Arizona Wine Learning Center

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A wine education center has been set up at Yavapai College. The Southwest Wine Center, on the Verde Valley campus in Clarkdale, is a premier academic center supporting wine growers throughout the Southwest. Maynard Keenan, a musician for the rock band “Tool” and Jerome Mayor Nikki Check have been instrumental in building the center and will appear on Arizona Horizon to tell us more.

Ted Simons: A wine education center has been set up at Yavapai College near Prescott through a unique alliance. Southwest Wine Center on the Verde Valley Campus in Clarkdale is a premier academic center supporting wine growers throughout the Southwest. Our next two guests have been instrumental in developing the wine center. Maynard James Keenan is a wine maker and musician for the rock band Tool and Nikki Check is the mayor of the town of Jerome. Good to have you both here on Arizona Horizon.

Nikki Check: Thank you.

Maynard James Keenan: Good to be here.

Ted Simons: Let's start with you, Maynard. The purpose of the Southwest wine Center. What is this all about?

Maynard James Keenan: It's an incubator for local people trying to get into the wine business, trying to find their way, find their strength, determine their weaknesses, move forward with people like Nikki at the helm guiding people through vineyard management, through oenology. It's a working winery, so there's practical experience.

Ted Simons: Is it for budding connoisseurs, budding vintners, both?

Maynard James Keenan: Vintners and growers. So people working in the field, in the field and in the winery.

Ted Simons: It sounds like you're training people to work in the wine industry.

Nikki Check: We indeed are.

Ted Simons: I got that one right, didn't I? Talk to me more about how you're doing this and how you start with an idea and get it to fruition.

Nikki Check: Really, Yavapai College is just responding to an industry that is growing very, very quickly. To fully understand that I think it's important to understand Arizona's history with wine making, really. In the 1700s, New Mexico and Arizona actually had more wine grapes planted than California, and we continued to have a successful wine industry up until prohibition. Sedona had a 72-acre vineyard planted that was operational for 25 years before then. Really we have just been making up for lost ground since. It didn't become legal to direct market your wine through a tasting room until 2006. So we grew from 10 wineries to 84 licenses I think in the state. Really, really rapidly. There's just been a vacuum. We're just trying to catch up and provide skilled labor and provide a place for entrepreneurs to get on their feet.

Ted Simons: What kind of career opportunities are there out there when you're working the fields here, what kinds of jobs are available?

Maynard James Keenan: It's pretty infinite. There's the obvious, the wine maker, assistant wine maker, seller, managers. Anyone who is into marketing in general, into cuisine, into distributorship, if you work on tractors or forklifts you have a job. I had a guy today trying to figure out what that squeak was on my forklift.

Ted Simons: As far as teaching, again, it sounds like an agricultural course for the most part.

Nikki Check: Absolutely. It's the reason why we were able to build a two-year degree so quickly. We at Yavapai College have an agricultural degree already so we folded those courses into our first one-year certificate program for viticulture and hired a director for wine making and are breaking ground on our actual wine making facility this fall.

Ted Simons: Is there much hands on experience right now?

Nikki Check: In fact we try to pair each academic course with a full-time in the field course. So every semester students get hours in the field in both viticulture and oenology.

Ted Simons: We're talking a campus winery, correct?

Maynard James Keenan: It's a working, functioning winery. It's not built yet, we're still funding it. It's on its way.

Ted Simons: Where did this idea come from? Was this just sitting over a couple of glasses?

Maynard James Keenan: In the state of California you have U.C. Davis which started as a small community college and blossomed into this go-to facility for areas around the country - send them vines to be cleaned up, to be put into nurseries, to be planted into vineyards -- there's all these different avenues that came from that one facility. I think we saw that opportunity in Yavapai County to grow this thing to the point where it's covering a lot of those bases because their problems are not necessarily our problems. We're discovering all the hurdles as we go. We need that place to gather all that data.

Ted Simons: What are some of the problems that you hear from grape growers and winemakers in the region?

Nikki Check: Well, one obvious thing is we don't know what to grow yet. It really was U.C. Davis helping in Napa to decipher where should they be growing cabernet Sauvignon and where should they grow pinot noir. We have an immense array of varietals planted in and sifting through what works and what doesn't is an important thing that the Yavapai College campus vineyard is going to be doing specifically. Then we'll be partnering with the U of A, letting us use their server and we'll be opening up a website so that growers and winemakers throughout the state can be submitting their data and observations.

Ted Simons: When I heard about this I was thinking, okay, this is for young folks who want to get into the business. The more I hear about it, it's also for folks already in the business to accelerate their learning as well. Talk about that dynamic.

Maynard James Keenan: We have a lot of people that come this way from California. I have a friend who almost jumped ship from California with his family business to come and establish himself here. I'm still working on it. It's something that you can come here with your knowledge but rather than it being a completely risky endeavor if we have some of this knowledge going into what varietals work best on what sites, someone who already has experience in a very large pond and being a small fish in California can have a little more wiggle room here to set up a better standard.

Ted Simons: When we talk about the wine industry in the region, the economic impact now and what it could be in the future, what are you seeing?

Nikki Check: Gosh, a couple years ago when they did their economic impact study on the Verde Valley itself I think they came up with like $25 million. We have outgrown our statistics so quickly it has to be about $45 million worth of impact within the Verde Valley. I think we just have the sky to reach. We have only really been building this industry in its proper fashion and high quality wine production since 2006 when we had our leg up.

Ted Simons: Building the industry means restaurants, homes, hotels --

Nikki Check: Absolutely. Currently we only have one winery that's producing enough wine to distribute nationally and internationally: Arizona Stronghold Vineyards. Getting more land in production and more wineries up and running. Maynard's actually helping with that goal by opening up what's called the 4-8 Wine Works, also in progress, as an incubator facility for people who think they want to make wine, think they have have an edge and a direction in their winemaking style but don't have the capital. It would be a shared equipment facility so people can get on their feet.

Ted Simons: Talk more about that because we hear about incubators all the time.

Maynard James Keenan: 4-8 Wine Works, named after the 48th state, Arizona. We have the press, the distillery, all the equipment. Lots of guys starting up don't have $250,000 to get going. This facility is meant to be an alternating proprietiorship where somebody with talent and experience can come and be left to create their own destiny with their wine label. I'm offering for the Yavapai College program whoever their top graduate is, who is really risen to the top, they have a spot at the 4-8 Wine Works to get their start.

Ted Simons: You talk about trying to get a friend from California over here. How did you get over here? Was wine making in your family background? Give us a concise background here. What got you into this?

Maynard James Keenan: You've been to L.A.

Ted Simons: Yes. [laughter] Can't grow any grapes out there on Ventura Boulevard.

Maynard James Keenan: I left. I lived there for about five years and ran away screaming in 1995 and moved straight to Jerome where there's 340 people. It's better for me.

Ted Simons: Is it still better for you? Things are happening up there now.

Maynard James Keenan: Yes. Still a really close-knit, very creative, aggressive community. [laughter] It's a very wonderful place to look at what that place is and all the people that have their solid opinions and life-style. It's a great place to be.

Ted Simons: Is it a great place to grow grapes and if so, why? Is it the weather, the soil, the water?

Maynard James Keenan: Elevation, the soils. Everything about it. The terrain in the Verde Valley on the slopes in general it's very much like Mt. Etna, like Spain, parts of Portugal. There's some similarity to some of the areas I have been in Adelaide Hills, a little less moisture but the terrain itself is very conducive to Spanish, Italian varietals, even southern Rhone varietals. With the family, I have a great-grandfather who made wine in northern Italy.

Ted Simons: Okay.

Maynard James Keenan: I didn't know that until I was breaking ground and a distant cousin brought it up.

Ted Simons: Oh, by the way.

Maynard James Keenan: Oh, by the way, you've made wine in your DNA.

Ted Simons: Speaking of DNA, Jerome's DNA: it's always been a curious place. A wonderful place to go to --

Maynard James Keenan: How kind. Kind words.

Ted Simons: Not many folks stay or last too long when they stay. How are all the old timers feeling about this?

Maynard James Keenan: You're on the spot now.

Nikki Check: I'm also the mayor. Volunteer mayor. So I do spend a lot of time with some of the old timers. Some have been on volunteer council for 20 years or so. There are mixed results, of course. People when you move to a ghost town and you would like it to stay that way, but you would also like your sewage to be properly delivered somewhere and your water delivered on a rickety system from six springs up on a mountain, it's a tough call to make.

Ted Simons: Are you getting a little push-back or is that softening as folks see what's happening?

Nikki Check: It is softening. I think people are starting to see especially wine tasting rooms are not bars. They attract a completely different crowd. They are wrapped up and cleaned up by 7 p.m. It really invites a nice high end crowd to peruse the art galleries.

Ted Simons: Folks in Jerome were worried the wine tasting rooms would turn into bars?

Nikki Check: The biker gangs really gravitate toward sipping wine in the afternoon. [laughter]

Maynard James Keenan: Stabbings and what not.

Ted Simons: Yeah. [laughter] You're there to stay.

Maynard James Keenan: Yes.

Ted Simons: And you helped start this wine center. Where do you want to see it go? We're talking about Jerome, a place you escaped to. How far do you want to see this develop?

Maynard James Keenan: I would like to see it -- you always want it to get to a certain point and stop. But there's a lot of small microclimates in that area. I would like to see people with true vision develop those small microclimates and create that unique boutique artisanal setting in all those areas. I don't really see the Verde Valley becoming this sprawl of vineyards across the entire valley. I don't see that happening. The land is too expensive, it's not necessarily conducive -- we get a lot of late spring frosts. There's a lot of weather issues that would prevent it from being a sprawling vineyard territory, but there are cool areas all the way through the hills there. It's going to be interesting to see how it pans out. That's what I would like to see.

Ted Simons: As far as the Southwest Wine Center, talk about vision, folks who have that drive, always a little bit of an argument can you teach that, teach the arts, teach someone to be a front man in a band through a classroom or do you have to just do it?

Maynard James Keenan: You can get that online.

Ted Simons: Exactly. But as far as the Southwest Wine Center, can you teach this stuff or does it have to be in your DNA?

Nikki Check: One thing to know about the industry, especially on the growing side, it's not very intuitive. Especially growing you really don't treat grapes like you treat other crops. So people who have been farmers previously who have green thumbs may think I can grow anything, I can grow wine grapes. There's nuts and bolts to know about if you would like to succeed there's plenty of failures to be had in the vineyard. I think some nuts and bolts information is super important. You absolutely can teach that. Teaching an art is interesting. You really have to get as broad as you possibly can and teach all aspects of things. There's so much stylistically that dictates how you grow wine grapes, how you make your wine, and just opening people up to as much as possible and letting them run with it.

Ted Simons: Sounds very interesting. Again, Yavapai College. You can get a degree, a certificate and learn about the art of wine. Good to have you both here. Congratulations on the success.

Maynard Keenan:Musician, Rock Band "Tool";Nikki Check:Mayor, Jerome;

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