Long before the devastating heat dome recently settled over the Pacific Northwest, things were heating up in the tasting room of Oregon’s Willamette Valley Vineyards, which served as the stunning backdrop for the season 18 finale of Bravo’s Top Chef. The episode aired July 1, wrapping up a Portland-based season that explored regions around the state, from Tillamook Bay to Mt. Hood.
“We are honored to be selected for the finale location,” said Willamette Valley Vineyards winery director Christine Clair in a statement. "They have really captured the essence of Oregon and its culinary treasures."
Delivering the eye candy one would expect from such a locale, the episode kicked off with sweeping shots of the vines as host Padma Lakshmi welcomed the three finalists: Dawn Burrell, Gabe Erales and Shota Nakajima. For the last challenge in the battle to win Top Chef’s top-notch prizes, including $250,000 courtesy of San Pellegrino, each competitor was tasked with creating the best four-course progressive meal of their life.
After a day-and-a-half of preparation, which included sourcing ingredients from local farmers, the chefs presented their meals to a star-studded panel in Willamette Valley Vineyards' estate tasting room. Lakshmi, head judge Tom Colicchio and judge Gail Simmons were joined by culinary authorities such as Nina Compton, Dale Talde and Kwame Onwuachi, who sipped on glasses of wine as they sampled the courses. The majority of the panel, who opted for whites and rosés to avoid teeth stains during filming, could take their pick of the Estate Chardonnary, Whole Cluster Rosé of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. The Estate Pinot Noir and Bernau Block Pinot Noir were also available.
The meal showed off the diverse styles of the finalists, from Burrell’s New Orleans–inspired courses such as green gumbo with herb puree and a fermented rice fritter to Nakajima’s Asian dishes inspired by his childhood, like Japanese curry with beef tongue, braised turnips and fukujinzuke pickles. Erales particularly wowed the panel with plates like scallop aguachile with hibiscus and fermented pineapple.
In front of a beautifully arranged wall of glassware, the judges later awarded the win to Erales—the first Mexican chef to win the series—commending his forward-thinking approach to his cuisine. "I'm so inspired by learning from the fellow chefs that were here, learning about myself and learning from the judges about what I can do to become a better chef,” Erales said. "I feel very accomplished—for my culture, for my family."
But in contrast to the jubilant final scenes (which included a toast with Willamette Valley Vineyards Méthode Champenoise Brut), reactions on social media struck a troubling tone, as allegations against the chef quickly surfaced. The backlash centered around apparent sexual harassment issues that caused Erales to be fired from Comedor restaurant in his hometown of Austin, Texas, in December 2020, shortly after shooting Top Chef.
Though the accusations that came to light surely overshadowed the win, Willamette Valley Vineyards is still celebrating the season’s overall spotlight on all that Oregon wine country has to offer. "This is an exciting moment for Oregon and it is amazing for our winery to be a part of that, particularly during a year that has been challenging to the restaurant and culinary industry,” Clair said. “This show couldn't have come at a better moment."
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