Weekly Interview: August Deimel

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 03-27-2015

August Deimel

August Deimel

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we are featuring August Deimel at Keuka Spring Vineyards.

With this interview, we are starting another series of interviews focusing on a wine region. Some of you will remember the recent series on Walla Walla Valley winemakers. Inspired by a recent trip to there, we now begin a series on the Finger Lakes.

And we are glad to kick off the series with August. While August is a relative newcomer to the Finger Lakes, as you will see below, he has strong ties to the region. And he discusses the place, the wines, and his story with admirable facility.

Check out the interview below!

Let’s start from the very beginning. Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Raleigh, NC and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. Because I barely remember North Carolina and I married a woman from Pittsburgh in addition to growing up there (though we didn’t meet in Pittsburgh, birds of a feather, right?) I see the ‘Burgh as home.

When and how did you get into wine?
When I was an undergraduate at St. John’s College in Annapolis, I worked as a boathouse steward for a summer. One lazy afternoon I found myself teaching a faculty member to sail when he asked me, apropos of nothing, “What’s the ethnicity of your last name?” When I explained that it was Alsatian, without hesitating he exclaimed: “Alsace makes great wine!!” He waxed poetic about Alsatian wine for a while and I was sufficiently intrigued to go out and buy a bottle. I wound up with a bottle of 2001 Hugel Gentil and it was a revelation. I didn’t know anything could taste like that and I became fascinated. After learning everything I could about the wines of Alsace, I bought a copy of the World Atlas of Wine and began attending every wine tasting I could, trying to learn about the world region by region.

When and how did you move to the Finger Lakes and start work at Keuka Spring Vineyards?
I got my Master’s degree in enology from Cornell, which is what exposed me to the Finger Lakes. I fell in love with the region while studying here and resolved to work here. After graduation, there were no local jobs so I found myself with a gig as a winemaker in Pennsylvania. But I was keeping an eye out for a chance to return to the Finger Lakes. When I saw the posting for the job at Keuka Spring I applied immediately and from my first conversations with the Wiltbergers (who own the winery) it was clear to me that this is where I should be.

What makes the Finger Lakes special as a viticultural region?
The Finger Lakes region is America’s only fine wine region truly focused on white wine. Sure there’s plenty of Riesling produced in Washington State and scads of Chardonnay in California. But those places are ultimately judged on their reds. Here we live and die on our white wines (and, I suppose, increasingly on our Rose).

What is your general winemaking philosophy?
I’m too young to posit an overarching winemaking philosophy. My winemaking is still a work in progress, and I wouldn’t want to claim some grand idea only to change it two years hence. I believe every vintage of wine that I’ve made so far shows significant stylistic developments. But there are a few truths that I think I’ve identified that I don’t see changing: 1) Wine is mysterious. You have to embrace the vagarities of the winemaking process. Sometimes things work or don’t work for no apparent reason. You can’t decide what you want to do a priori, you have to learn and experiment as you go. And if you pay attention, you figure out what works. 2) At the end of the day, wine quality is about texture. I was taught that with white wine, you’re going for love at first sniff: the nose, the aromatic burst, that’s the thing. Beautiful aromatics will make the people swoon. With red wine, it’s love at first sight that you’re after. That deep, dark red (or maybe purple) color will entrance people every time. These things are true so far as they go, I suppose. But what separate a great wine from the merely passable is, I believe, texture. How a wine feels in your mouth – coarse or silky, racy or flabby, balanced or awkward – is the real test of a wine’s mettle. Figuring out how to achieve that perfect mouthfeel in my wines will, I suspect, take the rest of my life.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?
Over the course of a winemaking career, you only get to make 30-40 vintages of wine. Given how many things I want to try out and how few chances I’ll ever have to do them, my biggest challenge is figuring out how many of those things I can cram into each vintage.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?
Gosh… that’s tough. Two people come to mind whose wines and approach I have long admired. Florent Baumard’s decision to put all of the amazing Domaine de Baumard wines under screwcap was both bold and brilliant. Those wines are incredible and, I think, are now much more collectable under the Stelvin closure. I also really admire the field blends produced by Jean-Michel Deiss, his insistence on producing them with grand cru vineyards, and his fight with the INAO over being allowed to label his grand cru wines without a varietal name. As for someone I know personally, Warren Winiarski of Stag’s Leap (who actually got me my first job in the industry) has always been an inspiration.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?
Certainly in the Finger Lakes, the new winemaker who has had the greatest influence on me is Kelby Russell from Red Newt Wine Cellars. Kelby and I share some of the same fascinations and his wines are pushing the boundaries of what Finger Lakes wines can be. In California I love what Rory Williams is doing with his Calder label including a cool Charbono and a Napa (!!) Riesling. The barrel-fermented Albarino from Evan Frazier’s Ferdinand project helped inspire my own work with barrels on Gewurztraminer and Rose. Much, much further off the radar: I can’t wait to see what some of the Assistant Winemakers in the Finger Lakes do once they are running cellars themselves. A few of them, including Rachel Hadley (my own assistant), Sarah Gummoe (formerly of Fox Run, now at St. Claire in NZ) and Julia Hoyle (Sheldrake Point) are just sublimely talented and I think they’ll blow us away with what they’re able to do once they get their chance.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?
Savennieres is the wine that haunts my dreams. Rare, elusive, age-demanding, non-hedonistic, textural, thought-provoking, legendary (and maybe a bit illusory) it’s a wine that I spend way too much time thinking about. And really, it is a wine for thinking. It’s not obviously beautiful or appealing. Instead, it rewards the time you spend with it. I suppose you could say it’s a very insightful introvert. Drinking Savennieres puts me in a contemplative mood – not something that I can really say about any other wine in the world. I love it.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?
Some of the older Sauternes I’ve had (1980 Climens, 81 Rieussec stand out, as well as a few others from the 60s and 70s) are probably the best wines I’ve ever tasted. Great sweet wines just keep getting better and better with age and at some point they just become sublime. As for the most interesting? See the answer above. Savennieres – without a doubt.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?
Whatever it is (I suspect it’s a Riesling from Henry of Pelham but am not going to dig through the cellar to confirm that) I assure you it’s not particularly old. I have been relatively transient over my adult life and have tended to drink my wine rather than move it whenever we’ve changed locales. That said, we’re buying a house here in Geneva so I’m hoping to develop a cellar that I can hold onto for a bit more time to allow those bottles to get a bit older. As for the most expensive? That’s probably my bottle of Kongsgaard “The Judge” Chardonnay. I really need to get around to drinking that, actually…

What’s open in your kitchen right now?
As I write this – two bottles of Riesling (one Keuka Spring, one from Lamoreaux Landing where my wife manages the tasting room) and one bottle of Rose (Lamoreaux). During the week, we tend to drink wines from the places where we work or possibly from our neighbors/friends. On the weekend is when we break out wines from around the world.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?
Must I choose a red? Can I not have two whites? Oh fine. Let’s see. Cru Beaujolais for the red. Moulin a Vent if I must be more specific. It’s ultra-reliable and pairs with everything. As for the white… it has to be Gewurztraminer. Gewurz is my great passion as a winemaker I find it endlessly fascinating.

Is beer ever better than wine?
Yes. After a day of making wine, there’s nothing better than cold beer. Or if you’re eating pizza. Pizza requires beer.

How do you spend your days off?
I tend to take a lot of small little weekend trips. As time has gone on my friends have slowly spread out along the east coast so I often find myself heading out to Baltimore or Pittsburgh or Boston for a few days here and there. I like frequent changes of scenery and the company of people who know me well. This habit satisfies both needs.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
I read my wife this question and she just laughed. We’ll leave it at that.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?
Careers I seriously considered and/or pursued: Politician/Political operative, Episcopal priest, actor, profession mediator, diplomat. Other jobs I have held for some period of time: preschool teacher, salesman of bus transportation, communications director at a non-profit. What would I be doing if I weren’t making wine? I have no idea. But I imagine that there are a lot of different options I might be exploring.

How do you define success?
Success is about tomorrow. I know I’ll never be satisfied with what I’ve done. I always want to make my wine better, more exciting, more interesting. I intend to keep learning and improving for as long as I’m able to keep doing this.

Comments (3)

  1. On April 2 it will be 33 years since I met August in person. Prior to that we had a symbiotic relationship as he lived, kicked, and twirled in my belly. His interview is typical August–interesting, honest, amusing–with just a hint of reticence. Since I live in Chicago I just received some of his wines and I am eager to taste them, especially after this interview. I learned more about his wine journey than in all of our conversations over the years. Good interviewer, good subject!

  2. Dear Betty,

    I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed the interview! I certainly enjoyed interviewing August and reflecting on his responses. Cheers to your son and his wines!

    -Albert Pak

  3. I’m the opposite of August – grew up in the Finger Lakes and now live in Pittsburgh. I haven’t been to Keuka Springs yet, but have added it to our list of wineries to visit on our next trip this year. Looking forward to trying the wines.
    Dana