story and photos by Jason Feulner
I first visited Keuka Spring Vineyards some time ago, and at that point it was a typical Finger Lakes winery, focusing on a variety of grapes (hybrids and vinifera) and doing a pretty good job from a regional standpoint. Fast forward a few years, and I found myself arranging a visit in response to the winery being named “New York State Winery of the Year” in 2016 by the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. In large part, I was already remiss in having not re-visited Keuka Spring since its relatively new winemaker, August Demeil, had been pursuing a new platform of wine that looked far beyond regional focus alone.
As I entered the familiar tasting room/production facility, I encountered August bent over the lab table testing the sugar and alcohol levels of a wine sample and recording the results on an iPad. A relatively young and vivacious person, this image of August spoke volumes about the transition already underway in the Finger Lakes: established wineries, evolving family ownership, new winemaking talent, the exploration of new boundaries and standards. It was all there, right in front of me.
To be sure, the Wiltberger family still owns Keuka Spring – the winery they established in 1981 – but instead of owners Judy and Len Wiltberger, I encountered their daughter, Jeanne, who heads up the marketing efforts and is on the premises on a day-to-day basis. A recent addition to this expanding legacy, August represents one of the new, young winemakers who have come to the Finger Lakes to take the foundational work of so many existing wineries and bring it to the next level.
August Demeil, a native of Pittsburg, attended St. John’s – a college that prides itself on attracting thoughtful and hands-on learners in the Great Books tradition – but at that point he knew very little about wine. It was one day, while leading a sailing lesson for a faculty member in the waters off Annapolis, that conversation turned to wine, inspiring August to learn more throughout his college years.
From a harvest in California to some winemaking work in Pennsylvania’s disparate wine industry, August eventually found himself attending Cornell for a Master’s in Oenology, eventually landing the position of head winemaker at Keuka Spring in 2012. He embraced the challenge of bringing a respected brand into focus, continuing certain programs (hybrids included) but doubling efforts to push quality in areas of vinifera-based winemaking that would attract attention from afar.
The result was eventually named R&D (short for Research and Development), a lineup of wines that carry labels that resemble the tape hastily used on bottles in a winery lab, normally intended only to keep track. While some of the R&D wines are a few steps removed from typical offerings, some really come out of left field. The 2013 Omega, for instance, is a late-harvest Cabernet Franc – really late harvest. A high-quality and tasty wine, it has the unusual consistency of syrup. One might easily forget that making a late-harvest Cabernet Franc is the unusual part.
“Making hybrid wines is a great way to learn volume winemaking, which is important,” August reflects. “But with the R&D series we are trying to do something different that doesn’t fit into the broader lineup. These wines are purposely weird and different.”
Despite his inherent pride in the R&D series, August does not lose sight of the winery’s tradition of making good, straightforward vinifera wines, and he is especially excited about Keuka Spring’s lineup. Keuka Spring has a variety of Rieslings – in various styles and vineyard designations – as well as several other whites, rosés, and reds. August is especially proud of his Gewürztraminer, a grape that he seems to enjoy more than any other.
And yet even with “traditional” vinifera, August pushes the envelope a bit. The red wines produced at Keuka Spring are no longer treated in oak barrels – almost a given in winemaking – and nearly all will be released with no oak treatment whatsoever. “I’m one of the few winemakers who is putting more whites in barrels than reds these days,” August points out, pouring me a sample of Merlot out of a large plastic cube. The wine, fully ripe and still emerging from its malolactic fermentation, has never seen a barrel, nor will it.
August believes that Finger Lakes reds are transparent – meaning they express their flavors in a fairly bright and straightforward manner – and that extended oak treatment can obscure and muddle their inherent quality. While this perspective is not universally shared, August delights in the ability to experiment and is happy with the positive response from customers and major critics alike.
As we wrapped up the cellar tour and tasting, I asked August if he had any parting thoughts, and he immediately went to look for his assistant winemaker, Rachel Hadley. August is adamant that Rachel is “a huge part of what we do here … how we approach winemaking comes in large part from our conversations.” A native of New Hampshire, Rachel stumbled into winery work while attending Hobart & William Smith, but despite harvest and winemaking experience in the Finger Lakes, New Zealand, and Australia, it’s her subsequent retail experience in New York City that she cites as one of
“When you see how different world regions and styles are embraced in New York,” Rachel says, “it gives you insight as to how to approach winemaking from a broader viewpoint.”
Keuka Spring is certainly an interesting winery under the winemaking leadership of August Demeil, and since it offers a little something for everyone – simple and good to simply whacky – it’s a great place to visit to see what is possible in the Finger Lakes. “We have some wines that are fun and different,” August concludes, “but consistency of quality is what’s important for consumers.”
Keuka Spring Vineyards is located on the northeastern shore of Keuka Lake and is open most of the year.
Visit keukaspringwinery.com for more details.
The Rieslings at Keuka Spring are all quite interesting, and winemaker August Demeil likes to make several different styles. The 2015 Humphrey Vineyard Riesling was a real standout, popping on the palette with a honey and spice finish that lingered.
August is a self-proclaimed Gewürztraminer nut, and it shows. The 2015 Dynamite Vineyard packs in all the elements of a great Gewürz and then some.
The real treat during my visit was the tank samples. The 2016 lineup at Keuka Spring will be a big one, and the Rieslings and Gewürztraminers are already top-quality. The barrel-less reds, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon especially, stood out. This might be the vintage to consider August’s proclamation that sans wood is the way to go. Give it a try.