By Eddie Rivkin
For quite a few years now, it has become hip and trendy for celebrities to have their own Wine and/or Spirit brands. The list of celebrity owners runs the gamut from legitimate A-list celebs, all the way down to Reality TV stars. (I guess they are sort of famous?) It really doesn’t take much more than a little fame, and maybe a little bit of money, and you too can have your very own wine or spirit. Hell, if you have REAL MONEY you can buy yourself a vineyard!
But here’s the thing, putting your name on a bottle, even owning a vineyard, does NOT make you a winemaker. It just makes you an owner.
When Michael Politz, Publisher of Food & Beverage Magazine asked me who I would want to interview for an article on celebrity wine and spirit brands, I told him there was only ONE person I would even consider interviewing and writing a feature about. The only celebrity that I am aware of that not only has his own wines, owns his own winery, but in fact, lives full time there, works the vineyards, and is responsible for every single aspect of the finished product, Maynard James Keenen, the lead singer of Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer.
After a few emails back and forth with Monica the amazing PR person, I was off for what I thought was going to be a quick 30-minute interview after an in-store Wine Tasting in Hollywood.
Well, readers what ended up happening was so much more than that. I hope you enjoy the story I am about to share with you, as much as I enjoyed an incredible experience of talking to a true artist and perfectionist when it comes to his wines. (OK, OBVIOUSLY, yes it also applies to his music too).
Now, if you have gotten this far, and are waiting for a top secret tip on the upcoming Tool album, keep reading! I’ve cleverly hidden it in the body of the story.
I admit that when I got to the Wine Store, I was expecting to find a whole bunch of music fans clambering for autographs, and not much having to do with Wine. Instead what I saw was about 80 people sampling 4 different wines, asking educated wine questions about every facet of Maynard’s winemaking process. Maynard was completely relaxed, in his element and happy to share all his experiences and wisdom about making wine. Many of the people were clearly fans of his music, but there was not one music question during the entire tasting.
If it wouldn’t have been for one asshole standing in the rain outside the front door looking to get his merch signed as we were leaving for dinner, it may very well have been the perfect tasting (so far)!
MJK: That’s the result of 10 or 11 years of bringing them along with A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, educating them on how to behave! In the beginning, it was all groupies. And (very) slowly it has evolved to what you saw tonight.
Wait!!! Did I just bury the lead in this whole story?
It appears I did.
Instead of a quick 30-minute interview and back on my flight to Vegas at 9:30, Maynard and his manager graciously invited me to dinner to do our interview. And oh what a dinner it was! I’m torn, should I share with you the amazing restaurant where we had dinner? Oh well, Fx@* it. Let me just say that Marino on Melrose was absolutely sensational! Just trust me on this. I’m not going to write a restaurant review unless Food & Beverage Magazine send me back!
Now onto my conversation with Maynard James Keenan about Wine, and yes, a little music too.
ER: It seems like quite a leap from Rockstar to Winemaker?
MJK: I had never really been out of the country. All of the sudden I’m in a band and I’m out of the country, seeing parts of Italy, and part of my family is from Italy so it really kind of resonated with me. It seemed almost familiar to me and I wasn’t sure why. I saw incredible wineries in Italy. Then it kind of dawned on me. I want to live in an area like that. I was slipping into a black hole in LA in a bad way. I felt like I had to get out of town, I had to reconnect in some way and be away from LA.
ER: So you bailed on LA, how did you get to Jerome?
MJK: Tim Alexander, the drummer from Primus is from Phoenix. He played in a bar band up north in Jerome. They played some originals and some covers and just traveled the state jamming. Then he got a call to go to the bay area for an audition for Primus. I met him on Lollapalooza 93 and we really hit it off. I mentioned this really weird dream I had about living in Arizona. He said, “I should show you this town.” Within 24 hours of seeing Jerome, I opened a P.O. Box, changed my license, everything. I had no idea I would be making wine at the time, but I knew I needed to be there, NOT in LA.
ER: You’ve now disengaged from LA, are living in Jerome, how do you get to making wine?
MJK: I can give you the 20/20 hindsight version, or I can tell you where I was standing thinking this was a good idea. But having traveled the world. Seeing some of these regions, seeing the Blue Agave, seeing the Mesquite trees, seeing fig trees growing, I remember seeing this in southern Rome. The soil in Jerome looks the same, the weather feels the same, maybe a little drier. Then this weird little revelation happened, a little piece of land across the street is for sale. I’m buying up the land around me and I finally got a paycheck. Up to that point, we’re talking about 1995, 1996, 1997, Tool started in 1991. In 1996 I had two platinum albums under my belt and an EP about to go platinum, and I was still living on 500 bucks a month. The rent was paid, the utilities were paid, but I didn’t have a lot of money. I had a credit card with 500 bucks a month. And then you get to 1996/1997 and all the sudden there is money. In 1998 it’s like Oh $XITZ!, there’s a lot of money. I’ve never even had this kind of money. What the Fx@* am I going to do? Then my account goes don’t get ahead of yourself, you are going to have to give half of that to the government. And I’m like there has got to be SOMETHING I do to put this to work instead of just handing it off and it wasting away. They had no solutions for me, after all, that’s the age-old question, how do you do that. How do you have your money make you more money My hippie neighbor, who has a rope belt and no shoes, and who does insane metal work for me goes, “well you just bought the piece of land next to me? You like wine, right? Why don’t you put in a vineyard? For an investment.” So, I’m calling my accountants, like my Fx@*in my hippie neighbor with a rope belt and no shoes have a suggestion and you guys don’t have a suggestion? But rather than diving into vineyards, I put in an orchard. And now its producing insane figs, apricots, plums, pomegranates, and almonds. And about that same time, I had that revelation about wine. I LOVE WINE. So just watching how the apricots and everything was working on that lot and getting more and more into wine, learning more about wine and I had that Wine moment when you go OH $XITZ! I had a 1990 Soldera Reserve and a few others at this fancy hoopla dinner in New Jersey. And I said “I’ve got the orchard going, I’m want to do this. This is amazing. I am going to make wine”
ER: When did this happen?
MJK: 2001, 2002.
ER: So you committed around 2001 or 2002, when were the first bottles produced?
MJK: 2004 were California Wines. I sourced fruit from California for the first three or four years. My first actual Arizona fruit was 2007.
ER: And now it’s a combination of fruits?
MJK: No, since 2007 it’s all Arizona fruit. I still have some lingering bottles in the cellar with some New Mexico fruit, but everything is 100% from Arizona.
ER: How much total land do you have now?
MJK: I have 110 total acres, 40 in the north, 70 in the south.
ER: How many cases do you produce annually?
MJK: It fluctuates a little. Last year we did about 6000 maybe 7000. I’d say we average between 6000-9000 cases a year.
ER: Since you have all the land around you already, what do you think the most cases you will be able to produce in a year is?
MJK: Well I just bought a lot more land, so I can actually expand. But what I am doing is dropping more fruit, concentrating things more, taking the nod from some of the finest wineries in the world. That way I bring it down to reasonable amounts of fruit, so the concentration is there. We don’t cut any corners, it works well with our weather. I can actually pick the fruit before the monsoons annihilate us. All these things fall hand in hand. What I am doing is developing those two brands, Caduceus Cellars, and Merkin. Merkin is the one that I am kind of developing someday for my retirement plan. We have a Pizza Truck that is Merkin, a Gelato truck that is Merkin. I am doing a branding thing with Merkin in general. Merkin will be something that if someone comes along and sees the vision and wants to take it global, I will say yes. Caduceus will ALWAYS be my baby. What will happen with Caduceus is that if I sell Merkin some day in ten years, that space will get taken up by Caduceus. I’ll plant more fruit for Caduceus. Right now I’m pretty much tapped out at 10,000 cases I think, and that is using every single inch and corner of my land.
ER: With that kind of limit, aren’t you a bit hamstrung as far as financial growth as well?
MJK: Yes, but we are ok with it. I’ve got the music, financially we are fine.
ER: Is it fair for me to say this is your absolute passion project? That being a winemaker is really what you want to be?
ER: The three bands will go until you don’t want to do it anymore…
MJK: If I don’t have a voice and I can no longer sing then there will be no more bands. As long as I can sing, there will be bands.
ER: And as long as you can stand, there will be wine?
ER: Switching gears for a minute. We are about the same age, both served in the military, what did you get from your time in the Army?
MJK: The Army, as an only child, taught me how to get along with people I wasn’t sure I was going to like. It taught me racism and it also taught me not racism. I taught me that it doesn’t matter who they are, there is this thing we have to get done, and can you do it? Are you capable of doing it? I know on the street we’d never speak to each other, but x@#&, all that, are you here to help me get this thing done?
ER: Ok back to wine. What is your newest or next release going to be?
MJK: In a couple of weeks we are releasing 2015 Nagual del Judith Nebbiolo
ER: OK, the last question, I have to catch my flight at 9:30.
It’s been 14 years since you started in on this, where do you see yourself in 14 years?
MJK: 14 years from now I see me not necessarily pulling out vines and replanting, but if I have expanded anything on the vineyards, I see me narrowing it down to 2 or 3 varietals that are going to do best and best express this area. I will still continue to do the crazy stuff that is all over the map because our wine club loves it. But I have a feeling that we’ll be able to really truly look back now and see in hindsight what I have done the last 14 years, that will help me know where this is going for the next 140 years.
ER: Thank you very much for the incredible dinner and sharing your journey with me.
My final thoughts:
That 30-minute interview turned into an amazing 8-course dinner, complete with a full selection of wines from Caduceus & Merkin that lasted 3 hours!
I missed a flight for the first time in my life.
In all my years of writing about anything and anyone I wanted, I had the absolute best experience of my writing adventures, having an all over the map conversation with Maynard James Keenan.
I wish I could share with you a lot of the other things we chatted about, but maybe another time. There is so much more story to tell.
Looking squarely at the prospect of spending the night in LAX, I demanded my Lyft driver race to get me to the airport.
That day must really have been my lucky day. I got the last seat on the Stripper Express Southwest Airlines flight back to Vegas!
Oh, and I scored an invite to see Maynard in his other job, as a musician in a few weeks when A Perfect Circle stops in Las Vegas.
Yep, today was a good day!
I almost forgot about that top-secret tip regarding the new Tool album!
Sorry, I got nothing. You should have known better than to think that was going to happen! LOL
Hope you enjoyed the article.
For the best experience with Caduceus and Merkin, take a trip to Jerome Arizona and visit the Tasting Rooms and Osteria.
You never know who you just might run into.
If you can’t make it to Jerome, please visit https://caduceus.org/ and join their wine club.