Rock'n Wines in Arizona's High Desert: Caduceus Primer Paso with Herby Orange Pork Chops (#WinePW)

I admit to a certain amount of skepticism and snobbishness in the past when it comes to wine regions that lay outside the usual boundaries and expected areas, particularly in the US. Over time, however, I’ve happily had my expectations overturned in positive ways enough times to now be much more open, or at least I flatter myself that this is the case. Now I welcome the explorations! 

My expectations in the past were that wines outside the major wine-producing states (California, Oregon, Washington, and to some extent, New York) were going to be either foxy with lots of wild notes, saccharine and syrupy, or huge and overblown. Don’t get me wrong, I still encounter a lot of these wines, and there are also lots of vanity projects where the focus for the winery isn’t on the winemaking, but that’s true anywhere you go. Luckily, over time I’ve been able to taste examples through trade tastings, samples, and friends who’ve made “other US” wine regions their focus and have shared their findings with me, which started to change my mind. (See this post for one such example from Texas.) Let’s also not forget that it really wasn’t all that long ago that Califonia’s wines were given the side-eye. Now, I know there are good wines being made all over the country. Sometimes you just have to look more closely and dig a little deeper to find the gems, so I try as best I can to check my expectations at the door. 

Wines made by a rock star in Arizona would’ve definitely caused me to cock an eyebrow . . . ok, it still might. “Arizona wine” would’ve made me think “overripe and extracted;” the rock star component would’ve made me think “vanity project.” Nonetheless, I’ve had some very good Arizona wines. I’d also heard good things about Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards, from more than one corner. So, when we stopped in Sedona on a road trip last year, we took the opportunity one day to explore a couple of nearby wineries, and we made Caduceus Cellars one of those stops.

Coffee Pot Rock in Sedona.

Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards are the projects of Maynard James Keenan, vocalist for the bands Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer. I don’t listen to that much hard rock, so I didn’t really know that much about Keenan, but I was interested to discover that in addition to his involvement in various avante-garde rock bands, he’d also spent time in the army, went to art college, and had been pursuing a career in interior design and set construction in LA when Tool was formed. To me that suggests an overflowing amount of creativity, as well as discipline, all of which Keenan has brought to his winery projects.

Keenan did his homework when establishing his wineries. During our tasting, we were told that he fell in love with wine while touring, tasting wines from all over the world in the process. When it came time to make his own, he researched which varieties would be best suited for conditions in Arizona and New Mexico. As a result, the winery focuses primarily on Spanish, Italian, and Rhône varieties.

A Sedona sunset from Sugarloaf summit, just because it's pretty. 

The vineyards and wineries are in high desert areas, which is key. The climate in most of Arizona is too hot and dry for grapes and results in a growing season that is too short to attain the needed level of ripeness. This runs counter to my expectation, but it also makes sense as grapes do shut down during extreme conditions like these. In these desert conditions, the grapes end up unbalanced, with high levels of sugar, but low acidity. However, there are areas of Arizona with high elevations where grapes can get lots of sunshine, but where cooler temperatures and increased diurnal shifts create conditions where grapes can ripen properly. (The best vineyards in Arizona sit at 5000ft/1525m). If you look around the world to see what grapes are growing under similar conditions, the selection of grapes starts to make a lot of sense. Tempranillo from Ribera del Duero comes to mind, as well as the Northern Rhône, as does most of Italy which is hot and hilly. Climbing the steep hillsides as we drove to the Caduceus tasting room in Jerome, Arizona did in fact remind me a bit of driving to wineries on hilltop towns in Italy and Spain.

You might also be surprised to know that it’s Keenan himself behind the wines. A lot of celebrity winemakers/owners either work with consultants or really hire others to run the winery (I’m in no way knocking this, it’s probably what I would do in their position), but in this case, Keenan is the one making all the wine. In an interview on The in 2018 he discusses his early years in the winery:  “It was pretty much me and my wife in the cellar for years. She got pregnant, we now have a three-and-a-half-year-old, going on four. I recruited my friend Tim White, so it’s just he and I in the cellar generally.”

Brief aside: It should be noted that his wife, Lei Li, is the lab manager for Caduceus, and like her husband, she seems to like to have her hand in many different pots. She also appears to share his preference to remain a bit reclusive, as it’s difficult to find out much about her, but her staff bio on the Caduecus website paints a brief but fabulous image of rock’n’roll woman of mystery. I’m penning a comic book in my mind with her as the heroine. 

I very much get the sense that he does not suffer fools. The page for each wine on their website bears the following warning: “REMINDER! Please be around to accept your package. WE DO NOT CONDONE VINOCIDE AND WE REFUSE TO REWARD INCOMPETENCE!”

He now has two labels, Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards, with 110 estate acres under vine around the state, several different tasting rooms, an Osteria, and a Pizza Truck, and is also the founder of a wine co-op called Four Eight Wine Works. In the same article, Keenan describes the difference between the two labels and how they’ve been evolving: 

It used to be that Merkin Vineyards wines were more affordable, but same cellar, same treatment, same process, easier access, easier to find. Now it’s kind of progressed to where the majority of the Merkin wines are from southern Arizona, and the majority of the Caduceus Wine Cellars wines are from northern Arizona.

I would love to visit the Osterial which is aiming “to deliver a 100% Arizona experience,” and has a delicious-looking menu. (“Lasagna cupcakes?” Yes, please!) However, on our trip in November 2020, we stopped into the tasting room in Jerome

The tasting room has a slightly gothic rock ‘n’ roll vibe, crossed with the look of a curio cabinet, all of which might sound like it should be a little out of place in a small town, but it really kind of fits. Jerome was a copper mining town and very much still has that feel. Caduceus' website has a great description of the town: 

Located high on top of Cleopatra Hill (5,200 feet) between Prescott and Flagstaff is the historic copper mining town of Jerome, Arizona, founded in 1876. Once known as the wickedest town in the west, Jerome sits above what was the largest copper mine in Arizona and produced an astonishing 3 million pounds of copper per month. Men and women from all over the world made their way to Arizona to find work and maybe a new way of life. Today the mines are silent, and Jerome has become the largest ghost town in America, averaging a population of approximately 353 residents since the 1960s.


Jerome also very much feels like a ghost town in the literal sense, as in you wouldn’t be surprised to run into a few specters as you’re walking down the street. We were only there for a couple of hours to visit the tasting room, but I definitely got that vibe, and I later saw several signs advertising haunted ghost tours, as if in confirmation. 

Greg and I waiting outside the Caduceus tasting room as snow flurries fell around us. I was very thankful we'd packed a few cold-weather essentials last minute for our desert road trip.

Since this was during the zombie apocalypse, the tasting room had protective, social distancing measures in place (far stricter than we saw elsewhere in Arizona, to their credit) and they were limiting entrance. It started snowing lightly as we waited outside, so we were quite happy once it was our turn to step inside. Once in, it was nice to have the directed attention that the limited seatings afforded. 

Caduceus makes very limited production wines (one article notes their production at approximately 2500 cases a year), so wines sell out and their wine club has a waiting list. When we came in, the server who guided our tasting was slightly surprised to know that I’d heard of the winery first (I first tried them when I was working at Wine Spectator), well before knowing who the owner was, so I suspect that many people still seek out the tasting room because they’re fans of Keenan’s music. Nonetheless, I think this is a great stop for oenophiles, particularly those with a slightly rebellious streak. I found the wines, in general, to be quite pretty, light-handed, balanced, and tended to have nice aromatics with herbal touches. They tended to be medium-bodied with moderate alcohol and seemed like they generally would be good food wines. However, if you prefer bigger, bolder wines, these might not be for you. 

The Wine & Pairing

We brought home a bottle of their 2016 Primer Paso, a Syrah dominant blend with a little Grenache, Petite Sirah, and a splash of Malvasia Blanca. This is Caduceus’ interpretation of Côte Rôtie from the Northern Rhône, which traditionally blends in a little Viognier in with Syrah to add aromatics and color. In this case, they’re swapping in Malvasia Bianca, another aromatic Mediterranean white grape. It’s perhaps not surprising that this was my favorite from the line-up since Côte Rôtie is one of my very favorite wines. 

The is a lighter expression of Syrah, as it’s medium-bodied and feels quite lifted. When I opened the bottle this time around, I picked up notes of black cherries, juicy blackberries, orange rind, dried herbs, and dried flowers on the nose. On the palate, I tasted similar notes, plus white pepper, dusty earth, orange pith, more flowers and herbs, as well as a little sun-dried tomato I didn’t pick up last time. Dusty tannins blend with the pepper and earth notes on the finish. The bottle might have been showing a little VA, but I’m not super sensitive to this so it read as high-toned and generally attractive. 

I wanted to create a dish for this wine that played to the fact this is a lighter expression of Syrah with lots of herb and floral notes. I opted for pork chops, rather than something like beef, although I also think it would be nice with a lighter lamb preparation and could work easily with lots of vegetarian dishes as well. I kept my flavorings pretty simple – just lots of herbs, with orange juice and zest, and butter – and cooked the chops sous vide with a sear at the end. I almost always cook pork chops, tenderloin, and loin in this way, since I think it’s the easiest way to ensure the meat stays tender and juicy. I also prepared some farro while the pork chops cooked, which added a little depth and nutty flavor to the dish. 

The combination worked really beautifully. The fennel pollen and oregano, I used to season the pork really brought out the floral and herbal aromatics in the wine, and orange zest spoke to the same note in the wine. I think another dish might’ve brought out more of the fruit notes in the wine, but this spoke to the wine’s more delicate attributes, which I think felt just right in the summertime. 

Geeky Details

Price: $50     Alcohol: 13.4%

There isn’t much on the website about the winemaking for this wine, but there is information on the back of the bottle. 

There is lots of information on the vineyard on the website site - Buhl Memorial Vineyard, Wilcox AZ:

The Al Buhl Memorial Vineyard lies at the eastern edge of Sulfur Springs Valley (alongside the Willcox Playa) in what is known as the Kansas Settlement. The vineyard site is 80 acres with 60 acres planted. The soils are relatively deep loams and clay-loams interspersed with cobbles. The vineyard sits at 4300 feet and experiences up to 50 degree fluctuations in temperature during the growing season. Harvest usually starts in August and can run into early October. From here we source Syrah & Garnacha for PRIMER PASO, Tempranillo and Garnacha for SANCHA, Sangiovese Grosso for KITSUNÉ, and occasional VSC offerings. The oldest 20 acres of the vineyard were planted in 1982 so some of the oldest vines here are at least 29 years in age.

Find even more information on the vineyard here.


pork chops, sous vide,
Servings: 2 to 4
By: Nicole Ruiz Hudson
Sous Vide Pork Chops with Herby-Orange-Butter Pan sauce

Sous Vide Pork Chops with Herby-Orange-Butter Pan Sauce

Prep Time: 10 MinCooking Time: 1 H & 5 MTotal Time: 1 H & 15 M


  • 4 bone-in pork chops
  • 4 Tbsp butter, or as needed
  • 1 tsp fennel pollen, or as needed
  • 1 orange, juice and zest divided
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 6 sprigs of thyme, or as needed
  • 6 springs of oregano, or as needed
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper


  1. Set up sous vide immersion circulator and preheat water to desired final cooking temperature. (In this case, I set it to 135°F for a finish between medium-rare and medium. Searing the pork chops at the final stage brought it closer to the medium by the end.)
  2. Prepare the pork. Season pork with fennel pollen, salt, pepper, and orange zest. Place the chops in a heavy-duty, food-grade zipper bag. Add any remaining fennel pollen and orange zest to the bag, along with half the orange juice, 1 to 2 Tbsp of butter, garlic, and the thyme and oregano sprigs. Seal the bag using a vacuum sealer or via the water displacement method (see note). Cook for 1 hour.
  3. After the chops have cooked for 1 hour, remove the bag from the water bath. Remove the chop and dry them on paper towels. Reserve the liquid aside.
  4. Heat a generous pour of olive oil (about 2 Tbsp) in a large pan until the olive is shimmering. Add the chops and sear until golden brown, then flip and repeat on the second side. Transfer the chops to a separate platter and season again with salt and pepper.
  5. Reduce the heat on the stove to medium-low. If the brown bits in the pan look good and not too black and charred, add the remaining butter to the pan to melt. (If the bits in the pan do look too blackened, scrape them out before continuing.) Once the butter is melted, deglaze the pan by adding in the remaining orange juice and scraping up the browned bits. Pour in the pork juices from the bag (use a strainer if you prefer a clearer sauce) and stir to combine.
  6. Serve the pork chops over the farro (or another preferred side) with the buttery pan sauce spooned on top.


Note: To use the water displacement method, zip up the majority of the bag leaving just an inch or open at the end. Lower the bag into the water–as you do so, the water on the outside of the bag will push out the remaining air in the bag. Once the bag is lowered the majority of the way into the water, zip up the remainder of the bag.

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farro, grains
Servings: 4
By: Nicole Ruiz Hudson

Herby Farro

Prep Time: 5 MinCooking Time: 40 MinTotal Time: 45 Min
This farro is essentially made in a risotto style, although it has a more toothsome texture.


  • ½ cup onions, diced
  • 1 cup farro, rinsed
  • 1 ½ to 2 quarts (or as needed) of chicken stock, water, or a combination,
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 sprigs of thyme or oregano
  • 2 cups of arugula, spinach, or baby kale, optional
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Parmesan, for serving


  1. Add a generous pour of olive oil (about 2 Tbsp) to a large pan, along with the onions, along with a pinch of salt and pepper. Sweat over medium/medium-high heat until the onions are soft and nearly cooked through. If the onions begin to brown before they’re soft, add a little water or stock to the pan to slow down the cooking. Add in the garlic and continue cooking until both are cooked through.
  2. Add the farro to the pan and stir to coat with the oil in the pan. Allow the farro toast for a minute or two, then begin ladling stock/water into the pan, just so the liquid lightly covers the farro. Season the liquid again with salt and pepper, and toss in the sprigs of herbs. Continue cooking to allow the liquid to absorb into the farro, stirring often. Once the pan is nearly dry, add in more cooking liquid. Continue repeating the process until the farro is cooked through and toothsome. (Note that it will never get as soft as rice–it has a heartier texture.) Taste and adjust seasoning.
  3. Stir in the greens, if using, and allow them to wilt into the mixture. Top with Parmesan if desired. Serve.
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The rest of the Wine Pairing Weekend (#WinePW) blogging groups is exploring midwestern US wines this month, hosted by Jill Barth. I couldn't get my hands on a bottle, so detoured slightly to the southwest. Check out the rest of their posts here:

Additional Sources and Extra Reading:

The beautiful iridescent Aura Wine Glasses in these photos were provided by Dragon Glassware as samples. I've partnered with Dragon Glassware as an ambassador. Click here to get the glasses for yourself and use the code "NICOLE10" for 10% off. (I might receive commission through the links at no cost to you.)

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  1. Arizona seems unlikely until you figure in the altitude in the right places. Still, Jerome seems an unlikely spot! Anyway, your pork chop sounds delicious with the wine.

    1. I felt exactly the same way, but certainly was happy to learn more. The pork chops did turn out pretty nicely!

  2. That pork chop! Those glasses. What a gorgeous set up for this month's post.

  3. You had me at fennel pollen! Love the stuff. Unfortunately as I type this they are weed whacking my source from the hillside where I've sourced mine...(they started at 7am!) and it's just needs a few more days before I could harvest it. Sigh.

    Anyway love this journey to Jerome! I haven't been there for 15 years. Have known about Keenen's wines, and one of these days I'll get there, and be a lot more knowledgeable when I go!

    1. WOW, you harvest your own fennel pollen?! Amazing. I always think I should do that with the fennel that grows around here, but I think I need a tutorial.


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