Maynard James Keenan
All Work, No Whine: Turning Grapes Into GoldInterview by Christopher Stipp
Straight up, I was frightened. I mean, this guy just does not like talking to the press.
Maynard James Keenan, front man for Tool and A Perfect Circle, has always proved to be elusive to me as an artist. I've appreciated, more than anything, his reticence to bask in the warm white glow of the floodlights that seem fixated on our rock gods. On one extreme you have the Bonos of the world, cavorting in front of snapping cameras and stumping for issues that they appear to be wholly in favor of and asking for your help in supporting them. And then on the furthest point on that spectrum, you have people like Maynard. Someone who eschews publicity, talking, communicating with a press that just needs another interview, another headline to get through the day. Guys like him, artists like him, it is all about the music, the creation of it. And he doesn't need a ounce of your soy ink, thank you very much, to promote it because he has legions at his back who are there willing to find it and embrace it.
One of the things that Maynard was doing with the time afforded to someone who doesn't have to check into a 9 to 5 job everyday and has enough disposable income to make smart decisions about what he needs to do to support his way of living is...
...He decided to grow some grapes.
Specifically, he bought some land in northern Arizona and started to try his hand at wine making. Normally, the swill that those of us who live in Arizona get from the grapes that grow here is high grade enough that it won't completely blind you, but Maynard was on a mission to do for wine what he did to music: make it wholly his own. Thus, in the new documentary, Blood Into Wine, Maynard's struggles and triumphs to bring a great bottle of wine to the masses is put to film and it couldn't be a more enjoyable piece of moviemaking. Stars like Patton Oswalt, Milla Jovovich, Bob Odenkirk, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric fame, all pop up on screen at some time to make it one of the more entertaining looks about what it takes to turn soil into one of the best varieties of wine that Arizona has ever produced. (Never mind that it's coming from a man who would just as soon like to be back on his land, working it!)
There's a lot to be said of a man who can make something with his hands, and so I had some time to talk to the ever private Keenan about what triggered the impulse to turn enjoyment into a full-blown operation.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Maynard, it’s nice to be able to speak with you this afternoon. Thanks for doing it.
MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN: Not a problem.
CS: Blood Into Wine was an amazing documentary and it’s one of the more entertaining films that I’ve seen in the past year.
KEENAN: Thank you.
CS: I'd like to lead off by asking you when this passion for wine enjoyment went from drinking it to producing it? When did you say, "This is something I want to make with my own hands?"
Keenan: I’m not totally sure what triggered that. It’s just the way I am I guess, for lack of better words. I think I’m just the kind of guy that if I can do it myself, I’m going to try to. I think there’s a lot of things that you can get into that you don’t need to be a Michael Jordan to do. I’m not going to make it into the NBA, to be honest, but as far as wine making or making fantastic raviolis or tortellini or making a film, it’s something you can do. Just takes focus and mind power.
CS: And certainly living in Arizona doesn't help the cause. I’ve read that some people told you it’s a fool’s errands to try and make wine in such a location. What made you believe Arizona could produce something of relatively high quality?
KEENAN: The trick to betting on horses and going to Vegas is to not take risks. The trick is to eliminate the risk and I guess the point is that there were grapes grown in Arizona. There was wine made in Arizona but prohibition, World War I and II basically interrupted that process. So, the trick we have up our sleeve is that we know there were grapes grown there before. We don’t necessarily share too much of that information because we want to make it look like we just dove off a cliff into darkness and just found our way. But, truth be told, there were people that came before us. Although we have no notes to go on as to what their experiences were, we knew that at least part of it was possible.
CS: And you’ve obviously expressed your process of trying to see if a technique works and, if not, trying something else. It seems that it literally has been a process for you. I assume it’s always a moving target of trying to reach perfection, if there is such a thing in wine making, so how did you move beyond frustrations in your initial stages to keep slugging it out, that you knew you could do this? What kept you going?
KEENAN: The investment. You put so much time and money into it. What are you going to do? Walk away before you actually see what happens? There is just no way I’m going to walk away from this. My entire life is poured into this. Everything I have earned is poured into the ground here.
CS: How has that been with [vineyard partner] Eric Glomski as sort of a teacher? Especially in the initial stages and even now as you do this?
KEENAN: He’s very patient. He’s very informative and very patient. As much fumbling as I do and as much stammering as I do, he definitely gets me back on track and lets me make mistakes and he’s a good teacher and a good mentor and lets me take a bunch of risks as well. I get to watch him take risks as well.
CS: What has been the satisfaction? Obviously it hasn’t been all pain – the enjoyment of creating the bottles that are now out there – so what were some of your initial joys in this process?
KEENAN: Watching the vines come up in the spring and actually having them come up wondering if they would survive the winter. You just don’t know. So, when they do, every little step is exciting. Every time the vines push their buds in the spring and every time they actually set fruit and make it through the hail and make it through the monsoons - it’s just exciting every time you reach that little hurdle, that little struggle.
CS: And one of the struggles, one that people don’t realize, is the immense cold that we get here. That cold obviously is in the higher elevations but was that something that would have to be factored in later in the process?
Keenan: Not at all. We got burned pretty hard on a couple sites because of that early on and we have since corrected our mistake – or so we think. Time will tell. And on some of those sites we will have grapes next year so we’ll be able to tell. That’s the other thing, we don’t know what the quality of the grapes those sites will produce. To get to the point that we actually get grapes and say, "These are awful." But I would guess they are not going to be awful. I won’t let them get to be.
CS: Explain to me, as someone who doesn’t quite understand the amount of time that is required to fully manage this on a daily basis; does it require day-to-day attention or are there patches of time when nature is just doing its thing and there is nothing anybody can do?
KEENAN: It depends on the size and layout of your vineyard. I’m sure there are areas, like some of the places in California, the vineyards are really easy to farm and relatively flat or sloped lands that they can use tractors to keep the leaves down and make sure things are taken care of that machines can handle. It’s super easy.
Both of our sites have to be hand-farmed. So what it does is we have less people on payroll but they work more. Every time they go from one site to another – you are keeping up with each site and it takes a week to get all the way around. You are starting over with the next of whatever is going on. Whether we are pruning, whether we are dropping fruit. There is always something going on and we are small enough crew to be working full time.
CS: Has it been spiritually satisfying to you, this whole process?
KEENAN: Yes. Planting anything and watching it grow or watching it not grow... it definitely affects you on some level always.
CS: To that point, the personal satisfaction you get out of doing this project and moving to the documentary, what convinced you that this story of your vineyard would be good enough to tell in a feature length film?
KEENAN: I don’t know. I have no idea. I just thought we needed to tell the story. We are in one of the highest foreclosure states in the U.S., to say nothing about unemployment, we are in dire straits. A story needs to be told and I’m willing to tell mine if it will help us.
CS: One of the things I didn’t see too much of in the documentary, but certainly things you have touched upon when doing interviews for this film, concerns the issue of water rights in Arizona. As a wine maker, does that affect you and the way you grow your grapes?
KEENAN: Basically, I had to secure several pieces of land that had water rights attached to them that were grandfathered in. To just take a piece of land that has no water and has no rights to water, you just can’t put a vineyard in. You have to find the missing piece – the most important piece – which is the water. And that land is not cheap.
CS: Do those rights have a price tag attached to them?
KEENAN: Oh yeah. If you have a two acre piece of land that has water rights and a two acre piece that doesn’t have water rights – I guarantee you that the one that has water rights will be three times more expensive than the one that doesn’t.
CS: Is it frustrating on your part to get what you need to make it sustainable? Or is it a constant year-in-year-out struggle?
KEENAN: It’s a constant battle. And the largest battle is from people who don’t understand how much this is going to benefit the community. People that are resistant to change and don’t realize that the house is on fire and we can’t be quibbling over whether or not you wiped your feet or not.
CS: Does it just stem from ignorance?
KEENAN: Fear of the unknown. It’s the same argument. If you have ever been to a council meeting or a planning meeting there’s this term called NIMBY. It’s people who are really into what you are doing, but just not in my back yard. They just don’t understand what this is. There’s some resistance and an education process. But I’m confident that once this settles in and once things are happening, people will be embarrassed that they were resistant.
CS: The process, everything that you have gone through, and I’m amazed that the problems you’ve faced with the Alcohol, Tobacco Tax and Trade bureau just regarding the physical label on your wine – is it just one thing after another? Is it everyone looking for their own piece of the pie?
Keenan: The TTB isn’t the piece of the pie, it’s that age old bureaucratic red tape guy in an office and hasn’t had to go out and do it himself. They are just forcing a rule and their interpretation of the rule. That’s the worst part when it comes down to stuff like that. It’s not necessarily a cut and dry thing. It’s someone’s interpretation of an idea. And so, when anyone is as powerless as they are sitting behind a desk in their own personal life, whatever….you’ve come across it, like a meter maid giving you a hard time, because of the power they have to write you a ticket. The same thing. They are going to flex.
CS: As an artist who is primarily known for making music, how do you bring your own sense of creativity – and obviously this is a learning process for you about what you can and can’t do to these grapes to make them your own – but how do your own sensibilities inform the way you make your wine? Where is your own creativity allowed to shine in this process?
KEENAN: Well, how I tell the story. Whatever grape is going into a bottle whatever that final blends ends up being, now it’s time to name it because I’m the storyteller and artist.
I will then listen to what’s coming from the bottle, what’s coming from the glass, and I’ll construct a story that will best describe this larger idea.
CS: Thank you for talking with me today.