I’m just about to jump on a plane to Phoenix and until June 13th will be reporting from the wine trail of Arizona. I am returning to the same places I visited for the first time six months ago. This second time anywhere is a crucial step, because then the charm of novelty has worn off and you start sinking into your subject’s world. At least, that’s the theory and the justification for considerable expense and effort.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know what Tool or Puscifer sound like,” I said to Maynard James Keenan, the singer of both those bands, dryly from the back seat of his all-black cop car as we drove me through his vineyards close to Wilcox, Arizona. The Buhl Memorial Vineyard nestles on a dusty plain between the hills where the Apache warrior Geronimo hid from the US Army for decades, an achievement which I’d learned had deeply impressed the young Keenan. We’d been talking animatedly and the abrupt silence from the driver’s seat was deafening.
Earlier that day, Keenan had told me about the problems he has with stalkers around his home to the north in Jerome, AZ. “The one’s who you can see are crazy aren’t the problem, because you see them coming, “ he said, “the frightening ones are those that seem completely normal at first, who you only realize are stalkers when it’s already too late.” I’d just admitted to being an anti-stalker! Although he didn’t say so directly, when he started talking again, I could tell that Keenan was pleased with what I’d said. Had I won his trust? Maybe.
There’s a simple explanation for this odd situation. Because wine is my subject, when I accepted the invitation on that press trip to AZ back in November 2014 it was to see the state’s vineyards and taste its wines for the first time. In contrast to California, the established top dog of American wine that produces 90% of the nation’s wine – everything from the super-popular “Two-Buck-Chuck” to hyper-exclusive Screaming Eagle for a four-figure bottle price – Arizona’s wine industry is tiny and almost nobody in the American wine scene takes it seriously. This is a classic underdog story, and that was its appeal to me. Some days before I climbed on the plane to Phoenix the Dada PR man who organized this junket, David Furer of Austin Texas, explained to me that I’d soon be meeting Maynard James Keenan the winemaker of Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards who is also the figurehead of cult metal band Tool with a long-term solo-project called Puscifer, but my attitude was, “so what!” Normally, I do some prep for a trip like this, but I struggled to finish a couple of stories before leaving and didn’t even get around to the half hour of YouTube music videos I’d promised myself. A feeble excuses for a journalist, but par for the course if you’re the anti-stalker of a rock star!
Of course, at that moment in Keenan’s car I realized my unfamiliarity with his music had to end fast, because this was the last night of the AZ wine tour, and I couldn’t go home in the same state of ignorance I’d arrived in. So after he dropped me off at the Sheraton Hotel next to Tuscon airport the moment I got to my room I was on YouTube belatedly finding out what he sounds like. It immediately clicked that back in the 1990s I’d heard some Tool tunes, but never bothered to find out who the band was, because they didn’t excite me. It isn’t my sound today either, although some of the visuals are impressive. Do you need to like a piece of music or a wine in order to write about it? No, but being fascinated by it sure helps. Then, I listened to the Puscifer song Horizons, and from the first bars I was hooked. My first encounter with those darkly beautiful sounds in my Anywhere in America hotel room felt like destiny, and threw up two intertwined questions in my mind: How did this musical multiple-personality mutate into a winemaker in Arizona? And, could he succeed in realizing his goal of putting the state’s wine industry on a solid long-term footing?
I’d already realized that Keenan’s not just another face in the crowd of rock stars and movie stars making wine. Most of their products don’t taste great, and they often get trashed by the wine critics. Mick Hucknall’s Il Cantante red and dry white from his vineyards on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily are exceptions to this rule, and they only up how badly folks like Gérard Depardieu (grossly over-priced), Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie (totally boring) are playing the wine game. The difference is that they have professionals making those deeply unexciting wines for them, whereas Keenan is making the Caduceus and Merkin wines himself, and they’re not only very good, but they also taste distinctive. That’s even more of an achievement than good quality, because it’s much rarer. I was fascinated from the first sip.
I figured out all this, and a bunch of general stuff about the Arizona wine industry during that press trip, but a junket is a junket. By the time I’d heard Puscifer’s Horizons for the first time I knew that I must return at my own expense with my own itinerary and try to answer those questions.
There are two versions of Puscifer’s Horizons, and I am torn between them: