Winning Winemaking Gold Medal Tips

Out of the 2,247 wines entered in the 2005 WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition, six still wines topped the charts in the best of show categories of red, white, dessert, fruit, kit and grand champion. The makers of these wines pass on their personal expertise in this roundtable discussion of their award-winning wines.

Rountable Participants

Grand Champion
100% Peach (Port Style) 2003
& WineMaker of the Year
Raymond Meyer • Shepherdsville, Kentucky

Best of Show Red
100% Merlot
Ken Mapes • Temecula, California

Best of Show White
100% Chardonnay 2003
Louis M. Piancone • Piscataway, New Jersey

Best of Show Kit
100% Winexpert Selection Estate Series Oregon Yamhill County Pinot Noir 2004
Ed Seaman • Streamwood, Illinois

Best of Show Dessert
100% Late Harvest Golden Muscat 2004
Rex Johnston & Barbara Bentley • Walnut Creek, California

Best of Show Country Fruit
100% Raspberry 2003
David R. Miller • Louisville, Kentucky

How many wines do you typically make a year, and how many did you enter in this competition?

Rex Johnston & Barbara Bentley: We made 30 wines in 2004 and entered 10 of them in the 2005 competition. We entered 15 total with the other five coming from earlier vintages between 2001 and 2003. In 2005 we also made another 30 wines, including several new styles.

Lou Piancone: I made five new wines in 2005. However, eight wines from previous vintages were entered in WineMaker’s 2005 competition.

Ken Mapes: I made seven wines and entered five of them to the WineMaker competition.

David Miller: In 2005 I started a total of 18 wines. I selected my fruit wines from my 2004 vintage and red wines were from 2003. White entries were from the 2002 vintage. I entered a total of 12 wines in this competition.

Raymond Meyer: I make 25 different types of wine every year ranging from 3-gallon (11.4-L) to 10-gallon (38-L) batches. I entered 15 wines in the 2005 WineMaker competition.

Ed Seaman: In WineMaker’s competition, I had 15 total entries. Ten of these were made from kits, three were made from fruit and I also entered a couple of meads.

In making the wine, what techniques did you administer to benefit the particular style you were making?

Rex Johnston & Barbara Bentley: For our 2004 late harvest Golden Muscat, we treated it like our other whites fermenting them at 50–55 ºF (10–13 ºC).

Lou Piancone: With my 2003 Chardonnay, I fermented cool and then raised the temperature to get the wine to go through malolactic fermentation. Then I added medium toasted oak staves to add character.

Ken Mapes: I try to keep primary fermentation at 65 ºF (18 ºC) or less for whites and never more than 80 ºF (27 ºC) for reds. I like the complexity that comes with oak so I will use small oak barrels for the reds, particularly the Cabernet Sauv-ignon and Merlot.

David Miller: Fermentation was administered under cool cellar temperatures of 55–65 ºF (13–18 ºC). I have found that slow fermentation enhances the fruitiness of this wine. Balancing the wine is the biggest challenge as there is no set formula for sweetness. I began at 6% residual sugar and then tweaked to taste for balance.

Ed Seaman: When making wine from kits, I always follow the directions precisely. I pay special attention to fermentation temperatures and am sure to rack off the primary when the specific gravity is at the correct point.

Did you treat, prepare or select the wines you sent to the competition differently than the rest of the wine in each batch (i.e. did you just randomly select a bottle from a batch of wine at random, or was there more to the selection process for each entry)?

Rex Johnston & Barbara Bentley: All entries are specifically selected using several bottles and making certain the entry selection is crystal clear and there are no flaws in the glass.

Lou Piancone: I selected my wines randomly from each batch that I made.

Ken Mapes: Well, yes and no. I bottle from 5-gallon (19-L) stainless steel kegs and use a carbon dioxide cylinder to push the wine through a filter and into the bottles. My first and last bottle of each 5-gallon (19-L) keg gets a rubber band around the neck of the bottle. This distinguishes these bottles because they have the potential for new-filter or heavy-sediment taste. I never enter those banded bottles in a competition.

David Miller: The bottles I chose were randomly selected. I did, however, do a visual inspection to assure no cork pieces or excessive sediment was present. Otherwise, there was nothing special about the bottles I entered.

Raymond Meyer: I randomly selected a bottle from each batch. However, I do look at each competition bottle with a backlight to insure there is no sediment or crystals in the bottle.

Ed Seaman: I taste and judge all of the wines before selecting them for entry and determine if they are worthy. Then I read the style guidelines and determine if the wine fits the category being entered. After confirming these two things, I have a blind tasting with my wife and friends for any last minute decisions.

Is there anything you do in your winemaking that you feel is unique or out of the norm of typical winemaking techniques?

Rex Johnston & Barbara Bentley: Just 40 years of trying to improve my techniques and using analytical instrumental analyses in the laboratory to compare — I am an analytical chemist by profession.

Lou Piancone: Most important is to source quality grapes. Do proper research, be patient and be picky.

Ken Mapes: Aside from fastidious cleaning and keeping records on every batch, I would say I keep tuned to what is happening in the commercial wine world. I read some wine trade journals and there are good articles that I can apply to my home wine.

David Miller: It is not unique, but I have no qualms about blending kits and grapes for red wines. Blending viniferas from different sources helps to achieve balance and complexities for better red wines.

Ed Seaman: Yes, I make beer. I actually have more fun with beer as there are endless possibilities there. It takes a good beer to make wine and a good wine to make beer. By doing both beer and wine one certainly benefits from the crossover knowledge applied to all aspects of fermentation.

Did you include any special ingredients or additives that fall out of the norm of the typical ingredients used for the style of wine of which you won your award?

Ken Mapes: I guess the word “norm” means different things to different people. I used egg whites for fining my Cab and Merlot and on the Pinot I use an enzyme to boost the color. In addition, I try to go with a moderate or slow acting yeast to prevent temperature excursions. I can’t emphasize enough the role that good fruit plays in your final product.

David Miller: I didn’t use any additives or special ingredients in these wines.

Raymond Meyer: The finished peach wine was fortified with brandy to about 19% alcohol and then aged for about two years. The bad news is, I made just the 3-gallon (11.4-L) batch and only have a couple of bottles left!

Did you fine or filter your wine? If so, what fining agents or filtering techniques did you utilize?

Rex Johnston & Barbara Bentley: The 2004 late harvest Golden Muscat was sterile filtered.

Lou Piancone: If filtering is necessary I use 0.20 micron cartridge filters on whites and 0.45 microns on reds. If fining is necessary I use Bentonite or Sparkolloid. Bentonite is easier to use with less fuss.

Ken Mapes: I always fine with egg whites on the reds and use bentonite and Sparkolloid on the whites. If the red is really tannic I will use some gelatin. I like a brilliant wine so I always use a 0.5 micron final filter before I bottle.

David Miller: The wine was filtered and bottled by using the Enolmatic Filtering and Bottling System. I used a 0.45 micron filter. No finings were used. I avoid fining if at all possible. I feel it strips the wine of color and affects the taste and aroma.

Raymond Meyer: The peach port was fined with Sparkolloid and later filtered through a 0.45 micron filter at bottling. I generally fine and filter my whites and fruit wines. My reds are seldom fined or filtered. I do, however, age reds for a minimum of 12 months in the carboy where they clear naturally.

Ed Seaman: I filtered all of my white wines with a parallel plate filter system using paper 1.5 micron filters. I don’t want to be dinged for clarity – hey, a point is a point!

What yeast did you use in making this wine?

Rex Johnston & Barbara Bentley: The yeast was Red Star Premier Cuvée.

Lou Piancone: On the Chardonnay I used Lalvin D-47. On most bold reds I use Red Star Pasteur Red.

Ken Mapes: I used French Red on the Merlot and Assmanhausen on the Pinot Noir.

David Miller: For my raspberry wine I used Lalvin 1116 to assist in bringing out the fruitiness.

Raymond Meyer: I used a Red Star Premier Cuvée in the peach port style wine.

Ed Seaman: For wine kits I always use the yeast supplied by the manufacturer. For both my pear wines I used Lalvin K1-V1116.

How long did you let the wine age before sending it to our competition. And, had you entered the wine in our competition when it was younger with less success?

Rex Johnston & Barbara Bentley: The Golden Muscat was about eight months old at the time it was entered.

Lou Piancone: I like to age wines for at least one year before bottling or entering them into competitions. For this wine, I have not entered it in any other competitions at an earlier age.

Ken Mapes: As a general rule, I age reds a year in oak and about six months in the bottle before they are entered in a competition. Chardonnays go for nine months and most other whites get aged in glass or steel for six to nine months to preserve freshness and keep the nose. I don’t see many winners that are older than three years.

David Miller: The raspberry was a 2004 vintage that was started in October 2004.

Raymond Meyer: The port was aged a total of two years in the carboy and bottled prior to entering it in the 2005 competition. This was the first competition in which it was entered, however it has since done very well in other competitions across the country.

Ed Seaman: All of the red wines were aged at least 18 months, but I did win a bronze metal with a Winexpert New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that was only four months old at the time of judging (however, the wine is a lot better now with a full year of aging behind it). I find that most kit red wines take at least one year and most kit whites six months before they are approachable. For most of the kit reds that I make, 18 months to two years is typically required to reach full flavor.

What is the most valuable piece of winemaking advice that you can offer to our readers that could help them to make award-winning wines?

Rex Johnston & Barbara Bentley: Cleanliness in all parts of the process.

Lou Piancone: Here are six tips— 1. Source good quality grapes or juice. 2. Do a lot of research, keep good reference books on hand and keep good records of previous winemaking years. 3. Don’t be afraid of using modern winemaking methods. 4. Have a lot of patience. 5. Be fastidious and methodical. 6. Be Clean!

Ken Mapes: This question is like asking for the secret of the universe. In thinking about it I would say it is very important to get the constant evaluation of your wines by belonging to a winemaking organization and getting feedback from entering competitions. The winemaking process is a series of 200 small decisions. Talking with other winemakers allows one to tune each of those decisions and make better wine each year.

David Miller: Taste as many wines as you can. Visit wineries to see how the “pros” do it and taste other home winemaker’s product. By tasting you understand balance in wines and therefore can achieve it in your own. I have recently begun judging wines when invited and find this extremely helpful in understanding the judging process of homemade wines. When opportunities arise, buy the best possible grapes and juices. They always make the best wine. And last but not least, enjoy yourself. That’s what it’s all about.

Raymond Meyer: Learn and know how good wine should taste. Learn the varietal characteristics of each grape and the balance of a wine. This way you will then know if your wine is truly good and how it is going to compare to others in the style. This can be learned in wine appreciation classes taken at local colleges, wine shops and certain restaurants. Also, join a wine club, attend wine festivals, visit wineries and attend wine tastings. Remember — practice, practice, practice wine tasting to better your winemaking.

Ed Seaman: Just one thing — patience!