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Welcome to Mezcalifornia

The growers and distillers determined to make great mezcal—in California.

For the past four years, Craig Reynolds has been plugging blue weber agave plants, known as agave tequilana, into three acres of soil in Yolo County, California. His hope is that when they come to maturity, they will be the source of a homegrown California agave spirit intended to rival those from Mexico. It’s a project he’s calling “Mezcalifornia.”

Reynolds isn’t alone. Within California, several people—as south as Carpinteria and up towards Reynolds’ farm near Woodland, likely the northern border of where blue weber agave can flourish—are bent on building an agave spirits industry for the state. In many ways, the endeavor seems an obvious one; tequila and mezcal are now among the hottest spirits categories in the United States, with volumes for the two having increased steadily for at least 15 straight years, and grown by more than 8 percent in 2017 alone, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

While production of mezcal and tequila is limited to Mexico, the agave plant itself claims duel-citizenship, flourishing throughout the southwestern United States, where it grows both wild and as an ornamental. But an American-grown agave spirits industry has been slow to arrive. Currently, it trails producers in South Africa and India as well as some United States-based craft distillers who have been making spirit from Mexican agave syrup for close to 10 years. The hold up is two-fold: Not only is it illegal for potential distillers to harvest wild agaves from public lands, few farmers have been interested in growing them without an established market. In addition, distillers have been slow to invest in the equipment needed to process the unwieldy, fibrous piñas.

“There is a chicken and egg thing, so I’ve just decided to be the chicken… or lay an egg,” Reynolds tells me. He later traded this in for a more sensical metaphor, referring to himself as “Johnny Agaveseed.”

Reynolds originally became interested in agave spirits while working in Mexico for an education nonprofit. While there, he helped produce Dos Volcanes, an agave spirit made from plants grown just outside the official boundaries of Tequila. Eventually, that experience lead to the launch of the “Mezcalifornia” project, which began in 2015, when Reynolds used agaves from Riverside County (grown by Mark Carlston, the owner of tequila brand Crotalo), which he cooked in a stone pit that he built on his land. After a few days of roasting over eucalyptus and oak, the agaves were then taken 80 miles south to St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, where they were fermented and distilled by master distiller, Lance Winters. Smoky and oily, with an acidic brightness, the one-off distillate was never released commercially, but Reynolds nonetheless considers it a “proof of concept” spirit.

“If [Reynolds] can get an agave economy going, even a small one, I’d probably buy all of the agaves he produced for the next several years, because it’s just fun,” says Winters, adding that someday he also hopes to harvest some agaves that are growing wild on private Texas ranch land. (A previous attempt to make American-grown agave spirit by a Temecula, California, man named JB Wagoner ended, reportedly for reasons unrelated to spirits production itself.)

While little research has been done on how exactly agaves should be grown under cultivation in California, the horticulturalist Doug Richardson, who has a penchant for unusual crops, believes the state could host a wide variety of agave species. In the 1980s and 1990s, Richardson grew several dozen banana varieties in Ventura County in what was then the continental United States’s only commercial banana farm. Today, at his Drylands Farming Company nursery outside of Santa Barbara, he is growing agaves for spirits production.

“I think it is a potentially very profitable business in California,” says Richardson.

A lot of the agaves he’s grown so far have been agave tequilana, but he’s also started to grow several other species suitable not just for distilled spirits, but also those for pulque production as well. Of the approximately 200 total species of agaves, upward of 40 or 50 may be suitable for beverage-making. Among them is agave americana, which has been made into mezcal in Mexico and grows abundantly on, of all places, Alcatraz Island, according to Reynolds.

Of the few farms that have started growing significant numbers of Richardson’s agaves, the largest planting is on a historic Santa Barbara county avocado farm called La Paloma Ranch. There, the agaves were first planted four years ago after some college students working on the farm expressed interest in growing something that could be turned into booze.

“They didn’t quite realize it takes seven to 10 years for the agave to mature,” the farm’s manager John Kleinwachter tells me. Nonetheless the idea proved intriguing enough that the farm decided to keep going with it. As the agaves grow, they produce volunteer plants, or “pups,” which farmers remove and replant, creating a continuous maturation cycle. Today there are nearly 4,500 agave tequilana and agave mapisaga plants (another cultivated species) growing in various stages of maturity. Kleinwachter hopes to eventually set up a consortium of people to grow, roast, distill and market the spirit.

While Winters admits that, for a while, a California agave spirits industry is “nothing more than a curiosity for people,” it’s one Reynolds is trying to gin up interest for. To do so he’s started selling fan gear emblazoned with the project’s logo—the California state flag with an agave-shaped emblem in place of the lone red star and an Hecho en Estados Unidos stamp below the name. In the meantime, his plants have about two years to go. Given their Mexican parentage and California roots and, perhaps, future aspirations, “I refer to my agaves as ‘Dreamers’,” he says.

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