Quietly Making NoiseAs a world-famous rock star, Maynard James Keenan is used to the center stage. But even when he's home, in the remote countryside of the Verde Valley, the lead singer of TOOL is attracting attention. Not for his music, but for his wine.
By Kathy Ritchie
Verde Valley Maynard James Keenan is not who you think he is. Yes, he is the frontman for TOOL, as well as the rock bands Puscifer and A Perfect Circle, but it's his other work, the work where he literally toils in the fields, that's made him something of a rock star among Arizona oenophiles. Although the state isn't renowned for its wine country, a wine country does exist. And Keenan, because of who he is (that guy from TOOL) and what he's created (Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards), has helped put Arizona's terroir on the map.
Keenan cracks open the front door of the Caduceus tasting room in Jerome. He stares out somewhat suspiciously. He gives nothing away, making small talk even more awkward. He's quiet, almost cold. But that's to be expected from a self-proclaimed "curmudgeon." Crankiness aside, Keenan has a dry sense of humor, which leaks out as he begins to feel more at ease. He's also smart — very smart — and guarded. Keenan is fiercely protective of his privacy. And rightly so. Let's just say it's not the wine connoisseurs who tend to trespass on his private property.
That need for privacy, coupled with his desire for a simpler way of life, is why Keenan finds Jerome and the surrounding Verde Valley so appealing, and why the musician-cum-winemaker has been calling the area home since 1995.
"When I came here, I realized this is where I was supposed to be," he says. "It was just familiar — it made sense."
Something else made sense, too. The earth. That chalky, limestone-covered earth that is Jerome. Although Keenan had been a disciple of Bacchus with an impressive collection of wine, it was his neighbor, "a guy with no shoes and a rope belt," who suggested he start a vineyard.
The proverbial seed was planted.
The formation of Arizona's Verde Valley is, simply put, the result of the right geological forces at play. Layers of sedimentary rock, volcanic activity, a vast inland sea and the marine life that once lived in that sea helped produce the ingredients necessary for the creation of some spectacular terroir. That, coupled with the right elevation and climate variations (30-degree night and day temperature swings), and you have an environment that's more Old World than California could ever be. "This is Mount Etna," Keenan declares. "This is Sicilian soil."
Caduceus Cellars was born in 2004 — or at least the brand was. Merkin Vineyards, Keenan's second label, was also formed that year "as a catchall to whatever else happens," as he puts it, with "catchall" meaning food, wines and anything that doesn't fall under the Caduceus label. Once Keenan had his vines in the ground, he had to play a waiting game until his own grapes were ready to harvest. In the meantime, he did something unorthodox for a world-famous rock star. He worked as an apprentice-slash-assistant-winemaker to Eric Glomski, the owner and director of winemaking at Page Springs Cellars, and began learning the art of winemaking. (In 2007, the duo became co-owners of Arizona Stronghold Vineyards in Willcox.)
"I was sourcing fruit from California and using a custom crush facility to process the fruit," Keenan says. "I'm so hands-on, and I was there right from the get-go … I had an idea of what I wanted and I'm a quick study, my senses are fairly honed."
The result? His 2004 Primer Paso, a mostly California Syrah cut with Arizona white wine.
Today, 90 to 95 percent of his juice is pure Arizona, and for better or for worse — better for oenophiles, worse for those who see his progress as competition or an unwelcome change — he's created some impressive wines. In fact, his 2007 Nagual del JUDITH (his first 100 percent pure Arizona Cabernet Sauvignon, named after his mother, who passed away), his 2005 Nagual del Sensei, his 2006 Nagual de la NAGA and his 2007 Primer Paso have all received high scores from Wine Spectator.
"Winemaking," he says, "is not nearly as daunting as people make it seem — if you have the right skill set. Again, you can either swim or you can't. This comes naturally to me. Washing dishes doesn't come naturally to me."
The grapes he plants are mostly Italian and Spanish varietals — Sangiovese, Malvasia Bianca, Tempranillo and Negroamaro — because that's what he likes and "that's what the soil screams for." He also doesn't mass-produce his juice. That's because everything is done by hand — hand-farmed, handpicked, hand-sorted, hand-everything. He also avoids using chemicals on his vines whenever possible, which means more work keeping the vermin away. "It's a war … we're fighting off everything."
As Arizona Stronghold and Merkin Vineyards continue to evolve and expand, Keenan has two other projects in the works: Merkin V&O, an organic market café that will feature both food and wine, is slated to open its doors next year in Cornville; and FOUR EIGHT WineWorks, a co-op for young winemakers who can't afford to go into the business alone, is also slated for the coming year. As for Caduceus, Keenan will likely keep it special and intimate.
"We do our best to make it everything it can be," he says of his wine. "It's not meant for everybody. It's for those who are present and in the moment that get to try it."
Although his love of wine is easy to see, Keenan himself is a tough read. He doesn't smile very much, and when he speaks, he's controlled.
Keenan offers to give a tour of Merkin East, one of his private vineyards located near Cornville. "You can ride with me," he says. The drive is surreal. Not because of who is behind the wheel (he is), but because a busload of groupies would give up their first-born to ride shotgun. In some ways, the thought serves as a reminder of how celebrity-obsessed people in this country can be — that a man who wants to spend his days growing grapes has to worry as much about rabid fans as he does the resident vermin.
Merkin East sits on a small plot that's no more than 2 acres in size. Sangiovese and Cabernet rule the land, and the site looks and feels more like Italy than Arizona. It's beautiful and sustainable. But Arizona isn't ideal for those looking to make a fast buck.
"We don't have huge pieces of land for people to gobble up," Keenan explains. "It's just not available."
That's probably a good thing. And Keenan would agree.
The guy from TOOL looks perfectly at home on this small patch of Arizona dirt. While standing there, a man walks over, someone he knows, and gives him a plastic bag filled with flour. The musician-cum-winemaker is going to make homemade pasta later. At his quiet home in the Verde Valley.