Ask A Winemaker: Damien Casten

Importer + Distributor, Interviewer, Educator

Learning about wine can be overwhelming for newbies. Before I started my post-grad in Viticulture and Oenology, I used to spend hours trawling through the interweb trying to enlighten myself on the basics of wine. Not only did I find myself battling my way through the pages filled with esoteric language, I also found that I was wasting more time searching than on actually finding (or even understanding) the answers.

That’s when I stumbled upon the YouTube channel, Ask A Winemaker. Ask A Winemaker puts together short video clips from the interviews they have with Winemakers from all across the globe. What I love most about these videos is that they’re quick, informative and deliver the right message: with wine there are a myriad possible answers.

Damien Casten is the founder of AAWM who, as a wine importer and distributor from Chicago, inadvertently turned into a wine educator after he began posting his candid interviews with Winemakers on YouTube. Initially Damien had created the videos so that he could remember everything he was told during his business visits. Now his YouTube channel has over 600 videos and has accumulated over 225,000 views. In 2013 Damien enlisted the video editing talent of Sean Berringer. Between them they have nearly forty years' professional experience in wine and video production and editing.

Ask A Winemaker is a resource we can’t get enough of here at Winefolk. We are so tickled to collab with the team, and hope it will help you find your way through the wine world. Here’s a quick interview we had with Damien.

Your videos are beautifully recorded and edited by Sean Berringer, how did Sean first stumble upon your earliest videos and what compelled him to offer his services to Ask A Winemaker? Has he been bitten by the wine bug too?

Thank you!  Sean is talented, patient and professional.  Wanting to be involved in wine, he invested in Red and White Wines, a great independent store in Chicago, and we met as I poured wines on Saturday afternoons.  He’s been bitten hard by the wine bug and wants to understand everything about it.  Even the earliest versions of the videos intrigued him and politely suggested that he could help improve their quality.  Indeed he has, and not just from a technical point of view.  He and I play off of one another well as we ask different types of questions.  We realized at the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in Oregon last summer that while we could capture more footage if we split up, the material was richer when we were side by side asking questions in tandem.  It's been a great partnership and it is only just beginning.  

What do you want/wish people to gain from watching your videos?

First and foremost, winemakers are thinking, learning beings.  I love to capture different answers to the same question in hopes of showing people that even the professionals aren't always sure.  The more time I spend with winemakers the less time I have for Somms and Industry people who think they have THE right answer.  If the woman who made the wine isn't 100% sure, why would anyone else not named Jancis have the right to be?  

I would also hope to convey excitement.  Sean set up an interview with Sara Dionisio of Casa de Mourraz in the Dao for which I had no time to prepare.  I walked in blind, and two hours later I had learned an incredible amount about Portugal from grapes and traditions to techniques and pronunciations.  It's a thrill to dive into one wine region for an extended period and just bathe in that part of the world.  Our producer playlists aim to capture the whole experience, and like a well-made album, I hope the best of them will draw viewers in and propel them from one question to the next.  

How did you first become involved with wine? 

Wine, probably shitty and certainly mediocre, was a staple in my house growing up.  Not that I drank it as a kid, but it was at the table.  I suppose it seemed like a reasonable choice beyond beer, which I consumed with great energy and little thought as a rugby player in college. My first job out of college was in Paris, working for an energy company that was looking to integrate its fifteen European subsidiaries into a logical whole.  I was lucky enough to coordinate the integration team and spent 2 years traveling all over Europe.  Post meeting meals became a highlight of the job as each host country did its best to show off for colleagues.  It became a study in European culinary traditions and I never had to pay for a plane ticket or a meal!

During the same period, playing for a Rugby side on the lowest rung of the French National league introduced me to the joys of a proper Troisieme Mi-Temps all across France.  Drink ups happened in limestone cellars in Sancerre and over or a shared glass of Champagne in Epernay.  (I am afraid I've lost the picture of Epernay’s rather large second-row and me, where I have both the black eye he gave me for being offside, and a flute full of his family’s Champagne he shared in the spirit of the game.)

How did that introduction then take you on the path to becoming an importer distributor?

I made it two more years in a suit and tie before going to cooking school and then working in kitchens in Paris for two years including Lucas Carton, a three star Michelin spot.  At Lucas, we were allowed to drink anything from the pairing menus that had been open for more than 36 hours and lunch often featured remarkable wines.  (Anyone for another splash of '81 St Estephe?)  At the same time, I volunteered in what was one of Paris' most remarkable wine shops, the now closed "Les Ultra Vins".  The proprietor and only other person at the store, Allain Audry, grew up near Sancerre and knows everyone in the Loire.  I travelled with him to the region regularly and learned not only how to taste, but how to taste for 10 hours straight and then come back for more the next day.  Following him at the Salon des Vins de la Loire was harder than working in a three star kitchen, and we seemed to never waste time with anything mediocre.  Long before the idea of importing wines to the US entered my head, I had the opportunity to taste multiple vintages with any number of the people we still represent today, fifteen years later.  At the time I had no conception of the market in the US for such wines, but I knew that I liked them and that they captured my attention completely.  

You are an importer distributor of organic, biodynamic and thoughtfully farmed wines. Why have you chosen to represent these kinds of wines?

My parents are gardeners and our vegetable garden was always organic, though I have no recollection of ever labeling it as such.  I spent many a Saturday making trips to the local horse stables for truckloads of manure.  Embarrassed as I was to be driving the poop-mobile in high school, I now love that compost was the only fertilizer I was ever asked to spread in the garden, and that we grew so much of what we ate, when seasons allowed.

I suppose I was predisposed then to enjoy meeting winemakers with a bit of dirt under their fingernails, but I had to learn what well made wine was in order to see through the bullshit that is so often integral to the way wine is sold.  That is where Allain’s tutelage had the most value – his palate is exceptional and it was with him that I started to understand what it tastes like when great fruit lands in a great cellar. 

Today, the connection between people and place is paramount to my own enjoyment of wine – it’s what I want to drink and what I choose to sell.

Do you think that these kinds of wines are understood among mainstream wine consumers? If not, why do you think they should want to try them?

Consumers should want to try wines of all types because it's very likely that there is a grape, a style, a region and a bottle they've never heard of that will thrill them.  I'm sure there is more than one undiscovered gem out there for me, and I try a lot of wine.  Why wouldn't you want to find a wine that could make you happier than you thought possible?  I wouldn't rule out any style until I've tried a few versions.  

I suspect that by “these types of wines” you are referring to the small category of wines made without added sulfur.  So called “Natural Wines”.  For myriad reasons, wines without added SO2 can be challenging for mainstream consumers.  Even at their technical best, the strictest interpretations of natural wines are not for everyone.  Follow Picasso from early portraits to the far end of his experiments.  The journey is wonderful, but stop where you want and enjoy his line drawings without installing Guernica above your mantelpiece.  At times, I think the hippest of wine professionals try to tell consumers that if they don't appreciate Guernica, they're boobs. That’s annoying.  


What is it about wine you love the most?

The human, geographic and cultural connections it can foster.  And also, how the really good ones taste.

If you could be anywhere doing anything right now, where would you be, what would you be doing and what wine would you choose to be drinking? What does that wine taste like to you?

I don't really see the world in a way that answers that well.  I am wonderfully fortunate to be on the path I am on and have little doubt that I'll continue to be exposed to great wines and the people that make them.  La vie est belle, n'est-ce pas? 


Thanks for your time, Damien! You can check out the Ask A Winemaker vids here: