Interview: Maynard James Keenan’s desert adventures — in winemaking

Maynard James Keenan

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Puscifer: Conditions of My ParolePuscifer: Conditions of My Parole (10/18/11)

“Man Overboard”

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While the world’s been caught up with his musical prowess, Maynard James Keenan — the essential vocalist for Tool and A Perfect Circle and the creative lead for Puscifer — has spent the past decade teasing secrets from the soil of Verde Valley, Arizona, bottling stories squeezed from the vine.

Following a mid-’90s move to the topographically diverse state, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012, Keenan found muses in Mingus Mountain, the Verde River, and the city of Jerome, the “largest ghost town in America.” He soon planted the tiny, half-acre Merkin Vineyards, growing grapes to launch the partnership Stronghold Wines and his own Caduceus Cellars. But more than a mere economic developer, Keenan uses his wine to capture the essence of the Verde Valley, where once “the rifle was more necessary for successful agriculture than the plow.”

Maynard James Keenan

What does it take to set up vineyards in Arizona, where there aren’t many examples to follow?  

Definitely a lot of planning, and a lot of testing of the soil, but a lot of that is having a lab that knows viticulture come out and check your soil. There are so many variables you need to factor in. I haven’t researched this, but I may be farming at the highest elevation in the US at 4,900 ft. I don’t know that for a fact, but if I’m not, then I’m definitely in the top 10 as far as high-elevation farming.

If I wanted to make money, I’d just tour with Tool for the rest of my life — just come home and count my pile of money. I don’t have that anymore; I don’t do that anymore. I do this, and this is a pay cut.

Who has influenced your winemaking?

One of the biggest influences on me in terms of winemaking has been Peter Gago of Penfolds. It’s amazing how large that production is and how huge that company is, and yet he still has time for smaller batches — [including] one of the most wonderful wines I’ve ever had in my life.

Maynard James Keenan

How is the unstable economy affecting the wine industry?

Most wineries right now are just trying to survive. The startup costs are astronomical, and it’s a very competitive industry, so you have to have your heart in the right place to really get into this thing.

À la the Châteauneuf-du-Pape early days, there can be a competitive antagonism that goes on amongst the local winemakers. But that’s the way it’s always going to be — the same with anything. Everybody is looking to get a job where someone is going to pay them money and give them benefits and health insurance and shit, and a week’s paid vacation. Those days are over. You have work harder for less.

If I wanted to make money, I’d just tour with Tool for the rest of my life — just come home and count my pile of money. I don’t have that anymore; I don’t do that anymore. I do this, and this is a pay cut.

Does Puscifer follow a similar ethic?

I have run across this idea that there’s some sort of underwriter or sponsor, or that we’re not an actual independent project. Everything we’ve done from the beginning has been self-funded. The whole point of it is to be completely self-sustainable, and not be robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Those projects are absolutely joined at the hip, and the process they go through is very parallel. We’re not going to have acres and acres of products sitting on shelves somewhere that will sell on discount over at Best Buy. That’s not the point of the project.