King of the amateurs

When it comes to winemaking, Robert Jefferson is known as the man to beat at the Md. Wine Festival competition

September 09, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Robert Jefferson is prepared to vindicate his title.

Four of the past five years, he won the Best of Show in an amateur wine making competition. Last year he tied with Greg Sliviak. Although it didn't start out that way, Jefferson has become the man to beat.

"I never know how I'm going to do when I get there, but I guess I've managed to do OK," said Jefferson, 65, of Hampstead. "I think everyone wants to beat me now."

The competition is part of a 24-year-old tradition - the Maryland Wine Festival - that will be held Sept. 15 and Sept. 16in Westminster at the Carroll County Farm Museum.

Started in 1984, the wine festival, scheduled to include 18 of the state's 30 wineries, brings in more than 25,000 wine enthusiasts from across the United States and 18 countries, said Jackie Koch, a marketing assistant for the farm museum.

During the two-day event, patrons can attend wine seminars, taste wines, enjoy music and peruse the vendor tables.

The adjudication is held privately and is only open to the participants, said Emily Johnston, of Westminster, who coordinates the judging and education portions of the event. Wines are judged on their appearance, aroma and bouquet, Johnston said.

Some of the concoctions are interesting, she said.

"People use things you would never expect to be used to make wines. I've seen wines made of parsnip, corn cobs, violets, dandelions, and tomatoes," Johnston said. "Although some of the ingredients seem odd, the quality of the amateur wines has improved."

Jefferson began making wine about 17 years ago after watching a friend make a batch in his basement. He has been making wine ever since, he said.

"Other than bottles overflowing when I bottle my wine, I've never really had any problems with it," said Jefferson who met his wife, Ginger, at the festival in 1986.

The couple married in 1990, and they have been attending the festival since they met, he said. Most of those years he has entered wines in the amateur competition, he said.

Most of his wines are fruit-based. However, this year he'll be entering black cherry, Traminette, Sauvignon Blanc and a Vidal-Cayuga in the competition.

In addition to the wine festival, he has wines entered in the Maryland State Fair where he has won several coveted Best in Show awards, he said.

Greg Sliviak is ready to meet his rival, he said. Sliviak, who also makes fruit-based wines, plans to enter a Concord Grape, black raspberry, White Zinfandel and a peach wine this year, he said.

But the accolades are just icing on the cake, Sliviak said. Last year, after his father passed away, he entered a bottle of his father's black raspberry wine, and it won the best of show.

"The award honored him," said Sliviak of his father, a farmer, who made homemade wine. "It meant a lot to me, because he taught me to make wine."

Not all amateur wine makers have a mentor, or affinity for winemaking, said Michael Fiore, the owner of Fiore Winery in Pylesville.

"I get calls from people daily asking me things like what kind of yeast they should use to make their wine," Fiore said. "But amateur winemakers most frequently have problems with the fermentation process. It's very difficult to ferment wine if you don't know anything about chemistry."

Ken Hohl agreed. When he started making wine about four years ago, he found getting the PH and acid levels right a little tough, but for the most part making wine is easy, said Hohl, 50, of Mount Airy.

He entered his wines in amateur wine adjudications in previous years for feedback , he said.

"When I make wine, and have someone else rate it, I get someone else to tell me my wine is not horrible," he said. "Of course I think it tastes good, but I like getting an unbiased opinion."

Despite the difficulties some people have learning to make wine, there has been an increase in winemaking by amateurs, said Kevin Atticks, who has been the executive director of the Maryland Wineries Association for the past five years.

"There has been a tremendous increase in amateur winemaking," Atticks said. "In the last couple years wine has become a lifestyle. It's something more than just a substitute for beer. It's art, a conversation piece, a hobby, and there are a lot of tourism attractions out there that are wine-related."

However, some people still need a little education before they can start talking shop, said Johnston. At the festival, Johnston gives a presentation about tasting and drinking wine, she said. She also discusses popular misconceptions, she said.

"We tell people to taste wine like any liquid that is suspect," she said. "For example, if you think milk might be too old, you don't pick it up and drink it. You look at it, smell it and then taste it. You do the same thing when you taste wine."

And tasting wine leads her to yet another pet peeve, she said.

"When people taste wine, they take little sips," she said. "But what they should do is take a mouthful and swish it around like mouthwash."

Wine festival

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