Wined Down: Rock Star Maynard James Keenan

By Joe Roberts

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“Grenache is a panty dropper,” says hard rock icon Maynard James Keenan, front man of three-time Grammy winners Tool and critical darlings Puscifer and A Perfect Circle. “The Grenache coming out of A.Z. will drop panties in an hour.”

Most people are familiar with Keenan as a bona fide rock star, but fewer know him in the capacity that he will tell you constitutes his “day job” — winemaker for Arizona-based Caduceus Cellars. In 2010, the normally reticent Keenan thrust himself into the limelight as a flag-bearer for Arizona wine with the film Blood Into Wine, which chronicled his founding of Caduceus and established him as one of the figureheads of the U.S. “local wine” movement (a bootstrapped campaign that champions wines made anywhere outside the areas that currently dominate store shelves: namely California, Oregon and Washington state).

I caught up with Maynard during a break in his winemaking activities (and whatever else it is that rock stars do when they’re not

fending off hordes of gorgeous groupies) to talk about the state of the local U.S. wine movement.

And while you might not be thinking of grabbing, say, a Midwestern red wine to woo your Midwestern girl, I got a firsthand lesson in how sexy local reds can be when I attended the 2012 Drink Local Wine Conference in Denver earlier this year. Colorado has shown promise in the reds coming out of its Western Slopes (particularly The Winery at Holy Cross Abbey’s dark and velvety Cabernet Franc, Garfield Estates’ drink-me-now Syrah and Canyon Wind’s IV, a $100 Bordeaux-style red blend that actually tastes like a $100 wine). And areas like Virginia are starting to see success with ripe and fruity reds, such as Blenheim Vineyards’ Cabernet Sauvignon (owned by another successful rocker, Dave Matthews). As for Maynard’s home turf of Arizona, lest you have any doubts about its fine wine potential, it seems that the wine cognoscenti have started to take notice; according to Keenan:

“I have a blend that’s basically a Cab/Syrah/Petite Syrah blend with a dash of Mavasia in it — Anubis — that’s pretty solid; it just won a silver medal in the San Francisco International Wine Competition. This is the first year that an Arizona wine won not only a gold medal but a double gold medal. Three different A.Z. winemakers got medals this year: I got two medals, Tim White from Arizona Stronghold won a double gold for their Cabernet, and Page Springs Cellars got two silvers and a bronze. In a situation like that when you have three completely separate winemakers from different places in Arizona, for them to medal at all in a blind competition certainly speaks volumes.”

Does Keenan have any go-to local red wines?

“My sister company that I’m a cofounder and investor in is Arizona Stronghold,” Keenan says. “I usually end up opening up one of the Arizona Stronghold reds. Their Nachise is basically a Rhone blend — Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Petite Syrah — it’s a really approachable wine. That blend is very satisfying, very comfortable.”

Arizona isn’t just a desert that you fly over on your way to Phoenix — it’s got microclimates and areas cool enough to see winter snow, meaning that there’s a lot more fine wine grape-growing potential than the budding wine enthusiast might at first think. This presents a lot of opportunity but also a lot of challenges for the bootstrapping vintner.

“We’ve had success growing almost anything,” states Keenan. “Southern Rhone, Spanish and Italian varieties are shining. Of course, Bordeaux, too — Cabernet you could grow on your back if you wanted to; it’s pretty bomb-proof. But we’re easily — easily — 20 years away from really figuring out what our signature grapes are. We’re going through all the growing pains of eliminating the stuff that grows well but doesn’t really want to be here, paring it down to a handful of reds and one or two whites that really express our region. We can grow almost anything. We’ve seen fabulous Grenache, fabulous Sangiovese, Cabernet, Tempranillo, Malbec. All these grapes are growing really well, but we’re still not sure, when it’s all said and done, when the saints go marching in, which ones are the ones that really, truly want to be there.”

Does anything excite Keenan in terms of fine wine potential outside of Arizona?

“There are a bunch of regions in the U.S. that have had a longer and more consistent history of growing grapes than we have, but because of the lack of appreciation for wines in those areas, it hasn’t been financially viable for them to really step up and make a fine wine,” he notes. “New Mexico for example has had fantastic vineyards for years, but nobody’s willing to pay more than 10 bucks for a bottle of N.M. wine. The guys who are making the fine wines can’t afford to sell you a bottle for 10 dollars! I think you’re going to see wines coming out of New Mexico from people that have deeper pockets that will put it on the map, because they’re growing fantastic Italian varieties in N.M.”

Speaking of cash, when it comes to going local in wine, the old adage that price doesn’t equal quality doesn’t necessarily hold up. Keenan is particularly adamant on that point; even a rock star needs to break even.

“People give me shit for trying to charge $125 for a bottle of Nagual del Judith (Caduceus’ high-end Cabernet Sauvignon), but they don’t understand it’s on the side of a hill, it’s under one acre, it’s all hand-farmed and there are only 50 cases of it. If I charge you any less than a hundred bucks, then I’m paying you to take it! A metaphor I use is, I think there are some fantastic musicians out there that could walk into Walmart, pick up an acoustic guitar and one out of 10 times give you something you’ve never heard before. But if you really want to make sure it’s all consistent, just go buy a Gibson Les Paul. There is a difference! There’s an absolute difference between an old vintage Fender and something that you order from Kmart, the craftsmanship that goes into it. In wine it’s no different; there are absolute different focuses and farming practices that go into the finer wines. The price goes up as the demand goes up, but the demand goes up, generally speaking, because of the art that’s going into it.”

Given how far local wines have come, has Keenan ever seen a wine snob get fooled into accidentally proclaiming how good an Arizona red wine is?

“All the time,” he notes. “There’s a guy in Phoenix, Pavle Milic, who has FnB Restaurant, and his wine list is normally Arizona wines. He has the snobs that come in that don’t want to try A.Z. wine, so he has a few Bordeaux on his list just to satisfy them. But then he’ll bring over a glass [of A.Z. red wine] in the middle of their dinner, put it down and say, ‘Somebody else ordered this wine, they’re leaving and I thought you might like it.’ He says he has dozens and dozens and dozens of these stories where he puts nice wine in front of them and they try it and they go, ‘There’s no way this is from Arizona.’ ”

So back to those panties for a minute…is Arizona Grenache really that sexy? I mean, some of us might be putting a hot date on the line when we buy that.

“My wife’s very happy when I bust out the Grenache,” says Keenan. “I can send you photos — I drink it in the evening and my panties are on the floor in under an hour. The dancing starts in an hour and five minutes, whether my wife’s involved or not!”

Hmmm…thanks, man, but I think we’ll just stick to the publicity shots…

About the Author:

Want to learn more about maximizing your wine pleasure? Visit Joe Roberts’ award-winning website 1WineDude.com, where you can find him regularly roasting wine's sacred cow (and pairing it with robust, obscure red). Joe is a certified wine geek and has been called "an original" by media maven Gary Vaynerchuk, "provocative" by the Seattle Times and "a Robin Hood in the exclusive world of vineyards and corkings" by The Urban Grocer. His wine knowledge has been tapped by the L.A. Times, New York Times, CNBC.com, Mutineer Magazine, Publix, Palate Press, Mint.com, and Wines.com.


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