With 2,981 entries, the WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition is the largest competition of its kind in the world. This year’s competition took place May 19-22 in beautiful Santa Rosa, CA, in the heart of Sonoma Valley. Amateur winemakers from all 50 U.S. states, 6 Canadian provinces and as far away as the Philippines and Croatia submitted entries based on both kit wines and fresh-grapes in a blind tasting.
Jeffrey Clayton moved to Illinois in 2006, but grew up a Steelers fan in Pittsburgh. His home winemaking journey began about 5 years ago and like most that were new to the hobby, he started with mid-priced kit wines and then worked his way up. He says, “Today I try to use pure juice when possible. Otherwise, I modify a good kit.”
Jeffrey has turned his passion into an award-winning formula and we spoke with him to get his story and some advice on making wine at home.
Why did you start making wine?
I was tired of spending more than $2 for a box of vino (kidding). The decision to start making wine stemmed from wanting to not only replicate some of the same flavors found in my favorite commercial wines, but to also experiment and come up with some new and interesting blends.
Do you have a favorite wine style to make or drink?
Two: Port and a nice spicy/jammy Zinfandel.
When did you start entering contests?
The first contest was the 2015 WineMaker International Amateur Competition. I modified an RJS Craft Winemaking Toasted Caramel Dessert Wine to include sea salt and a homemade caramel simple syrup. It took gold that year. I also entered the 2015 Indy International and received 12 medals; a majority of which were based on RJS Craft Winemaking kits.
What is the WineMaker conference and competition like?
This was the second year we attended the conference. It was great to not only see some familiar faces, but to make some new friends as well. I think the most valuable aspect of the conference short of the seminars, is the opportunity to meet the vendors and pick their brain on new winemaking techniques.
Why do you like using RJS Craft Winemaking kits?
RJS Craft Winemaking kits not only have a phenomenal flavor profile, but they utilize the simple instructions which is great for the beginner. As an added bonus, the base juices lend themselves to modification much better than the competition. As a result, we have 4 new ports going into next year’s WineMaker Competition and this year’s Indy International in August:
Caramel Apple Port (based on RJS Toasted Caramel Dessert Wine)
Hazelnut Coffee Port (based on RJS Coffee Dessert Wine)
Double-Chocolate Cherry Hazelnut (based on RJS Black Forest Dessert Wine)
Chocolate Peanut-Butter (based on RJS Premium Dessert Wine)
For someone who is new to entering competitions, what advice can you give to better their chances of winning?
Just as the old adage goes ‘Don’t drink wine before it’s time’, the same applies for competing. If a wine is extremely young, wait. It will pay off in the long run. Red wines are at least 15 months in the bottle before they go to competition. Ports are a minimum of 2 years.
Do you have a tip for the home winemaker to improve their wines?
Patience. Don’t rush the process because you “think” the wine is ready for the next phase. And heating belts, heating belts, heating belts. Although basements in Chicago can be relatively stable temperature-wise, investing in heating belts to control primary and secondary fermentation has been a godsend. The wines have not only been bottle ready on time, but in some cases even a few days early. In neither situation are wines getting dumped or entering the “black hole” called Stuck Fermentation.
Once you have mastered a few kits, start experimenting. Whether it’s adding natural or artificial flavorings or mixing different kits together. Experimentation is where the REAL fun is to be had.
BSG is a proud distributor of RJS Craft Winemaking wine kits which helped Jeffrey win many awards in multiple competitions. Here is a short list of just some of his amazing accomplishments:
2015 WineMaker Competition
Salted Caramel Port (based on RJS Toasted Caramel Dessert Wine) | GOLD
2015 Indy International
Chilean Carmenère (RJS Cellar Classic Winery Series Chilean Carmenère) | GOLD
Chilean Malbec (RJS EnPrimeur Winery Series Chilean Malbec) | SILVER
Australian Pinot Noir (RJS EnPrimeur Winery Series Australian Pinot Noir) | SILVER
Valpolicella (RJS EnPrimeur Winery Series Italian Valpolicella) | SILVER
Salted Caramel Port (based on RJS Toasted Caramel Dessert Wine) | SILVER
Ontario Ice (RJS Cru Specialty Vidal Dessert Wine) | SILVER
Tempranillo (RJS RQ Spanish Monastrell Tempranillo) | BRONZE
2016 WineMaker Competition
Valpolicella (RJS EnPrimeur Winery Series Italian Valpolicella) | GOLD
Tempranillo (RJS RQ Spanish Monastrell Tempranillo) | SILVER
Chilean Malbec | BRONZE
Chilean Carmenere | BRONZE
To learn more about the WineMaker Magazine competition, see a list of winners and find out how you can participate, please visit: http://winemakermag.com/competition