Cafe Reviews

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.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig