With mindless celebrities attaching their name to any vanity project that comes their way–Cadmium-laced Miley Cyrus bracelets priced to sell!–the idea of Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan’s moniker on a bottle of wine seems both off-putting and absurd. Yet every year since 2003, Keenan has spent four months planning, planting and harvesting the materials for wine in his home state of Arizona via Arizona Stronghold Vineyards (a co-ownership deal with mentor Eric Glomski) and his own Merkin Vineyards.
Blood Into Wine, a documentary detailing the musician’s experience with the industry, is a fascinating look at Keenan’s personal struggles–with lobbyists, state and federal regulators, bad soil, etc.–and achievements as one of the most inadvertently famous winemakers in the world. Even without the mercurial musical figure, a film about tending 150 acres in a region with less-than-ideal winemaking conditions makes for a compelling story. Factor in Keenan’s notorious elusiveness and underappreciated sense of humor (Patton Oswalt and Tim & Eric all make appearances) and you have one of the strangest, most intriguing documentaries we’ve seen in a while (the film premieres tonight at City Winery). Before boarding a flight back to Arizona, the oenophile gave a rare interview to discuss the film, Tool fans, fighting city councils, and running into unexpected people at the airport.
Going into winemaking, how knowledgeable were you about the process initially?
I would say zero. Growing up in Michigan, working in the fruit orchards with my dad, I definitely had my hands in the soil though, and you treat things properly with respect to what they are, how much water they need and their location. Otherwise, they don’t grow. It’s not like you can just put the thing in the ground and it just grows. You have to respect that space. So I grew up with that kind of knowledge and a solid work ethic and drive. Those elements–the drive, the desire for knowledge–are most important. The rest of it falls into place. Anybody can learn it. You just have to focus and pay attention.
Most non-wine connoisseurs don’t think of Arizona as a hotbed of wine activity. Do you see yourself as a pioneer or proselytizer for the region?
Yeah, I’m basically John the Baptist and eventually Christ is going to show up here. People keep trying to cut my head off but I just keep dodging the sword. I’m just trying to make sure the bottle shows up before that happens. Once that bottle shows up, it’s undeniable. They can cut my head off if they want, but it’s started.
One of the most telling scenes in the film is the juxtaposition of your appearance at a wine bottle signing with girls hoping to avoid fainting after meeting you and a couple that named their baby Maynard. Does the fact that some people are buying the wine because of your name rather than the wine itself upset you?
Hopefully what will happen is they’ll grow up someday and lose interest in me and they’ll open the bottle and discover something that they’re really excited about. Rather than giving me the power as they do–which is still so creepy and weird to me and completely contrary to what we’re trying to do–they’ll thank me. I don’t have an extra arm or a third calf that lets me run faster. It’s retarded. We’re all made of the same stuff but you keep pointing at me as if I have done something that is impossible. It’s not impossible. Stop giving away your power. Second of all, the wine is going to speak for itself and if they bought it for the wrong reasons to begin with, hey, that’s your path. Whatever choices you want to make and whatever power you want to give away, that’s your problem. But hopefully they’ll end up waking up one day, open up that bottle of wine and go, “Holy shit. He’s right,” and give me a nod rather than drop to their knees.
Did you ever consider not putting your name on the bottle and becoming a silent partner to avoid that altogether?
Yeah, but everything is against us. The weather. The politics. The recognition. You got all the lobbyists in Washington trying to undermine our ability to self-distribute. You got California wineries not too thrilled about the new kid on the block. Everything’s against you, so the idea of not using every resource available to put us on the map is not really an option. And not to toot my own horn or reverse what I just said but if Fred Durst put his name on a bottle, you would pretty much assume that it sucks. The guy who’s putting his name on the bottle, if you know anything about it, you should know that the guy is pretty driven and isn’t kidding.
When you first started out, how impulsive a decision was this or was everything planned out?
It was absolutely planned out. It’s not something you want to dive into. It took several years of looking at that slope [where the vines are now planted] to come to the conclusion that it could sustain grapes based on my experiences [with wine] around the world. Then it took another two years to navigate the local politics.
Judging from the film, this hardly seems like a vanity project. How many hours a day do you actually devote to the process?
When I first started doing it with Eric in 2004, I was devoting four to five months at a time in the winery and a little bit in the field. I’m not much of a field worker but I do put my time in because I think it’s really important to understand what’s happening in the soil. As time has gone on, I’ve spent much more time fighting the politics and marketing the product. The last couple of years, as soon as you get the momentum going, you just get interrupted by politics and locals and neighbors who don’t understand. But it’s about fighting the good fight. Actually, fighting the ridiculous fight, I should say.
Speaking of which, one of the more surreal scenes in the documentary involves City Council members discussing Arizona vineyards. Did you expect to encounter the level of resistance they ended up showing? How much of a challenge was that for you?
Oddly enough, you’re using the word “was”. It still is. We were very cautious not to include all of the drama. It starts to get boring after a while to watch a whining bunch of hippies like us. It’s still a challenge though because people don’t understand the benefits [of winemaking] yet. They just see it as something that’s “change” and they resist it.
Do you go to all the City Council-type meetings?
I have to go to these meetings. My life is on the line here. My entire fortune is sunk into this thing.
What would you want people to know that you think they don’t understand about the politics of making wine?
Generally speaking, we’re not drug pimps. You can drive along any highway anywhere and I’d challenge you to find a corkscrew or a cork. You’ll find McDonald’s wrappers and beer cans and Starbucks cups, but you’re not going to find any wine bottles or corkscrews. It’s just not really that kind of activity.
There’s the moral resistance but there’s also the fact that you’ve purchased and absorbed a bunch of land in that area that could’ve been houses. When I started buying land and putting vines on it, they start to see how much water is being used on the vineyards, but they don’t know that the average vineyard uses far less water than the average house. You can fit between four and eight houses on an acre of land and one or two houses use about as much annual water as one vineyard does.
Has the fight to make wine in Arizona gotten easier since you started?
It’s a lot of education. When the education catches up with itself, we’ll be fine. It’s a learning curve and as support shifts and you really start looking at it and understanding it, it’s a no-brainer. It’s really frustrating for me because I’m that guy that tends to see things in my mind, intellectually and intuitively, through to the end fairly quickly. I see all the chess moves and the benefits and the downsides. So I get frustrated when I see people move in slow motion.
Do you think it’s easier or harder that your name comes with notoriety to certain people?
There’s probably some antics that someone read about online mistaking me for Marilyn Manson and they think that that’s me and I’m not capable of a good deed.
Like you bit the head off of a bat, so how can you make a good bottle of wine.
Yeah, I’m still digesting that bat.
On the Arizona Stronghold website, you talk about winemaking as “rekindling a relationship with the Earth, to our community, to each other.” Did you feel you had lost that?
I think that we as a culture have lost it. On some level, all those zombie movies that are out there are a subconscious idea of what’s going to happen when the infrastructure falls apart and people in the larger cities don’t know how to fend for themselves and start eating each other. I’m joking, but I’m not. I’m sure people around you don’t have the faintest idea where that eggs or water comes from.
Where does winemaking fall into that responsibility?
I think it falls into that role because the amount of financial and time commitment is long-term, so if someone in your area is going to make the effort to establish that cornerstone, there are so many things that can be constructed around that cornerstone. It’ll take seven or eight years before you see the first dollar out of that bottle of wine and that’s assuming you have the land to begin with and the vine is in the ground.
I believe that this is an important step for our community and for other communities to witness and take that path. Look at some of the smaller communities in Europe: they don’t care who’s in charge–a king, a dictator, a president–because they know how to feed themselves. They’re going to survive because they’re conscious beings. Aware. Conscious. Malleable. People get in that mode where Life is Change. And you hear it a million times, but I don’t think people quite get it. You hear the buzzwords “sustainability” and “local,” but until you realize what goes into it, those words are going to mean nothing. They’re just going to be some buzzwords on a package that gets you to buy it.
You’ve always been media-shy when it comes to Tool. You even admit in the film that you’ve “built an entire career of not giving away the whole farm.” Is it strange putting yourself out there for your winemaking career, or do you almost see it as two separate Maynard James Keenans?
Part of the point being made is that people keep asking where the new Tool record is or where the new Perfect Circle record is, and if you’re a fan of either one of those projects, you understand the idea of what we’re doing as far as evolving ideas and thoughts. Why does it have to be music? Why can’t it be that we’ve evolved an idea and as humans, the whole idea is that we as individuals and as a collective are adjusting our worldview and growing up and figuring things out? This is the new project.
Yet Tool is one of the last remaining bands where a new album is an “event.”
Yeah, and that’s definitely going to happen because we enjoy making those sounds and doing those things, but unless we can really do something different, it’s going to be what it was 4, 6, 8 years ago.
Musically, you’re used to success, but winemaking is still a relatively new foray. In the film, noted wine critic James Suckling comes from Europe to try your wine. Did you get nervous at all about his opinion?
I’m not too concerned because what we’re doing is expressing a place and he’s a guy who loves to embrace stories and places. For him, he’s going to be open-minded enough to go, “I don’t know what this is.” I’ve got to worry about making sure that this place and time is expressed in a bottle.
Yet the comparison can be made between wine scoring and record reviews. You’ve never seemed particularly concerned with critics when it comes to your music. Do you think about how your wine will be rated and judged?
I am relatively concerned because they can make or break a wine. What I’m not concerned with is adjusting what we’re doing to accommodate scores because that’s a short-term profit. If we can express in a bottle where we’re from and it’s solid and how well we’re expressing the area, that’s going to be more important to us.
The first scene in the film is an improvised skit with Tim and Eric. Is that your way of saying “We are serious about what we do, but it’s still fun”?
We’re always having fun. Yeah, absolutely. Tim and Eric are amazing. I knew that their direction was to go for the jugular and you just roll with it. The dry humor is absolutely consciously inserted into the movie. I mean, I own a place called Merkin Vineyards. Give me a break.
The editor of Revolver says in the film “I don’t think any of Maynard’s fans, until recently, had a vision of him as a happy, well-adjusted person.” Thoughts?
Once again, it kind of missed the point. “Hooker With A Penis.” C’mon. Our very first video [1992’s “Hush”] was four naked guys foaming at the mouth. Tool. A Perfect Circle. Genitals are funny.
You answer the inevitable “Why wine?” question in the movie by talking about the need for self-discovery and finding something that resonated with you on a higher level. I was wondering…
I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I’m at the airport right now and I’m staring at Ponch.
I wasn’t trying to cut you off. I just wanted to point out to you that the CHIPs guy is right in front of me.
Oh, you mean Erik Estrada?
Erik Estrada is standing in front of me right now.
Where does this go on your Life Highlights reel?
Well, I don’t know if you know anybody else that has been in separate films with both Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. Now I can wear the badge of staring at Ponch’s head while he signs autographs at the Burbank Airport.
Blood Into Wine screens at City Winery tonight and tomorrow and at UnionDocs in Brooklyn on Saturday.