Growing Arizona Wine with Maynard James Keenan
“No one knows if Nebbiolo works here, so why not just try it?” Maynard James Keenan tells me. “If it doesn’t work, I know Sangiovese does so I can graft over.”
We are walking the terraces of Keenan’s Judith Vineyard on a steep slope side of Jerome. The terraces are edged by white limestone boulders pulled from the site’s calcium laden caliche soils, and decomposed granite. We stand in direct morning sun. In the distance, red rock formations cut through stark blue sky. It feels like walking a moon scape carved with technicolor edges.
Though he is known more widely for his music career with Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer, Keenan has dedicated his attention these last ten-plus years to helping grow the health of the Arizona wine industry. While we’re there to discuss his work in wine, he spends much of the day helping me taste the work of other Arizona winemakers, then finally helping me connect with them for interviews as well.
As we cross terraces, Keenan points out small plantings of Malvasia, Tempranillo, and Aglianico. The site was originally planted to Cabernet before it had to be pulled due to Pierce’s Disease.
Finding Inspiration Through Wine
As we move through the vineyard, I ask Keenan what made him want to make wine. The conversation begins first with how he fell in love with wine.
“Everyone has that bottle of wine that opens their palate for the first time.” Keenan says. For him that bottle came in a gift from his friend, Tori Amos, a 1992 Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet enjoyed alongside a steak in the mid-1990s.
Though his wine awakening came with the bottle from Amos, Keenan credits a close friend from his early 20s as preparing him to experience that moment. The friend, Keenan tells me, used to bring home wine for meals. The bottles were, in themselves, nothing special but together Keenan and his friend would do things like grill fish on the roof of a Boston apartment building, then enjoy it with wine for dinner.
The simple combination of wine with a meal established for Keenan the foundation he needed to realize the beauty of that early-1990s Silver Oak. When he tasted the Cabernet with steak, he explains, he recognized what his friend had been up to. Food and wine simply go together. Later it would prove to be Sangiovese and Bordeaux that took the experience a step further into making wine.
“It was a 1990 Soldera Reserva, and a 1982 Leoville Las Cases,” he tells me. “Those were the wines that made me want to make wine.” Soon after, he began planting the Judith Vineyard to Cabernet. Later Keenan would begin establishing other varieties.
The food and wine combination also cemented for Keenan the importance of tasting his wine with food and wine experts. “I like doing winemaker dinners,” he says. “I learn a lot about my winemaking by tasting with chefs, and somms that know what they’re doing.”
“I like approachable, ageable wines that go with food, and don’t beat me up.”
Over the last decade-plus, Keenan has been honing his approach in winemaking, and establishing the health of his vineyards. More recently he’s begun working with vineyard manager Chris Turner. The partnership clearly bolsters Keenan’s excitement for Arizona wine.
“I feel like I’m finding my way in the cellar, and finding my signature approach,” he explains. In the last few years, Keenan has honed in on using submerged cap fermentations. The technique seems to mesh well with the structural qualities of red varieties in the state giving both an intensity, and also a suppleness to the tannin. “Having Chris in the vineyard, I feel like I’m that much closer to being able to say, oh yeah, that’s who I am through the wine.”
We return to discussing the vineyard.
“I’m pretty excited about the Nebbiolo we’re growing,” he continues. “For me, my favorite bottles of wine, they’re Brunello, and then everything under that ends up being Barolo and Barbaresco. If we can get the Nebbiolo to work, I’ll feel like we won.”
What it means to win for Keenan includes surpassing what could seem like impossible odds.
Though the history of Arizona wine reaches back to 16th century Spanish monks making wine for sacrament, today’s industry remains young. Quality has been hard to predict. Many producers have relied on buying bulk wine already bottled elsewhere then labeled in state, rather than facing the challenges of winegrowing.
At the same time, a few producers have dedicated themselves to establishing quality. In recent years, their efforts have led to greater consistency found with certain wineries, and outside attention has followed.
Wines from Arizona have begun receiving recognition as more than just a novelty. Keenan’s Caduceus has won numerous awards in the San Francisco International Wine Competition. Jancis Robinson showcased Arizona Stronghold while touring her book with Linda Murphy, American Wine. Jon Bonne included Arizona’s Sand Reckoner 2012 Malvasia in San Francisco Chronicles‘s “Top-100 Wines” for 2013. Just this month in Food & Wine, Ray Isle lauded Dos Cabezas Wine Works, Sand Reckoner, and Callaghan Vineyards as part of the world of wines “New America.”
That shift in perspective has come thanks to a dedicated few, Keenan included, excited by the resplendent challenges of a state with every extreme — hail, monsoons, lack of water, unbearable heat followed by freezing temperatures in the same day, intense winds, high elevation, and snow. Much of the work has rested in simply researching and testing varieties best suited to such conditions.
Growing Arizona Wine
“From 1990, when we started, until about,” Kent Callaghan of Callaghan Vineyards starts then pauses. He’s describing the trajectory of vineyard work he’s seen in the Arizona wine industry since he and his family started planting their vineyards in 1990. “Well,” he continues. “from 1990 and still, it’s just been about finding varieties that work well in the state.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Arizona’s wine industry was experiencing its first swell of growth with vineyards being established in the Southeastern portions of the state.
It was during that time one of the state’s wine pioneers, Al Buhl, purchased a 20-acre vineyard on 40-acres of land in the Elgin area. Though the site had already been planted to a mash of primarily Bordeaux varieties, Buhl’s decision to plant the remaining half to his own tastes, including both Italian and Spanish varieties would help change the state. He was the first to plant Malvasia, one of the varieties that’s brought attention to Arizona’s wines.
It was Buhl who would establish Dos Cabezas, and hire Callaghan as its first winemaker.
Callaghan’s influence too cannot be overestimated. Listening to the leaders of the Arizona wine industry, Callaghan’s name is mentioned repeatedly. Rob Hammelman of Sand Reckoner got his start doing vineyard work alongside Callaghan. Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas Wineworks was inspired to start making wine after tasting one of Callaghan’s whites made for Dos Cabezas before Bostock started there. Today, Callaghan, and Bostock also pair with Keenan, and Tim White of Iniquuis Cellars to make the collaboration project, Kindred, a wine that showcased the state’s incredible structure in 2011, and its quaffability in 2012.
“The industry was small in the early 1990s,” Callaghan explains. “There was a little burst of growth when we started, and then another burst of growth in the mid-2000s. In the middle, it was pretty brutal for a while.”
What proves impressive about Callaghan’s work is not only that he started growing grapes in Arizona at a time few others did, but also that he survived the decade long economic dead zone that visited the state’s industry after his family started. In the middle, he continued to improve his winemaking.
Today, Todd Bostock owns Dos Cabezas Wineworks along with his family, and also collaborates with Dick Erath who started Cimarron Vineyard near Willcox. Erath is best known for his Erath Winery in Willamette Valley, Oregon, where Bostock also made his first Pinot Noir.
Bostock stepped into winemaking in the midst of what Callaghan called the brutal period. In the early 2000s, when he started with Dos Cabezas he worked several years essentially unpaid while also commuting several hours to a day job in Phoenix.
“I would stop off in Sonoita and talk to Kent,” Bostock tells me, describing how he coped with the years of working two full-time jobs in order to step into wine.
“One time I think he gave me $40,” Bostock says laughing. “I was crying to him that I had no money. We’d talk, and trade bottles.”
Once Bostock was able to relocate full-time to winemaking, he tells me, he found alongside Callaghan a community of local winemakers that would spend time tasting and talking about wines from around the world. When I mention Bostock’s story to Callaghan he’s surprised at first, and then agrees.
“There was this core group.” Callaghan says. “People that really love wine. We were spending a lot of money on other people’s wines, and drinking it. It’s like this process of osmosis. You know when your wine is great, and when it’s not subconsciously.” He reflects for a minute.
“You know, that [winemakers tasting wines from all over the world] more than anything else has probably helped the industry improve.” Callaghan says. “That’s how you discover new varieties to try planting too.”
Nikki Check, Director of Viticulture at the Southwest Wine Center of Yavapai College in Verde Valley, emphasizes the importance of varietal choices as Arizona continues forward in wine. Check’s background rests in sustainable agriculture emphasizing soil nutrient dynamics.
“A lot of our vineyard sustainability,” she explains, “comes down to how much we can make better decisions on our varietal selections.” Varieties that are better suited to a region need less intrusive management. “Then it’s a matter of having more reasonable crop estimates,” she continues. “Because together that would then result in less water usage, less pest potential, and all those things.”
Bostock and Callaghan both are experimenting with small plantings of a wide range of varieties.
When I ask Callaghan to name a few showing well in his vineyard he immediately lists Tannat, and Graciano. They’re the newest of his plantings, but already thriving. He’s also trying Gruner Veltliner, he tells me just to see how it does.
Bostock has found Petite Sirah to be well suited to his site, as well as Rhone varieties both reds and whites. He’s experimenting now too with Picpoul Blanc.
Thanks to Keenan’s efforts, Buhl’s Vineyard is also getting revitalized with a range of both Italian and Spanish varieties.
In discussing inspiration from other people’s wines, Bostock, Callaghan, and Keenan each also mention the work being done by Ann Roncone at Lightning Ridge Cellars.
“Her new Aglianico is the best I’ve had in Arizona in quite a stretch,” Callaghan tells me.
Cresting the Wave with Quality
The ground swell of quality that’s been rising in Arizona led in the last few years to establishing a two-year Viticulture and Enology degree through the Southwest Wine Center. Keenan established the first acre of vineyard, a Negroamaro block, for the Center that helped secure its status as an official program, rather than just a series of classes.
The program is also just beginning to partner with University of Arizona. With both programs already known for their work in agriculture, the partnership raises exciting questions about if they might work towards a future four-year viticulture degree.
“I think we’re at the crest of a wave where hopefully quality is taking over,” Michael Pierce, Director of Enology at the Southwest Wine Center, explains. “There is an awakening of knowledge, and [recognition of] what to do [to make quality wine].” Pierce also makes wine for his own label Saeculum Cellars, and his vineyard partnership with his father, Bodega Pierce.
After gaining winemaking experience in New Zealand, Oregon, and Tasmania, Pierce credits Tim White of Iniquuis Cellars for helping to bring him back to Arizona wine. Both White and Pierce previously worked for Arizona Stronghold before leaving for other projects. White’s work with Stronghold helped establish the quality that gained it national recognition. It was during that time, White offered Pierce a job, but it was the unique conditions of Arizona that brought Pierce back.
“There is a unique terroir here,” Pierce explains. “We get a lot of dried herbs, desert spices, the scent of palo verde in bloom. As people get a taste for it, and see quality producers are there, the attention will continue to grow both in state and out.” Palo verde is a tree common through the Southwest and unusual for its ability to photosynthesize through its bark, rather than only its leaves.
“The thing I really like about Arizona is our unique terroir,” Check, agrees. “I think it’s about low fertility soils. We get a lot of chalky, earthy tones, rather than the real fruity tones you might get elsewhere. I feel really lucky to be part of the boutique style production happening here that’s really setting the standard for quality in the state.”
Back in Keenan’s cellar Gillian Welch is playing. We’ve just tasted through some Caduceus whites, and a dry Lei Li rosé of Nebbiolo Keenan named for his wife. He’s opening now a vertical of the Caduceus Judith bottling, wine from the vineyard where we started the day, and he named for his mother.
The first vintages of Judith pour 100% Cabernet. As the vines began dying, however, Tempranillo was planted. In the middle vintages, then, Tempranillo begins to accent the Cabernet, then the roles switch and Cabernet accents the Tempranillo, until in recent vintages it disappears.
Tasting the vintages I am struck first and most by the site. I can taste the hillside we walked earlier. The fruit flavors shift with age, and as we move from the Bordeaux to Spanish variety, but more than that the site shows through. It’s a scent of chalky earth moonrock, dried herbs, and light spice, lit up from behind by the fruit of its variety.
This week’s article “In Defense of Natural Wine” was rescheduled to next Wednesday to allow this piece on Arizona wine.
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