February 27, 2024

Rock You Like a Cabernet


Any new developing wine region needs a handful of stalwarts that are the foundation upon which success is built. Even Napa Valley was a backwater at one time until names like Robert Mondavi led the way.

Northern Arizona has a handful of these stewards, and the one I’m going to tell you about is certainly not only a driving force in quality, but is the name recognition that can bring the customers, critics, related enterprises, and other trappings that lead to a successful local wine industry. He’s the rock star (literally) turned winemaker, Maynard James Keenan, the owner and proprietor of Caduceus and Merkin Vineyards.

Maynard hails originally from Ohio, and he grew up in Michigan. The life of celebrity has taken him to the far corners of the earth though, and it would be proper to call him a citizen of the world as much as any one place. But it was Boston where he says he was introduced to wine, when a friend working at an Italian wine shop would bring over bottles for weekend barbecues. Wine was a curiosity at that point. Wine became a passion while working on an album with Tori Amos in 1995. She poured Maynard a 1992 Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and he was hooked.

Maynard settled in Arizona as the result of a dream. He had visions of living life in a small town, and despite having been to Arizona several times, hadn’t given the state much consideration on the prospect. On one trip though, Tim Alexander (the drummer for Primus) took Maynard to visit Jerome, and Maynard says he literally began the process of making it his home that very day. The thought crossed Maynard’s mind one afternoon while sipping wine on his deck that his backyard was very similar to some of the famed wine regions around the world he had visited, so Maynard pondered the idea of planting a vineyard. Maynard’s family has a history in wine after all. His great-grandfather owned vineyards in northern Italy, so he calls his venture a return to family heritage.

The only brains to pick in the area at the time were down the road at Echo Canyon Winery. Maynard just drove up one day and started asking everything on vineyards and wine he could think about. It was there that he met his friend, wine mentor, and current partner in the wine business, Eric Glomski, with whom he produces Arizona Stronghold Wines (but that’s a story for another time).

Maynard began preparations for Merkin Vineyards in late 2004 after participating in his first harvest with Page Springs Cellars. The vineyards were planted in June, 2005, beginning with Cabernet Sauvignon on Merkin West. It was here that the ashes of Keenan’s mother were scattered following her death, and the wines produced from this section of the vineyard will bear her name in tribute. The Merkin East plantings soon followed with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese, followed by Merkin South with Mourvèdre and Syrah. In August of that year, Maynard also discovered a stray grape vine near the Little Daisy Hotel that is believed to be the sole survivor from vineyards once planted back in Jerome’s mining days. It was sent to UC Davis for DNA analysis, which came back inconclusive. The unknown grape was then his to name, so he chose Aurelia Yis-Dai-Yah in honor of the woman who tended the vine (rumored to be the wife of the old local winemaker), along with the Navajo name for “golden survivor.” It’s currently going through propagation to become part of the vineyard.

Add some plantings of Malvasia Bianca, Tempranillo, Norton, Vidal Blanc, as well as the Stronghold Vineyards in Willcox, and Maynard now has a sizable stable of Arizona vineyards with which to make Arizona wines. I unfortunately haven’t had the opportunity to try the Arizona bottlings of Caduceus or Merkin Vineyards, but early news is positive. I have tasted a few of his offers from California fruit, and the winemaking is solid. Unlike other celebrities simply lending their names to wine recently, these products are very much hands on by Keenan as well. If you wish to try either the Caduceus or the Merkin Vineyards labels, you can find them at Page Springs Cellars or select retailers in the state. The wines can also be purchased direct from the website, www.caduceus.org.

Remember to drink responsibly.

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