California Agave Spirit Growers Reunite

One of the first agaves planted in Santa Barbara County, at La Paloma Ranch on the Gaviota Coast | Credit: Matt Kettman

In 2019, I wrote a cover story about how La Paloma Ranch along the Gaviota Coast grew agave in order to turn the drought-tolerant, fire-ready plant into alcohol. . I was able to participate in one of their first harvests, and even deliver one of the plucked pins until Ventura Spirits, which transformed the harvest into an agave spirit. (I also wrote about those results here.)

Since then, there’s been some news that I see on occasion, particularly in parts of northern California, where Craig Reynolds is seen as something of a godfather in this movement toward a truly national liquor industry. agave. “It was pretty exciting,” Reynolds told me over the phone this week. “A lot more people are now putting agave in the ground all over the state.” They usually buy plants directly from Reynolds or Doug Richardson of Arid Lands Agricultural Society at Carpinteria.

Recently, Reynolds’ own agaves from the tequilana variety were transformed into liquor by Spirits of Venus in Santa Cruz, Ventura Spiritsand Distillation under cover in the Mammoth Lakes. And there’s another release due soon from Jano Spirits in Napa County, which made a batch of the American variety of agave grown by Reynolds’ neighbor.

The second harvest of La Paloma agave took place in November 2018, under the direction of Anthony Caspary of Ventura Spirits (coa holder) and ranch manager John Kleinwachter, under the supervision of owner Eric Hvolboll. | Credit: Matt Kettman

These batches are small, usually between 250 and 450 bottles, but they sell out quickly, usually straight from tasting rooms and distillery websites. The hope is that these direct sales will help distilleries invest more in the specialized equipment needed to process agave, which is more difficult than the typical fruits and grains used in distillation.

Reynolds is also leading the way on Agave’s organizational and legislative fronts. Less than two months ago, he spearheaded the creation of the California Agave Council, a nonprofit trade group with lobbying power that includes about 10 distillers and two dozen growers. Currently, the council is leading a bill across Sacramento that will establish a statewide standard for anything labeled “California agave spirit.”

“It must be 100% California grown with no flavorings or colorings,” Reynolds said. “These have become a consumer concern as tequila is permitted to use additives without disclosure.”

In fact, anything federally recognized by the US government’s Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) as tequila (which can only come from Mexico) or an agave liquor is allowed to contain a wide range of additives. , including up to 49% of a different sugar. base. So that tequila or agave liquor in your cabinet may actually only be distilled 51% from agave, and another 49% from cane sugar or corn sugar.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, except that in some cases people don’t know it’s the case,” said Reynolds, who explained that the TTB has approved 150 new labels. of agave liquor by American growers over the past two years.

Mezcal, on the other hand, must be 100% mezcal to be labeled as such, so that’s what Reynolds wants California producers to adhere to. “We basically chose the highest standard you could possibly have,” Reynolds said. “We just want to make that clear from the start so we can establish and maintain a reputation for quality.”

The bill enjoys bipartisan support, eliminating its first committee earlier this month with a unanimous 19-0 vote. “There is no opposition,” Reynolds said. “We think there’s a very good chance it could be approved this summer.”

Here in Santa Barbara, progress continues as well. Berkeley “Augie” Johnson is still tending to his harvest in Montecito, and is behind a soon-to-be-opened tequila bar on State Street. Also in Montecito, Mark Peterson and Ané Diaz manage an 11-acre agave ranch called Rancho del Sol, which Reynolds described in the California Agave Council’s latest newsletter. Since 2019 they grow salmiana, salmiana ferox, arroqueno, tobala, American, guadalajara, papalome, desmetiana, karwinskii, coyoteand tequilana varieties of agave, with the intention of using the plants for distillation at harvest.

The folks at La Paloma are also still active, reports co-owner Eric Hvolboll. Their first planting in 2015 consisted of 2,000 tequilana and 200 mapisagafollowed by 1,400 in 2016. By 2021, the tequilana has been fully harvested, with Ventura Spirits making several batches over the years. the mapisaga isn’t ready yet, but they just planted another 700 tequilana puppies about a month ago. They are actively removing nearly 900 avocado trees that were burned by the Sherpa fire in 2016, and they plan to plant several thousand more. tequilana puppies in the next few months.

Hvolboll is delighted that Ventura Spirits also handles Reynolds California Agave liquor. “The more producers and distillers, the better!” he said.

Reynolds thinks the pandemic has only made people more interested in buying drinks from local crops, a category for which agave is well suited. “There is a demand for locally grown drinks,” he said. “The pandemic has also reinforced people’s sense of food security and freedom from dependence on international supply chains for food and beverages. It contributed to that.

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About Joan J. Hernandez

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