Raising Arizona: Maynard James Keenan

Arizona is not the most typical of wine regions, surrounded by desert with blistering hot summers, but Maynard James Keenan, frontman of US rock band Tool, is not your typical winemaker.

Maynard James Keenan, speaking at this year’s Pinot Noir NZ 2017 conference in Wellington

The descendant of northern Italian winemakers, Ohio-born Keenan made his name as a musician performing as the front man of US rock acts A Perfect Circle, Tool and Puscifer, before diversifying into the wine business. In 2004 Keenan founded Caduceus Cellars, a winery in Arizona named after the Greek god Hermes. Its vineyard, Merkin Vineyards, is named after a pubic wig.

“I’m not the only one in Arizona, but I am one of the crazy ones,” said Keenan, speaking at this year’s Pinot Noir NZ 2017 conference in Wellington, New Zealand.

Indeed, organisers said Keenan would provide a “real point of difference” at the event, which also saw Jancis Robinson MW and Ken Ohashi MW deliver keynotes speeches, with Pinot Noir one of the few grapes that cannot survive in Arizona’s harsh climate.

Despite being flanked by desert on all sides, there are pockets in Arizona that are remarkably well-suited to grape growing, with a wide diurnal range and elevation to produce a range of varieties.

Arizona’s winemaking history dates back to the 16th century, when missionary Spanish Jesuit priests began planting vineyards to make wine for religious ceremonies. Today, Arizona is home to 110 wineries, vineyards and cellars, with the majority of production located in the southeast of the state, where its two designated AVA’s (American Viticultural Area) are located; the Sonoita AVA (established 1985) and the Willcox AVA (established 2016).

To the north of Phoenix lies the Verde Valley, where Keenan’s Merkin Vineyards is based. He also owns the 70-acre Buhl Memorial Vineyard in Willcox.

“We live right on the edge,” said Keenan. “Some of the best wines in the world don’t come easy. We have years where it’s almost a tragedy. In Arizona we have late spring frosts and are fighting cold and humidity more than heat. Some years we don’t make it.”

“People ask should I be drinking your 2008 Cabernet now or later? I don’t know. We don’t have years of history to draw from and look at specific changes over that last 300 years. We have been absolutely on the edge, and then there’s another edge. We haven’t fallen off yet. But that friction is where that art happens.”

Building a legacy

Currently, Caduceus produces a range of red, white and rose wines, many of them field blends, from grapes including Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Malvasia, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah/Shiraz, Syrah, Rare White Blend, Malvasia Bianca and Chardonnay.

“It’s an extremely diverse area. Where I’m living was under sea and limestone and under water volcanoes. You have decomposed granite and volcanoes and limestone for producing great wines from every single variety. The only grapes that don’t work are Pinot, Zinfandel and Primitivo. Mediterranean grapes do fantastic, Spanish very well.”

Describing himself as a “doomsday guy”, revealing that he has a “bunker”, Keenan told the audience that making a connection and leaving behind a legacy was the driving force behind his winemaking.

“I’m a big David Bowie fan, and there’s a sense that he did this wonderful thing and maybe his music got through your day, but it’s still a disconnect,” he said. “He’s no longer here and he can’t see what his music has done for everyone going forward.

“I see the wine industry also being able to connect with that and express that place. That’s something that carries on that families can connect with for the next 200 years. I don’t have to be around for that. That’s a forward thinking process.”

3 Responses to “Raising Arizona: Maynard James Keenan”

  1. I enjoyed this article. I especially appreciated the bit where Keenan alludes to the mysticism of wine and winemaking. The tradition is nearly as old as mankind itself. And the cleverness of the grape! every grape holds within itself the ability to make wine. There is simply something spiritual in that. Thanks for the article!

  2. Rebecca Somogy says:

    This is an exceptionallyinteresting article.Maynard is not only an exceptional musician but wine maker too . Didn’t know that AZ was a great place to make a winery from growing grapes to strait to the glass and I lived there for almost 30 years nothing to be proud of yet I definitely went to the free wine testings in Scottsdale at the sidewalk art shows. Beautiful place to live and be this time of year if u haven’t been treat yourself and go
    PS. Don’t overlook Sedona a magical mystery town simply breathtaking.

  3. Ver says:

    Great article! I appreciate his insight and the details in the challenges he faces in making great wine. They make tremendous sacrifices to get great wine out to their consumers.

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