Award-Winning Kit Winemakers Roundtable

How do you make the best possible homemade wine from a kit? You know, something truly great that can stand out in a crowded competition and go toe-to-toe with a fresh grape wine? I reached out to four kit winemakers who all won multiple medals in the 2015 WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition for their kit-made wines to reveal their winemaking secrets. Here is what I discovered!

The Winemakers:

FrancoFranco Costa lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He makes about 10 kit wines per year and has been involved in winemaking with kits for nearly 25 years. 2011 was the first year that he entered a competition and one of his wines won gold, spurring him on to enter more. He currently holds 17 medals.

2015 Medals at the WineMaker competition:
(All wines made with RJS Craft Winemaking kits)
Gold, 2014 Grand Cru California Muscat
Gold, 2014 Cellar Classic Winery Series Super Tuscan
Gold, 2013 Cru Select RQ Cabernet Sauvignon
Silver, 2013 Cellar Classic Winery Series Italian Amarone
Silver, 2014 Cru Select Valpolicella Ripassa
Silver, 2013 Grand Cru International California Meritage
Bronze, 2013 Cru Select RQ Sangiovese Merlot

DebDennisHaff1Deborah and Dennis Haff are from Newton, New Jersey. With five years’ experience the husband and wife team are relatively new to their winemaking hobby. They make about seven kits each year and have won an impressive 39 medals. If you ever have the good fortune to meet the Haffs, make sure you get a tour of their cellar.

2015 Medals at the WineMaker competition:
Gold, 2014 RJS Craft Winemaking Cru Specialty Apple Tatin White Port
Gold, 2014 Winexpert Selection Piesporter
Silver, 2014 Winexpert Orange Enhanced Moscato
Silver, 2013 Winexpert Selection Argentine Malbec
Silver, 2014 RJS Craft Winemaking Australian Shiraz Viognier

CallieKeith3Callie McHarg is from 100 Mile House in British Columbia, and started making wine in 2008. Callie is retired but her former occupation helped her kit winemaking skills: She was a U-Brew owner. Her partner, Keith Warawa, enjoys contributing to making fortified wines. She says they’re always making wine (her email address appropriately contains the words ‘wine slave’) and estimates they produce up to 45 kits a year. Callie has entered the WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition for five years and has won two Best of Show awards.

2015 Medals at the WineMaker competition:
(All wines made with RJS Craft Winemaking kits)
Silver, 2015 Cru Specialty Toasted Caramel Port
Silver, 2015 Grand Cru Merlot
Bronze, 2015 Sparkling Hightail Ehrenfelser
Bronze, 2015 Sparkling Orchard Breezin’ Tropical Lime
Bronze, 2015 Hightail Ehrenfelser and Vanilla Bean
Bronze, 2015 Cru Select Specialty Vidal Ice Wine
Bronze, 2015 En Primeur Pinot Grigio and Raspberry Rhubarb
Bronze, 2015 Sparkling Orchard
Breezin’ Blackberry
Bronze, 2015 Cru Select Apple Tatin Port

NeilVNeil Vaseleniuck is from Windsor, Ontario where, for more than a decade, he’s owned and operated a brew-on-premise craft wine store called Cheers to You. He started making kit wines about 15 years ago. As its name suggests, much of Neil’s business involves helping people make kit wines on the premises. He personally makes about 15 kit wines per year and has won 45 medals to date.

2015 Medals at the WineMaker competition:
Gold, 2013 Cellar Craft Showcase Zweigelt
Gold, 2013 Cellar Craft Showcase Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz
Silver, 2014 Vineco KenRidge Showcase Collection Tempranillo Granacha
Bronze, 2014 Vineco KenRidge Showcase Collection Primitivo 2014
Bronze, 2014 Vineco KenRidge Showcase Collection Grand Red II
Bronze, 2013 Cellar Craft Showcase Amarone
Bronze, 2014 Vineco KenRidge Showcase Collection Shiraz Grenache


What sparked your interest in hobby winemaking using wine kits?

Franco Costa: As a young boy, I enjoyed helping my parents and grandparents make wine from scratch using fresh grapes. I found the process fascinating. I wanted to make wine more than once a year (when the grapes are harvested) and that’s where the adventure began with the kits.

Deborah and Dennis Haff: We live in a 200-plus year-old farmhouse, and recently found out from our county newspaper’s historical section that our home was the first vineyard and winery in the county back in the 1850s, where the owners raised Catawba and Isabella grapes. We have a bottle of the original wine and some of the old hand-blown wine bottles — pre-Civil War — that we found in our cellar, and we did not know where they came from until the article in the paper. We knew then that it was a sign!

Callie McHarg: I was recovering from a very long bout of pneumonia, and was on medical leave. I grew bored and wanted a new hobby to keep me amused. I went to a U-Brew, but was disappointed at the time to learn that the “U” part was minimal. It was great for a busy person, but not for a hobby. Instead of ordering wine I bought an equipment starter kit, which came with the basics. I bought two wine kits from the local grocery store, rolled up my sleeves, and that was it — I was hooked on kit winemaking.

Neil Vaseleniuck: I have always loved wine and I wanted to join the market for brew-on-premise stores and strive to be the best.

What range of wines do you make, what’s your favorite and why?

Franco Costa: I make a variety of wines, including red, white, blush, and fruit wines, along with beer, Sherry, Port-style, and ice wines. My favorite kit is the RJS Craft Winemaking Cellar Classic Winery Series Italy Super Tuscan. It’s full-bodied and dry, with tastes of farm fresh raspberries and a subtle hint of vanilla. This kit contains American oak shavings and grape skins that add intense tannins to round out the concentrated nose of blackberries and black pepper.

Deborah and Dennis Haff: We make reds, whites, fruit, and Port-style wines. We especially enjoy oaky reds. We have become interested in the process of oaking and work with American, French, and Hungarian oaks. Sometimes we even double oak with different oaks.

Callie McHarg: I seem to use every range of wine kit. For gifts and competitions, I use higher-end kits; 8-week kits that make big, bold reds, and also some nice whites for sparkling. I am a self-confessed bubble nut, so I sparkle quite a bit.

For everyday use, cooking, and girls’ nights I make mid- and lower-range wine kits. They don’t require much aging, and still taste great.

My partner Keith has a fondness for the Port-style wines, so we do lots of those as well. He heats them and takes them ice fishing in his Thermos. I also make lots of the fruit wine kits. I really can’t choose just one wine type as a favorite.

Neil Vaseleniuck: I use 10-liter (2.6-gal.) kits up to the 18-liter (4.8-gal.) kits at Cheers to You. It would be a difficult choice to pick a favorite because I enjoy so many different wines, but if I had to pick one, it would be Amarone. The intensity of the flavors is amazing.

What do you like about entering your wines into competitions?

Franco Costa: I enjoy reaping success for my efforts! Making wine is my favorite hobby so I get pure satisfaction out of knowing I also do it well.

Deborah and Dennis Haff: We enjoy the scoring notes we receive regarding how the judges felt about our wines. Both good and bad notes on our wines are so helpful!

Callie McHarg: I like to enter the competitions because Canadian winters can be very long. Making wines, entering the competitions, and sharing wine with my friends is the best hobby I can think of.

Neil Vaseleniuck: It’s always wonderful to be recognized for something I have so much passion for. Entering competitions has also been a great marketing tool.

Specifically, what kit wine companies do you generally use, why, and what sort of kits?

Franco Costa: In my personal opinion, RJS Craft Winemaking makes the best wine kits. They produce different styles of wines that you don’t find from other wine companies. Their Cellar Classic Winery Series is one of my favorite kits to make because they contain grape skins. If you give them time to age, they are outstanding.

Deborah and Dennis Haff: We use a lot of the Winexpert kits as they seem to have many of the wines we enjoy personally.

Callie McHarg: We use RJS Craft Winemaking kits. They have a great selection of imported and local juices in their wine kits and they have a good range of brands and prices.

Neil Vaseleniuck: My supplier is Global Vintners who have a consistent product and stand behind their brands. My biggest seller is KenRidge Showcase, however my personal favorite is Cellar Craft Showcase, which comes with its own skin pack. It takes about 10 months before they are ready to drink, but they are so worth it! Three of my gold medals have come from Cellar Craft Showcase, the others have come from KenRidge Showcase.

How often do you make wine?

Franco Costa: At one point in time, I was obsessed with hobby winemaking. I would have 10 kits on the go at all times. I came to the realization, however, that it consumed too much of my time — and also produced too much product.

Deborah and Dennis Haff: We start a wine kit approximately every six to eight weeks. We’ve quickly gone from tinkerers to obsessed due to the enjoyment we get playing with fruits and oaks.

Neil Vaseleniuck: I make a wine kit weekly and keep about 400 bottles on hand. I’m certain my friends and family would say I’m obsessed.

As long as you stick to the instructions and monitor things closely, kit wines usually make predictable, decent wines.

What tricks have you learned that have helped you set your kit wines apart?

Franco Costa: Don’t make your kits to full volume. For example, I hold back approximately 1.5 liters (0.4 gal.) of water from a 23-liter (6-gallon) kit. In some cases I make those kits to 19 liters (5 gal.), which gives the wine more body, flavor, and a higher alcohol content. I also enjoy wines that are heavy in oak so I will leave an oak stave in the carboy for approximately two months.

Deborah and Dennis Haff: We have added fruit, combined kits, and double oaked our reds.

Callie McHarg: How to set wines apart? Have fun! Play! I’ve done crazy things to wines, some good, some not so much. Either way, you learn. If you want more body in a white wine, add banana flakes. They won’t change the flavor. If you want to up your legs in a red, add a bit of glycerin. I once made a Riesling but used rhubarb juice instead of water. It won a bronze in the grape/non-grape category!

Neil Vaseleniuck: Kit wines can be predictable, so setting my wines apart from the very beginning was paramount for me. There are a lot of nuances. I do not believe in using clearing agents, and yet I still get perfectly clear wine. I think the most important thing would be my own reverse osmosis water system. I am constantly trying to invent new ways to improve my process and therefore my product.

Can you give an example of a wine flaw you had early on in your kit winemaking hobby, and what you did about it or
what happened?

Franco Costa: Once I experimented with making fresh grape juice in pails. Most fresh juices don’t come with any additives that can prevent further fermentation of sugars. So after bottling my wine, I came home to find a bunch of corks on the floor and a wine rack with bottles that lacked corks. The wine had re-fermented and the pressure had blown the corks. Lesson on monitoring my sulfite levels learned!

Deborah and Dennis Haff: At the beginning, I think my biggest wine flaw was having a few wines go into a stuck fermentation. The temperature of the room was a few degrees too warm. They took forever to finish fermenting, and then they tasted like tin. I’m also a klutz! I spill things everywhere and I drop everything, especially wine bottles. We installed a 1-inch thick rubber floor in the winery and now they just bounce. Problem solved! We also found some of the higher-end whites will need to age about two to three months before they are ready to drink.

Neil Vaseleniuck: I would never tolerate and do not have time to deal with a flawed kit wine. I have a customer satisfaction guarantee. Though there was one time I took back a customer’s wine and I ended up winning a silver medal for it!

Looking ahead a few years, what’s the aim of your kit winemaking hobby?

Franco Costa: Quite honestly, the same as today. I will continue making wine as a hobby and select my best wines for competition.

Deborah and Dennis Haff: We will continue to play with kits, for example, combining kits, oaking, and adjusting fruits.

Callie McHarg: The aim of our winemaking hobby is to keep ourselves, guests, and families happy and amused. Sharing wine, conversations, and company is its own greatest reward. The wine competitions are an added bonus. Creating, entering, and anticipating the results all add up to an exciting hobby.

Neil Vaseleniuck: Kit winemaking is more than my livelihood: it’s my lifestyle. I hope to sell my company when I decide to retire.

What advice would you give someone who wants to start making kit wine and entering competitions?

Franco Costa: I have four pieces of advice: 1. Sanitation — any equipment that comes in contact with your wine must be clean and sanitized. 2. Don’t make cheap kits. Invest your money in a high quality wine kit and you’ll get better wine. 3. Corks — for a couple of extra bucks, use synthetic corks. They are far superior to regular corks. 4. Patience — give your wines time to age. They need time to fully develop.

Deborah and Dennis Haff: Follow the directions included in your kit wines closely until you feel comfortable thinking out of the box. Don’t be afraid to enter wine competitions, as the notes you receive back only assist you in improving your winemaking. Once you start making your own wine, you might become reluctant to drink commercial wines!

Callie McHarg: My advice for someone starting would be to follow the kit directions and watch your fermentation temperatures. After your confidence grows, let your imagination grow too. Be creative, play, and most of all . . . have FUN!

Neil Vaseleniuck: Research and gather as much winemaking information and knowledge as you can.Become an expert. Once you get good at making kit wines, perhaps offer your time to help out at an existing winemaking facility.