Maynard James Keenan: rock singer and winemaker

Apocalyptic party animal or raunchy absurdist, the multiplatinum rocker is also a winemaker whose talents reflect his musical roots

Words by Joe Fattorini

Photography by Roderick Mills

Maynard James Keenan is in town, and he’s texting me to meet him at the Roundhouse in Camden, one of London’s legendary live music venues. He’s on a world tour with his band Puscifer. It’s possible, of course, that you may not be familiar with Puscifer’s oeuvre (which Rolling Stone describes variously as an ‘absurdist in-joke’, a ‘raunchy repository for Keenan’s bawdier lyrical excursions’ and ‘party jams for the impending apocalypse’) or, indeed, of Keenan’s other bands, Tool and A Perfect Circle.

But Keenan’s also a winemaker, and before the gig he wants to pour me his eclectic Italian varietal wines from Caduceus Cellars, his high- altitude winery in Jerome, Arizona. He talks about soils, climate, vintages, production methods, his family’s past as grape growers in northern Italy – and about ‘rekindling a relationship with the Earth, to our community, to each other’. Then he puts on a black Mexican wrestling mask, complete with green Mohican, and heads on stage to perform hardcore alternative rock to his devoted fans.

Keenan’s business card says ‘Jesus H Christ’, but he’s famously reclusive. ‘I’ve built an entire career of not giving away the whole farm,’ he says in Blood into Wine, the 2010 documentary about the establishment of his Arizona winery. In person, he is warm, generous and funny. When we first had dinner, three years ago in London, music rarely came into the conversation. We talked about the similarities between vineyards in Arizona and Mendoza, which share a similar altitude and latitude. We talked about his idea of putting a skin- contact Vermentino in cans. The waiter turned out to be a fan and managed an impressive display of professionalism, remaining (just about) impassive until Maynard was out of the room. Then he couldn’t contain himself: ‘Is that really Maynard James Keenan?’

People say winemaking expresses the maker’s personality. Goats, frozen Gewürztraminer skins, punk and winemaking experiments is Maynard James Keenan

Keenan’s a big fan of British comedy. When he texts me, it’s with, ‘Oi, prick, are you local?’ – a reference to the dark sitcom The League of Gentlemen. He loves unsettling comedy, but there’s also a ribald streak to his humour: his winery is named after the caduceus, the ancient symbol for commerce, but his Merkin Vineyard is named after a pubic wig. Likewise, both Tool and A Perfect Circle: ‘Genitals are funny,’ he says.

His wine and music are both public products invested with private meaning. His Cabernet Sauvignon Nagual del Judith is named after his late mother Judith Marie, whose ashes were scattered in the vineyard. He is reluctant to share his song lyrics, but when they’re published, they often reveal hidden themes and structures. Within the lyrics to ‘Lateralus’, for example, the amount of syllables in each line correspond to an arrangement of Fibonacci numbers.

Months after we meet, I’m in Basket Range, Australia, with Taras Ochota of the Ochota Barrels winery. Ochota (who used to play bass in a punk band) explains how he and Keenan made a wine together when the musician was touring in Australia. He pours a glass of their jointly made Shiraz. ‘Maynard wanted to co-ferment it with a white variety,’ he says, describing a night of bizarre, mercurial winemaking. ‘I didn’t have anything. But I remembered some Gewürztraminer skins in a plastic bag in the freezer that I was going to give to the goats. We threw them in. It worked, and it cooled the ferment down, too.’

People say winemaking expresses the maker’s personality. Goats, frozen Gewürztraminer skins, punk and winemaking experiments is Maynard James Keenan – wines as delicious and off-beat as his lyrics.