Search Results for: Arizona

Arizona & Colorado Dreaming (Greetings from San Francisco)

The moment I arrived in San Francisco the city’s cool, moist air caressed the parched and splitting skin of my hands that had been desiccated by the desert air of Western Colorado and Arizona. Although it feels distinctly more edgy on the streets of SF compared with the last time I walked them 6 years ago the city almost instantaneously started to work its magic on me again.

It’s a huge cliché, but when I first came to SF in 1986 I was just another lost soul seeking inspiration and enlightenment. I quickly realized that the sidewalks weren’t paved with either of them, but after I returned several times to the City Lights bookstore, the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park, then headed into the wine country of Monterey, Napa and Sonoma Counties all kinds of beautiful, dangerous and liberating ideas started popping into my head. However, during the last 6 years ago not only San Francisco but also Planet Wine changed dramatically.

“French winemakers used to look down on the California wine industry, but not any more. Now many Californian winemakers look down on places like Michigan and Virginia, Arizona and Colorado,” an anonymous American industry figure recently told me. My gut tells me that sentiment’s all prejudice, but for Arizona and Colorado I have fresh research, so I can back up that feeling with evidence and decisively say NO!

I just flew into SF after a few days in Grand Junction/Colorado for the VINco winemakers conference, then Phoenix for the 4th annual symposium of the Arizona Vignerons Alliance followed by 5 days traveling around the vineyards of Arizona’s mountainous North (pictured above is Caduceaus Cellars’ Judith Vineyard in Jerome) and the high plains in its South (pictured below is Rune’s new planting in Sonoita). The results of my research indicate that the term “emerging regions” for these places is not only patronizing, but also highly misleading, because there was significant wine production in both states prior to Prohibition. In the case of Arizona the history of winemaking goes back about around 400 years!

California certainly stole a march on those states during the late 20th Century, but that is not an adequate reason for some of the state’s winemakers, and all manner of other people across the US, to look down their noses at Arizona and Colorado and treat them as marginal areas with very limited potential for high quality wine production.

The spirit of California, also the spirit of Californian winemakers, was always one of daring to see and grasp new possibilities. It was freewheeling in the sense that there was not only a willingness to try the unfamiliar, but also to accept and live with the mistakes that would be made by choosing that path. I can’t tell you yet if California and the state’s wine industry still has that spirit, but the dynamic Arizona wine industry certainly has it.

It was my first trip to Arizona’s vineyards in almost five years and the leap forward both in quality and stylistic diversity was considerable. The red wines from producers like Doc Cabezas Wine Works, Caduceus Cellars, Callaghan Vineyards, Château Tumbleweed, Los Milics, Rune and Sand Reckoner Vineyards (in the latter case also the whites) now taste fresher, better balanced and more polished than almost anything that I tasted last time I was there. However, the most important change is the way they also taste way more striking than they were before. The best of them have strikingly original personalities that say, “I AM WHAT I AM and only this place, these people and this season could have made me that way!” This is the result of vision, a steep learning curve and the uncompromising determination of these winemakers.

Although Colorado is not yet as advanced with this process, there too I encountered a bunch of very well-crafted wines that had distinct personalities and would have no problem in the wine bars and restaurants of SF if they were given a chance. IF ONLY! The best of them were from Red Fox Cellars, Snowy Peaks Winery, Stone Cottage Cellars and The Storm Cellar. Here the range of grape varieties and blends is as eye-popping as in Arizona and must it too must be tasted to be believed.

That might make it sound as if these two winemaking regions are cut from the same cloth, and it’s true that both are high-altitude wine regions with almost no vineyards planted below 1,000 meters/3,300 feet above sea level. However, climatically they’re very different. The biggest challenge in Arizona is the “monsoon” rains that descend upon the state’s vineyards shortly before the grapes are ready to be harvested and it is still warm, i.e. August/September. Of course, this can lead to rot, and sadly Riesling is one of the varieties that’s most susceptible to that. For Western Colorado the biggest problem is early frosts in fall, as happened in 2019. Just look at the graphic above (from an excellent interactive article in the New York Times about the weather pattern in 2019 around the world) that shows how Grand Junction experienced a sudden hard frost on October 10th. Not only did it make the curtain fall on grape ripening, but it also killed many of the vine buds for the 2020 crop and no doubt some vines of tender varieties too. Thankfully, the best producers saw this coming and picked their grapes of the late-ripening varieties (inc. Riesling) just in time.

Theoretically, California has a balmy climate compared to both these states. I remember how some Napa winemakers were shocked by the merest hint of frost back in January of last year. However, the fires of 2017 and 2019 in California wine country show that climate change has many ugly faces. Several farsighted producers in Napa now expect Cabernet Sauvignon – the region’s main grape with 65% of all vineyards and a grape crop value of $1 billion – to become untenable around 2030 because of the warming climate. Of course, they are preparing for that. Oh, and there’s a glut of unsold bulk wine. So, the reality is nobody has it easy and everyone is challenged. There is no Holy Land on Planet Wine!

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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 8 – Unsung Winemaker Heroes of the South (Part 2)

Although it doesn’t look like it, this photograph of Todd Bostock of Dos Cabezas winery in Sonoita is missing something vitally important: Todd’s wife Kelly Bostock. I’d already left Sonoita for Tuscon with Todd late yesterday afternoon when I suddenly realized that I’d forgotten to get a photograph of Kelly, at least one in which her equally strong personality comes across as like Todd’s does in the picture above. My humble apologies to Kelly and to you the readers for this omission, because it skews this story somewhat as a result. You see, there are plenty of winemaking couples around Planet Wine, but Todd & Kelly Bostock really are shaping the Dos Cabezas wines and their marketing as a team, and that’s still rather rare in the conservative world of winemaking.

The only point where there really seems to be a division of roles in this partnership is the job of spokesperson for this two person “politburo”, which is something that Todd appears to do more of than Kelly. No doubt some of my colleagues would say that’s because he’s got the gift of the gab – he can talk very articulately at quite a pace for a seriously long time – however, his real gift is for finding a few words that vividly describe the most important things about Arizona’s rapidly developing wine industry, the extreme environments of Wilcox and Sonoita where the Bostocks’ vineyards are, and the remarkable Dos Cabezas wines. But sometimes what he said yesterday went way further even than that.

“All the beautiful stuff comes from the edge of disaster,” came just before we sat down for lunch yesterday after a tour of the Bostocks’s Sonoita vineyard. That made straightforward sense after what he’d told me about the problems the’d had with raccoons, deer and lightning. I mean in addition to the problems of frost, hail and rain discussed in yesterday’s blog posting. That means that winemakers either go under or they find creative ways to deal with this multidimensional adversity. And together the Bostocks’ have done that in way that leaves me breathless, but which a regular visitor to their beautiful tasting room in Sonoita will not necessarily get, that is unless they decide to ask the kind of questions I do.

The photo wall behind the bar of the Dos Cabezas tasting room is one good reason why some of them do ask those kind of questions. It not only shows aspects of the savage sublimity of this place that visitors might not get during their often brief visits to the area (this applies to me too), it also tells the Bostocks story in a way that takes you close to the edge where all that beautiful stuff happens, and it provokes visitors’ curiosity to find out much more than just how the remarkable Dos Cabezas wines taste. I guess that marketing people reading this will think to themselves, “that’s just using instagram for experiential marketing!” but if it is that, then it is a special experiential marketing that retains an unusual down to earthiness.

Meskeoli is the name of Kelly and Todd Bostocks’ main dry wine and some readers will remember me singling this out as the Riesling Innovation of the Year some months back. For those of you who missed that I should explain that the 2014 tastes a bit more of the Viognier grape (melon and a hint of apricot) than the 2013, but this grape accounts for just 25% of the blend, followed by 21% Roussanne, 19% Riesling, 17% Picpoul, 11% malvasia, 6% Albarino and 1% Muscat. From a New York Wine City (NYWC) or a CA somm perspective this is a mad, bad mix of grapes that shouldn’t add up to anything more than confusion, but the startling reality is that it adds up to way more than the sum of these parts. That strikes me as being the basic idea behind most of the good and exciting wines made in Arizona (that are often unconventional blends), but in this particular wine that principal is raised to the power of ten. Wines that give me strong personal associations are something I live for, and this one has a floral note that reminds me of the smell of the room where my grandmother used to dry flowers from her garden (for flower arranging), but it also has a grapefruit note that’s way more subtle than this aroma usually is in white wines (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc, Scheurebe). And the finish is seriously saline, which means the wine is intensely mineral, but also excites me because it reminds me of exploring rock pools on the coast of Cornwall, England as a child.

OK, Kelly and Todd Bostock’s Meskeoli isn’t the most elegant or subtle dry white on Planet Wine, but it is one of the most startling and expressive I can think of, and I’d rather have that than a polished but predictable taste any day, even if that polished taste is deemed “classic” by NYWC and CA somms. I also think it’s important to remember that the 2014 Meskeoli isn’t one year, and is therefore currently in a state of youthful exuberance. Todd told me he doesn’t think it will age, but I think this is because he almost only experiences it when it’s this young. My gut tells me it will also be great at 5 – 10 years of age, but probably I’m underestimating a marathon runner.

Like their leading colleagues in AZ, most of Kelly and Todd’s production is red wine, and not without good reason. None of those wines are aged less than two years until release, some of them three or more, so tasting the 2013 vintage wines was a lesson in science fiction, because the best of them aren’t even bottled yet. However, they are ready for bottling and that’s a great time to taste young reds. It’s plain to me from the cask samples I tasted that several of these wines, most notably the 2013 El Norte (a Grenache-based blend with a lot of richness, but also a great herbal-citric freshness) and the 2013 Aguileon (a powerful Tempranillo-based blend with aromas across the spectrum from black olive to pomegranate) are the best vintages of these wines to date. About the second of those wines Todd observed, “there was the wine we could have made to meet out production goal in terms of quantity, and there was the best wine we could blend from the barrels we had. Kelly was right that we had to make the latter.” I’d say that she was spot on, for this wine is going to make some of the people who have been talking down AZ wine sit up and take notice. Then there’s the 2012 Montana, a spectacular blended red that is as “crazy” and “right” as the Meskeoli, and is single the most exciting wine from Wilcox I tasted so far.

Yesterday evening I was inspired and enlightened by dinner at Pizzeria Bianco in Tuscon, but I feel that subject remands and deserves a posting all of its own with the title BEST PIZZA ON EARTH – The Chris Bianco Story. Please be patient! After that pizza, Todd and I wandered down East Congress Street to the Unplugged wine bar for a glass of 2013 Riesling Unplugged from Martin Tesch in the Nahe, Germany. That was like suddenly being beamed from one planet to another, but this is what wine in the 21st century is all about: connecting those dazzling aroma and flavor dots over vast physical and cultural distances. And, as you can see from the photo above, the pace has a special vibe. And it could only be in Tuscon, a city I immediately fell in love with. So, I have plenty of reasons to return, apart from the fact that I’m still not sure how I should best answer those tightly intertwining questions that popped into my head in the first of this series of postings about the Arizona wine industry. Give me more!

www.doscabezaswinery.com

www.pizzeriabianco.com

www.unpluggedtuscon.com

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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 7 – Unsung Winemaker Heroes of the South (Part 1)

Kent Callaghan isn’t claiming to be the founder of the Arizona wine industry, but it strikes me that he’s the person with the longest experience of wine growing in the state, having founded his 25 acre vineyard between Sonoita and Elgin in 1990 when there was almost no Arizona wine industry. That sounds romantic, but as you can see from the picture of him above the truth is much less romantic. One of the things regular wine drinkers understand least well about growing wine grapes is that it is very hard work (they usually only think  about the pruning of the vines and the harvest, although between those two lies the hardest work of the grape grower’s year) and how much the grape grower is at the mercy of the weather.

“2010 and 2011 were difficult years,” Callaghan told me bluntly, “in both years there were  frosts on May 1st that killed the vines young shoots. In 2011 we got a tiny crop, but in 2010 there was no crop at all. So for two years we had almost no income. The there’s the rain. In 2014 we had 14 inches of rain in just two months.” Rain is something all crops need at certain times, but this rain came at the wrong time when the grapes were all more or less ripe and it was quite warm. If Callaghan hadn’t run to pick the grapes before rot got all over them, then the result would have been another disaster; the third in five years! Bizarrely, the biggest problems for growing grape vine in Arizona are not the heat and the dryness for which the state is famous, but the exact opposite. What other business on this planet faces odds like these?

Of course, there’s a reason that Callaghan has stuck with his vineyard, and that is the red wines he’s able to make when frost, hail and rain didn’t wipe out his crop. They are controversial wines for a slew of reasons, beginning with their scale and intensity. The aromas and flavors have contours as dramatic as those of the Mustang Mountains behind the vineyards (see the photo below), but they are rarely  conventionally fruity – no gobs of blackberry jam for the wine geeks who like to be spoon fed on goo! – instead the have intense lemon peel character, are smoky, earthy and often loaded with dry tannin. Often they need a year or two or three after bottling to loosen up, as do the dry white Lisa’s (in 2013 a blend of Malvasia, Marsanne and Viognier) and  the dry Malvasia. With just over 13.5% alcohol these are comparatively light white wines for Southern Arizona, they are fresh without being tart, and they have a complex pithy-creamy texture that I found seriously fascinating. The only Callaghan wine that is just good clean fun is the Grenache Rosé, although the label suggests fun of a kind that not everybody will consider good and clean. I’m amazed that Kent and Lisa Callaghan got approval for it!

www.callaghanvineyards.com

Sonoita-Elgin was my second stop in the South after an evening gathering with the winemakers of Wilcox, by far the largest grape growing region of Arizona. I drove down there with Chris Thurner, the chief vineyard manager for Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards. During that drive he told me that in Wilcox there was the additional problem for the vines there is wind. “Our Buhl Memorial Vineyard is on Wayward Winds Road, and that says everything!” he told me. When we arrived some rows of vines on the exposed edges of this and other Wilcox looked like the wind had partially dehydrated them. And that really wasn’t a windy day for the region.

The gathering of Wilcox winemakers took place at the house of Jesse Noble who has been  managing the Buhl Memorial Vineyard for Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan since September last year. Since then a lot of hard work, and at least as much hard thinking before it, have licked the vineyard into very good shape. If hail or apocalyptic rain don’t negate all of that I feel pretty sure the grapes from this site are going to give some really neat wines. There’s even some rows of Riesling that look good, although Mourvèdre, Sangiovese Gross and Syrah (amongst the reds), and Malvasia (amongst the whites) look happiest at present to my eye.

Each of the winemakers who participated in the tasting, Jason Domanico & Gary Kurtz of Passion Cellars, Rob Hammelmann of Sand Reckoner, Mark & Rhona Jorve of Zarpara Vineyard, plus Barbara & Dan Pierce of Bodegas Pierce and Saeculum, brought a number of new wines with them and the bond between them enabled us to have a very open discussion during the tasting. I think it’s important to point out that all of these wines were at the least well made with a good basic harmony, and the discussion was not about weaknesses much less faults. Instead, all the geeky talk was all about how to optimize the positive features that all 12 wines had. The wines that Passion Cellars and Zarpara showed were the first that they had made themselves, so getting this far straight up was a serious achievement. I suggest that this entire group are Unsung Winemaker Heroes.

The stand out wines were the 2014 Picpoul from Sand Reckoner, a dry white with a lot of power and character that tasted amazingly crisp at the finish for 13.7% alcohol, and the 2012 One Stone red from Saeculum, the first vintage of this delicately spicy and silky red made from 94% Syrah and 6% Viognier. Afterwards Jesse opened a number of bottles from Caduceus Cellars made from grapes grown in the Buhl Memorial Vineyard and the 2012 Kitsuné, a red from the Sangiovese Grosse grape, wowed me again with its simultaneously dusty, dark and vivid personality.

I have to admit remembering refilling my own glass several times during dinner and undoubtedly more fun was had than could rightly be considered entirely good or clean. The proof of this – my hangover and all the empty bottles –  have long since vanished, although some people may remember me repeating the conversation Chris Thurner and I had in his truck on the way down, and that might be used in evidence against me. Part of this was his attempt to persuade me to visit THE THING ? an attraction just of I 10 between Tuscon and Wilcox. “No thanks! I have to do THE WINE THING,” I insisted, but it was no use. Thurner just pulled up in front of the entrance and reluctantly I conceded that a journalist should be professionally curious, “I suppose you have to try EVERY THING once.” I have nothing to report here about what I saw here apart from the observation that having seen THE THING ? once I don’t need to return. However, I know that I must return to the South of Arizona to meet its Unsung Winemaker Heroes.

https://caduceus.org

www.passioncellars.com

www.sand-reckoner.com

www.zarpara.com

www.saeculumcellars.com

 

 

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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 4 – Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, or Quo Vadis AZ Wine (Part 4)

No direction but to follow what you know,

No direction but a faith in her decision,

No direction but to never fight her flow,

No direction but to trust the final destination.

You’re a stranger ‘til she whispers you can stay.

You’re a stranger ‘til she whispers your journey’s over.

Weigh your worth before her majesty the Verde River.

From The Green Valley by Puscifer

I never suffer from that vile disease called writer’s block, and I therefore never sit in front of a piece of virtual or real paper blinded by its whiteness and haunted by my own emptiness. However, I do have occasional crises when I just can’t figure out how to make sense of all the material I’ve gathered during a major piece of research. That’s always a problem of fullness, of feeling that what I now know is so rich that there are a dozen, or even dozens of ways in which the story could be told. Then, I feel too feeble-minded to recognize the right direction my storytelling should take. Paralysis results, and that’s the state I was in yesterday evening sitting alone in front of my computer in this airstream trailer parked at Maynard James Keenan’s Merkin South vineyard in the Verde Valley of Northern Arizona.

I decided to give in and admit that I didn’t know which way to answer the two tightly intertwined questions I posed in the first of these blog postings. So, I switched off the computer, closed the analog notebooks, then removed some of the agricultural riches of this green valley from the fridge, and cooked them instead of stewing in my paralysis. And, because the fridge was full of half full bottles of wines from singer-winemaker Keenan’s Caduceus Cellars & Merkin Vineyards I pulled them out and “tasted” them again. By that I mean that as I blanched green beans and spinach, sautéed carrots and beetroot I  drank at least sip, and sometimes as much as a small, of each. Several of the young wines I’d tasted with Keenan during the lass days tasted much better than when I’d first tried them, most notably the 2013 Marzo red (Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon) and 2013 Marzo rosé, both of which were way more elegant than when those bottles were freshly opened, and the 2013 Agostina red (Mourvèdre) that had a great herbal freshness. That had surely comes from this cool site – it grows right next to the airstream down here in the valley bottom.

While I was doing that I went back in my mind over the intense conversation with Keenan I had yesterday afternoon at the tasting room of the Four Eight Wineworks (a cooperative winemaking facility where a handful of winemakers in orbit around the Singer-Winemaker make their wines) in the Old Town of Clarkdale. I can understand that the Singer-Winemaker is sparing with personal stuff when I’ve got my black notebook open on the table and I’m scribbling in it like crazy. That sight might be intimidating if you’ve had so-called journalists treat things you told them, including that detail called the truth, like an elastic band that can be pulled and twisted this way or that at will.

What he told me about growing up in small town Michigan and his later experiences in the sprawling Moloch of LA before coming out here to the colorfully alternative wilderness of Northern Arizona and his life here was low on directly expressed strong emotion, but in spite of that, paradoxically, the material piled up until I felt overwhelmed by it as if I was standing in front of the edifice of a great Gothic cathedral for the first time. And the emotions were there, like shadows cast by the sculptures decorating that elaborate edifice.

On the drive back to Merkin South Keenan’s vineyard manager Chris Thurner and I talked about his complex boss, and that piled the stack of impressions even higher. “You know at the beginning of each year he hands me a schedule that tells me where he’ll be each day of the year, in case I have to contact him,” Thurner said, deeply impressed by this herculean labor of planning.

Although Keenan and I had talked about music, that was all about the process of writing – as different as our writings are, we have much in common there – not what the life of a rock star is like. “And he has this complete other existence as part of Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer!” I threw out at Thurner.

“Yes, its amazing how he balances the two things, but during the harvest he’s totally here the entire time,” he replied, “I remember one night I arrived at the Jerome winery with a refridgerated truck full of grapes from the South at 1am and he jumped to the job of crushing them. At something like 2am he was busy cleaning the bins the grapes had come in with a high-pressure water cleaner.”

“I’ve done that job, so I know what it’s like,” I said, “he doesn’t need to do that does he?” “No he doesn’t,” Chris answered, “but he wants to.”

When I woke this morning the seriously dazed and confused feeling of yesterday evening was thankfully gone. I felt calm and steady as I went out for a run shortly before 8am and it was cooler than the previous days. As I wound my way through the valley catching glimpses of the wide Verde River below me I remembered some lines of the Puscifer song The Green Valley. Little by little, the conviction grew in me that I have no choice but to follow what I know even if it sometimes overwhelms me; no choice but to accept the flow of this story whichever way it turns; no choice but to trust in the final destination whatever it is. Because, only then will there be a chance that at some point I might cease to be a stranger in this strange land. Your majesty, I am Gonzo, and I am yours.

There are two versions of Puscifer’s The Green Valley

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMAG6KhH35U

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dhU1CBLYPU

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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 2 – Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, or Quo Vadis AZ Wine (Part 3)

By 10:30am yesterday, the only hints of the huge electrical storm of the previous evening were a few wisps of white and grey cloud slowly dissolving into the azure above the Verde Valley.  That’s when the Maynard James Keenan and his vineyard manager Chris Thurner picked me up for a tour of the vineyards owned by Singer-Winermaker in Northern Arizona began. It ended up filling almost the entire day and wiped me out. What made the day so demanding was the thoroughness with which Keenan and Thurner presented the five vineyard sites, and how we tasted wines wines harvested in each during that tour.

The only problem with this situation, is that it makes me feel like a photographer challenged to capture a panoramic landscape of the kind that Arizona is so rich in into a conventional 3:4 format photograph. The only way to get close to that is to pull the zoom lens all the way out, so that it take in the widest possible field of view, then to select a section of the panorama that gives the best idea of the whole. How can I cram into a regular length blog posting all that I experienced and was said without dumbing it down? You see, over-simplification to the point of falsification is the commonest and worst mistakes of wine journalists, it isn’t an option for me. So I’m pulling my storytelling zoom lens out as far as it will go, and selecting moments that I hope give you a feeling for the whole ball of wax.

Let me start by pointing out that the photo above shows Keenan in his Merkin East vineyard site where the Caduceus Cellars Marzo red wine and rosé grow. It takes just one glance for it to demolish one of the commonest misnomers about wine growing in Arizona. This vast state is not a uniformly barren desert dotted with cacti, where the wine grape is destined to struggle hopelessly and ultimately to fail. Although barren reddish cliffs tower over the vines at Marzo if you look at the vines of the Tuscan Sangiovese grape variety (pictured below) instead of those rock faces, then you can immediately see why the Spanish christened this the Verde, or Green Valley.

Now we need to backtrack an hour to the more rocky and arid looking Elephante vineyard on a hilltop with gentle slopes overlooking the valley, which was first stop on the tour. In a few years will be the major source of grapes for Keenan’s Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards here in the north of the state, so it deserved particular attention. As we arrived at Elephante Keenan listed the major obstacles to success with wine growing in Arizona in order of importance beginning with the paradoxical Problem Numero Uno, “Frost kill in winter and frost damage to the young vine shoots in spring…we also get monsoons, strong winds and dust devils.”

Then he passed the baton to Thurner (pictured below) for an explanation of how they’re trying to deal with this slew of problems, and before he did so Thurner added a couple more to that list, for example, too much potassium in the soil, which can result in flabby wines lacking in freshness. However, Thurner has a calm confidence in his power of creative deduction, and with good reason. In just a couple of years he’s figured out a bunch of strategies for tending the Elephante vines that look like  partial or complete solutions to those problems. The proof of this is that except where frost killed them in winter, the young vines at Elephante looked like they’d made a good start in life. I can’t wait to taste the wines made from these grapes.

Although he professes to have little idea about vineyards, Keenan’s also had a couple of good ideas. “He’s so smart!” said Thurner, “He came up with the idea of funneling the rocks on the surface of the soil under the rows of vines where they can work as reservoirs for daytime heat during the cold nights.” “I’m so smart I can’t stand next to myself!” Keenan retorted ironically, hopping awkwardly aside and adding, “I only came up with that idea after spending a lot of money removing rocks from this vineyard!”

Wine growing maybe a science, but it isn’t rocket science, and you can never be sure that you’ve found the right solution to a problem, particularly in a situation like that in Arizona where there isn’t the experience of earlier generations of winegrowers to draw upon. Prohibition killed off the Arizona wine industry on January 1st 1915 when it was introduced in the young state (founded 1912).

Keenan hopped awkwardly, because he had major hip surgery on Monday, is currently walking with a stick (he will continue to do so for several more weeks), and has to wear support socks that give his feet a seriously odd appearance (see the photo below, and note the rocky soil of the Elephante Vineyard under his feet!) The day must have been far more of a challenge for him than it was for me, but he didn’t complain even when, quite late in the evening, he had to retreat to bed. That’s just the kind of determination I’ve come to expect from him.

The problem with the monsoon in Arizona – I’ve already experienced how rain here can be on a biblical scale, but that wasn’t the actual monsoon – is that this landscape, including the vineyards, can then flip over almost instantaneously from desert to jungle. As Keenan observed, “Every seed in this soil has evolved so that when a few drops of rain hit the soil it shoots up…like six feet!” Those are the kind of killer weeds no crop shakes off a confrontation with, but that applies particularly to the sensitive grape vine. And at the 30 acre Elephante vineyard Thurner cultivates 15 different grape varieties, each of which reacts differently to every change in conditions, therefore requiring individual care. That’s the demanding everyday task for this Master Gardener of the Wine Grape.

Last stop on the vineyard tour was the small Judith vineyard below the Bunker, as Keenan calls the complex that is both his home and houses the winemaking facility for Caduceus Cellars. The first time I saw this extreme terraced vineyard (pictured below), perching on a precipitous hillside on the edge of Jerome in November 2014 I thought, if this location doesn’t give great wines at some point, then I’m a complete idiot. However, turning the potential of a special vineyard like this into wines that blow people’s minds is a very major challenge.

As impressive as some of the first wines from the Judith vineyard were (the first vintage was 2007), they left wide open the question whether Keenan, Thurner and team could really crack that challenge. The fact that during the last few years all the vines growing on Judith’s terraces had to be pulled out and the vineyard planted a second time, because the original vines were attacked by the deadly Pierce’s disease, inevitably cast even greater doubt over the feasibility of this undertaking, making it seem way more daring, risky, and yes, downright crazy. I therefor expected it to take another 5-10 years to get a conclusive answer to that question.

Then, suddenly and completely unexpectedly, at the end of yesterday evening after a simple but delicious pasta dinner in the octagonal living room of Keenan’s house that answer gently flowed into my wine glass. From the moment that I first sniffed the 2013 Judith red made exclusively from the Tempranillo grape the delightful chill of discovery that crept over my whole body told me, that the Singer-Winemaker and his team had made a unique wine and it had me in its erotic grip. It combined the darkness of black olives with the intense perfume of the wild herbs on the hillsides around Jerome, and the freshness of the early morning air below Mingus Mountain. Delicious already, I feel sure that it has decades of life ahead of it, and I hope to report on it to you again many times. This all has a soundtrack and it is Puscifer’s gentle anthem to the power of teamwork, The Humbling River:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0YxeTjFn70

Thanks to Erika Smatana for the opening photograph.

 

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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 1 – Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, or Quo Vadis AZ Wine (Part 2)

Yes, I know, this is supposed to be a story about the Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, the wines he’s making in Arizona and the work he’s doing to move that state’s embryonic wine industry forward, and, of course the above photograph is of someone completely different. However, this isn’t just any old coffee guy, it’s Alan Bur Johnson, “Barista and Wine Slinger” in the tasting room of Caduceus Cellars in Jerome, Arizona the public address and retail outlet of Keenan’s wine operation. He demands and commands this space by virtue of the amazing coffee he prepared for me and my companions yesterday afternoon after our arrival. I promise you that I am not the wine critic for whom every bottle is either “awesome” or “disgusting”. At least on a good day, I am Mr. Nuance, and on top form I am Prof. Analyze. So, I mean it when I say that this really was the most delicious cup of coffee I’ve had in a long time, and as evidence to support my case that the Caduceus Tasting Room at 158 Main Street, Jerome is one of the best cafés in America I present this tantalizing photograph.

Have, I lost the thread of the story? No, I don’t think so, because while I was drinking that coffee Brian Sullivan, the Tasting Room Manager told me that he well remembers the first time in the early 1990s when Keenan came into the café he than ran in Jerome. He said that the availability of really good coffee might have been a major factor in the Singer-Winemaker’s decision to move here in (I think) 1995, rather than somewhere else in the Southwest. And I promise you that this was not a joke Brian was making, because Keenan is as fanatical about coffee as he is about wine!

Yesterday Kennan was on the road back to Jerome from a distant city where he had important business, so we were “on our own”, which actually means in the hands of the Caduceus Cellars vineyard manager Chris Thurner. I’m saving his story for when I write about the vineyards he tends as if they were gardens. I mention him them now, because I am staying in one of those vineyards during my time here in the north of Arizona, and exactly where I’m sleeping leads me to the trivial topic that has elbowed it’s way to the front of the queue in a rude manner. Please bear with me just a moment!

I’m talking about the airstream trailer pictured above in which I spent my first night here in the Verde Valley. Ever since I first saw ads for the airstream in American magazines (I think it was National Geographic) from the early 1960s I wanted to sleep in one of these things that I associate so much with the Space Race, John F. Kennedy’s glowing optimism and Marilyn Monroe’s voluptuous curves. All of this came back to me when I saw a small airstream in one of the Puscifer music videos staring Keenan, and when I first visited Jerome in November 2014 I was delighted to see it parked outside his house; “it’s real!” I’m now pleased to report that I slept extremely well in it, and that’s where I’m writing this blog posting. The door is open, the heavy electrical rainstorm of yesterday evening has passed, the early morning sun is streaming in, I can hear the water in the stream that runs through the property, the birds are singing and I’m drinking a cup of tea. More importantly, I feel confident that this will be an exciting day with Keenan, during which I will learn more about my host and his Great Arizona wine quest. Watch this space and while you are doing so listen to Puscifer’s Breathe, a song about needs and expectations:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcSxx7msLAA

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Arizona Wine Diary: Day 0 – Singer-Winemaker Maynard James Keenan, or Quo Vadis AZ Wine Industry? (Part 1)

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUUKN9NPfqA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFNR6AI6ovw

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New York Riesling Diary: Day 36 – Arizona Dreaming – “There are no Facts, only interpretations”

A brief philosophical intro: There’s no way around the fact that the context (the natural and human aspects are so interwoven it’s almost impossible to separate them) in which a wine is produced shape it. However, there’s also no way around the fact that the context in which a wine is experienced no less radically shapes the experience of its smell and taste. A wine tasting in one location with one group of tasters is NOT going to lead to the result as the “same” tasting in another place with another group of tasters, not least because they will taste the location and the contents of their heads every bit as much as the wine in their glass. These too are so interwoven that you can hardly separate them. I write this listening to ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ from Nirvana, and I promise you that colors these words too, and it would do so differently if I was hearing it for the first time, rather than for the (still electrifying) thousandth time.

But now, let’s get down to business: Sunday afternoon I forgot all the above for a long moment, because I was focusing on the brass tacks of staging a blind tasting of wines from Arizona plus a couple of pirates from California and France at Hotel Delmano in Williamsburg/Brooklyn for a group of New York somms (thanks again Alex Allan for the great support, both moral and practical). And that’s how I blindly sailed straight into the dark heart of a storm.

I didn’t begin realize what was happening until one of the somms politely asked me if the winegrowers of Arizona focussed on terroir, French for the taste of the place and NYC-Sommspeak for a taste that is indefinable – je ne sais quoi – in a simultaneously sexy and holy way. I politely pointed out to him how young the contemporary AZ wine industry, but I don’t think he has any idea how hard it is establishing vineyards in locations where there’s no previous generation who’s experiences you can draw upon. Terroir is a luxury for established winegrowers, or, at least, for winegrowers in regions that are well established. It’s also a method for selling wines more expensively (see the example of  Burgundy where the T-word enables some mediocre wines to be sold for fancy prices).

Only after that exchange did I sense how behind that question lurked the expectation – of course! was anything else even conceivable? – that the winegrowers of AZ would be focusing on terroir. You see, in France terroir is holy  and from there this religion has been spread around the world by French winegrowers, their importers and SOPEXA. With it has travelled a mythical France that is a timeless land of wine on the western edge of the wine continent of Europe which the Great God of Wine favored above all others. That this marketing strategy was successful is proven by the prices charged the famous wines of France, which bear no relation to the production costs of them. Of course, I deliberately exaggerate for effect, but also because this way you’ll pay more attention than if I was cautious and understated everything.

The tasting started quite well with a flight of three dry whites. However, when the the first reds – young wines made from the grapes of the Cabernet family – were poured something odd suddenly happened. NYC somms can have a knee-jerk reaction against the combination of the sweet fruity aromas of fully-ripe grapes plus clean, modern winemaking. These wines certainly smelt that way and provoked that knee-jerk reaction. To be fair, I would say that there was a touch of over-ripeness in all of them, that they would have been better without. But did this justify the force of those reactions? Some people seemed to feel they’d been insulted by the wines. In fact, they’d only tasted some wines of a style they personally don’t prefer.

I have to admit here that most of the AZ wines had tasted better to me when I was there in a more relaxed context that was undeniably friendly to them. Many also tasted quite a better and very different after 24 hours further aeration. For example, on the day of the tasting the 2012 “Gallia” from Saeculum Cellars (55% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Franc) had quite an intense sweet redcurrant character, but the next day it was dominated by firm, dry tannins. I’m not arguing with the tasters characterizations, rather pointing out their  vehemence and how that inclined some present to pay less attention to the taste experience. Those somms may also have projected a high alcoholic content and lots of new oak onto the wines, because often in the big wide world of wine those sweet aromas are married to high alcohol and lots of new (in what used to be called “Parker Wines”, after the wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr who liked that combination). The AZ wines actually had below 14% and were not full of new oak.

This situation repeated itself with the GSM (named after the combination of the Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre grapes in a blend) flight, at which point the attention oif some somms was seriously wandering – we want funky terroir wines, and we want them now! – their comments becoming rudimentary, vague and dismissive. My experience is that at many blind tastings a mood is established early on and casts a show or an aura over all the wines that follow. I’ve been swept along by such moods myself, and am certainly not immune to that effect. In this case it was a deep shadow, as the grudging nature of the praise for impressive wines like the 2012 “Kitsune” (Sangiovese) and 2012 “Judith” (60% Tempranillo, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon) from Caduceus Cellars made clear. With that latter wine the tasting ended with an at-least-its-finally-over-and-we’re-all-still-alive mood.

I don’t mind what any individual taster or drinker makes of a particular wine, because everyone is entitled to their own opinion and opinions contrary to mine are welcome. My doubts about the tasting have to do with the influence of local culture (the NYC wine scene is no less an island than Manhattan is) and the role group dynamics. As Nietzsche wrote, “there are no facts, only interpretations.”

An important conclusion for me: It was interesting to ride this ship through the storm and listen to all the screams (including my silent ones at a couple of moments). When I chewed it all over after I was back home, it became clear to me that my decision to make AZ as a major research project in 2015 is a daring one, and some people here will think me mad for pursuing it. My experience with Riesling has ably prepared me for being out on a limb (particularly when it was totally “out” 20 and more years ago). There’s iron in my soul! I shall proceed regardless of any and all reactions!

Full sail ahead!

 

 

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 5 – Drawing Big Conclusions about #AZwine on Down South Road Trip

The official program of the A2Z press trip to the wine regions of Arizona ended last night when I got back to the Four Points Hotel next door to Tuscon Airport from dinner at Augustin Restaurant. Full stop, end of story? No way. My flight back to NYC via Phoenix  doesn’t leave until early afternoon, so I’m hunkering down in the hotel room this morning to tell the next episode of the story of my gonzo #AZwine adventure. It takes us Down South, or to be more precise, to the Southeast of the state where about three quarters of the wine is currently grown.

I took the picture above that thru the windshield of Maynard James Keenan’s car (MJK seems to be an established acronym) and it gives a pretty good idea of what the latter stages of this journey looked like, but first we had to get the four hour drive south from Jerome past Phoenix then beyond Tuscon behind us and it was a grind. I mention this to give an idea of the huge physical separation between the vineyards of the North and those in the South of AZ. As we approached Elgin-Sonoita the landscape reminded me of intensely of the sixties TV series ‘Bonanza’, with which I’d had a love-hate relationship (I found some other westerns were more exciting). It was a bizarre thought that in just a moment the first vineyards would swing into view and we would be in a wine region.

This is not the time to go into great detail about the Elgin wines that we tasted at Lightning Ridge and Callaghan, because the general conclusion of those tastings is more important: although winegrowing here is just one generation deep this is clearly a great location for growing powerfully tannic and generously aromatic reds, possibly also for full-bodied whites. Again and again I was stunned by how bright and fresh red wines with a stack of dry tannins and 15% or  more alcohol tasted; a complete contrast to California, where those kind of numbers almost invariably mean  a porty and ponderous or even monolithic brute in your glass. At the moment the best wines are blends like Kent Callaghan’s Petit Verdot & Cabernet Franc driven ‘Caitlin’s’, to give just one stunning example. That may be a reason the varietal-obsessed mainstream wine press has so far paid little attention to these wines. When they did take notice they tended to grossly underrate the finest products of this industry for no better reason than Arizona was on the label. Wrong wine style, wrong state! Where’s my 100 point California Cult Cabernet, God damn it!  

Calling wine growing in Elgin-Sonoita  an “industry” gives a rather false impression, because there’s a drive from one vineyard to the next and during it you rarely see any vines in the gently undulating landscape that is primarily devoted to cattle ranching. The problems begin with the fact that the hollows are no place for vines, because of the very real danger of late (i.e. spring) frost damage. The availability of well water for irrigation is also a major limitation for wine growing, ruling out many potential sites. That, as much of the early stage of development of winegrowing here and under-capitalization, results in the wide open spaces between the vineyards through which a group of cowboys could easily drive a big herd of cattle.

The distance between Elgin-Sonoita (the only AVA, that is official appellation for wine, in AZ) and the Wilcox region is more than two hours drive, but doesn’t look like much on the map. There’s an utterly different landscape there, pictured below, the vineyards lying close together on the flat valley bottom between mountain ranges that were well-known to Jeronimo. The red wines from here share the chewy tannins of those from Elgin-Sonoita, but are usually a shade fleshier and more supple. The excellent blended reds like the ‘Le Norte’ made by Todd Bostock at Dos Cabezas epitomize this type, but Sand Reckoner (first vintage 2010) and Deep Sky (first vintage 2013) are hot on his heels with their new wines.

At Saeculum/Pierce (first vintage 2011) Michael Pierce is plowing a different furrow with lighter, fresher reds like the elegant ‘Gallia’. The floral and juicy dry whites with fresh acidity that Pierce and Sand Reckoner made from Malvasia Bianca this often overlooked grape is extremely well adapted to growing conditions here. It’s also a great grape for white wine blends as Dos Cabezas ‘Meskeoli’ already proved (scroll down for more). So Wilcox isn’t turning out just one type of wine, much less shifting standardized wine units, in fact there seem to be a couple of dozen different grape varieties that do so well here that they may have a long-term future. That means the possibilities are enormous and even the daring young winemakers of this region are still just scratching the surface.

HANG ON JUST A MOMENT! These lines all seem way too pedestrian to me as I read them back, so let me add some more direct and spicy words that will hopefully drive those people who want the world to stay put and confirm to their preconceptions crazy. Arizona is not only making many really good wines and some great ones, but one day this state will one day be famous across America and around the world for its wines. The fact that MJK became the sole owner of the 80 acre Buhl Memorial Vineyard here early this year, and his team are rapidly knocking that site into great shape means that this recognition may come sooner, rather than later. Because he’s planning to sell about half the fruit he grows there, this site will be a major source of grapes for many producers as well as fuel his own brands. As he told me, his team, “have pulled a white rabbit out of a hat” in knocking the vines here into shape in a single season. Even without that though, the smaller producers mentioned above are all pursuing the goal to top quality and distinctive flavors with great determination, and that’s what a new wine region needs to grab the attention and capture the imagination of media and consumers alike. Here in Wilcox are enough grapes, and enough land that can be quickly planted, that a new out-of-state demand could be supplied.

With each vineyard visit and each tasting not only did the layer of dust on my boots grow, so did my conviction that although there’s only be a small amount of Riesling here (scroll down for more), this state’s improvised and sometimes chaotic wine industry is a great story for me. The #AZwine spirit I breathed in deep made me feel more alive than when I got on the plane from NYC to Phoenix just 5 days ago. Was it really that short a time? It’s very hard to believe The somewhere-or-nowhere-in-America ambience of this hotel room is hardly compatible with the gonzo ethos of this undertaking, but that doesn’t alter the basic fact that a great new wine adventure has just begun for me. The best thing of all is that in spite of absorbing a huge mass of impressions I can’t give you any idea where this will all end.

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Arizona Riesling Diary: Day 4 – The Surprising HOW of AZ Wines (Believe Me, this Place isn’t all Desert)

The Big Problem with figuring out how Arizona can make exciting wines – scroll down to see how I became aware that it can do that – is the rigid stereotypes in my head, in our heads. The most obvious of those stereotypes is the one that says AZ is a rocky desert filled with cacti, and it is the most difficult of them all to overcome. You see, large chunks of AZ are rocky desert filled with cacti, and other parts would be if man hadn’t brought in huge quantities of irrigation water in order to grow the cities there. That fact only ingrained the stereotype more deeply. So the above photograph, poor in quality as it is, is essential to try and revise that deeply rooted perception. It shows the vehicles carrying the group of (all expenses paid) journalists I currently belong to fording a river in order to visit Caduceus Cellars’ Eliphante Vineyard, the largest of their sites in the Verde Valley of Northern Arizone. As you can see, there was enough water that the drivers needed to proceed cautiously, although it’s a long while since the last rainfall in this part of the state.

The fact is the landscapes and natural vegetation of AZ are way more diverse than outsiders imagine, and there are ecological niches were wine growing can function really well as long as some irrigation water is available. Annual rainfalls in these locations vary between about 8 and 20 inches, which is comparable to Eastern Washington State (a slightly cooler and distinctly less humid desert). Summer highs may go slightly over 100° F/40° C, but they go higher in Napa or Sonoma/CA, for example. The AZ wine growing climate has its foibles, most notably the danger of frost in April when the vines have just began growing after their winter dormancy, then the way later in the growing season the weather flips over from windy and dry to hot and humid. However, as a whole it isn’t nearly as extreme as most people imagine it to be.

The picture of the Eliphante Vineyard below serves to undermine the preconception amongst wine pros, that while AZ may make a few drinkable wines these belong in the world of small scale semi-hobby production that doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously by the mainstream wine media, somms, etc. The Eliphante Vineyard is around 30 acres/12 hectares in size and as you can see much of it isn’t old enough to give a crop yet. Owner Maynard James Keenan (yes, the rock star) has planted a slew of grape varieties here, many of which are Italian, on the basis that since Sangiovese does really well in AZ it’s worth taking a bet on others like Nebbiolo (from which Barolo, Barbaresco and many other high-end reds are made in Piemonte/Italy). That’s a risky policy, but he’s well aware of that. As he told me, “I’m not delusional. Nebbiolo could fail, because that’s been the broad trend around the world.” I seriously admire this serious daring.

No less striking is the hidden side of Keenan’s approach to cranking up the rapidly developing AZ wine industry that involves a lot of systematic thinking. He’s incredibly focused and has done a great deal of thinking to try and avoid wasting time, energy and money on going down dead ends that don’t lead to wines that are capable of exciting and surprising. His wild sense of humor and boundless self-confidence never seem to get in the way of the question that lies behind the complex strategy to put AZ wines on the map he’s developed over the last years. But more about the man later, let’s get back to the wines, which have been a font of surprises.

I would never have imagined that one of the wine categories in which AZ would shine is rosé, but the three (!) different rose´s that Caduceus Cellars produced in 2013 are conclusive proof of this. They’re anything but flimsy blushing maidens, rather they’re like the strong, loose women I imagine hanging around saloons in this part of the world more than a century before there was a state of Arizona (founded 1912). The picture below shows these three femme fatales, from left to right the ‘Marzo’, the ‘Lei Li’ and ‘GSM’. They taste as different as those colors look, too. The ‘Marzo’ is 100% Sangiovese and has the bright fruit and acidity I associate with this grape married to considerable power and a candied orange note. Anything but superficially charming the ‘Lei Li’ is 100% Nebbiolo and a big, warm non-fruity rosé that I struggled to adequately describe this unique wine. ‘GSM’, a blend of  the Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes (hence the widely-used acronym for this combo), was more like a big meaty red wine, but had a freshness that enabled it to just about fit into the rosé category. $40 per bottle isn’t cheap, but these are big personalities like their maker.

So, even before we left the North of AZ on the four and a half hour drive that brought us to the utterly different world of wine growing here in the Southeast of the state a bunch of preconceptions had to be slammed into the trash can of useless ideas. That was an exciting process that continued yesterday afternoon and will proceed further today. The next posting may also take a little while as the program is pretty intense and many of my colleagues in the group have a lot of experience and ask the wine producers strings of probing questions. As astonishing as the best wines have been it has been tough to keep up with the pace. The effort has been more than worth while though, because here is what I call a Big Subject. I will return!

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