Q&A: Tool's Maynard James Keenan on Blood Into Wine, the New Documentary About His Adventures in Winemaking
"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."
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.