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Monday, Aug. 3, 2009

Arizona Stronghold

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"Learn to swim, I'll see you down in Arizona Bay"

Tool, "Aenema"

"Wine, song, food, and fire/Clothes, shelter, and seed.

No more need for the old empire/(When the) indigo children (come.)"

-- Maynard Keenan, "The Indigo Children"

Maybe Maynard Keenan is just being prescient.

Keenan (lead singer of Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer) writes a song in the mid-90's about Los Angeles sliding into the ocean. At around the same time, according to the trailer for the documentary "Blood into Wine," he has a vision about growing grapes and making wine on an Arizona hillside. A continuation of the same dream? Whatever his motive, he headed to the hills in Jerome, Arizona, to plant himself a vineyard.

Along the way, Keenan hooked up with Eric Glomski, an Arizona native and true believer in the power of the southwestern soil. Glomski's Page Spring Cellars has as a part of its mission statement (that I wholeheartedly embrace), "Good wine is not strictly the esoteric fare of nobility: Wine is for the people." Glomski served as Keenan's oenological advisor for Caduceus Cellars and the pair founded Arizona Stronghold Vineyards as a joint "second label" wine for both Page Springs and Caduceus.

I harbor a natural suspicion towards "celebrity" wines. As my friend Jim Voltz of Bond Street Imports put it, "That's how you sell average wine market, market, market, market." I've tried a number of wines "made" by famous folks and the results have been mixed, at best. Many of them are pretty average, driven by cute logos and recognizable names rather than actual winemaking acumen.

I've been curious about Keenan's wine, though his music may not be everyone's glass of grapes (and it's hit or miss with me, depending on my mood and state of mind) but it's always painstakingly crafted, highly structured, and remarkably creative. I figured if he were going to undertake winemaking as a creative endeavor rather than a vanity project, he'd probably throw himself into it with the same sort of attention to detail. I did figure Arizona could become an interesting viticultural area. Grapes love lousy soil, blazing hot days, and dry cool nights. My old Southwestern stomping grounds have all of those in abundance.

When I saw the press release come down the pike about Keenan & Glomski's recent publicity tour, I made an inquiry (when I saw they weren't coming nearby) and they generously offered to send some samples. Eric was also good enough to pass along some recipe recommendations which, as you know, I can't resist.

The first one we tried was the Page Springs Cellars 2007 Estate Vineyards "Landscape." This is a 50/50 split of syrah & petit sirah -- all estate grown in Yavapai County. This was described as a "classic Rhone" style. After giving it a little time to open up, we were greeted with a wonderfully fragrant nose of caramel, mint, and blackberries. The body, as expected from a blend like this, is very full and loaded with the syrah's fruitiness. Layers of berries and smoke work towards a finish that goes on for a minute or more by itself, ending with some very firm, balanced tannins and chocolate flavors. I asked Eric (a self-admitted "die hard meat eater") what food would go best with these wines. He suggested "highly seasoned meat, like lamb or goat." Taking this cue, we put together a lamb shoulder braised in tomatoes with sides of wilted spinach & sauted mushrooms and some polenta cakes. The Landscape is nicely complex and great by itself, but with the lamb -- transcendent. Mint always goes well with lamb, and those tones paired up nicely -- but you add in the tannins slicing through the fat, and you end up with a slightly fruity, exceptionally smooth finish. Retails for about $40.

Next up was the Caduceus Cellars 2006 Merkin Vineyards "Anubis" -- This wine, named for the dog-headed Egyptian god who protected and guided spirits through the underworld, marks the transition of Caduceus to using predominantly Arizona-grown fruit. Eric said that the wine "bears the Bordeaux mark" -- which makes sense, as it is largely a cabernet franc/cabernet sauvignon blend with a little syrah and sangiovese thrown in for good measure. We found it was an absolute must to decant this wine. Even after an hour open, there was still a lot of alcohol on the nose, and the fruit was extremely tight. After a good deal of swirling and decanting, the nose of violets and smoke start to emerge more strongly. Powerful dark fruit flavors and licorice lead to layers of smoke and balanced tannins on the finish. Eric's recommendation was a big steak, and I went with porterhouse. Divine. The wine brought out the flavors in the meat and the fruit in the wine ahead of any lingering fatty taste from the steak. We saved a little for chocolate and sipping, and the flavors continued to balance and marry. The Sweet Partner in Crime summed it up: "It's seductive. It's really fruity, but not an overwhelming fruit bomb. It's big and tannic, but that doesn't detract from the fruit or dry you out. It's not like anything jumps out at you. The whole flavor just draws you in." About $35-40 for about as well-balanced a wine as you'll find.

Finally, we had the Arizona Stronghold 2007 "Nachise" Red Wine another Rhone blend named after Cochise's son, former leader of the Chiricahua Apache. The blend is about 2/3 syrah, with the rest grenache and petit sirah. Once decanted, I expected it to be earthy with a little fruit. While a Cotes-du-Rhone is a reflection of the soil with its funk, the Nachise is a reflection of the sun and sky. The fruit flavors are certainly forward, but they're extremely bright for a wine this big. The earth that exists in this wine provides a nice backbone that's full without being thick. The finish is nicely long, with some tasty coffee and plum notes. It actually reminded me more of a Rioja than a Rhone. Rather than going back to meat, we paired this with a "Southwesterny" vegetarian meal grilled, marinated portabella mushrooms with avocados and a salsa of black beans, corn, tomatoes, cilantro, and fresh cayenne pepper from our garden. The Nachise embraced both the earth and the spice and held its own against the spread of flavors. About $20 and well worth it.

If these selections are any indication, the partners of Arizona Stronghold (and Arizona wine in general) have an extremely bright future. As for Keenan, was he looking for future oceanside terroir when he planted his Merkin vines? In a 2006 interview with IGN, he quipped: "This is a prime spot for vineyards. An untapped resource. But the master plan is to have the Merkin Vineyards Bed and Breakfast set up for when California drops in the ocean. Beach front property and the New Napa Valley. You got it."