Having already established himself as one of the world’s most prolific and inspired musicians through his bands Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, legendary frontman Maynard James Keenan is staking a claim in the wine business. Hidden away in the mysterious Verde Valley region of Arizona, Keenan’s award-winning Caduceus Cellars, Merkin Vineyards and Arizona Stronghold Vineyards have given the overlooked local wine scene some much-needed exposure, and were recently the focus of a new documentary, “Blood Into Wine: The Arizona Stronghold.”
Could this reclusive rock star, who once caused controversy when he put “Jesus H. Christ” on his business cards, end up being the chosen one to deliver Arizona wine from obscurity?
Mutineer Magazine: What drew you to wine?
Maynard James Keenan: It’s just a complex art form that requires that you get involved, developing your own senses, developing your own awareness.
How is creating art with grapes similar to creating art with music?
It’s very similar, of course it all depends on the winemaker or the musician. As far as my process, it’s definitely a process of listening…a game of awareness basically. Just listening to what’s happening in the room, listening to what’s happening in the glass, in the barrel, listening to what’s happening in the vineyard, and moving accordingly.
How does your music background change your approach to wine? You’re coming at wine from a unique angle.
But a lot of people do. A lot of people that have vineyards or are making wine, there’s a significant percentage that come to it from a different perspective because maybe they’re successful in some other area and now they have a little bit of cash that they, well, the cliché is that if you want to make a small fortune in the wine business, you have to start with a very large fortune, which is cliché, but it’s true. But you end up having to explain that the small fortune is more consistent and sustainable and it’s a quality of life choice. Probably the lifestyle that you had before was very stressful to make that kind of income and required a lot of headaches and sleepless nights, sore backs, or whatever. A large portion of making wine is labor. People don’t understand it’s not just tasting wine, it’s a lot of work, but it’s wake up at a decent hour in the morning and you go to work, and you’re in your own bed that night.
It’s just experience. A writer writes, and a drinker drinks. You just have to be open to what you’re experiencing.
How did you develop your palate and explore the world of wine?
It’s just experience. A writer writes, and a drinker drinks. You just have to be open to what you’re experiencing. A lot of the education comes from contrast and comparing, so if you have some friends and can open up some bottles of wine, just make sure you taste them in a relatively right order and with food. See how they go with food and how they go with each other. Depending on the wine you’re drinking, you might have an awkward experience with a wine you’re not ready to taste. Some people are into the heavy big cabs, and then they try and taste a pinot noir after that and they don’t understand what they’re experiencing, because the heaviness and the fruit bomb from the California cab interrupts the process, so it’s a matter of education. And you know, another education is to open a bottle of wine, let it breathe a little bit, taste it on its own, wait a little while later, have it with some basic foods, some meats or cheeses, taste it again, and then eat something super sweet, like drink a Coca-Cola and eat a Snickers bar, and then taste the wine again, and you’ll see that the wine tastes like shit, because the sugars and all those things kill the experience of the wine.
What do these Arizona grapes tell you in the winemaking process?
They’re telling us a lot, but we don’t necessarily understand it yet. It’ll take us a decade or two to really start to get a grasp on what our potential is here and what our basic terroir might be. If you’re doing your job as a winemaker and a grape grower, you’re expressing a place and a time. A place on a particular day, in a particular year. So, it’s gonna really take us a while to narrow down notes and perceptions and experiences to really start to gather enough information to tell you what this particular hillside is about as opposed to that valley. It goes back to what kind of wine you’re trying to make. If you’re just trying to make a box table wine, you over-crop your fruit and you over-water your fruit and you get a lot of watered down, not very complex wines. If you’re trying to really make very complex wines, something with depth, something with structure, something that’s going to last in the bottle and that’s going to change over time, then you really need to be paying attention to everything. Soil content, how the sun comes up or goes down on that site. Everything.
What is exciting about Arizona as a wine producing region?
First, we’re kind of pioneering it. There were grapes here, there were vines here back before prohibition, but they all got pulled out. This business, this activity that we’re embarking on is so cost prohibitive; the start up costs are astronomical, so that’s why a lot of people haven’t… nobody’s really done it. And there is the perception. The United States is very marketing driven, and now the easy story is Napa or Sonoma, but that’s an easy story to sell. To have to get on board and get out on a limb and help talk about it and promote Arizona is more risky. It’s less risky now for Oregon and Washington State because people pretty much stuck to their guns about it to change the perception and be there long enough for people to go, “Oh, I guess they’re not going away, I guess we’ll take their calls.” And now Dick Erath has pretty much put Oregon on the map for pinot noir, and he’s actually planted next to us down in Southern Arizona, so he sees what we see. There’s definitely potential here.
Have world class wines been created from Arizona grapes?
Absolutely. There’s a lot of stuff coming out of Arizona that no one’s tasting. You’re standing in front of one of them [referencing nearby wine rack] That’s an incredible cabernet that no one’s really tasted yet because it’s small production and very hands-on and babied from the ground up. It’ll take another decade for people to get that in their glass and get over the Arizona part and just taste it next to other left bank Bordeaux and then go “Oh, this is different than what is generally being made in California. There’s some wines being made California that are similar to this, but it’s because someone is really focusing on allowing that spot to speak for itself rather than trying to go for scores.
How many vintages of local wines are there?
Well, we started making wine here in around 2003. My first vintage was 2004, but the 2007 is the first actual vintage from my Arizona grapes, so 2007. Not that long ago. We have no history yet.