300 medals & counting: Ramey winemaker mastering competitions

Mirror photo by Cherie Hicks John Mactchock of Ramey stirs banana wine in its first stage of fermentation.

RAMEY — John Matchock thought that making wine at home was a “lost art” until a dozen years ago, when a buddy at the nearby VFW showed him the basics, and the lifelong resident of the area embarked on a new hobby.

By the time his mentor died last year, Matchock had become a master at amateur winemaking, pulling in more than 300 medals at competitions from Vermont to Virginia since he started fermenting fruits — peaches, bananas, cranberries and more — and/or their juices.

“John is pretty reticent and he doesn’t like to brag,” said Ivan Riggle, a wine judge. “But this guy makes some kick(expletive) wine, and he needs some recognition. His elderberry wine is out of the world.”

Riggle and his wife, Mary, of Tipton are certified by the American Wine Society to judge amateur and commercial competitions across the United States. She echoed her husband’s regard for Matchock’s skills, saying that Ray Amato of Antis Township was one of the best before he died four years ago. Another was Scott Bubb, who went commercial when he opened his Seven Mountain Winery near State College in 2008.

“John (Matchock) may be the best amateur winemaker in central Pennsyl-vania,” Mary said.

The American Wine Society gave him a certificate in October that recognized his milestone of more than 300 medals, including many gold and double gold medals, as well as Best in Show awards.

Matchock acknowledged that he still makes mistakes occasionally, such as controlling the air that gets into his fermenting wines. And the Riggles say they have come across some bad wine at competitions — just not Matchock’s.

“This happens about every competition, somebody will find a wine that’s been down in their grandmother’s basement for 30 years, and people think the older the wine is, the better,” Ivan said. “It’s absolutely awful, muddy and oxidized. And then there are people who are new at winemaking and don’t have correct sanitation procedures in place, and it will taste and smell like a wet dog. We help them with that.”

Matchock said he learned a lot on his own by trial and error.

“Of the last 56 wines I entered (in competitions), 55 got medals,” he said. “The cranberry didn’t make it. I should’ve mixed in some apple cider with it to sweeten it up a little.”

Sometimes he adds a shot or two of Wild Turkey bourbon to give his wine more kick.

Sometimes he uses expensive fruit juices at $33 a gallon and sometimes he uses real fruit, such as peaches that he pits and simmers for an hour to “break up the fiber and bring out the juices” before beginning his fermenting process that takes nearly four months.

Before Christmas, Matchock had started a batch of banana wine that he made from 10 to 12 pounds of the fruit.

“You have to stir it every day at least once,” he said, taking the lid off a five-gallon bucket to mix the concoction in his kitchen.

He plans to enter that one in a future competition.

“Everybody hears banana wine and they stick their nose up,” he said. “But it’s won one first place already.”

Matchock already had a number of five-gallon batches of tomato, cherry, apple cider, honey, pumpkin, wild grape, maple syrup and other wines in the second stage of fermenting in his cellar. There, other varieties, including peach, blackberry, blueberry, concord grape and honey, already were bottled.

Another batch was made from berries of the Autumn Olive, a non-native plant that Matchock said the Pennsylvania Game Commission planted years ago for wildlife food and ground cover and now can be found all over area forests. The juicy round fruits are tiny — no bigger than 1/2-inch in diameter — and tart, but make a “good wine,” he said. “I’ve won with it, a silver, I think.”

Matchock has won 316 medals in all, but he started the hobby just for something to do in the hunting camp he has called home for most of his 68 years. Originally from nearby, he got married, moved to Coalport and had two sons.

Gone for only 14 years, a divorce brought him back to this rural mountain area where he likes to hunt deer and garden tomatoes, peppers, beans and other produce.

He worked the coal mines in Barnesboro until they shut down and then a limestone quarry near Lancaster, coming home on weekends, until he retired a few years ago.

Making wine helped him deal with subsequent health and emotional issues.

While driving to a chemo treatment for melanoma in 2016, he suffered a stroke that caused him to wreck his car. He ended up in the hospital and rehabilitation for two months.

“I kept thinking about my wine and that’s how I got through all that,” he said. “Making wine got me through some bad times, emotional and physical.”

The competitions add an extra incentive, he said.

A few years after he started making his own wine, Matchock heard about a competition at Glendale Valley Winery in Flinton where he learned about competitions all over the Northeast.

He has visited such shows in Nicktown, Belleville and Windber, but he usually just ships his wine to competitions.

“We actually prefer the winemakers not be present while the judging is done; it’s very distracting,” Ivan Riggle said.

He said judges are rarely given more than a number for a specific wine, maybe the varietal or year, but “you have no idea whose wine it is.”

Each amateur winemaker submits two bottles of each wine per category; that can add up. Last year’s annual competition at La Ferme Rouge in Patton drew 150 wines from as far away as Virginia and New York, Riggle said.

The WineMaker International Wine Competition in West Dover, Vermont, last April drew nearly 2,500 entries, the largest amateur competition in the world, according to the Riggles, who served as two of the thousands of judges. Matchock won five medals there, a gold, a silver and three bronze.

That was remarkable for Matchock’s first-time entry in the international competition, Mary Riggle said, adding that instructors, judges and visitors from all over “just rave about his wine.”

In September, he competed at the Central PA Wine Event and won a record eight medals.

Most recently, in November, he won five medals at the American Wine Society Amateur Wine Competition in the Pocono Mountains: a bronze, three silvers and a double gold for his strawberry wine.

A double gold is when the three judges independently award a gold before they begin any discussions, Mary Riggle said, explaining that judging is on appearance, including color and clarity, aroma, taste, aftertaste and overall impression.

“Sometimes judges dicker about things,” she explained. “Maybe two give a gold and one gives a silver, and that averages out to a simple gold. But if all three judges give a gold up front, that’s a double gold.”

In all, Matchock says he makes about 50 gallons of wine a year, most of which goes to competitions. He drinks and gives away the rest, since he cannot legally sell it.

And he thinks about what he will make next.

“A few are written down, but most of the recipes are in my head,” he said. “I know what goes in. Sometimes I’ll blend two, three or four together and enter those. I seem to do better when I blend them.”

His gold medal in Vermont, for example, was blueberry, cherry and elderberry. At the Central PA Wine Event in September he won Best of Show for his blueberry elderberry wine. And it was hardly his first best of show.

“I read somewhere that if you win one best of show in your life, you’re doing good,” Matchock said. “I have five.”

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.