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Red Wine and Platinum Records

Rock singer Maynard James Keenan fills his cellar with great wines

Ryan Isaac
Posted: March 31, 2004

Maynard James Keenan's passion for wine is spilling out of his cellar and into his backyard -- he plans to plant 2 acres of vines.

Maynard James Keenan holds a wine list the same way he handles a microphone, with easy authority. He flips through the pages, and great wines begin shaking in the cellar. The lead singer of alternative hard rock bands A Perfect Circle and Tool is at Babbo, his favorite New York restaurant, and he's ready to party -- or at least have dinner -- like a rock star.

Earlier, in his SoHo hotel room, Keenan sat at his desk, typing at his computer, oblivious to his tour manager, publicist, a makeup artist and photography crew tiptoeing around him. Keenan was dressed in a black button-down shirt and black pants, wearing a brown wig of dreadlocks and a pair of thick glasses that would invite bullies from any playground. When his tour manager whispered something to him, he responded quietly, sounding nothing like the singer whose commanding voice is featured on two CDs with A Perfect Circle and five with Tool. It's no wonder many music journalists have found the frontman enigmatic, evasive and unapproachable. But they clearly have never shared a bottle of wine with him.

At dinner, the dreadlocks, thick glasses and intimidating whisper are gone. At dinner, Keenan embraces the spotlight. Except that tonight, he does not have 50,000 pierced and tattooed faithful fans cheering for him. Tonight, he's orchestrating the wines.

He orders two bottles at once, setting the pace for the evening and showing his guests and the Babbo staff who leads this band. The bottle of Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Case Basse 1983, he'd like for the table first, while the Sassicaia 1990 gets a chance to breathe. Two bottles of Solaia 1990 follow, and Giuseppe Quintarelli Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Superiore Riserva 1990 caps off the night.

The Babbo wine list charges Keenan's soul. "To me, it's like the Ten Commandments. They pull out the list for Sassicaia, and it's like, 'Ah, God spoke,'" he says. "Look at that. A page and a half of Sassicaia on one wine list is enough to make my heart stop."

His love affair with Babbo began on his first trip, when he was brought by his friend -- and guest on this night -- actor Chris Meloni. They indulged in a magnum of 1990 Sassicaia. "If you have a magnum of 1990 Sassicaia on your wine list and it's not gone, it's a crime," he says.

Keenan, 39, was born in Ohio, but bounced around the country as a child, and lived in Michigan during his high school years. He spent time at West Point, in the United States Military Academy, but left to study art. Eventually landing in Los Angeles, Keenan met drummer Danny Carey, with whom he would form Tool.

Tool's first release, Opiate, debuted in 1992, and the band began seeing regular play on MTV with the song "Sober" off the album Undertow, released in 1993. In 2000, Keenan took time away from Tool, which enjoyed album sales in the millions, to front A Perfect Circle. The band's debut album, Mer de Noms, went platinum in the United States (more than 1 million copies sold), and the 2003 follow-up, Thirteenth Step, is well on its way. Both releases are softer and less angst-driven than the hard rock sound of Tool.

Songstress Tori Amos turned Keenan on to wine in 1995 when she gave him a bottle of Silver Oak Napa Valley 1992. "All of a sudden it all made sense, and I caught the virus, so to speak," he says.

Today, at his home just outside of Sedona, Ariz., Keenan has collected about 2,000 bottles. He installed the cellar about three years ago, when he had 400 bottles in his basement and realized it was time to plan ahead. Keenan broke ground outside of his house. "I was so obsessed that I just had to go build an entire room underground, beyond my house."

In addition to fronting two bands, Keenan is a partner in Hillmont, a Los Angeles steak house. His involvement in the Hollywood Boulevard establishment is evident on the wine list in the section dubbed "Maynard's Picks." Penfolds Magill Estate wines are a staple.

To make these picks, he must keep tasting. "I make an attempt to try as much as I can. I could not tell you that this one has undertones of tobacco or chicory or cat piss; I have no idea," he says. That doesn't prevent him from participating in blind tastings with friends, though. "It's pretty telltale," he says. "I end up going to dinner and trying similar wines again and see if my opinion is the same. I'm fairly consistent. I couldn't tell you that it's the same wine, but I can tell you that I like it again."

Keenan's chart-topper is Penfolds Grange Hermitage. He not only loves the wine, he's fascinated with the story of Grange creator Max Schubert, an iconoclast whose talents were initially doubted but whose perseverance led to great success. Inspired by the story, Keenan is paying homage in his own way, by planting a vineyard with similar grape varieties.

With the help of a local winemaker, Keenan is planting 2 acres of vines outside his house. He has land on an east-facing slope about 5,000 feet above sea level, and Keenan says it gets sun all day. He is planting into a foot of topsoil, atop a foot of chalk, with decomposed granite below.

Keenan knows what varieties he wants on his 2 acres: Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. He doesn't know where he'll get the grapes, nor what kind of wine they'll produce, but he has his model clearly in mind: Grange.

"I'm hoping it's not going to be your basic Cabernet- Shiraz," he says. "I'm hoping it's going to have some really odd, unique blend and initially people go, 'I don't understand it,' and then all of the sudden they go, 'Hey, this is something unique.'"

There's a shared philosophy between that of his music and his taste in wine: "That's the goal of any artist: to push the boundaries in some way that opens up all these new possibilities," he says.

He plans to plant next fall, and considering that he owns an excavator and bulldozer, he will most likely be getting his hands dirty.

When Keenan is not planning his own vineyard, he's often enjoying the fruits of others'. He has two complete verticals of Grange magnums, and is one bottle away (1953) from an entire collection of 750mls. Among his other favorites are d'Arenberg Shiraz McLaren Vale The Dead Arm and Torbreck RunRig.

Australia aside, he goes for Bordeaux's top bottlings and super Tuscans. He also has California cult wines and Châteauneuf-du-Pape from 1994 and 1995 that he is waiting to taste.

After a Silver Oak tasting, he reported, "It was almost unanimous across the board: All the ladies liked the Alexander, and all the guys liked the Napa." He pauses, smiles, and, in an over-the-top, sly and seductive voice, says, "The ladies like the Alexander Valley."

A rigorous touring schedule doesn't impede Keenan's passion. He'll stop in a wine shop while on the road and buy a couple of mixed cases to keep on the tour bus.

"Right before the show, I'll bust something open," he says. "You get a chance to have a little sip of it before the show, and then two hours later you get to sip it again, so you give it a chance to open up. I've tried a bunch of different Bordeaux that way."

The road also offers opportunities to dine out across the country. Keenan was recently in Tampa, Fla., and ate at Wine Spectator Grand Award-winner Bern's Steak House. After the Mouton-Rothschild 1943 with dinner, he had a Madeira from 1827.

"Just think of everything that's happened since 1827. This thing survived that long. If it could just talk to you," he says. "I think there's a magic, a transformation from just grape juice to this magic -- there's an alchemy, an otherworldly alchemy going on in there."

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