Willamette Valley Vineyards Hosts ‘Top Chef’ Finale

Oregon's bucolic wine country proves an ideal setting for the cooking competition's Portland-based 18th season, but controversy follows the winner

Willamette Valley Vineyards Hosts ‘Top Chef’ Finale
From left: Top Chef season 18 contestants Byron Gomez, Shota Nakajima, Jamie Tran, Dawn Burrell, Gabe Erales and Maria Mazon at Willamette Valley Vineyards (David Moir/Bravo)
Jul 9, 2021

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."


Enjoy Unfiltered? The best of Unfiltered's round-up of drinks in pop culture can now be delivered straight to your inbox every other week! Sign up now to receive the Unfiltered e-mail newsletter, featuring the latest scoop on how wine intersects with film, TV, music, sports, politics and more.

Unfiltered Cooking Film / TV Oregon

You Might Also Like

Dom Pérignon Donates $570,000 to Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation

Dom Pérignon Donates $570,000 to Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation

Plus, Napa grapegrowers Andy and Betty Beckstoffer donate $1 million to Cal Poly's wine …

Nov 24, 2021
Chance Encounters: Selling the Bidens on Chianti Classico

Chance Encounters: Selling the Bidens on Chianti Classico

Il Molino di Grace co-owner Daniel Grace seizes an opportunity to chat Tuscan wine with …

Nov 23, 2021
Simi Winery Joins Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club

Simi Winery Joins Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club

Reese’s Book Club and Sonoma’s Simi celebrate strong women with a box set perfect for …

Nov 8, 2021
Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels Launches Wine Collection

Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels Launches Wine Collection

The hip-hop legend is breaking into wine with a Merlot-Cabernet blend and more, with a …

Nov 5, 2021
$1 Million Wine Heist Nabs Rare Yquems and DRC Montrachets from Grand Award Winner Atrio

$1 Million Wine Heist Nabs Rare Yquems and DRC Montrachets from Grand Award Winner Atrio

Dozens of bottles of the legendary Sauternes dessert wine and Burgundy’s Domaine de la …

Nov 3, 2021
Does Wine Deserve an Emmy?

Does Wine Deserve an Emmy?

From Succession to Curb Your Enthusiasm to Ray Donovan to Squid Game , Wine is …

Oct 28, 2021