It sounds like a set-up to a bad joke. What happens when you combine Californian progressive metal band Tool, a couple of entrepreneurial Brisbane men in their mid-30s, and wine made high in the Arizona desert?
While the punchline mightn't make you laugh, the fruit of their labour is likely to prick your tastebuds. This weekend, Brisbane locals Matt Irwin and Trent Allen will conduct the first public tasting event for their wine import company, sip&listen. The pair has imported more than 5000 bottles directly from Tool singer Maynard James Keenan's Arizona Stronghold Vineyards.
Keenan's deal with sip&listen marks the first time these wines have been exported outside of North America. The germ of the idea came about when Irwin, who has worked in the Canadian wine industry for the last five years, played host to his long-time friend Allen on an annual ski trip to Alberta in early 2011.
“I'd saved this one bottle of [2006 red wine] Chupacabra for Trent, because I knew he was a massive music guy,” Irwin says.
“We put [the Tool album] Salival on the stereo, downed the bottle together, and the ideas just started flowing. Trent said to me, 'there's no reason why this isn't in Australia. This is amazing wine, there's a great story – why don't we do it?' I said, 'you're out of your mind! There's got to be a reason why this wine hasn't come to Australia yet. Why is it going to come through two dudes like us?'.”
A couple of days before Allen flew to Canada, Irwin set his friend some homework.
“Matt told me to track down this documentary called Blood Into Wine,” Allen says.
“It hasn't been released in Australia yet, so I found a really terrible internet stream, which was buffering every 30 seconds, and watched it. It's an amazing story, and a fantastic film.”
The 2010 documentary follows the tumultuous first years of Keenan's venture into the vineyard alongside his winemaking mentor, Eric Glomski.
“We're doing everything we can to try and secure an Australian release, because after anyone watches it, the first thing they want to do is grab a bottle of the wine,” Allen says.
The day after consuming that life-changing bottle of Chupacabra, the two friends sat down and soberly nutted out a business plan. Irwin made the initial approach to Arizona Stronghold; national sales manager Paula Woolsey received his email. Her first priority was to ascertain that the two Australians weren't simply Tool fanboys trying to sneak a meeting with the notoriously private Keenan.
“That kind of thing comes with the territory,” Woolsey tells brisbanetimes.com.au.
“It's my job to whittle out the extreme 'stalker fans'. The point is to sell wine from Arizona, not 'Tool wine'. Maynard does not mix wine with Tool; he is a member of Tool, but it is not his band.”
(Woolsey points out that, when Keenan is touring with his side project band Puscifer, “we do the wine thing all over the place: on stage, before the show, during the show!”)
Woolsey had a three-month dialogue with Irwin before she allowed sip&listen to take the first shipment of 5000 bottles.
“Having been in the wine business for over 20 years, I can honestly say that Australia has always held a special place in my wine heart,” Woolsey says.
“We are all up [to date] on the trials and tribulations of the Aussie wine market; from too many vines in the ground and animal labels, to droughts and lost market share. All wine markets run in cycles.”
Keenan, who has performed with the multi-platinum selling Tool since 1990 and last toured here in January 2011 as Big Day Out headliner, has been quietly working away at winemaking in Arizona since the mid-2000s.
The region isn't exactly renowned for its grape fertility; the Stronghold's business motto reads, “Redefining the desert with high elevation wine”.
True to his evasive reputation, the sip&listen pair have had little direct contact with the singer.
“He's so busy with all of his other projects,” Irwin says.
“He signed off on it around a month into the process. We got an email from him saying, 'Let's do it. I love Australia, let's move ahead with this'. But from that point onwards, he's left it with his team in Arizona to manage his business.”
Allen is by far the bigger fan, having seen Tool perform live 10 times throughout the world, including at a bullring in Madrid in 2006.
Irwin is less enthusiastic: “I am a fan, but it really was the wine that spoke to me,” he says.
“It's really, really good juice.”
Their VIP tasting event will take place at Wine Experience in Rosalie on Sunday.
The $170 cost includes four Arizona Stronghold wines: Tazi (white), Dayden (rosé), Nachise (red), and the 2006 Chupacabra which set the wheels in motion last year.
As the business name indicates, sip&listen are intent on marrying the wine-tasting experience with music, Tool or otherwise.
“We've always seen that beer and music goes together; all the beer and spirit companies promote concerts, festivals or clubs,” Irwin says.
“Wine's never been taken to that degree, because so many people have made it into an 'exclusive' drink. 'Oh, you don't like that wine? You mustn't understand it.' Wine's been taken to a level that isn't inclusive of people.”
“We're hoping to turn that around,” he says, “so that it's not a bad thing to stand in front of a live band with a glass of wine in your hand.”