TIME PAST AND WINES PAST! There’s no way round it, now I’m looking back both in time, and across diverse mountains, plains and rivers between my desk on the East Coast and the American Southwest and my actual Gonzo #AZwine Adventure. Of course, it ended three days ago with the long flight back to New York Wine City from Phoenix/Arizona, most of which I passed by in a seriously dazed and confused slumber. Done is done! But what is every really done? It’s an everyday paradox that memories are right now, even if they’re like albums of faded photos. Time past and wines past?
Some of you are surely well aware that my host and guide Maynard James Keenan (MJK), pictured above, split from his business partner in the Arizona Stronghold wine project, Eric Glomski (EG), back in the spring of 2014. I can well understand how you might consider that with this move the really exciting phase of the #AZwine story ended. Famously Punk Rock was already dead back in 1979. I remember graffiti in rural Switzerland telling me that piece of news. Undeniably, it was Arizona Stronghold, founded 2007, that first made a noise about the state’s wines (distributed in 38 states plus some exports!) thru the promotional tour MJK and EG undertook when their first wines came onto the market and the 2010 documentary movie about the pair ‘Blood into Wine’ Stuart! It’s way too late for reporting. If you really must write something, then it will have to be The Official History of #AZwine (Part 1)!
I have to admit I was unaware of the above history when I set off for AZ just over a week ago and I’m really glad that I was, because that Divine Ignorance enabled me to absorb everything around me in a nonjudgmental, sponge-like manner, though obviously, some wines did more for me than others, and some people fascinating me more than others. However, what I experienced most intensely was not the bunch of extreme individuals I encountered, but the complex network of business (not only money, also goals, ambitions) and other relationships (blood and other bodily fluids) that bind them together in a wine community like I’ve never experienced before. And I’ve been doing this thing long enough to have seen many wine regions come up, and a few go down too.
When I get down to writing the Big Story of #AZwine, MJK and his Caduceus Cellars some time next year after another visit to the state, then it will be about that network, although I’m not quite sure how to pull that off without turning it into an #AZwine version of a Russian novel. Certainly it will need some history of the kind outlines above – how else could you figure out how all these people got where they are now? – but I promise you it will be all about what’s happening in the fiery crucible of the Storytelling Now, all about the moment of wine becoming. I hope that doesn’t sound too fine and fancy, because it certainly isn’t intended to do so, in fact, this story is caked in a gooey-gritty mix of dust and grape juice that sticks to everything it comes into contact with.
WHO EXACTLY IS THE MAN? An important side-effects of my deliberate lack of conventional journalistic focus, was that I took MJK almost exactly the way I found him. Sure, I’d heard he was the singer of a gigantically successful heavy metal band called ‘Tool’, but I didn’t know their music, and, although I’ve now heard a bunch of MJK’s work with ‘Puscifer’, I still don’t know what ‘Tool’ sounds like! Sure, I listened carefully to the music he played on his car radio and in his house; a musician’s taste in music surely say something about him, though it may be damned hard to figure out exactly what that really is. I noted Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch, because I was surprised to find that MJK also enjoys music I do. This relaxed way of doing my job is no doubt naive, but it meant that I wasn’t dazzled by the aura many of his fans clearly see around him. For me he’s a complex guy who’s done a bunch of stuff in his life and recently mutated into a creative winemaker. I promise you, amongst them that’s a horribly rare thing, although a slew of the rich and famous are making wine. Let’s face the truth, most of them are employing people to make wine for them and taking the credit for the, because it means magazine covers. Often the result taste remarkably dumb and are way too expensive on top of that. Did I mention Gérard Depardieu? It seems I did, because I just read his name on the screen and felt slightly queasy. Forgive me for digressing…
I took MJK to be a creative winemaker from my first encounter with him was at the Festival at the Farm of the Arizona Wine Growers where he presented a tasting-seminar devoted to a method of red wine production called Submerged Cap Fermentation (which is what the tank he’s pictured with below is for). He was obviously right on top of this thing in the technical sense, but – as every good winemaker exploring some new technique is – and from the four very different 2104 Sangiovese red wines we tasted he’s also relentlessly running down exactly the right way to use it. In winemaking the difference between more or less right and exactly right is often also the difference between a very good wine and a mind-blowing one (although getting up to either of those levels demands the use of excellent quality grapes). Although we talked about all kinds of things during the following days – I was actually listening far more than talking, because that’s what a journalist after a True Story has to do – we always swung around the next corner back to wine growing and winemaking. Although music is still important to him, this creative process which turns solid grapes into liquids in barrels and tanks no less defines who he is, not only publicly, but also in his own mind.
Obviously, the wines MJK makes, mostly powerful and tannic reds, plus some rich dry rosés and dry whites, are far removed from those that usually dominate this blog (Riesling & Co.) but that isn’t the point. As Michael Pierce of the Saeculum/Pierce winery in Wilcox and Enology Director of the Southwest Wine Center in Clarkdale said, “Nature will prove you wrong if you plant the wrong grape varieties!” The growing conditions dictate what will work best in a particular location, be it in a long-established wine region or out on the enological edge in the mountains of Northern Arizona, and whatever the location if you want to be succeed in making wines that excites people and sells well, then you better pay attention to the growing conditions before you plant the vines. In fact, you’ll need to kneel at the altar of the weather’s caprioles – good, bad and ugly – for the entire lifetime of your vines if you want to play in the Wine Major League. That’s more important than it the wine happens to be Riesling, even if it is the Best White Wine on Earth. Please give me a delicious Big Red, rather than a mediocre Riesling. “It works” is a rather compelling argument in the world of wine!
AN EVENING AT THE BUNKER: Suddenly I was sitting in MJK’s house in Jerome with another four glasses of red wine were in front of me again. Clearly, the Cabernet Sauvignon grape that dominated the ‘Judith’ vineyard below his house when he first planted it is a grape that’s well adapted to the conditions in the mountains of Northern Arizona, otherwise the 2008 ‘Judith’ (100% Cabernet Sauvignon) wouldn’t be at once imposing and so well adjusted at six years of age that it could both delight and challenge me. However, I greatly preferred the 2012 ‘Judith’ and it’s one third Cabernet Sauvignon and fully two thirds the Spanish red wine grape Tempranillo. The perfume of this youngster reminded me of violets and hot dry earth, which is crazy, because violets naturally grow in cool, damp woods; the tingling suspense of contradiction! This is one seriously intense wine, boldly sexual in a way some will find too domineering, others maybe too darkly feminine, but that’s my wavelength and I’m not talking FM rock. On the basis of that I’d say that Tempranillo digs the narrow stone terraces of the ‘Judith’ vineyard even more than Cabernet Sauvignon. Maybe the 2014 ‘Judith’ that we tasted from the barrel later that evening will be even better. If so, then it will be because of that Submerged Cap that MJK has prescribed for the wailing newborn that are his fermenting wines. As I said, the man is a creative winemaker.
And I still feel that I’m scatting the surface! Bear with me while I scratch some more and be prepared that I might draw a drop or two of blood, because it’s down there.