Thursday, August 20, 2009

HFF On The Road: Jerome, AZ - Day 1

I fucking hate Phoenix. It's admittedly an irrational hatred stemming from one extended visit several years ago where I ended up in the middle of a monsoon and stuck 10 miles of asphalt from anywhere. Still, Phoenix reminds me of the worst parts of the San Fernando Valley without any of the charm of being within 30 miles of the ocean. It's unfair, but it is what it is Phoenix has my title for "Worst Big City in America." And I've been to Philadelphia.

As this was my only exposure to Arizona, my disdain for Phoenix had sort of extended to the entire state. But my relocation to Los Angeles and its relative proximity to the Copper State--along with my general love for deserts--put Arizona back on my radar.

But it was a little tasting at Silverlake Wine that made reconsider what 'Zona had to offer besides binge drinking, blond Republican coeds, and the good half of Lake Havasu (the topless half).

I've always said two things (and I mean ALWAYS):
1. California Wine that's any good is too expensive.
2. California became the wine production capital of the country by accident--a product of Prohibition, a lack of phylloxera, and a lucky break in 1976. New Mexico had more land under vine prior to Prohibition than California did.

Caduceus Cellars turned me on to Arizona wines (though most of the wines aren't 100% Arizona fruit) but AZ Stronghold (partnership between MJ Keenan and Eric Glomski) sold me on what can be had out there. Really nice, food-friendly wines at an attractive price. So I made a few calls, packed up my suitcase, and rode through the desert on a horse with no name. Or rather it's a Kia Soul with a name that I won't disclose (let's just say it rhymes with paint yockey).

My travel partner on this journey was Grandmaster A--friend since elementary school and frequent co-adventurer to places as far afield as Denver, Japan, and Anaheim. We got an early start and hit the state line by lunch time. As we debated our fast food preferences (both having jobs that keep us on the road a lot, we've redeveloped an appreciation for quick cheap eats that belie our organic mindsets). We agreed El Pollo Loco to be our favorite but hunger and an empty gas tank found us at a Burger King in Blythe.

We both grabbed the "Angry Tendercrisp Sandwich." Crispy chicken breast on a roll with lettuce, tomatoes, fried onion strips, jalapenos, cheese, bacon, and a spicy mayo. To our shock and awe the sandwich looked surprisingly like the picture on the wall and I'm not embarrassed to say that it was fucking good. Juicy, drippy, spicy--and not cheap. Since when did a fast food sandwich and some onion rings cost eight dollars? A couple bucks more and I'm getting Oinkster. Meh.

The next exit had an El Pollo Loco.

There are two ways to get to Jerome, AZ (where you'l find the Caduceus tasting room). You can take a straight shot on I-10 through Phoenix and cut north on I-17 to SR-89A or you can cut northeast at Blythe and take a series of mountain highways through a series of high desert trailer park oases. Unfamiliar with the terrain, we stayed on the interstate this time (our return trip would be different). The low desert country gives way quickly as you make your way up the Colorado Plateau out of the Lynchian hellscape of Phoenix into the Coen Brothersian heckscape of rural Arizona. Scrub desert gives way to saguaro forest, then rocklands, until you get to the fringes of good old-fashioned Ponderosa pine forests.

We sped through the local metropolis of Cottonwood (pop. 11,000), wound our way through no less than three roundabouts with central berms so high you couldn't see oncoming traffic, negating the purpose of roundabouts, and made a hard left (still miraculously on SR 89A) up a winding mountain road to imposing, haunted Jerome, AZ.

In the less than six miles from Cottonwood to Jerome you gain 2,000 feet in elevation and you do it quickly, like huffing glue while riding an escalator. A copper boom town in the late eighteen hundreds through the 1930's, Jerome was all but abandoned by the early 1950's, when the mine closed after yielding over a billion unadjusted dollars in copper, gold, and silver. Jerome stayed virtually empty and decaying until the the late 1960's when hippies, bikers, and outcasts began calling the quasi-ghost town home. At present, Jerome is a town that looks largely like it did at the turn of the 20th century with most residents restoring the town's beautiful Victorian homes. But the town still has its ruins.

The town reminds me a lot of the mining towns of the Sierra Foothills, like Murphys or Columbia, but without the history theme park veneer. With the exception of a couple tacky t-shirt and jewelry shops, Jerome isn't flaunting its mining heritage. The town is very much Jerome 2009, everybody there just happens to live in buildings out of Jerome 1909. It's also not as family-friendly as some tourist destinations: in its roughly four blocks, Jerome sports three wine tasting rooms, two full-service saloons (along with several restaurants with full bars, one of which is a local gay bar), a tattoo parlor, a sex shop, a Thunderdome-esque basketball court, and Keenan's Puscifer Store which, despite the cute cartoon devil, is neither for kids nor for for the dull and obtuse.

Basically, it's heaven for the off-beat, progressively libertarian, Mr. Show-worshiping, 25-60 year-old music-loving wine geek.


We arrived at the Connor Hotel, est. 1898, were greeted by the extraordinarily friendly staff, and tossed our stuff in our room. Nice hotel. It maintained all its historicity while having most modern amenities: in-room fridge and coffee maker, (superfluous) TV, in-suite bathroom, good AC, etc. And reasonable too. With a AAA discount we got a nice big room for right around $100 on a Friday night.

Since the Caduceus tasting room was open until 8PM we spent the remaining daylight hours bouncing around the town, looking at the mining exhibits, stumbling into the aforementioned Puscifer shop, hiking up the gravel roads on the perimeter of the city, admiring the views, exploring the town flume, and getting hit on by camera-toting art students from Phoenix. But there was business to be done, and that business was wine.

Here's a basic rundown of the northern Arizona wine scene. It revolves, at least in the wider national consciousness, around Maynard James Keenan--lead singer of Puscifer/A Perfect Circle/Tool and accomplished vigneron. He makes his home in Jerome and has about a half-acre of Cabernet Sauvignon growing on his property. Keenan's winemaking partner and co-celestial orbiting grape body is Eric Glomski, formerly of David Bruce winery, and owner/winemaker of Page Springs Vineyards in nearby Cornville. Together, they've formed Arizona Stronghold Vineyards, whose winemaking facility is in Cornville but whose vineyards are in southeastern Arizona. This is where the bulk of Arizona's grape-growing takes place; it's a fairly fertile valley and the soil retains water well. But with Keenan's personal estate fruit, Glomski's fruit at Page Springs, and the grapes at Keenan's Merkin Vineyards project in Cornville, there is a lot of wine to be made from grapes in the Jerome area.

Which is a long way of saying that the Arizona Stronghold Vineyards wines are made mostly from Keenan & Glomski's estate vineyards all over AZ as well as some purchased fruit from selected sites in California. The Caduceus Wines are still largely California-based since it took 3-5 years for the new AZ vines to be ready for their first harvest, though Caduceus' new "Dos Ladrones" white wine is 100% Arizona fruit as is the "Nagual del Judith" (a tiny production premium Cab Sauv from Keenan's personal estate vineyard, dedicated to his late mother). Eventually the Caduceus wines will transition to more AZ fruit.

I'd had most of the Caduceus wines before at Silverlake Wine and they impressed me, in particular the powerful aromatic Dos Ladrones (half Malvasia Bianca and half Chardonnay) and the funky Cote-Rotie inspired Primer Paso (88% Syrah and a hefty 12% Malvasia taking on the role of ersatz-Viognier). In a domestic wine market that is producing more and more ripe, extracted, high-alcohol wines that taste more like brandy than wine, Caduceus Cellars is producing red wines that are, to use a horribly over-used douchey wine term, a revelation. Musuclar to be sure, but structured as hell with nice tannins, dusty earth, modest alcohol, and rocking acidity.

I tasted some of the Page Springs wines too, but I'll get into that in more detail with my Day 2 post. I'll also get into detail about or dinner at "John McCain's favorite restaurant," The Asylum, on a different post. You've all read enough for one sitting.

HFF out, with love.

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