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maynard james keenanTwo years ago when visiting Arizona wineries, I was most impressed with Caduceus Cellars. Located in the delightful town of Jerome perched on a mountainside rimming the Verde Valle southwest of Sedona, these wines had depth and elegance, especially the Italian varietals.  I came to find out later that the owner and winemaker was Maynard James Keenan, vocalist and songwriter for the rock band Tool.

So when I began to conceptualize my forthcoming book on the art of winemaking, I immediately thought of contacting Maynard, who after all, knows a thing or two about the creative process.

You might think that Arizona heat would produce over-ripe grapes. But at the higher elevations, cool nights and wise picking decisions can produce distinctive, balanced wines. Maynard James Keenan is at the cutting edge of developments in the region, and I am grateful to him for taking the time to discuss his winemaking philosophy.

What follows are his responses to interview questions designed to elicit the artistic elements of winemaking.

1. Describe your “aha” moment when you first fell in love with wine.

1992 Napa Valley Silver Oak. Not like subsequent SO’s. Restrained, elegant. I pulled one out recently and was surprised at how different it was compared to other Napa Silver Oaks.

2. What motivated you to get into winemaking?

1990 Soldera Reserva set the hook. But the terrain around my home was what reeled me in. Ancient limestone beds, volcanic soils, elevation, rocky soils were what suggested vines might do well here. And as it turns out there was a history of wine growing here prior to prohibition.

3. You have a background in the arts. How does that background help you make wine?

Possibilities. Flexibilities. Creating something from nothing. Thinking outside the box.

4. How is making music similar to winemaking?

The process of general to specific applies. And of course the more experience and success you have, the more you trust this process. Things can always seem in rough shape early on. A line without a surrounding story, a beat without a melody, etc.

5. Do you have a philosophy of winemaking—a style that you’re aiming for? How would you describe that?

Food friendly, complex and elegant, a balance between restrained but expressive. New world with a firm respectful nod to traditional old world structure. We want to present a wine that doesn’t hurt.

6. At what point in the winemaking process do you decide on what you’re aiming at regarding style.

In the vineyard. Taking large leaps early on in the growing process has helped shape our direction in the cellar. Going all in with a particular goal. We’ve found that half-assing it only leads to half a result. It starts long before pruning, but we’ll start there. Don’t fear the late spring frost. We train cordons to where we want to be as far as shoot positions. We prune to where we want to be. We shoot thin to where we want to be. We green harvest to where we want to be. Leaving extra stuff as back up confuses your vine.

7. Does your goal, the profile you’re aiming at when you set out to make a wine, change during the winemaking process? If so, how?

Absolutely. If something comes in showing something completely different than what we set out to accomplish, we immediately adjust. Paying attention to what’s in front of you rather than forcing your will can save you a lot of headaches.

8. Do you think of wine as expressing something? If so, what?

Well the obvious is that it expresses a place. But it also can express the artist’s hand. I’ve always considered myself a fish out of water in the so called Metal Music scene. I’ve always been more into The Byrds, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits. I think that shows in my wines. My wines are far more Pink Floyd than they are Metallica.

9. Do aesthetic concepts such as elegance, harmony, character or finesse play a role in your decision-making process?

I would like to believe so. Balance and Character first, if we’re doing our job. Elegance is our goal.

10. How does knowledge of winemaking help recognize aesthetic properties (e.g. beauty, elegance, etc.) in a wine? Perhaps a different way of putting this question is “what does a winemaker taste that an ordinary consumer would miss?”

Time and patience. My military career was spent as a surveyor. And not so coincidently space has always been an important part of my process. So like transit surveyors we take what we consider known points and then build on those to establish new points of reference. We observe where we think we’ve been, interpret where we are, and then make an educated guess as to where we’re heading. Observe, interpret, report. Generally speaking the average consumer only considers their current space.

11. Do you consider winemaking an art? (I know definitions of art are controversial but don’t worry about having a precise definition, unless you want to give one)

Absolutely.

12. To what degree do the conscious decisions you make in the vineyard and winery produce the intended result. Or in other words what role do chance and dumb luck play in winemaking?

Almost ALL decisions in the vineyard direct what actions if any we take in the cellar. Remaining present and conscious in the cellar is how you can take advantage of dumb luck and chance. This is farming. We are slaves to the sun and the rain and everything outside and in between. It is an absolute expression of attempting to temporarily bridle chaos.

13. Could you comment generally on the sorts of things that winemakers have little control over?

I haven’t yet tackled resident yeasts in the cellar. I’m still chasing some sort of order or pattern as it pertains to our weather. Add to that our attempt to better understand things like submerged cap fermentations, extended macerations, early picks.

This may be too much for one article but I’ll attempt to walk you through my steps of attempting to understand what my role is in both the vineyard and the cellar.

From 2003-2008 I was simply trying to observe and participate in the basic cellar processes. I spent time in cellars in Adelaide and Arizona just trying to get a handle on what goes on and what to expect. I read up on and visited vineyards all over the world just to stare at some of the best sites I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing in the glass.

In 2009-2010 I spent the vintage in my cellar just trying to figure out how to make things go. Fork lifts, press, destemmer, etc. It was my crash course.

2011 I dabbled in a few things. I did some modified carbonic macerations. Covered, whole berry with a cold fermentation yeast in a cold room for the first week, then punch downs until dry. But all in a cold room. 55F. This same year I played with bin size to see what temperature would do to the same fruit side by side. I also played with various commercial yeasts to see if there was any significant difference in the end result. This is also the year that Chris Turner my vineyard manager began to drop fruit and work on lower more concentrated yields.

2012-2013 I began to dabble in submerged cap fermentations, extended macerations. I also introduced Botté and Puncheons into the cellar. We also were trying to navigate some of the high pH’s we see in the vineyard by picking a little earlier.

2014 was all about submerged cap fermentations.

2015 I went all in with picking pretty much everything extremely early. Every single year we have threats of monsoons and therefore bunchrot. I wanted to see what I would need to do if I were forced to pick everything uncomfortably early. Anything that came in more green than I would prefer was left on skins and stems at a minimum of 6 weeks. In some cases 10 weeks. I was told that once the green fruit passed the 6 week mark, the grassy green vegetal characters polymerize and become elegant and perfumed. They were right. But the end results lacked a bit in the mid palate, so cross blending some riper ferments would be required while still maintaining that elegance and aromatics.

2016 we dropped every block to 1 cluster per shoot. Our peers think we’re batshit. But the results were very promising. The downside to submerged cap fermentations is that any substandard fruit issues become magnified. By dropping to 1CPS we were able to bring in pristine fully ripe and tasty fruit at a lower brix level. The argument is that if the vine has less fruit, it’s work is focused on those few clusters. Diurnal swing allows the vine to work extremely efficiently to develop that fruit. We were off the vine by Sept 7th. Again, my peers think we’re nuts.

 

14. In what sense is making wine a creative activity?

In every sense.

15. At what point does imagination come into play?

Effective imagination comes with experience in the cellar. With no experience you might get lucky trying to be clever, but the results will be inconsistent.

16. How important is originality to you i.e. making a wine that has your distinctive stamp on it.

Not nearly as important as first developing a region. We’ve formed an organization known as the Arizona Vignerons Alliance for the purpose of gathering a statewide data base and also to provide winemakers with some honest anonymous input about their wines.

I’ll include our 3 bullet points here. Sorry it’s long:

A. We start with 100% Arizona Grown Grapes.

Broad Strokes:

To introduce and establish a new region, the wines must be from that region.

Detail:

  Nothing speaks of Local more loudly and clearly than a well made regional wine. (Local restaurants take notice!) Compelling wines speak of a place but only when the fruit it contains is from that place. This is the only way to establish a new wine growing region in reluctant minds and on discerning palates. And if successful, all wineries within that new region will benefit.

B. We follow that up with Statewide Data Collection to Strengthen Our Wine Growing Practices.

Broad Strokes:

Knowledge is power. The more we know about our collective successes and challenges the stronger we become as a region.

Detail:

  The Southwest Wine Center has offered to enter all the data collected during wine submissions into a comprehensive data base that will be accessible to AWGA members for the purpose of establishing patterns across all growing regions. We can establish consistency in our state by tracking successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses for each varietal at each elevation, varying soil compositions, annual rainfalls, temperature swings, frost and hail threats, planting density, crop load, choice of training, etc. Consistency is what will put and keep us on the world wine growing map. However, none of this is relevant if point A isn’t established by starting with 100% Arizona Grown Grapes.

  The submission forms are extensive and comprehensive. If at any moment a submitting winery is asked to provide information they don’t have in their records and they must come up with the answer, we are already ahead. That winery is now aware that in future submissions they should already know the answers or have access to them in their records and we will in turn all be stronger for it.

C. We humbly submit our life’s work to a Peer and Industry Panel Review to keep us all on our toes.

Broad Strokes:

Perfection is a phantom we should be chasing until our last breath, but that path is incomplete without some form of unbiased, nonpartisan, objective evaluation.

Detail:

There are many established regions that subject themselves to an anonymous peer and panel review. Humility and vulnerability are tough but necessary parts of our learning curve. Just being open enough to submit to this process suggests we are willing to learn from our and each others mistakes. We’ve all been willing to submit our wines to state and international competitions to be judged. But those competitions rarely if ever provide any feedback on non-medal awarded wines. This process will give notes on wines where something simple may be improved upon in the growing, producing, or bottling process that can assist in avoiding mistakes going forward. We usually get one chance to impress the reluctant minds and discerning palates out in the marketplace. As it stands now we are on the precipice. Arizona has two paths we can take. We can be like Oregon and take the more difficult path and benefit tenfold, or we can be like New Mexico or Texas and take the easy path and be dismissed as being a tourist wine state.

17. In typical cases, how close does the finished product come to your original vision and how do you balance the desire to let the grapes speak for themselves with achieving  your intended style?

We keep getting closer but as you know this is a lifetime endeavor.

18. Terroir has become a buzz word. How important is terroir to you?

We wont have a clue what our terroir is for another hundred years. Launching the Arizona Vignerons Alliance is our attempt to get to that a little sooner.

19. How important is tasting to the winemaking process?

I taste but at the end of the day, what am I gonna do with that? Once the fruit is in it’s a little late. Smelling the ferments helps me identify if there’s anything going off the rails. But other than that, I love to strap in and wait. Ask me again in a few years. I’ll probably change my mind on this.

20.  What must a wine be like to be beautiful?

That’s very subjective. Most score driven wines require them to punch you right out of the bottle. Some might consider this beautiful. I don’t. Beauty comes from sustainability. From age-ability. In my opinion.

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