The line, maybe 400 people long, ran back along Seventh Avenue from the entrance to the Hillcrest Whole Foods. An unusual sight for a winemaker bottle-signing, which made sense, because it was an unusual winemaker — or pair of winemakers: Eric Glomski and Maynard James Keenan.
“I’ll put on my hippie costume now,” says Keenan when asked why he decided to leave Los Angeles for Arizona. “I had a bunch of dreams that I was supposed to be in Arizona. All of which I dismissed because I’m not actually a hippie.” It’s an easy claim to believe, especially if you’ve ever spent much time listening to Keenan’s musical output as the singer for Tool, a Perfect Circle, or Puscifer.
And yet…he did wind up following his dream, after a little guidance from the drummer for Primus, who had spent some time in Jerome, well north of the Phoenix frying pan.
And yet… “The whole reason I ended up moving there [to Jerome],” he explains, “was because I had this idea of building a sustainable building — kind of an artist’s space meets farmer’s space meets bunker. Kind of a borderline survivalist mentality — getting out of the major cities, reconnecting with what matters. A space where I could make music, record music, and grow my own food. Because, inevitably, weird stuff happens, and it would be nice to be able to survive it. And if you have a tomato from a garden, versus one you get from a grocery store, there’s just no comparison. Touring around the world with the bands, I had the opportunity to see those things firsthand. It gets inside your skin — you want that for yourself. Then, if you have the ability to help make that happen for other people as well.…”
From Keenan’s online journal at Caduceus.org, the website for his personal wine project: “Now we can begin nurturing a local, community-oriented economy that doesn’t rely so heavily on tourism to survive. Farming in general fosters good energy. We become more self-reliant. We build a history with a solid foundation, and therefore, we establish a future…Artisans from every imaginable discipline will be able to find a home here. That’s the nature of wine. There is an aura that emanates from a vineyard and a winery. Intoxicating. Both literally and figuratively. Like a higher consciousness. In vino veritas.”
In conversation, he’s more specific: “I think there’s a reason why wine figures into so many religions. There’s something transcendent about it. It’s sort of the way that music is more than the sum of its parts. You have all these elements that make up the terroir that wine can communicate.” The comparison to music is no accident; Keenan sees his winemaking venture as an extension of his musical work. If that sounds surprising — if you’re tempted to describe Tool’s songs as cathartic and wine as hedonistic — then he has this to offer: “I would say that both the wine and the music are about being aware of what’s around you. Being sensitive to the way things are and what’s going on.” Stop, hey, what’s that sound/ Everybody look what’s going down.…
But if there is a tinge of hippie surrounding some of his sentiments, Keenan’s Arizona winemaking venture should not therefore be dismissed as a beautiful, crazy dream. From the journal: “I scratched my head for years wondering why no one had attempted to grow grapes in what appeared to be the perfect climate…. Staring across my porch at Mingus Mountain while drinking a glass of Châteauneuf du Pape…. I decided to plant a vineyard.” But first, he called in an expert to see exactly why no one had made the attempt — at least, not recently. “It was an awkward moment, having the guy from UC Davis come out here. He was doing his best not to laugh in my face. He was happy to cash the check. But after he started looking around he said, ‘You paid me to come out here, and I could tell you what you want to hear. But, honestly, if the conditions are right, I think it could fly. There are so many variables — extreme temperature variations in the fall, who knows what’s really in the soil — so you know, there’s no guarantee.’ But overall, he was positive enough for me to go ahead.”
The Davis man wasn’t kidding about the temperature swings — Keenan lost sizeable chunks of vineyard to frost on more than one occasion. “Planting in the valley bottoms wasn’t the smartest idea,” says Glomski. “The cold air drains down the hillsides, and we get greater fluctuations between daytime and nighttime temperatures. It’s a double-edged sword — the fluctuations can be quite positive as far as retaining acidity and creating a wider diversity of flavors, but you do run a greater risk of frost. In some of these valleys, if you’re just a measly ten feet above the valley floor, you don’t have problems. But we didn’t know that when we first planted” — the perils of being a pioneer. “Now, we’re creeping up onto the benches between the floor and the
uplands.” They’re also reconsidering what they plant. “Mourvèdre is a later-emerging grape than, say, Syrah. It’s also later ripening.” The late emergence helps the fruit dodge the spring frosts, “and then if you crop it at a level where it ripens a little bit early,” you can dodge the frost again in the fall. (The late-summer monsoons, meanwhile, offer a whole ’nother set of problems but also carry the benefit of extending the growing season.)
Like so many beautiful winemaking dreams, Keenan’s has been snagged on a host of prickly realities, many of them far less obviously oenological than questions of which varietal to plant where. Many of his vineyard sites “were chosen because the land has historical irrigation rights and/or historical wells I could draw water from. There are a lot of water wars in Arizona. We’re basically ahead of the curve — vines are drought-resistant — but it’s going to take a lot of educating to get the Salt River Project to understand.” His first label application was rejected because someone thought the Caduceus symbol — Hermes’s staff — might lead someone to confuse wine (in a bottle, with a cork) with medicine. (Resubmitting did the trick. “It’s always a crapshoot,” sighs Keenan.) And there’s always the fact that you’re trying to convince the customer to spend $20–$100 on wine from a relatively unproven region like Arizona.