Pinot Gris by Iris Vineyards tops McMinnville Wine Classic judging

By on January 18, 2022
Aaron Lieberman helped Oregon State University win a conference championship in wrestling prior to working at DePonte Cellars and Owen Roe Winery. He’s been the winemaker at Iris Vineyards since 2008. (Photo courtesy of Iris Vineyards)

McMINNVILLE, Ore. — A Burgundy-inspired Pinot Gris from the 2020 vintage by Iris Vineyards in Eugene, Ore., emerged as the best of show at the McMinnville Wine Classic, the first wine competition of 2022 staged in the Northwest.

It’s fitting for that variety to receive headlines at this judging considering the late David “Papa Pinot” Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards in McMinnville is credited with planting the first Pinot Gris in the United States.

The judging panel recruited from across the country for the Oregon-only competition narrowly chose the Iris Vineyards 2020 Pinot Gris ahead of the 40:31 Wines 2018 Blanc de Noir, followed by the Melrose Vineyards 2015 Syrah, Cubanisimo Vineyards 2016 Estate Pinot Noir, Cardwell Hill Cellars 2020 The Bard Chardonnay and Chris James Cellars 2020 Cuvée Blanc.

More than 70 Oregon wineries combined to enter 200 wines in the single-day judging. A public tasting featuring the top wines from the 29th annual wine competition is scheduled for March 11-13 at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville. Proceeds from the McMinnville Wine and Food Classic are presented to St. James Catholic School in downtown McMinnville. Admission to the festival is priced from $20 to $45, and tickets are non-refundable.

Iris Vineyards adds to string of gold

Chalice Vineyard near Lorane, Ore., is the estate planting in the Willamette Valley for Iris Vineyards. (Richard Duval Images)

Last week’s showing in McMinnville continued to build upon the recent acclaim earned by Iris Vineyards winemaker Aaron Lieberman in competitions regionally and nationally for proprietor Pamela Frye.

In 2018, Iris Vineyards received four gold medals at the New Orleans International Wine Awards, a showing that included a double gold medal rosé of Pinot Noir. In the past three years, Lieberman and longtime vineyard manager Arpad Walker have received four Platinum Awards from Wine Press Northwest magazine. Those awards have been for rosé, sparkling wine, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

There’s some history behind the Iris Vineyards program of Pinot Gris. Vines on the property date to 1996 when Frye and fellow University of Oregon graduate Richard Boyles established Chalice Vineyard. The 57-acre vineyard is part of their 870-acre estate that shares a fence line with famed King Estate.

In 2004, Frye and Boyles used the 2002 Pinot Gris under their former Iris Hill brand to top Wine Press Northwest magazine’s year-end competition of gold-medal winners — the Platinum Judging. Last year, at the American Fine Wine Competition in Florida received a gold medal for their 2019 Pinot Gris. (Their 2019 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir won a double gold).

The 2020 growing season and the pandemic prompted changes in their approach to Pinot Gris. First, Chalice Vineyard became the sole source, unlike the multi-vineyard bottling for the 2019 vintage. In addition, yields were off by 28 percent. That combination led to a production of 1,300 cases, the smallest in recent years, and resulted in an especially compelling wine. Prior to the 2020 vintage, Lieberman showcased Chalice Vineyard under the Iris Vineyards label was for a 64-case lot from the 2015 vintage. Sister brand Areté includes a 2018 vineyard-designate Pinot Gris from Chalice.

“Our Estate Pinot Gris program actually started in 2014,” Lieberman said via email. “I wanted to bottle an estate wine because the Pinot Gris from our vineyard is so distinctly good in my view. Yes, 2015 was a warm growing season. Our high elevation site and exposure to cool afternoon breezes tends to mitigate some of the effects of hotter vintages. Picking in 2015 was done on Sept. 19, 21 and 26. Those dates were about a week earlier than the average up to that point but, starting to pick around then is kind of the new normal.”

Judges in McMinnville did not note any indication of the effect of smoke from wildfires that plagued many regions along the West Coast during the 2020 growing season.

“Considering the 2020 vintage brings back so many memories, few of them good,” Lieberman noted. “I was never actually very concerned about Pinot Gris relative to smoke effect since it has near zero skin contact.”

His harvest dates for the Iris 2020 Pinot Gris from Chalice Vineyard were Sept. 21, 28 and 29.

“In my opinion, the ideal pick window for Pinot Gris is much more narrow, perhaps five days, than for Pinot Noir or Chardonnay,” Lieberman added. “Picked too early, the wine will not have enough of the classic pear flavors we want; picked too late, the wine will have too much red apple flavor and not enough citrus notes.”

Lieberman crafts the Areté Pinot Gris with a distinctively different approach, employing a pair of near neutral, 500-liter puncheons.

“The Areté Pinot Gris is always higher in acid than the Willamette Valley, and it showcases the citrus flavor profile that Pinot Gris is capable of producing,” Lieberman says. “While this wine is great when consumed early it can also be cellared.”

Last year, the pandemic also prompted Frye to close the winery’s pastoral tasting room on the estate. The Iris Vineyards satellite tasting room in downtown Cottage Grove is limited to curbside pick-up. And the best-of-show 2020 Pinot Gris is scheduled for its commercial release in March.

“The density and concentration of this vintage are the best in a generation, putting even vintages like 1998 and 2002 to shame,” Lieberman wrote.

Ten Peaks Vineyard sparks 40:31 Wines bubbles

The brilliant and ebullient 40:31 Wines 2018 Blanc de Noir inspired a lengthy debate among the judges during this year’s sweepstakes portion of the McMinnville Wine Classic.

In hindsight, those bubbles more than backed up the young program’s showing in McMinnville during last year’s judging when the 2017 Blanc de Noir earned a double gold, a bottling that reflected the brand’s first commercial vintage under the ownership of Shari and Bill Price. They purchased Ten Peaks Vineyard west of McMinnville in 2017, and their winemaker is Michael Lundeen of McMinnville’s Oregon Wine Hub.

40:31 – a reference to a Biblical verse in the Book of Isaiah — also received a gold in McMinnville for its 2018 Pinot Noir. In 2020, 40:31 Wines used its 2018 Pinot Gris to earn a Platinum Award from Wine Press Northwest.

The Ponzi family credited Ten Peaks Vineyard for its role in the Ponzi Vineyards 2019 Pinot Noir Rosé. The Dijon clones 115, 667 and 777 planted across the 7 acres of vines in 2007 also serve as the foundation for Rue Cler Wine, a project recently launched in Hillsboro by a son, Aaron Price, who also is working with Walla Walla Valley vineyards.

Chris James Cellars places 2 in sweepstakes

A portion of the former horse arena at Abbey Road Farm in Carlton, Ore., served as the judging venue of the McMinnville Wine Classic for the second straight year. (Photo courtesy McMinnville Wine Classic)

Carlton winemaker Christopher Barnes displayed his versatility and innovation with a 2020 blend of aromatic German varieties awarded as the best white blend of the McMinnville Wine Classic while a 2018 Dolcetto earned a double gold medal and was in the running for best red wine.

Last fall, Barnes earned three Platinums from Great Northwest Wine magazine. A year ago, that Dolcetto from Old Wagon Road Vineyard – off his family’s Yamhill-Carlton estate – earned a double gold at the Savor NW Wine Awards. The 2020 Cuvée Blanc, a slightly off-dry blend of Scheurebe (70%), Gewurztraminer (20%) and Huxelrebe (10%), also was grown in Old Wagon Road.

Cardwell Hill Cellars, selected as the 2021 Oregon Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest, was voted to have produced the judging’s top example of Chardonnay and added three gold medals — two of them for 2017 Pinot Noir.

Storied McMinnville winemaker Rob Stuart crafted the judging’s best Pinot Noir on behalf of Cuban-born neurosurgeon Mauricio Collada Jr., and Cubanisimo Vineyards west of Salem. Erath Winery, the famed Dundee Hills brand Stuart made wine for during the 1990s, earned double gold medals for Pinot Gris and Chardonnay.

K & M Wines in Carlton received a trio of double gold medals, which included a 2019 Chardonnay and 2018 Pinot Noir from their estate Alchemy Vineyard, as well as the judging’s best red blend — a 2019 Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre that Ken Morrison named Treble and sourced from from Washington state’s Horse Heaven Hills.

The Garvin family at Cliff Creek Cellars reached into their Sams Valley Vineyard in the Rogue Valley for three gold medals. That effort was paced by the double gold medal hung on its 2020 Red Red Wine, a remarkably priced blend ($18) led by Syrah and backed by Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Zinfandel.

Eola-Amity Hills winemaker/viticulturist Rachel Rose shined in McMinnville by producing two double gold medals for Bryn Mawr Vineyards — a 2018 Pinot Noir and 2016 Tempranillo. That estate-grown Pinot Noir was awarded a gold medal last fall at the Great Northwest Invitational.

Cathedral Ridge Winery in Hood River pulled down a pair of double golds — the 2018 Zinfandel from Volcano Ridge Vineyard in The Dalles, and the Malbec-influenced 2017 Winemaker’s Reserve Red Wine.

The young Vino Vasai Wines project near Newberg received a pair of double gold medals for 2018 Pinot Noir off its Potter’s Vineyard — the Barrel 17 Select and Estate Reserve.

Bluebird Hills Cellars near Monroe, owned by Oregon State professor Neil Shay and his wife, Sue, received a double gold medal for their 2019 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir and a gold medal for their 2019 Zenith Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir accounted for 17 gold medals at the McMinnville judging, six of those were products of the 2019 vintage. Six entries in the Chardonnay category achieved at least a gold medal. Five gold medals were given to Tempranillo, the Spanish red made famous on the West Coast by Abacela in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. Three of those to win gold in McMinnville came from Southern Oregon — two were crafted by Herb Quady’s Barrel 42 for Coventina Vineyards owner Christine Amen in Grants Pass.

MW, West Coast journalists lead panel

Liz Thach, in 2011, became the first woman in California and the seventh woman in the U.S. to obtain Master of Wine distinction. She earned a doctorate in human resource development from Texas A&M University. (Photo courtesy of LizThachMW.com)

This year’s panel in McMinnville featured luminaries such as author/educator Liz Thach, a Master of Wine from California’s Sonoma County; author/educator Deborah Parker-Wong, the San Francisco-based national editor of Slow Wine Guide USA and global wine editor for SOMM Journal and The Tasting Panel magazines; journalist/certified sommelier Ellen Landis, St. Petersburg, Fla., journalist/certified sommelier Christopher Sawyer, Petaluma, Calif., educator/journalist Fred Swan, San Francisco; journalist Michael Alberty, The Oregonian/Oregon Live; wine buyer Cyndi Gierok, Fred Meyer, Newberg, Ore.; educator/journalist Hoke Harden, Portland; educator Patrick McElligott, Chemeketa Community College, Salem, Ore.; and columnist Ken Robertson, Great Northwest Wine, Kennewick, Wash.

The competition was staged Jan. 8 at Abbey Road Farm near downtown Carlton while following safety regulations in accordance with state guidelines. Those included social distancing, masking and outdoor dining. Cuisine was provided by The Newbergundian Bistro and Golden Valley Brewery & Restaurant. Out-of-area judges were lodged at The Atticus Hotel in historic downtown McMinnville.

2022 McMinnville Wine Classic results

Best of show/double gold medal

Iris Vineyards 2020 Pinot Gris, $16

Best sparkling wine/double gold medal  

40:31 Wines 2018 Blanc de Noir Sparkling Wine, $45

Best red varietal/double gold medal

Melrose Vineyards 2015 Syrah, $20

Best Pinot Noir/double gold medal

Cubanisimo Vineyards 2016 Estate Pinot Noir, $36

Best Chardonnay/double gold medal 

Cardwell Hill Cellars 2020 The Bard Chard, $22

Best white blend/double gold medal  

Chris James Cellars 2020 Cuvée Blanc, $24

Double gold medal

Awen Winecraft 2019 Viognier, $40

Bluebird Hill Cellars 2019 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir, $54

Bryn Mawr Vineyards 2018 Estate Pinot Noir, $40

Bryn Mawr Vineyards 2016 Tempranillo, $50

Cathedral Ridge Winery 2018 Zinfandel, $34

Cathedral Ridge Winery 2017 Winemaker’s Reserve Red Wine, $58

Chemeketa Cellars 2017 Sparkling Blanc de Noir, $30

Chris James Cellars 2018 Dolcetto, $39

Cliff Creek Cellars 2020 Red Red Wine, $18

Coventina Vineyards 2016 Tempranillo, $35

Cristom Vineyards 2019 Pinot Noir, $40

Cubanisimo Vineyards 2014 Pinot Noir, $55

Flourishing Palm Cellars 2017 Malbec, $30

Girardet Vineyards & Winery 2018 Syrah, $54

Hummingbird Estate 2019 Malbec, $35

K & M Wines 2019 Alchemy Vineyard Chardonnay, $35

K & M Wines 2018 Alchemy Cuveé Pinot Noir, $25

K & M Wines 2019 Treble Red Wine, $35

Phelps Creek Vineyards 2016 Corduroy Pinot Noir Blanc, $69

Red Lily Vineyards 2016 Tempranillo, $35

Schultz Wines 2018 Shepherd Syrah, $30

Erath Winery 2018 Chardonnay, $19

Erath Winery 2019 Pinot Gris, $14

Stone Griffon Vineyard 2017 Eclipse Tempranillo, $58

The Potter’s Vineyard/Vino Vasai 2018 Barrel 17 Select Pinot Noir, $45

The Potter’s Vineyard/Vino Vasai 2018 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir, $55

Willamette Valley Vineyards 2018 Elton Pinot Noir, $60

Torii Mor Winery 2019 Chardonnay, $32

Youngberg Hill 2018 Cuvée Pinot Noir, $35

Gold medal 

40:31 Wines 2018 Pinot Noir, $42

Awen Winecraft 2018 Dolcetto, $43

Barking Frog Winery 2018 Syrah, $34

Bluebird Hill Cellars 2019 Zenith Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir, $54

Cardwell Hill Cellars 2017 Barrel Select Pinot Noir, $28

Cardwell Hill Cellars 2017 Dijon Block Pinot Noir, $40

Cardwell Hill Cellars 2020 Pinot Gris, $22

Carlton Cellars 2018 Roads End Reserve Pinot Noir, $45

Cliff Creek Cellars 2020 MRV, $24

Cliff Creek Cellars 2018 Onward Red Dessert Wine, $50

Coventina Vineyards 2016 Reserve Tempranillo, $45

Cristom Vineyards 2019 Pinot Noir, $40

Erath Winery 2019 Reserve Collection Pinot Noir, $25

Faith, Hope & Charity Winery 2019 Estate La Crescent, Oregon $40

Hummingbird Estate 2019 Reserve Pinot Noir, $45

J Wrigley Vineyards 2020 Acceptance Block, $38

Lady Hill 2018 Procedo Sangiovese, $42

Methven Family Vineyards 2017 Jill Marie Pinot Noir, $25

Parrett Mountain Cellars 2019 C.M.S. Red Blend, $44

Phelps Creek Vineyards 2019 Chardonnay, $34

Pike Road Wines 2019 Fairsing Vineyard Pinot Noir, $50

Resolu Cellars 2018 Triomphe Red Wine, $48

Rizzo Winery 2015 Pinot Noir, $20

Schultz Wines 2018 Majestic Malbec, $30

Season Cellars 2018 Viognier, $22

South Stage Cellars 2020 Chardonnay, $28

Tresori Vineyards 2019 Viognier, $35

Willamette Valley Vineyards 2017 Blanc de Blancs, $75

Silver medal

40:31 Wines 2019 White Pinot Noir, $35

Awen Winecraft 2018 Sangiovese, $43

Barking Frog Winery 2018 Malbec, $36

Barking Frog Winery 2018 Merlot, $48

Benedetto Vineyards 2020 Sparkling Pinot Noir, $38

Benedetto Vineyards 2019 Estate Barrel Select Wadenswil Pinot Noir, $46

Bluebird Hill Cellars 2020 Chardonnay, $35

Bluebird Hill Cellars 2019 Reserve Chardonnay, $54

Brandborg Vineyard and Winery 2019 Bench Lands Pinot Noir, $24

Bravuro Cellars 2019 Zinfandel, $40

Bravuro Cellars 2019 Serrato, $40

Bryn Mawr Vineyards 2018 Estate Chardonnay, $40

Cardwell Hill Cellars 2017 Old Vines Pinot Noir, $40

Cardwell Hill Cellars 2017 Pommard Block Pinot Noir, $40

Cathedral Ridge Winery 2018 Necessity Red Wine, $32

Cathedral Ridge Winery 2017 The Daughters’ Reserve Red Wine, $58

Catman Cellars 2019 Malbec, $32

Chemeketa Cellars 2018 Pinot Noir, $12

Chemeketa Cellars 2019 Red Table Wine, $12

Chris James Cellars 2018 Pinot Noir, $32

Cliff Creek Cellars 2016 NI Bar Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, $55

Coventina Vineyards 2017 Chardonnay, $25

Coventina Vineyards 2017 Reserve Pinot Noir, $45

Coventina Vineyards 2017 Pinot Noir, $35

Cristom Vineyards 2019 Chardonnay, $40

Daisy Creek Vineyard 2018 Petit Verdot, $42

Daisy Creek Vineyard 2018 Viognier, $24

Daisy Creek Vineyard 2018 Malbec, $40

Denison Cellars 2018 Tete de Cuvée Pinot Noir, $70

Denison Cellars 2020 Chardonnay, $30

Denison Cellars 2018 Pinot Noir, $45

Denison Cellars 2019 Pinot Noir, $30

Faith, Hope & Charity Winery 2019 Estate La Crosse, Oregon $40

Faith, Hope & Charity Winery 2018 Estate Leon Millot, Oregon $40

Flourishing Palm Cellars 2018 Syrah, $32

Flourishing Palm Cellars 2018 Marina Red Wine, $36

Flourishing Palm Cellars 2018 Sky Red Wine, $36

Giovingo Vineyards 2018 Pinot Noir, $35

Girardet Vineyards & Winery 2018 Tempranillo, $54

Girardet Vineyards & Winery 2020 Take Flight White, $25

Girardet Vineyards & Winery 2018 Touch Down Red, $25

Hummingbird Estate 2019 Chardonnay, $35

Iris Vineyards 2019 Blanc de Blancs, $34

Iris Vineyards NV Brut, $30

J Wrigley Vineyards 2018 Pinot Noir, $47

Knostman Family Winery 2020 Sauvignon Blanc, $25

Lady Hill Winery 2018 Ad Lucem Daystar Syrah, $42

Lady Hill Winery 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon, $38

Lenne Estate 2017 LeNez Pinot Noir, $40

Melrose Vineyards 2015 Merlot, $28

Meraviglioso Winery 2018 Blanc de Blanc, $40

Meraviglioso Winery 2017 Pinot Noir, $40

Meraviglioso Winery 2019 Pinot Noir, $36

Methven Family Vineyards 2017 Reserve Pinot Noir, $55

Parrett Mountain Cellars 2018 Pinot Noir, $48

Pheasant Hill Vineyard 2020 Chardonnay, $22

Pheasant Hill Vineyard 2017 Pinot Noir, $38

Phelps Creek Vineyards 2019 Estate Reserve, $52

Pike Road Wines 2019 Matteri Vineyard Chardonnay, $34

Resolu Cellars 2018 Pinot Noir, $36

Red Lily Vineyards 2018 Syrah, $32

Rizzo Winery 2015 Viognier, $20

Rizzo Winery 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, $35

Season Cellars 2016 Grenache, $35

Siltstone Wines 2020 Chardonnay, $20

South Stage Cellars 2018 Miscela Sangiovese, $32

Erath Winery 2018 Willakia Vineyard Pinot Noir, $60

Erath Winery 2018 Knight’s Gambit Pinot Noir, $55

Erath Winery 2018 Pinot Blanc, $14

Stone Griffon Vineyard 2019 Pinot Gris, $18

Stone Griffon Vineyard 2018 Cabernet Franc, $31

The Potter’s Vineyard/Vino Vasai 2019 Reserve Merlot, $55

Torii Mor Winery 2018 Pinot Noir, $28

Torii Mor Winery 2015 Port-style Syrah, $45

Youngberg Hill 2019 Aspen Chardonnay, $45

Youngberg Hill 2018 Natasha Pinot Noir, $50

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the President and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for a decade. He is a frequent wine judge at international wine competitions throughout North America and orchestrates 10 Northwest competitions each year.

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