An interview with Keith Johnson of Sleight of Hand and Devium by Payton Frantzen

Keith Johnson makes wines with soul. The Walla Walla based production winemaker of Sleight of Hand Cellars and winemaker of his own project Devium, isn’t interested in the long-standing points of view about wine. In Keith’s world, foot stomping and native yeast fermentations are the norm and vineyard sites that push the boundaries of traditional Washington winegrowing are a requirement. Keith’s approach in the cellar is decidedly relaxed and lo-fi, though never sacrificing an attention to the mundane details. He steps out of the way so the fruit can tell its own unique story. This light touch, but strong ethos, allow the wine to speak for itself. I was lucky enough to catch up with Keith over email and pick his brain about the future of Washington wine and his role in it.

Payton Frantzen: How did you get into wine?

Keith Johnson: I started to enjoy wine while working in restaurants in my early 20’s, then it progressed when I went to work for a beer and wine distributor. While working for the distributor, I did a bit of everything, sales, deliveries, sign printing, but I was always more focused on the wine side of things. After about a year, I decided that I needed to get closer to the source and I enrolled at WWCC and moved to Walla Walla in the summer of 2009.

PF: Is there someone in the EV world that you admire, including fellow EV alums?

KJ: I admire anyone in the business who takes risks and stands by their convictions.

PF: What’s special to you about working in the wine industry?

KJ: Working with nature and creating something that people enjoy.

PF: What is your favorite part of your job?

KJ: Winemaking isn’t so much a job, but a way of life. I don’t think there is any one thing that I could pinpoint that is a “favorite” but being able to make a living while making wine is great in general.

PF: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in the industry?

KJ: The wine industry is challenging in general, but I don’t believe that I have faced any more difficult challenges than others and, in many ways, I have faced far fewer than some.

PF: What do you think differentiates and excites you about Washington wine?

KJ: The uncharted territory and the ability to make wines that push the boundaries. We are still such a young region and the potential for exploration is tremendous without some of the expectations of meeting a standard or a “normal” that you might find in more established parts of the world.

PF: How do you foresee climate change or social issues affecting the local industry in the next few years?

KJ: This is the big question, really. Climate change has become more and more present every year that I have been in the business. Warm sites are getting warmer, marginal sites are beginning to more consistently ripen fruit, water will likely become scarce and allocated, and we are likely to see more extreme weather both with heat waves in the summer and hard freezes in the winter. To prepare for this future, we should be looking to plant in cooler, higher elevation areas and we should also be looking to establish dry farmed vineyards when possible and we need to continue to push to lower the overall environmental impact of our industry any way that we can.

PF: What are some up-and-coming trends in wine that you’re following?

KJ: I try to keep up to date on any trend or development in the industry. The things that have me the most excited these days are (in no particular order):

  1. The better pay and working conditions on offer for vineyard crews.
  2. The general push in the industry for more diversity, I don’t want to make too large of a social statement in this interview, but the long-standing points of view on wine and winemaking is getting really boring.
  3. Farming in a more environmentally friendly way that encourages healthy soils, diverse flora, and the use of fewer chemical inputs.

PF: What advice can you share with future EV graduates?

KJ: Take the time to learn how to sell wine. Making it is a lot easier than selling it.

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