Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Alchemical Alembics & Desert Wines - An Interview with Maynard James Keenan

Last year I had the opportunity to speak with Maynard James Keenan for a short Q & A that ran in Alarm Magazine. Keenan's work with the bands Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer have penetrated deep into the cultural consciousness, but it was another passion of his that provided the impetus for the article. In the heart of the Verde Valley he is currently developing the Arizona Stronghold Wines partnership, which includes development of Merkin Vineyards, and creation of his own winery, Caduceus Cellars.

In researching for the interview I came to realize that there's far more to what Keenan is doing with his wine craft than I'd first expected. A focus on community growth, desert permaculture, and sustainable, socially integrated business practices demonstrates a different side of Keenan's genius, which in other applications has allowed him to become one of the most successful artists in the contemporary music industry. There is also an esoteric component to his wine making, which is hinted at in the title for the Blood into Wine documentary produced a few years ago to introduce people to his vineyard and winery.

Through understanding the place history of the Verde Valley, Keenan is working with bringing to his wines the sense that they are literally transmuting the blood of those who have lived and died in the area, and whose work has made the desert community possible. With an awareness of how specific climates, soil types and other environmental factors affect the development of the wine, he has added an additional layer of cultural understanding which brings out a more subtle sense of what happens during the fermenting process.

Aptly named after Hermes' staff, Caduceus Cellars brings an alchemical approach to wine making that returns the craft back to its origins. Another way that Keenan stays true to this alchemical tradition is in his focus on renewing the society which supports his pursuits. One thinks of the legendary donations of Nicolas Flamel which are still remembered through street names and plaques in the areas in France where he was said to have provided for the community through his transmutations.  In a similar sense Keenan's work with the local community to not only create business, but also to build an infrastructure that supports further development, is a beautiful example of integrating all aspects of one's passion and craft into something that benefits everyone in the community.

The interview as it originally ran in Alarm was significantly shortened due to space requirements, and I am happy to have the opportunity to publish the unedited version here on Modern Mythology.

You’ve been involved in wine making and viticulture for a little over a decade now, haven’t you?

Yeah, pretty much, maybe a little bit longer. Right around 1999 is when I started messing around with orchards here. And broke ground for the actual vineyard  in 2002 I believe.

What does it take to set up vineyards in Arizona, were 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 who knows viticulture come out and check your soil. There’s so many variables you need to factor in.

I haven’t researched this, I may be farming at the highest elevation in the U.S. at 4900 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.

You can study the soil all you want, you can look at the patterns, and all that and what not, but when you’re dealing with a factor like that you have no idea what is going to happen there. It’s going to be a matter of trial and error.

We have our tasting room up in Jerome, that we’ve got a lot of jams, jellys and herbs that come from the orchards and gardens. We have a little bit of the tasting menu stuff, that goes with the wines, and a lot of products that are in that food are local from our orchards and gardens. The plan is to turn up the heat on that a bit. We’re working on starting a brick oven Pizza tasting room.

How is the Verde Valley community adapting to the wine-making industry’s interest in the area?

There’s a community college, and one of the red-headed step children of the community college is based in Clarkdale, on our side of the hill. the larger version is Yavapai College over in the Prescott area.

Even though some of the instructors and employees for other programs are being cut back, they’ve added, and now expanded, the viticulture technology programs at that college, and are actually planting vines next year. They’re going to be planting,  I think, 5 to 10 acres or something at the college. I already put in a vineyard right next to the college; negromaro that’s doing really well.

That seems like a fast transition for some of the legislation you were working on when the Blood into Wine documentary was filmed in 2007-2008.

Considering the bureaucracy that goes into all of that, that’s pretty fast. The valley definitely sees the benefit. Not that it’s fast tracked, they’re still crossing their T’s and dotting their i’s as far as all the legal stuff, zoning and all those kind of things.

I think what’s happened is they’re realizing they don’t have anything in their books to address this specific industry. They’re having to kind of improvise as they go to understand the nuances are different than they think. They’re trying to be somewhat flexible looking to the future as far as adjusting those rules.

How will Merkin Vineyard, Caduceus and Stronghold help support the developments that are going on at the college and in the community? Will you be training students in wine making?

The vineyard next to the college is definitely going to be intern driven, not everything transfers to the workforce.

We’re starting a co-op, 48 Wine Works. We’re the 48th state, we’re the last continental state in the union. So we’re the scrappers. We’re starting a co-op, which basically in a nut shell it will be me providing space. For a monthly fee have access to the press and the de-stemmer and all those things. But you’re completely on your own to get your own bottles,  and get your state wine-making license.

What it does is it inspires, providing a space for young wine makers who are serious about staying in the Verde Vally and planting vines at some point. And they can then save money from the wine they’re selling to move on to do their own thing.

We need that, we don’t really have yet. There are custom crush facilities that rack you over the coals for fees. That make it kind of a built in failure because the fees that are attached.

A setting like this is for someone who’s actually going to make they’re own wine. Definitely for you if you just want to put your image on a bottle, then go to a custom crush facility. If you’re not really in it, they’ll take your money and make wine for you.

If you’re serious about making wine, this other opportunity is going to be great for those who are serious about getting that together and being actual wine makers.

Who’s influenced your wine making?

One of the biggest influences on me in terms of wine making has been Peter Gago of Penfield, that’s someone, he, he, it’s amazing how large that production is and how huge that company is and yet he still has time smaller batches of things, one of the most wonderful wines I’ve ever had in my life.

He still has time and focus to make those smaller batch, cellar reserve wines. Which are still very consistent year to year. It’s just that if he can do that, then he’s definitely a fountain of knowledge.

How has your relationship with other winemakers changed over time?

After a decade of making wine, now I understand the questions I’m asking. “How do you do it?” that doesn’t really get us anywhere. Now I have a frame of reference.

Now I have an idea what the trouble spots are. It’s extremely useful to have instincts when it comes to seeing the trouble before it happens and asking the right questions.

How has this season gone for you?

It’s going ok, I had to leave to do some work on the road, come back and there were a few things that almost came off the rails due to my absence. I was actually able to get them back on track, so we’re ok.

With the unstable economy, what’s the most common business model for wine makers today?

I think most people, speaking in terms of business models, it’s having something consistent, I think something like Silver Oak. Every year having something, Alexander Valley cab and their Napa Valley cab, which are very consistent year to year.

Labels have already been approved, they don’t have to go through the approval process, just change the year on the label. It’s just simpler, and it’s a fairly solid product.

That doesn’t interest me. Please, don’t get me wrong, I love AC/DC, they always sound like AC/DC. You know what to expect. That’s kind of like the Silver Oak, you know what to expect.

But you know, I still prefer the more boutique stuff, because you never know what you’re going to get.  What you end up with is about a specific time and specific spot. There’s definitely going to be influence from the winemaker that’s going to show up, but if the work is done properly in the vineyard that space and that time are going to come through more so than the wine maker’s influence, unless the winemaker is really heavy handed.

How many different facets are currently in place supporting the orchards and vineyards?

Caduceus tasting room is in Jerome, I also sell the Merkin Vineyards wines there as well. Eventually we’ll have the brick oven pizza place down in Cornville, and I’ll end up moving the Merkin Vineyards wines down there for that. And I’ll feature all the wine from 48 Wine Works, and we’ll probably have a two buck version of the ? wines, a white, red and rose that will be featured at the tasting room.

How is the local economy in that part of Arizona?

As far as the local economy, there’s no question that it’s active, of all communities around the state, Jerome has actually seen growth.

What people don’t quite realize, we do, in the US, export quite a bit, but as far as the financial impact of our exports. Yes, we export wheat, we export corn, but for the most part as far as the economy it’s not something we read about.

We send wheat to Italy and then they ship it back to us and sell it to us at a 5 times mark up. So it’s not exactly what we had in mind for a solid investment, but there’s nothing we can do, but our major export is wine. If you look at US exports wine is our top, if not the top, unique product exports that we have.

So for that to be something that can be expressed in each state, with a very specific grape from each state, with very different weather, and soil, again the permaculture and sustainability aspects are readily apparent.

Something we’re finding as well in Arizona, you’ve got to figure if there’s a Cat Fancy Magazine, certainly there’s a wheat fancy coalition, and as it turns out there is.

The consensus, from what I understand, is that our Sonoran wheat is superior when it comes to wheat for bread and wheat for pasta. As much as possible we want to use local stuff, so for the tasting room, for the brick oven pizza, that constitutes the main component.

Does the community, do the people buying the wine, recognize this potential?

I don’t think quite yet, I think it’s slowly sinking in. Generally people who have tried my wines, or seen the documentary, have been fans of my other work. Not necessarily paying attention to the different aspects.

The last people at the party are definitely going to be your neighbors; all they see is when you piss them off. They’re not going to get it until they realize they have a job, and all of their family members across the United States don’t. And realize that their surviving better than others. Especially with the economy is as bad as it is across the United States

People who’ve quit because they don’t like their jobs Now they have to find work. The grass is always greener until you get there, it was just green paint.

How is this affecting the wine industry?

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

Ala Chateauneuf Du Pape early days, there can be a competitive antagonism that goes on amongst the local winemakers, that’s the way it’s always going to be, same with anything.
 So you have that, but hopefully we’ll get past all that, from there it’s just trying to survive. You have to be paying attention to the overall economy.

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 weeks 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 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, this is a pay cut.

Does Puscifer follow a similar ethic?

I have run across there’s this idea that there’s some sort of under writer, sponsor, or that we’re not an actual independent project. Everything we’ve done from the beginning has been self funded.

We start with a song, ok, what do we do with it, put it in a movie, ok turn the money from that over into another project, and just keep it going. There’s a small amount of overhead. 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, there’s no doubt, 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.

How has the project developed since it’s inception?

It started more as a collaborative project with some friends of mine that I enjoy working with. As it’s gone on I’ve found more a kinship with Matt Mitchell and Josh Eustis, that’s sort of the foundation of it. And then there’s spice that comes in, having that foundation we keep a revolving door, that keeps it fresh provide a place for other people who want to stretch their legs.

Were we can just enjoy the process, because you get caught up in whatever you’re doing. There’s an expectation with that, this you can just go cuckoo.

But this is the hardest type of project to take on the road because we can’t just go into CBGB’s or Al’s Bar, we have to go into a setting that normally has full production opera or play. So, we need space.


David Metcalfe is an independent researcher, writer and multimedia artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is a contributing editor for Reality Sandwich, The Revealer, the online journal of NYU's Center for Religion and Media, and The Daily Grail. He writes regularly for Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, Modern Mythology,, The Teeming Brain and his own blog The Eyeless Owl. His writing has been featured in The Immanence of Myth (Weaponized 2011), Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color & Music (Alarm Press, 2011) and Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (North Atlantic/Evolver Editions 2012). Metcalfe is an Associate with Phoenix Rising Digital Academy, and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.

[Where is the fucking counterculture? Mythos Media.]

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