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Rocker may put Arizona wines on map


By Laurel Morales

Verde Valley, AZ – When most people think of good wine they think of Napa Valley, not Verde Valley. But some hopeful winemakers believe northern Arizona could be the next northern California. And a well known rock star-turned-winemaker just might help put Arizona wines on the map. The documentary Blood Into Wine about his journey screens May 22 at the Orpheum Theater in Flagstaff. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales has this story.

The Verde Valley - just as its name implies - is green. And its rolling hills are home to several vineyards and winemakers. Maynard James Keenan is one of them. Keenan is best known as the front man to the heavy rock band Tool.

These days he's just as likely to be contemplating his grapevines as he is to be planning his next music tour.

KEENAN: A lot of it is just getting back in touch with your intuition.

Keenan and his winemaking mentor Eric Glomski consider themselves pioneers. Glomski could have easily stayed in northern California where he learned the trade. But he wanted to blaze a new trail in Arizona.

GLOMSKI: California I mean honestly to me is very saturated with regards to wineries and vineyards. It just wasn't exciting to me. Do you really want to put your taco stand next to five other taco stands what's special about it? Then you're going to try to duke it out with those guys and make your mark.

Glomski and Keenan sit on a leather couch in their Cottonwood tasting room. They're a bit weary of defending their decision to make wine in Arizona.

KEENAN: If you were to tell me wine in Kansas I would probably have the same reaction. I haven't sat down and looked at what the soils are like in Kansas and the weather patterns. I don't know.

But Keenan does know the soils and weather patterns in Jerome where he makes his wine under the Caduceus label. The soil is volcanic; the weather a bit unpredictable. In fact just recently his crew had to light barrel fires in between the rows of grapes to keep the vines warm enough to thrive. And the monsoon rains don't always come when needed. Fortunately grapes don't require a lot of water. In fact Keenan says the struggle makes for better wine.

KEENAN: You know a little bit of a struggle goes a long way with a grape. Some of the vines on sites that are very problematic the juice coming off those vines the few that survive those more intense situations the juice that comes off is fantastic.

SFX: Oak Creek

Keenan and Glomski's Page Springs vineyard sits on the edge of Oak Creek. Keenan's also a founder of the Arizona Stronghold label, which grows grapes here. Sales manager Paula Woolsey sits under a big cottonwood tree. Hawks and herons fly overhead.

WOOLSEY: Good wine grapes like to grow 30-50 degrees latitude above and below the equator. So if you look just at a globe and you start showing people see where Sicily is here just spin around and you're in Arizona.

Woolsey uses geography when she's trying to convince someone to taste Arizona wine. She also uses a sort of surprise approach.

WOOLSEY: Taste this awesome wine then you tell them it's from Arizona, which is how we do it a lot because sometimes you can't even get in the door. They look at you and go Arizona? They think you're growing grapes in Phoenix in the hot parking lot somewhere.

Woolsey now has another tool she uses to sell the wine - a film called Blood Into Wine. She and Keenan just returned from touring with the film and his band. The film tells Keenan's winemaking tale. In it Wine Spectator critic James Suckling visits Keenan's vineyard in Jerome and tries his wine.

SUCKLING: Let's see what it tastes like (slurp).

Suckling's jaw drops upon first taste. He's surprised at how good it is.

SUCKLING: Woah! This has that real currant, Casis, Bordeaux but something a little bit different. When you think of Arizona, hello. This is pretty impressive. Thank you. Cheers!

Although many had their doubts, Keenan has proven that he takes his passion for wine making seriously.

The rock star left Los Angeles for Jerome 15 years ago. Right now Keenan and Glomski produce about 10-thousand cases a year combined. They plan to eventually produce three times that amount. But Keenan doesn't define success by the size of his production. For him it's about sustainability.

KEENAN: Our success or failure has nothing to do with the critics. If we're doing this correctly it doesn't matter.

Keenan knows it will take several years -- maybe beyond his lifetime -- to put Arizona's mark on the wine making map.

He likens it to starting a new band. It can take a while to win a devoted following.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in the Verde Valley.