Can Maynard James Keenan Put Arizona Wine on the Map?
Early-afternoon sun shines intensely on the sleepy vineyard, where row after row of grape-laden vines run down the slope of the valley, like deep emerald waves in a leafy sea.
You can't easily see the fat clusters of ripe grapes, but they're there, hanging on every rung in the shadows of a lush, green canopy. It's mid-September, and this particular patch of land — surrounded by rocky, dust-colored hills and towering, shady trees, with a meandering creek just beyond a thicket at the bottom — is ready for harvest.
After surveying the crops, the winemaker comes in from the heat, pulls off his sunglasses, and heads toward the shady overhang of the production facility by the vineyard. He lifts the heavy lid on a plastic container and pushes his hand through the thick cap of grape skins to the deep, inky liquid below.
("Punching down" the wine like this doesn't contaminate the wine but helps along the fermentation, adds color and tannins from the skins, and actually keeps bacteria at bay.)
This is the free-run juice, the same stuff that a few tattooed and T-shirt-clad workers are busy pumping from another batch of fermented grapes just a few feet away, as mellow electronic music echoes in the background. The juice has months to age in barrels before it'll be ready to be blended and bottled.
Nonchalantly, the winemaker shakes the liquid from his purple-stained arm, grabs a stemmed wine goblet, and dips it straight into the vat of murky juice from the press. He sniffs it, pauses for a moment, and then sips, half-smiling in appreciation of what was still ripening on the vines just a couple weeks ago. For a few seconds, he's lost in the flavors, slowly rolling the new wine around in his mouth. It still tastes strongly of alcohol at first, but it's already starting to reveal more complex fruit notes, which will evolve with age.
Although this could easily be a random afternoon in California wine country or somewhere in the Mediterranean, these green-dotted hills aren't hidden in Napa Valley or the Rhone region of France. They're right here in Arizona.
And not where you might expect them, not in wine-centric Sonoita, in the southern part of the state. They're up north, in the high desert of the Verde Valley, just south of Sedona — a place where 15 years ago no one ever thought to grow grapes, let alone make wine.
Then there's the vintner, a guy who personally tends to his crop, gets dirt under his fingernails, waxes poetic about sustainability — and happens to be a bona fide rock star who's sold millions of records.
Does the name Maynard James Keenan ring a bell? It does to sophisticated rock fans. He might be best known for his dark, brooding vocals in the edgy prog-metal band Tool, where he's developed a reputation as a reclusive, eccentric frontman who sometimes performs in wigs and far-out makeup or, perhaps, just a pair of really tight pants. (Either way, he tends to literally avoid the spotlight, often singing in a darkened corner as lasers and fog swirl around the stage.)
But nowadays, Keenan kicks around his vineyards in Cornville and Jerome, looking every bit the farmer in his well-worn cowboy hat and jeans. Making wine is not just a vanity project for him. It's a calling.
I got the opportunity to meet Keenan on a summery Monday back in September. It was kind of a big deal to land the interview, after I'd heard about what a recluse he is, but it was even more surprising to actually meet Keenan and see how his deep brown eyes light up when he talks about wine. I half-expected him to be a handful, but instead I met a down-to-earth guy who likes Monty Python and David Bowie.
We drove around Cornville and Jerome to check out his different vineyards (Merkin North, South, East, and West), and then settled on the porch at Page Springs Cellars, watching the late afternoon sun sink behind the trees while we picked at a cheese plate and sipped about 10 different wines.
Keenan chatted about everything from the tangerine notes in the 2006 Page Springs La Serrana to politics (John McCain's ranch is just a few miles away) to his interest in indie businesses (he name-drops Local First Arizona, and later points out the goat milk soap, made by a local teenager, for sale in his tasting room).
That night, Keenan took me to one of his favorite local restaurants, The Asylum, tucked into an old haunted hotel on the side of the mountain in Jerome. He introduced me to his friend Paula Woolsey, who owns the place (she's a wine fanatic, too), and he joked around with the waiters, who apparently know him well enough to tease right back.
Sitting on the patio, taking in a hazy view of the far-off mountains with a freshly opened bottle of Mat Garretson wine, I could totally appreciate why Keenan would put down roots, literally and figuratively, in such a laid-back, quirky town.
While Keenan's attitude is humble (he signs his e-mails "Winemaker in Training"), his aspirations are anything but. Along with business partner and experienced winemaker Eric Glomski, who honed his skills at California's prestigious David Bruce Winery, Keenan doesn't mince words about his goal: putting Arizona on the fine wine map.
And, yes, he knows he's got a lot of work to do. Not only is Arizona not on the map (California, Washington, Oregon, and New York are the biggest players), it has only one designated American Viticultural Area among nearly 200 in the country. Arizona's sole AVA is in Sonoita; the fledgling northern wine region where Glomski and Keenan are based doesn't have one yet.
But they're doing everything they can to prove that wine grapes can thrive here. In fact, it's common industry knowledge that the best wine comes from vines that are a little bit stressed out. The extremes of this arid climate are a hostile environment for growing grapes, but, as it turns out, that can be a good thing.
"People forget that wine came from the desert — I mean Greece," Keenan says. "So I think we're onto something here."
Grapevines aren't actually new to the Verde Valley. Early settlers observed wild grapes growing on the riverbanks, and in the 1880s, a German immigrant named Henry Schuerman established what was believed to be the first winery in the region. It thrived until the National Prohibition Act passed in 1919, putting it out of business. But even after alcoholic beverages became legal again, state law didn't encourage the growth of the wine industry until a couple years ago.
For Glomski, both as a farmer and a winemaker, it's exciting to be able to grow the same kinds of grapes as world-class vineyards in the southern Rhone, Tuscany, and parts of Spain.
"The only difference here is the monsoons," he says.
Together, Keenan and Glomski are partners in Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, a 66-acre plot in Willcox, in southeastern Arizona. The vineyards, formerly owned by Dos Cabezas Winery, are directly across from the stronghold named after famous Chiricahua Apache chief Cochise, and the wines themselves — Tazi, Mangus, and Nachise — are named after Cochise's relatives. Whole Foods carries them nationally.
In addition, each has his own boutique wine label: Glomski's Page Springs Cellars, focusing on Rhone varietals, and Keenan's Caduceus Cellars/Merkin Vineyards (where Glomski is also winemaker), specializing in Italian and Bordeaux varietals. They use some California grapes, but the ratio of in-state to out-of-state grapes is gradually shifting, as their vines mature, to a bigger portion of Arizona grapes.
"We've been quiet and treading lightly for the last four, five years because the proof is in the bottle," says Keenan.
Keenan and Glomski are serious about making good wines, they have the money to make it happen, and they've even managed to change Arizona law to boost the wine industry statewide.
Local wine authority Michael Fine, founder of Sportsman's and owner of Fine's Cellar in Scottsdale, maintains that the wines that Eric Glomski is making are the best ever produced in Arizona.
"Maynard creates excitement in the younger generation, and Eric finally brings an accomplished, accepted American winemaker to our scene," he says. "It's a double whammy."
Fine couldn't be happier. He currently carries Page Springs, Caduceus, and Arizona Stronghold at Fine's Cellar, and sells quite a bit of it. Up until these were available, he says, he only occasionally sold Arizona wines to snowbirds who wanted souvenirs.
In light of winemaking's extraordinary history as an art form — dating back to 6000 B.C. — it hasn't exactly been an easy process ever since adventurous early humans figured out how to make alcohol from fermented grapes.
Wine has always been close to the heart of civilization, whether as a religious sacrament, a drink for royalty, or a tonic for good health. It became a catalyst for commerce, a muse for philosophers. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks advanced the cultivation of grapes and experimented with fermentation techniques, while the Romans expanded wine production right along with their empire.
To be sure, anyone can dabble in winemaking if the right type of grape is available. You don't even need to know a thing about agriculture. Amateurs do this, certainly, and there are plenty of wineries that simply make wine from grapes they purchase offsite — often out of state — without the headache of managing crops. But it's not a reflection of the land, the place where it was produced — what the French call terroir.
If making wine is straightforward on one level, making good wine is a whole different story, and complicated in any number of ways. Understanding terroir is an important part of it. Consider the fruit itself — how it was grown, where it was grown, and when it was harvested. The weather is a factor, too, and not always a favorable one.
Winemaker Sam Pillsbury, an award-winning movie director from New Zealand who lives in Phoenix, really gets wine's intimate connection to the land.
He's the former co-owner of Dos Cabezas, whose wines were served at the White House. Two years ago, he sold the Dos Cabezas name to winemaker Todd Bostock (who moved the operation to Sonoita), and he sold his vineyard in Willcox to Glomski and Keenan (who renamed it Arizona Stronghold). Then he planted another vineyard right across the street and started his eponymous winery, Pillsbury Wine Company. While his young vines are getting established, he has a deal with Glomski to buy back grapes from the vineyard he used to own.
A few years back, at a wine tasting, he first heard Eric Glomski's philosophy about winemaking and knew he'd found a likeminded spirit.
"He was saying you can let the grapes hang on the vine and make something powerful, but it's harder to make something more delicate and hopefully more nuanced," Pillsbury says. "Well, that totally rang the bell of where my instincts were."
Pillsbury invited Glomski to collaborate on Pillsbury Wine Company, and he's pleased with the results so far — Pizzeria Bianco is among the restaurants that serve his product. As he sees it, things will definitely continue to evolve in Arizona.
"The more good wines each of us makes, the better for everyone."
Maynard James Keenan and Eric Glomski met four years ago, when Keenan serendipitously dropped in on the winery where Glomski was working, looking for kindred spirits.
They just clicked. Both were into food and music, and they each had the passion for wine to fuel endless conversations. Glomski had the winemaking expertise, and Keenan had the desire to learn — not to mention the bank account to make things happen. And in light of that, maybe an ambitious wine venture was destiny.
However, the pair seems less likely when you consider that one guy's an ex-soldier turned rock star, while the other was a teenage Grateful Dead follower and a college professor before he embarked on a winemaking career. Who'd have imagined they'd both age into hardcore wine geeks living in rural Arizona?
Born in Ohio and raised in small-town Michigan, Keenan, 44, served six years in the Army and later attended art school before moving to Los Angeles in 1988.
He joined Tool in 1990 and wound up a full-on celebrity, thanks to four studio LPs, three Grammys, and legions of devoted fans who've plastered their cars with Tool bumper stickers, filled Web sites with articles and pictures, and packed arenas to see the band in concert (making them one of the 20 highest-grossing live acts last year, up there with The Police and Bruce Springsteen.) In the U.S. alone, Tool's sold 10 million records.
Keenan also fronts the alt-rock band A Perfect Circle (on hiatus for the past few years) and has an experimental electronic side project, Puscifer.
Success in the music biz definitely turned Keenan into a wine aficionado, by way of boredom. Being out on the road was monotonous, so he found himself trying different cuisines and wines as a hobby. The defining moment for his newfound interest was when Tori Amos gave him a bottle of Silver Oak '92, a high-end Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. One taste and he was hooked.
But his first experience with wine came before his stardom. Back in 1987, when Keenan was living in Boston, his friend Kjiirt Jensen worked at Martignetti's, an Italian wine shop.
"He'd come home with these fantastic bottles of wine, but I had no frame of reference," Keenan recalls, sounding almost envious of his younger self. "I wasn't ready to dive in, but I could tell that there was something to it."
It ended up an obsession. By 1995, when Keenan decided to leave Los Angeles for Jerome, Arizona, he was already a card-carrying wine connoisseur.
Keenan admits he made the move because he was interested in living off the land, and had a sort of do-it-yourself, survivalist mentality.
"I definitely came here with the idea that California was moving into the ocean. I mean, full-on hippie disaster stuff," he jokes — sort of.
(Consider the lyrics from the title track of Tool's 1996 album, Aenima:
Some say the end is near. Some say we'll see Armageddon soon. I certainly hope we will. I sure could use a vacation from this bullshit three-ring circus sideshow of freaks here in this hopeless fucking hole we call L.A. The only way to fix it is to flush it all away. Any fucking time. Any fucking day. Learn to swim, I'll see you down in Arizona Bay.)
He also wanted to reconnect with the kind of small-town pace he grew up with in Michigan.
But Jerome is no ordinary small town. For one thing, it's perched on the side of a mountain between Prescott and Flagstaff, and has a creepy-cool history as well as vast, head-turning views of the Verde Valley. It used to have a booming copper mining operation until the Phelps Dodge mine closed in the '50s, turning it into a ghost town. Now it's a funky arts colony and tourist destination known for its galleries, biker bars, B&Bs, small indie restaurants, and bohemian boutiques, some of which are supposedly haunted.
Two months ago, Keenan himself opened a shop, Puscifer (named after one of his music projects), where he sells vinyl, CDs, T-shirts, books, and toys from a retail space above a tattoo parlor. Puscifer's mascot is a mischievous she-devil with va-va-voom curves.
"Bring your sense of humor," reads the grand-opening invitation.
At some point, he wants to have a wine-tasting room in Jerome, and next summer, he plans to open a cafe on the main drag in Cornville, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it strip about 15 miles from Jerome featuring a feed store and a sub shop. Right now, it's just a grassy lot, but when it's built, Keenan wants it to feature a brick oven, organic produce from McClendon Farms in Peoria, and homemade chicken soup available every day.
Meanwhile, Glomski's move to Arizona in 2003 was something he'd had in mind all along. It was actually a homecoming for him.
Born in Illinois and raised in Boston, Glomski, 40, originally moved to Prescott in his teens. After dropping out of high school, he became a bar manager, touring with the Grateful Dead. Later, Glomski studied landscape ecology at Prescott College and continued with graduate work at Northern Arizona University. He went into business restoring rivers for the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, and also landed a teaching position at Prescott College.
In the course of his fieldwork in central Arizona, he came across abandoned homesteads where there were heirloom fruit orchards. Dick Landis, a wild, old artist friend who called himself a "sensualist," taught Glomski how to make apple wine, which appealed to his creative side.
Just down the hill from his Page Springs vineyard in Cornville, blue-eyed, sandy-haired Glomski sits at a picnic table on a quiet wooden deck overlooking the burbling stretch of Oak Creek that runs through the property, recalling how close he was to Dick and his ideals.
"He turned me on to what art is, regardless of the medium," he says. "He was an amazing chef, growing his own herbs and hunting his own meat, and he did all kinds of paintings and weavings. He initially got me into the idea that all art is an expression of the power of the Earth. The artist is just a conduit."
One particular apple wine led to an epiphanous experience that he still recalls vividly.
"When I drank that wine, I saw images of the place where I picked those apples," he says. Now, the same thing happens when he tastes juice from his own grapes.
By the time his obsession turned to fine wines, Glomski was prepared to devote his modest income to learning all about it, eventually moving to Northern California in the mid-'90s. He volunteered at wineries, worked as a cellar rat, and eventually got a job at David Bruce Winery in 1997. Located in Los Gatos, it's internationally renowned for its award-winning pinot noir. By 2002, Glomski had worked his way up through several positions to become its co-winemaker and director of production.
He was back in Arizona the following year, helping Sedona's Echo Canyon Winery with its first wine, when he met Keenan.
To Glomski's surprise, Keenan wasn't just passionate about wine. He'd already started dabbling in growing grapes in Jerome, and was eager to learn.
"I made a bunch of money in the music industry, and I have friends who wonder why I don't just buy a house at the beach and go surfing," he says. "But winemaking feels like a natural progression."
Keenan turns grouchy when he talks about the music industry, and the expectations people put on him as a songwriter, as if his lyrics can heal them — let alone himself. "If these songs are so cathartic, then shouldn't I should be fat and happy now? If it doesn't help me and I don't move on, how is that gonna help you?"
Try telling that to Tool fans. They can't get enough of Keenan's cryptic, tortured lyrics, which they discuss and dissect ad nauseum on message boards.
He sighs. "There's an endless downward spiral that comes with being a rock star, and I'm not good at the dog-and-pony show."
As soon as conversation turns back to wine, though, Keenan perks up, chatting about the free-run juice versus juice pressed from the grape skins, and how the characteristics of Arizona fruit are more European and acidic than Californian and fruity.
Yes, this is one creative outlet he could happily talk about all day.
Not long after Keenan moved to Jerome, his "hippie neighbor with the rope belt" heard he was interested in wine and suggested he buy some land, plant some vines, and see what happens.
Now he has an expanse of Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, and Malvasia Bianca grapes that he planted himself, growing on the side of a cliff next to his home in Jerome. He calls this spot Merkin West.
"It's harder to farm, but it does better because of the south-facing slopes," Keenan says with a hint of pride.
As he walks down a steep path through rows of lush green grapevines, a cool breeze softly rustles the leaves. Because of the sharp incline, it's a remarkably private piece of land, basically invisible from any other spot in Jerome. That suits Keenan just fine; he welcomes only visitors who can keep mum on the exact location. From the vineyard, all you can see is a vast, tree-dotted hill.
Across a narrow road, he also has a spectacular terraced orchard boasting mature apricot, almond, and plum trees, as well as a panoramic view of sandy, rippling hills and terracotta-colored mountains beyond them. Walking past fragrant rosemary bushes and clusters of lazy Susans in bloom, Keenan, an avid cook, gets excited talking about all the fresh fruits and herbs on hand. He's a big fan of seasonal produce.
He's also enthusiastic about environmental sustainability. Grabbing a ripe fig from a nearby tree and popping the soft fruit into his mouth, Keenan explains how the orchard was designed to gather rainwater so the trees' root systems can survive until the next monsoon season. Next to his home, he collects rainwater at a bunker-like facility that will eventually become Caduceus Cellars. And at Merkin South, he wants to grow more fruit trees by creating a flood-irrigated patch down the middle of the vineyard.
Down in Cornville, on the way to Page Springs Cellars, Page Springs Road twists through the countryside past rocky bluffs, trailer homes, a "Goats 4 sale" sign, and streets with names like Rattlesnake Road and Purple Sage Road. There isn't a red light for miles, but you can't miss the bright-yellow caution sign marked with the stark silhouette of a cow.
Glomski's tasting room, open daily, does a brisk business these days (Keenan sells his wines here, too), but that still doesn't amount to much traffic for this quaint piece of rural Arizona.
He got started here in 2004, and to jumpstart the business and make wine right away, Glomski bought grapes from California while his young vines were still getting established. Then Keenan came to the neighborhood and planted Sangiovese and Cabernet on a plot of land less than a minute's drive from here.
That very winter, a wicked frost crept up from Oak Creek.
"The first year, we got our asses kicked," says Keenan. They lost $100,000 and then another $100,000 when more frost hit Merkin South two years later.
They've been fighting the cold ever since. But nowadays, Keenan and Glomski have figured out how to protect the vines with tarps, temperature sensors, and huge fans to blow away the bitter cold.
Keeping the grapevines healthy without pesticides has been another challenge.
"We're not certified organic, but we think along those lines," says Glomski. (Getting and maintaining official organic certification is a complicated process that many small farmers aren't up for, even if they practice organic growing methods.)
Other problems include 100-degree days and unpredictable monsoon storms. This summer, the monsoon rains made the grapevines grow like crazy — and too many leaves trap moisture, which can rot the grapes. Excess foliage had to be hand-pulled from just the right part of the vine to let it air out.
To be sure, it's incredibly labor-intensive even under the best circumstances. Glomski planted his rows four feet apart instead of the standard eight, so they'd shade each other on hot days. Clever. As a result, though, the vines can only be hand-pruned.
He shrugs it off as typical for fine winemaking, and a better way to stay on top of potential problems. It's worth the effort.
"The way we farm the grape is like 80, 90 percent of the wine," says Glomski.
Standing beneath a towering rack of oak wine barrels in his warehouse, he siphons some syrah into a small glass from a barrel of wine he just harvested from Arizona Stronghold a few weeks earlier. He inhales it deeply and closes his eyes, and remarks how the smell really puts him right back in the vineyard at harvest time.
"A winemaker paints a landscape with liquids," says Glomski. "I have eight different barrels of syrah, and each one is different because of the landscape — the soil, geology, climate, slope, ripeness."
That unique sense of place is something you can actually taste, and it's the essence of the French concept of terroir.
And just how well does Glomski get Arizona terroir? Consider this: He doesn't just track his grapes by the vineyard — he tracks them down to the specific row.
That might be obsessive for making mass-market wines, but for artisanal wine, attention to detail makes all the difference. When you drink his wines, Glomski wants you to taste Arizona.
Arizona's commercial winemaking history goes back only to 1983, when Dr. Gordon Dutt, a soil scientist at the University of Arizona, established Sonoita Vineyards, the state's first federally bonded winery, in Elgin.
According to local wine expert Michael Fine, Dutt had good intentions but was too obsessed with making Cabernet.
"Twenty years ago, my dad and I took Dr. Dutt to Napa Valley and introduced him to the guys from Silver Oak, Caymus, Mondavi," Fine says. "They all tasted his wines and said, 'These are the wrong varietals for your soil.' But he never got it."
Fine says that mentality persists, and that Arizona winemakers need to look at exactly what's in the soil and plant the kind of grapes that will do well there, "not try to fit a square peg into a round hole."
Up until a couple of years ago, there were still only about a dozen bonded wineries, according to Rod Keeling, president of the Arizona Wine Growers Association and owner of Keeling Schaefer Vineyards, located in far southeastern Arizona.
What's made a major impact in the state wine industry is the wine-shipping law that passed in 2006. Keeling, Glomski, and Phoenix water law attorney Robert Lynch were at the heart of the effort, which began when out-of-state distributors introduced a bill that would've prevented Arizona's small wineries from selling their product directly to consumers and retailers.
In response, Keeling and Glomski introduced pro-winery legislation and personally lobbied state politicians.
It was a David and Goliath scenario, with small farmers taking on big business for their own survival. The sophisticated, well-funded opposition included alcohol distributors as well as The Wine Institute, which represents California wineries.
The little guy ultimately prevailed, with one compromise. Now, Arizona winemakers not only can sell directly instead of going through distributors, they can self-distribute and have multiple licenses, such as a winery liquor license. However, they must produce fewer than 20,000 gallons a year.
In the two years since their victory, Keeling says the number of federally bonded wineries here has more than doubled, to around 30, and the industry is expected to keep growing at a brisk pace.
"I can't even keep track of it," he says. "We've really attracted a lot of interest and a lot of investment."
Keeling says the quality's improved, too, and Arizona wineries are finally getting a presence in restaurants.
State legislator Ken Cheuvront, owner of Cheuvront Restaurant & Wine Bar, says the problem with Arizona wines has been a lack of consistency.
"And for the price point, they're not always the best value," he says.
That's definitely changing. I've seen Arizona Stronghold on the wine list at NOCA, and Quiessence just held a wine dinner featuring Page Springs. If the best restaurants in Phoenix are getting behind these wines, the future looks promising.
There's also been some national media exposure. Last month, Page Springs Cellars' Familia Blanca received a good review from the Wall Street Journal; Glomski plans to send some product to Wine Spectator soon.
"As we're able to say it was grown here, we're getting a lot of attention," he says.
This year's harvest for Keenan and Glomski's wines was 250 tons, including 160 from Arizona and 90 from California. Keenan expects even more in-state grapes next year.
"You know, you have to be a great chemist and a great farmer to be a winemaker, because you're basically turning shit into gold," Keenan says. "But there a third element missing: Marketing. That's what I bring to the table. I'm willing to talk about it, and people want a good story."
Keenan acknowledges that the Arizona Stronghold bottle-signing events he and Glomski have been doing at West Coast Whole Foods stores have attracted lots of rock fans coming out for his autograph. The response has been overwhelming even among the most cynical and skeptical, he says.
To be sure, Keenan and Glomski aren't under any illusions that they're selling so much wine simply because of where it's from — at least for now. Fighting this state's mediocre reputation is still a priority.
"There's a short-term history of not-so-great Arizona wines," Glomski admits, refusing to name any names. "But on the flipside, I think there's a pent-up demand, and it's only gonna take a handful of people to change the perceptions."
These two have already made major strides, but what happens next really depends on whether wine drinkers will pull the cork and give Arizona another taste.
As Keenan says, the proof is in the bottle.
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