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Bill Terlato Talks About Judging Top Chef Finals

Bill Terlato, whose wines have been prominently featured throughout this season of Top Chef, returns for a second year in a row to help decide the fate of who will be named top chef on tonight's show. Terlato, the CEO of Terlato Wines International, joined Top Chef judges Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Padma Lakshmi, Emeril Lagasse and Hugh Acheson, for the final meals being presented by cheftestant finalists Sarah Grueneberg and Paul Qui in Vancouver.

Terlato's wines have been a part of Top Chef for the last seven years and, after the finals in 2009 were taped in part at the Terlato's Chimney Rock and Rutherford Hill wineries in Napa, Calif., the wine exec was invited to serve as a guest judge in the finals. This year marks Terlato's third visit to the finals and Eater chatted with him to find out what goes on during those pressure-filled meals.

What's it like being part of the finals?
We have the meals at both of the reastaurants and weigh in on the different things that [form] our impressions and give our comments. The guest judges weigh in with their thoughts and comments through the meal and that's consdiered for final deliberation. Then they narrow down to the [judges] who do it every week.

So how long does the final deliberation take?
I'm not a part of the deliberation, but it's a number of hours. They filmed one of the finals four years ago at our winery and the judges' deliberation took place at Chimney Rock. We were there and we knew exactly how long that took. It was a good four or five hours.

How did this finals differ from years past?
You get great meals in the finals; there's no question about it. They're thought out and the use of local and seasonal ingredients is great. But I have a certain admiration for food historians as well. You're going to see very two different approaches this year and that's what made it harder. When you get things along the same lines, the comparison is easier.

Do you feel a lot of pressure knowing your comments will sway the final decision?
The comments are relevant. When you're tasting that meal, you're very focused and paying attention to what's going on. You're very thoughtfully deconstructing the dish to see what the ingredients are. You shoot for about six hours to get a 40-minute show. Of the 40 minutes that are on, there may be 14 minutes of your six hours of dining. You have to get focused on each dish, the flow of the meal, the pairing of the food and wine, the use of ingredients, does the meal flow? The best course shouldn't be the second course and then go downhill from there.

Obviously you can't say who won, but was there a clear winner in your opinion?
Over the course of the four years, I'd say this year was probably the closest. The previous years, I thought it was fairly clear who it was going to be. This one was very different then in the previous years. I think people are going to see a great show.

When did the filming take place?
I think that was in January.

Your wines have been featured pretty prominently on the show. Do you ever fear backlash from too much exposure?
No. I think one of the nice things about our portfolio is that we have 60 brands from 11 different countries. I think one of the reasons they want to work with us is they don't want to have one brand show up every week. Because of the diversity and quality of our portfolio.

Was being a judge for the finals part of the advertising deal or did they ask you independent of that?
It's not part of our deal. What happened is when they filmed at the winery four years ago, they asked us. It was filmed at Chimney Rock and Rutherford Hill. I think they were pleased with the results. The following year they asked us for Restaurant Wars and then asked me again the last two years. I think it's because we're adding something to the mix. The relationship developed out of the fact we were working with them on the wines and they thought this made for a better show experience.

Who do you want to win? Being from Chicago, is there anyone you're rooting for?
I wouldn't say rooting. When you spend time getting to know the chefs and see how hard they're working, it's a shame someone has to get picked over someone else. They work like dogs and they take it very seriously. There's a lot of pressure and they're sleep deprived. It's a shame, but that's what makes the show. You get to know the chefs and you developed a great respect for them as people. That's the hardest thing to offer opinions on their cooking that have the effect of creating that situation. I'm happy with either one of them winning. They both have distinguished themselves throughout the season. They're a couple of great chefs. I think people are going to be excited to watch it. It'll be a great show.

So do you know who won?
I can't say.