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Culture: With a Splashy New Project, Rock Star Maynard James Keenan Aims to Amplify Arizona Wine

Culture: With a Splashy New Project, Rock Star Maynard James Keenan Aims to Amplify Arizona Wine

Maynard James Keenan, lead singer for the rock band Tool, was staring at the mountains from the porch of his Jerome, Arizona, home when he decided to start a new career. Following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather, who made wine in Italy, the Grammy Award-winning musician was determined to establish a vineyard in what was, at the time, a newly budding industry for the state.

In 2004, nearly a decade after moving to the area, Keenan founded Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars. Both have won awards at international wine contests including the Los Angeles International Wine Competition, San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and Texas Lone Star International Wine Competition. But the singer-turned-winemaker has far larger ambitions to promote Arizona’s now-established wine scene.

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On October 6, Keenan is slated to debut one of the most progressive wine projects in the state, a massive new development in the Verde Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) that will span multiple hospitality properties and a 4.5-acre vineyard. Keenan hopes the project, an expansion of his Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars concepts, will help draw visitors to the Arizona wine scene.

“Partly what this is going to provide is a setting to physically see the vines growing,” he says. But it’s also a chance to help define what Arizona wine means in the minds of consumers. “People haven’t really connected the dots with what to expect from an Arizona wine, what’s doing well and how they express.”

Hilltop Caduceus Cellars Facility / Image Courtesy of Matt Welsh

Arizona Wine Country is Flourishing

The development comes at an auspicious time in the Grand Canyon state’s wine industry. It’s rapidly growing: Nearly 176,000 tourists visited the state’s three AVAs in 2022, according to the National Association of American Wineries. That includes its latest one, the Verde Valley AVA, which became official in November of 2021.

As the state’s wine country has grown in acreage, so has the amount of wine being made. A 2021 report published by the Arizona Wine Growers Association reveals that production grew by 160 percent in volume between 2012 and 2019. In 2020, there were 145 bonded winemaking locations (some owned by the same vintner), up from just 45 in 2010.

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Keenan’s project is located on a hilltop in Cottonwood, just over 100 miles from Phoenix. The seven-acre development will include a new winery and cellar, tasting room, restaurant, retail space, greenhouse, gelateria and a vineyard. “You see the vines, and we’re making the wine on-site,” he says. Verde Valley’s semi-arid climate is Mediterranean-like, says Keenan. The area is well-suited for the Graciano, Tempranillo and Garnacha grapes, all of which have been planted in the vineyard.

Those Spanish varietals will be paired with Italian fare in both the gelateria, which will be accessible via a tram (a nod to the area’s copper mining days), and the 6,600-square-foot Trattoria restaurant. Both will feature a number of ingredients grown on Merkin’s farm in neighboring Cornville.

The restaurant, led by chef Chris Smith, will feature handmade pastas, breads and pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven, served with wines exclusively from Merkin. The space will boast sweeping views of the surrounding area from its dining room, outdoor patio and large central bar. The objective is to root visitors with a sense of place.

“That experience connecting the local wine with local food and a local view—it’s going to be pretty stunning,” says Keenan. “Every inch of this place is gorgeous.”

Hilltop Caduceus Cellars Facility
Hilltop Caduceus Cellars Facility / Image Courtesy of Caduceus Cellars

Making a Statement

Another impressive feature? The VSC (Velvet Slippers Club) private tasting room, which is open by appointment only. There, guests will partake in what Keenan describes as an “omakase” guided wine tasting. Only a few appointments will be available each night. The experience will include a tour, seasonal meal and wine tasting, all led by a moderator. “There’s going to be wines in that room that you can’t get unless you walk into that room,” adds Keenan.

Though the development certainly aims to impress guests with its hospitality offerings, it also will feature an 8,000-case production facility and a display barrel room outfitted with six custom concrete fermentation and aging cubes. Above all, the goal of this splashy new Cottonwood outpost of Merkin Vineyards will be to help make others more aware of Arizona wine.

“There are many people in the state that are making great wines with incredible commitment to quality and connection, a sense of place,” says Keenan. “But sometimes you need a couple of bells and whistles to get it to resonate outside the state.”

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