Maynard James Keenan started making his first solo wines in Arizona in 2009.

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As the frontman of metal band Tool, as well as rock supergroups A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, Keenan has a legion of global fans; many probably unaware that he has another frontman position, as the owner and winemaker of Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards, and as a force within the Arizona wine industry.

In the space of a week, as I go from the southern region of Sonoita, to Cottonwood in the north, I discover that Keenan is held up by veteran winemakers as a force for good. Another industry figure warns me not to drink the Kool-Aid. A case of tall poppy syndrome, as within minutes of speaking it’s plain that Keenan’s involvement in wine is deeper than vanity.

Caduceus' Marzo Block vineyard in Cornville, Arizona.
Caduceus’ Marzo Block vineyard in Cornville, Arizona.

Uninterested in talking about the music business, he speaks with passion about the wine industry from the art to the brass tacks of business; dissecting the “cost per ton” to farm his acreage in the north of Arizona, as opposed to his holdings in the south.

“I didn’t move to Arizona to make wine,” he says. “I moved to just get out of LA. I’m from a small town in Michigan, so moved to a small town in Arizona, which is close enough to LA to get back and do work but there’s more fresh air here, and a lot more views.”

“You have your moment where you first appreciate a wine,” he says. “You have something and you go, ‘I think now I like wine’, but for me there was that moment where I had a wine that made me decide that I wanted to make wine.” Those wines – a 1990 Case Basse di Gianfranco Soldera Riserva and a 1982 Château Léoville-Las Cases – he drank with “extremely well-stocked friends with deep, deep cellars”.

Keenan had been living in Arizona for a few years before he started to join the dots between his property and wine experiences in Europe and Australia – seeing similarities in terrain, flora and fauna, between his hilltop home and wine regions he’d visited.

“When I first broke ground, around 2001, I was hands on as much as I could be,” he says. “And then starting in our custom crush facility in 2004 they just assumed I was going to phone it in but I showed up on the first day and I’ve been kind of working ever since.”

Keenan parted company with his original business partner Eric Glomski and has since built his own facility, making his first solo wines in 2009. Jerome, once a thriving copper mining settlement seems like the perfect place for the notoriously reclusive Keenan. It’s a rugged pioneer town clinging to the hillside, the switchback roads akin to northern Italy – where Keenan has a family history of winemaking – rather than Arizona. Here, in what some refer to as “The Bunker”, he’s plotting his own course.

“I work with my wife [Lei Li], and Tim White my winemaking partner,” he says. “So he and I pretty much handle roughly 100 tons (approximately 90 tonnes) of fruit. Occasionally we have interns in the cellar, but for the most part it’s a two man team.”

Keenan isn’t just making wine in isolation, he has an outlook informed by travel and his relationships. He’s interested in taking a look at Armenia, Sicily and further exploring what New Zealand has to offer, but Adelaide is on his mind and Taras Ochota.

“That guy’s nuts, in a great way,” he says. “That whole area, there’s such a history there with Henschke and Penfolds and the like. There’s just an endless list of pioneers that are still going and they have the young bucks come up and shake things up for a minute. Every new trend you’re going to have people that shake out and I feel like Taras has really been one of those people, that’s actually held up his own.”

At the Eliphante Blocks in Cornville, part of Keenan’s 16 hectares under vine in northern Arizona, vineyard manager Chris Turner points out blocks of sagrantino, sangiovese, mourvèdre, Durif, aglianico, tempranillo, grenache, and malvasia bianco. Adding to this mix of varieties are multiple clones; all part of coming to understand what grows in these harsh Arizona conditions. The heat is a given, but Turner talks of “apocalyptic winds”, with every shoot tied to the wires by hand. “It’s labour intensive, but it makes great wine.”

While reluctant to speak personally of Keenan’s vision – that’s for the boss – Turner shares that he’s someone for whom quality is paramount, and again that he’s learning as he goes. He ponders on a visit from Ochota and his boss’ eagerness to learn from his opportunities. What really comes through is Keenan’s readiness to do the work. It wouldn’t be uncommon, Turner says, to find Keenan returned from touring, power-hosing bins at 2am.

Keenan gives me a broad-strokes view of the state, describing southern Arizona as resembling Mendoza, “an Argentinean landscape, arid, somewhat hilly, surrounded by mountain ranges. It’s a pretty intense area,” he says. Northern Arizona, “a lot more trees and varying terrain”. The differences between the northern and southern regions are played out in Keenan’s two labels. Merkin Vineyards is mostly from southern Arizona fruit and Caduceus Cellars the northern fruit. “You’re going to see quite a variation in those wines,” he says.

Characterising Arizona wine he says, “You taste the dust, you taste the bramble, the red fruit. We’re not going to be jammy like Paso Robles or Napa, we’re going to be more restrained. There’s some really interesting sangiovese.”

Although Keenan has around 44 hectares under vine across the state, tasting rooms and osterie in Cottonwood, Jerome and Old Town Scottsdale, there’s a definite sense that he finds comfort in talking of a collective push for recognition, albeit perhaps setting the agenda.

“In my cellar I’m definitely restrained, I’m cropping less and picking early,” he says. “We’re seeing lower alcohol but with phenolicly ripe fruit that ends up coming in at 13% alcohol, wines with a lot of structure; interesting wines that are expressive of site, not just of the grape. I think this is the big push for us in Arizona.”

Merkin Vineyards tasting room in Old Town Scottsdale.
Merkin Vineyards tasting room in Old Town Scottsdale.

Having talked about my visit to Sonoita just days before, Keenan is enthused to talk up his peers, name checking Callaghan Vineyards, Dos Cabezas WineWorks and Sand-Reckoner Vineyards, as producing “some pretty focused wines”. His championing of the industry isn’t just in words, but in deeds as well.

While Keenan has his winery in Jerome, he has also established Four Eight Wineworks, a winemakers co-operative with a facility at Camp Verde and a tasting room in Jerome. The producers are some of the most interesting names in Arizona wine, such as The Oddity Wine Collective, Heart Wood Cellars, Epicenter and Iniquus the personal label of Tim White. The Verde Valley Wine Festival, another initiative driven by Four Eight Wineworks, is a focus on winemakers from across the state.

I ask Keenan whether his entry into the wine community, as someone with means and celebrity, has caused any kickback from the wider industry over the years. He tells me that kickback would suggest they were even paying attention to what’s going on.

“So, not kickback, they didn’t know we were here. We just continued on our merry way,” he says. “We have a lot of activity at the state and federal level, fighting for our rights to self distribute and to exist. We do a lot of work with the Capital and just letting people know what’s going on with our region.”

This mix of agitation and education is working; drawing attention and focus from outside Arizona. “We don’t get a lot of love in California, a little bit of love in Arizona but it’s still an uphill struggle,” he says, but there’s focus from other quarters. “I didn’t expect to see it from Colorado, New York, Texas.”

Having to battle for credit doesn’t bother Keenan it seems. “Maybe there’s just too much information in the world,” he says. “There’s so much that people just don’t have the bandwidth to take on another new thing until it’s an actually established thing. There’s no hurry, so we’re just fighting the good fight and trying to do the right thing, to survive, without cutting corners. We’re dug in like ticks, we’re not going anywhere.”