In vino veritas: Puscifer's Maynard James Keenan on his vineyard 

We make a ribeye and taste Keenan's wines.

click to enlarge Puscifer - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Puscifer
  • Submitted Photo
"The more one pleases generally, the less one pleases profoundly."

This is one of three quotes Maynard James Keenan chose to add to his website. Not for one of his bands (Tool, A Perfect Circle, Puscifer), but for his wine, Caduceus Cellars.

The frontman broke ground on his winery in Arizona in 2002, and since then he has been studying, honing and perfecting his wine-making skills. The sentiment behind the quote (originally made by the theologian Krister Stendahl) is a suitable anecdote for Keenan's artistic process behind all of his endeavors, including music and wine.

On March 29, Maynard and his band, Puscifer (the project he describes as his "creative subconscious") are coming to the Old National Centre. Before the show, I spoke with Keenan about his wine, where it started, what drives his passion and where he's going.

RELATED: Read our review of Puscifer's show at Old National Centre in 2012. 

"I just like a challenge," he answers, when I inquire what lead him into winemaking. In the 20 minutes we chatted, it was easy to surmise he is an extremely curious, hardworking and observational person. He continues, "Having lived in Arizona for several years I kind of noticed the land around here. The weather patterns reminded me of what I'd seen while traveling through Europe, in some of my favorite regions." These regions include the famous wine region of Northwestern Italy, Piemonte, notable for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines; both of which Keenan has grown and bottled at his vineyard in Jerome, Arizona.

click to enlarge Maynard James Keenan - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Maynard James Keenan
  • Submitted Photo
He noticed other people were growing in the area, so,"I took the leap and broke ground. I continued doing research and found that our area had vines at the turn of the century. The miners at the time wanted to know what happens when the copper and the gold runs out, and all of their consultants said to plant vines. So, they were actually putting in vines around this whole area. Then Prohibition hit and Arizona wanted to play nicey-nice with the government — because we had just become a state — and so they pulled out all of their vines early. Just to say, 'See, we want to play.' So, that kind of screwed us up of course."

Recovery has been a long time coming for the wineries in Arizona, and Maynard's Caduceus is helping to forge a path. He is driven to make Arizona the next Willamette Valley, a region in Oregon with more than 500 wineries. He points out many states have incredible opportunity to grow great wine.

The Willamette Valley guys basically said, "We're going to do this right, or we're not going to do it at all. I feel like Arizona is right there and we could tip toward New Mexico or we could — hopefully — tip toward Oregon. ... You see a lot of regions like that — like New Mexico — where they let the tourists dictate where their wine went. There is great, great, great fruit being grown in New Mexico, but nobody is holding their feet to the fire as a group to go 'No, we are more than just these fortified, sweet wines that have a lizard on the bottle and you find them at a truck stop.' "

A side note: We sometimes see this in Indiana's wineries. Talk to almost any vintner in the state and there's a chance that they feel pressured to be making sweet wines for the masses. Example: Easley's Reggae series is without a doubt their sweetest, most easy-to-please wine, and it's the one you see out at liquor stores and Marsh. But Easley also has great dry red wines and one of my favorite champagnes I've ever had. But without as big of a market, they just aren't pushed.

"I think that's always been a downfall of our culture, kind of the easier path, the marketing plan, the dumbing down of everything," he says matter-of-factly, assuaging the cynicism in the statement.

click image The inspiration for Keenan's bottle design and winery name - 'CADUCEUS' PAINTING BY RAMIRO RODRIGUEZ
  • The inspiration for Keenan's bottle design and winery name
  • 'Caduceus' painting by Ramiro Rodriguez

He and a handful of other Arizona winemakers are trying to avoid that.

"I think just in general, we're in it for the long hall. We're setting foundations for a generational endeavor, to be passed down. Several of the winemakers in the state, we're really holding our feet to the fire to start setting growing standards and aging standards. It has to be 100 percent Arizona. Those kind of things will help us separate ourselves from other places, because the more you hold your feet to the fire with it being 100 percent Arizona, the more you focus on those aging processes, the more this place can express itself."

He is entirely about expression. Whether expressing through music or wine, "I'm just fascinated with getting back to the foundations of a region and just the process of wine making fascinates me. The idea of expressing a place fascinates me. I mean certain songs express a place, and I think better wines express a place and that definitely appealed to me, and I wanted to see what I could do with that."

Surprisingly, the wine has Indiana ties as well. The name comes from the mythical staff of Hermes or Mercury, but it was prompted by the artwork of a local artist, Ramiro Rodriguez, Keenan's roommate at Kendall College of Art and Design.

"Ramiro had painted a painting, this figure underwater that was wrapped around by another figure behind it. A very serene, very calm figure underwater, and he called it Caduceus. I wanted to use that art for the bottle, but I wanted to do screen-printed art so the image just wouldn't translate. Because he had such gorgeous gradations in color, it just wasn't going to translate as a graphic on a screen-printed bottle. So, I had to kind of redesign the Caduceus to be vines in place of serpents and an Arizona raven in place of the wings of Hermes."

I'm studying this image as I pour myself a glass of 2013 Sancha, a Rioja style wine — one of my go-to styles of red. I let the wine breathe while I pull my cast iron skillet out of the oven. The ribeye I purchased earlier in the day at Wildwood Market sits in the middle of the pan, sizzling in the remaining butter. I move it to a plate and let it rest – always let your steak rest before cutting in – pull out my chair, turn on Puscifer's harrowing ballad "The Humbling River," slice into the perfectly cooked medium rare steak and take a bite.

It's incredible.

I smell the earthy, aromatic wine and take a sip, letting it swish in my mouth and blend with the flavors from the meat. It's good. It's spicy. Then the earthiness slips through. I take a little more in my mouth and it is even better than the first. Hell, it's fucking really good. I'm in a good place.

Caduceus wines aren't simple. They're intricate. Lucky for me, I enjoy dynamic wines. That being said, they may not be for everyone. In Maynard's own words:

"I've used this metaphor before. If you have a rock contest and you have 30 seconds to impress someone with your band, Pink Floyd's not going to do well. Because Pink Floyd is not a sound bite. My wines are far more like Pink Floyd than they are like Metallica."

Just like Atom Heart Mother, maybe you'll love it the first go-round. If not, you may find yourself thinking about it one day, and you'll know you have to give it one more chance.

(Editor's Note: This article was graciously boosted on social media by The Warehouse []. The Warehouse had no input on the content in this article or the decision to create it.)

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About The Author

Cavan McGinsie

Cavan McGinsie

I travel. I eat. I drink. I meet. I record. I'm the Food & Drink Editor here at NUVO and I'm always happy to chat with people about anything over a coffee, beer, or meal. Let me know your thoughts on Indianapolis.

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