A merkin is a pubic wig. A toupée for the pubic area. And the name of high-altitude vineyards in Arizona owned by Maynard James Keenan, lead singer of the multi-platinum rock band Tool. Merkin Vineyards.
“Why on earth did you name your vineyards that?” I ask Maynard over the phone. I am actually quite happy to score an interview with him, given his reputation as a recluse. Apparently he doesn’t really do the interview thing much.
“Joke,” he says, in a soft voice, deadpan and monotone. “I have a dry sense of humour. Dry like the desert. I grew up close to the Canadian border. I grew up watching Kids in the Hall.”
“So it was no coincidence then that you, the head of Tool, named your vineyards Merkin.”“Either was A Perfect Circle,” he replies, referring to the rock band he formed in 1999. (I can only guess.)
Maynard’s winemaking prowess is one of the wine world’s spicier little secrets. And it’s slowly getting exposed. At his winery, called Caduceus, just outside of Sedona, Arizona he produces a tiny amount of seriously good juice. Even heavy hitters such as Wine Spectator are starting to notice. That little magazine awarded his 2005 Nagual del Sensei 90 points and his 2008 Nagual de la Naga an 88, which is quite something given Maynard only founded the winery in 2004.
Talking about production volumes, Maynard says, “There are only 1000 cases, so the wines are meant to be little vignettes — postcards to sit with and savour. Like a song, but you can only taste it once so you’d better pay attention.”
Maynard’s wines may be low-profile, but he himself is not. Not if you’re into edgy progressive metal. Unfortunately, I am not. So I learned of him through my friend Paolo Dallo Rosa who, over dinner one night, asked if I’d heard of the musician’s vineyards. Paolo is a 38-year-old Tool fan.
Apparently Maynard formed Tool in 1990, touring with such groups as Rage Against the Machine and Fishbone. Tool’s first album, Undertow, sold a million copies within eight months of release; and its second one, Aenima, sold two million within the first 10 months. Maynard also won a Grammy for best metal performance in 1998.
Fans love him — eccentricities and all. The rocker’s stage attire ranges from a bustier with falsies, crazy wigs and body paint to singing buck naked and bald except for a thin pair of boxer shorts. And for a good portion of his 1993 show at the Church of Scientology’s Celebrity Center in Los Angeles, Maynard bleated like a sheep.
“Maynard’s amazing. You should listen to Aenima,” Paolo says, referring to a cult favourite Tool song. I do and come away tempted to assume Pinot Noir, with its notorious barnyard aromas, might rock this rocker’s fancy — barnyard being a euphemism for manure.
Consider the lyrics: “…Fret for your figure/And fret for your latté/And fret for your lawsuit/And fret for your hairpiece/And fret for your Prozac/And fret for your pilot/And fret for your contract/And fret for your car/It’s a bullshit, three-ring-circus sideshow/Of freaks here in this hopeless fucking hole we call L.A./The only way to fix it is/To flush it all away/Any f—ing time/Any f—ing day…”
Right then. But Pinot Noir isn’t his focus at all. He’s actually all about Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Merlot, and mostly, Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, Maynard describes his Cabernet Sauvignon to me as tasting like “strawberry Twizzlers, licking nickels, deep raspberries, crushed sage … like Mount Etna meets left bank Bordeaux.”
Talking to him, I get the sense he’s not only passionate about wine but really knows his stuff, delving into technicalities such as soil composition, slope, climate and terroir. And despite his raw lyrics and stage antics, he’s actually quite soft-spoken and serene-sounding. But his criticism of the establishment still comes through — such as when I ask if his vineyards are certified organic.
“Merkin Vineyards are not certified organic. I’m skeptical of certification anyway. If you go to any health food [store] and pick up 100 items, about two of them will be what they say they are. There are so many loopholes in organic production. But we do our best to intervene as little as possible.”
His hallmark skepticism extends to wine criticism too.
“I sent a couple of bottles to Wine Spectator as a test — one good bottle and one that I knew wasn’t great. The good one they gave 88 points. The other didn’t grade very well so I thought, ‘yeah, they know what they’re doing’. That’s fair.”
There’s something rather refreshing about a winemaker who would rather test critics than court them. Clearly, he’s not in it for the fame or fortune. Besides, he gets that from his music — now 47 years old and still touring.
His vineyard is tiny, he makes small amounts of wine at Caduceus, and he’s got no plans to expand production or distribution. “There’s no rush to go to a national distributor. Sustainable means not getting greedy,” he says. “And pretty much all our wine is sold through our wine club, the internet and at the winery.”
Maynard is new at the wine game. He only began learning about winemaking in 2004 when he partnered with Eric Glomski. Eric worked at California’s prestigious David Bruce Winery for years and, in Arizona, took Maynard under his wing to show him the ropes. Together, they farmed Merkin Vineyards and made wine at Caduceus Winery. Maynard calls it an “apprenticeship.” Now he makes all the wine himself.
“The winery is run totally by my fiancée Lei Li and me. She runs the numbers; I make the wine,” he says, explaining that he works his music and touring around his winemaking. “It’s manageable. It’s only 90 barrels. And I have a vineyard manager.”
Most of the wine Maynard has made so far at Caduceus has been from juice imported from California, because Merkin was only planted in 2004. It takes a few years for vines to be wine-ready, let alone fine-wine-ready. But Maynard and Eric both believe the Verde Valley, where Merkin Vineyards is situated, holds huge promise for quality wine production.
“When people hear we’re growing grapes here, they say, Well, isn’t it, like, full of cactuses, cement and ex-strippers?” says Maynard in his documentary, Blood into Wine — the film that traces his adventures in winemaking.
The 670 vines that comprise the 0.3 hectare Merkin Vineyards lie about 1,460 metres above sea level, which are among the highest in North America. That altitude creates 30˚C temperature swings between day and night, hot dry summers, winter rains and soil that’s rich in limestone and volcanic ash. With these conditions and shrewd viticulture and vinification, the prospect of producing killer wine is very real — even if the United States hasn’t granted the region status as a bona fide American Viticultural Area (AVA). Today, Arizona holds only one of the 200 recognized US AVAs: Sonoita, in the southeastern part of the state. But if Maynard is as successful at wine as he is at progressive rock, he may well put Northern Arizona on the fine wine map.
Things are moving in the right direction to be sure, but it is still early days. The first Caduceus label made entirely from Merkin Vineyards’ fruit was only released in 2009 — a pure 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon called Nagual de Judith 2007. The wine is a tribute to Maynard’s late mother, Judith Marie, who died in 2003 of complications from a brain aneurysm. He spread her ashes across the vineyard where the grapes were grown, a detail that parallels the depth of some of Maynard’s lyrical discourse.
“So do you draw parallels between wine and music?” I ask. “Winemaking and music is about focus, really. It’s about listening.” Perhaps there is the perfect circle.
celebrity wines worth the dosh
Francis Ford Coppola Diamond Chardonnay 2009, Monterey County, California, United States ($20)
Buttered apple nose leads to juicy apple, cantaloupe and peach flavours with a hint of cream. Glossy mouthfeel.
Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Estate Series Cabernet Merlot 2007, VQA Niagara Peninsula, Ontario ($20)
Mixed berries, ripe tannins and bright acidity. Charcoal and chocolate finish.
Greg Norman Estates Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir 2008, Napa Valley, California, United States ($25)
Violet, strawberry and black cherry. Suave and well-balanced. Engaging.
Greg Norman Estates Limestone Coast Cabernet Merlot 2008, Australia ($25)
Juicy cherry and plum edged with warm wood, bonfire, vanilla bean, mocha, coffee, chocolate. Seriously complex and undervalued juice.
Greg Norman Estates Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 2009, Napa Valley, California, United States ($27)
Cool cream and buttered toffee aromas. Burgundian finesse. Hazelnut, citrus, fig, pear and nectarine flavours taper to a long creamy finish. Superb.
Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut Chardonnay 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, California, United States ($29)
Almonds, gravel and white pepper lace stewed pear and apple. Refined. Salty-stony finish.
Francis Ford Coppola Director’s Cut Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, California, United States ($35)
Macerated raspberry and Bing cherry edged with minerals and sea spray. Elegant, fresh style.
Marilyn Wines Velvet Collection Pose 8 Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley, California, United States ($75)
Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon seasoned with Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. Lush, complex and ripe. Refined. Deep cassis tinged with chocolate, espresso, cherry, cigar box, spice and discreet earthy notes. More art than kitsch.
Rubicon Estate / Niebaum-Coppola RC Reserve Syrah 2008, Rutherford, California, United States ($85)
Loved this wine. So fetching. Blood aromas lead to a clean, meaty flavour imbued with stewed cherry, warm wood, licorice and black pepper. Black olive finish.
Rubicon Estate Rubicon 2007, Rutherford, California, United States ($190)
Seamless structure, serious concentration and resonating complexity. Blueberry, black cherry, blackcurrant, vanilla, violet, tobacco leaf. Still young. Age up to 15 years.