018 Blanc de Noir

Best White Blend
Chris James Cellars 2020 Cuvee Blanc

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