When Merkin Vineyards started construction for its tasting room in Old Town Scottsdale, it needed not only the right aesthetic to welcome a diverse crowd, but also a fearless and experienced leader to steer the project in the right direction. Jim Cunningham, with his distinctive background and penchant for exploring the lesser-trekked avenues of the restaurant industry, was the perfect candidate to walk through the door.
Cunningham has spent 20 years in Phoenix's service industry. His work ethic, experience, and even networking skills earned him a number of esteemed roles at establishments like Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa at Montelucia and the Arizona Biltmore — his first foray into the hospitality realm. By this progressive path, Cunningham has become the general manager of Merkin Vineyards Old Town Scottsdale.
"I think Arizona is onto something big," Cunningham says.
This is his answer when asked about what he wants to impart to his staff and guests at Merkin. The sentiment is not always supported, especially when it comes to this state's wine, but Cunningham is hard-nosed in his conviction about the beauty and potential of Arizona's wine culture.
Cunningham has played nearly every role in the industry. He knows how important time spent serving tables and bartending is to become a successful restaurant manager. He knows without his experience managing restaurants, he would not have been the food and beverage director for Hilton Garden Inn and TRES Tempe.
His philosophy of experiencing new aspects, and not hesitating to get his hands dirty, has lead him to multiple esteemed positions.
A knack for spotting new trends, then taking advantage of them in his own way, is something for which Cunningham is known. His knowledge about craft beer is extensive because he saw the bubble of microbrewing starting to grow, and took a genuine interest in it. "I got really into beer for a while, so I did the cicerone thing," he says, almost with a cool nonchalance.
Then in the midst of the mixology scene's explosion, Cunningham seized multiple opportunities in cocktail design. He also reached a unique achievement when he participated in New York's 2016 National Sherry Cocktail Competition. In hindsight, placing in the top 10 of a nationwide competition — in which the sole requirement was to use a type of wine in the recipe — seemed like a harbinger for where Cunningham’s career would soon take him.
In 2015, with his career fully underway, he found himself contemplating what less-traveled road he might still tread down.
"I wanted to get closer to Arizona wine," Cunningham says. "My wife and I had just had a baby, and I was doing a lot of thinking about what's next."
Wine was the next challenge that he decided to take on.
Keeping true to his hands-dirty model, Cunningham decided to pursue a viticulture degree at Yavapai College in Prescott. "Everyone went the sommelier route," Cunningham says. "Not that I don't appreciate what they do, but I wanted to do something different."
For the next two years, Cunningham commuted weekly from Phoenix, where he lived and worked, to Yavapai's classrooms. There he received an education on oenology (the study of wines) and the cultivation of grapevines (viticulture). The more time he spent walking the vineyards of the high desert, sinking his hands into Arizona's soil, the more confident he felt with his decision.
The road less traveled was a heavily beaten path by the end of the two-year program, and it made all the difference.
Cunningham says his adventure into sommelier land still lies ahead of him, staying true to his trait as someone with an insatiable need to widen his own breadth of knowledge. However, there seems to be no question that his time with the vines of Arizona and Yavapai College made him a top candidate for Merkin Vineyards.
Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars is the multitiered operation owned by Maynard James Keenan — the rocker-turned-vintner who has fronted Tool and spent years as a head winemaker.
The expertise and passion of Merkin employees is passed on to guests as quick lessons on oenophilia, which also makes this restaurant and wine bar a highly attractive destination. Cunningham and his talented staff already know that some of the FAQs include the whereabouts of Keenan, and what the hell is the difference between all the oddly titled monikers attached to the vineyards (i.e. Merkin, Caduceus, and Four Eight WineWorks).
They are prepared to answer these, and any other questions. They're also happy to guide guests through some of Arizona’s finest wine selections.
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Merkin in Old Town inhabits a space that was once Barter & Shake's Counter Intuitive, and before that, the renowned FnB. However, the main room is a bit brighter, more open than past concepts living at 7133 East Stetson Drive, #4, in Scottsdale.
The vineyards of Arizona thrive on a knife's edge due to elevation, bringing the grapes closer to the sun, and an irrigation level that makes the roots dig deep for their nutrients. Cunningham will continue to expound on this balancing act.
"That's the case here in Arizona," he says. "We develop good, strong roots, and in the end what comes is more unique and complex fruit."