Full Belly Files: California Agave Spirit Growers Reunite
This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on April 15, 2022. To get Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter delivered to your inbox every Friday, sign up at Independent.com/newsletters.
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 delivered one of the picked pinas to Ventura Spirits, who turned 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 Drylands Farming Company in Carpinteria.
Recently, Reynolds’ own agaves of the tequilana variety have been made into liquor by Venus Spirits in Santa Cruz, Ventura Spirits and Shelter Distilling in Mammoth Lakes. And there’s another release due soon from Jano Spirits in Napa County, which has made a batch of the Americana variety of agave grown by Reynolds’ neighbor.
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, or TTB, like 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 another sugar-based. 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, other than people in some cases don’t know that’s the case,” said Reynolds, who explained that the TTB has approved 150 new alcohol labels from agave by US 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 tequila bar slated to open soon on State Street. Also in Montecito, Mark Peterson and Ane Diaz run an 11-acre agave ranch called Rancho del Sol, which Reynolds described in the California Agave Council’s latest newsletter. Since 2019, they have been growing varieties of agave salmiana, salmiana ferox, arroqueño, tobala, americana, guadalajarana, papalome, desmetiana, karwinskii, coyote and tequilana, with the intention of using the plants for distillation when harvesting.
The folks at La Paloma are also still active, reports co-owner Eric Hvoboll. Their first planting in 2015 was 2,000 tequilana and 200 mapisaga, followed by 1,400 in 2016. By 2021, the tequilana was fully harvested, with Ventura Spirits making multiple batches over the years. The mapisaga isn’t ready yet, but they just planted another 700 tequilana pups about a month ago. They are actively removing nearly 900 avocado trees that were burned by the Sherpa fire in 2016 and plan to plant several thousand more tequilana pups in the coming 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.
Paso Wine Festival $20 Discount Code
I’ll be at the Hospice du Rhône in Paso Robles from Thursday to Saturday, but that’s just one of many places to sample the region’s wine in the coming months. The next big ticket is the Paso Wine Fest, which returns after a two-year hiatus on May 21, with an all-new program taking over the Paso Robles Event Center.
The festival features 100 of Paso’s most iconic wineries along with three bands, two educational seminars (one on the cabin and one on sustainable agriculture), a makers market and food trucks, converging in what is sure to be a memorable affair. for this 40-year-old event. From noon to 4 p.m., guests can also bring their own picnics to enjoy while sipping big reds, crisp whites and everything in between.
Those interested in a more in-depth experience can attend wine dinners at Thomas Hill Organics and The Hatch on May 19, or dive into Paso’s sparkling wine scene on May 20 at Paris Valley Road Estate Winery, where Four Lanterns, Sextant , SummerWood and Vino Vargas will pour. That night is also a dinner at the center of events, with food by KelleCo Project and wines from Austin Hope, PaperStreet, McPrice Myers, Thibido, Peachy Canyon and TOP Winery.
Plot? How about $20 off a general admission ticket? Use code INDEPENDENT22 to claim this discount, and don’t say I never gave you anything. See pasowine.com.
From our table
I was out of town last week, chaperoning my son’s sixth grade class at Astrocamp’s Foothill School in Idyllwild. There was no drink to speak of – other than Hi-C fruit punch on tap, plenty of tea and coffee and plenty of fresh mountain spring water – but the food was pretty solid considering the volume required, especially the dishes they prepared for teachers and parents.
That’s why I didn’t write a Full Belly Files last week, which means there’s a lot to catch up on. So let’s go :
- In this week’s issue, our food and beverage colleague, Vanessa Vin, tells us a bit about her Westside upbringing, her work discovering wine in Napa Valley, and her return to Santa Barbara to write for us and improve access to wine for people of color and others. Find out how she’s starting a Central Coast chapter of The Hue Society here.
- In last week’s journal, Vin also wrote about Lefty’s Coffee Collective in Los Olivos. Find out how the owners put their progressive values into play here.
- When Olivia Davi and Luke Whitesides sent in an unsolicited story about blind tasting tofu banh mi around town, I sent them a few questions to turn this post into a Q&A. Find out how 4 Eggs & Pizza won here.
- I didn’t know CODA stood for “children of deaf adults” until CODA won Best Picture at the Oscars. I did know, however, that Municipal Winemakers founder Dave Potter was the child of deaf adults, so I asked him a few questions about that experience. Read her answers and see her baby photo, here.
- A long time India friend and occasional contributor Shannon Brooks filed a report last week about visiting three distinct Northern California wine countries: Mendocino, Sonoma and Napa. Step into her pampered shoes here.
- Finally, in this week’s paper, I interview Kirk Wiles of Paradise Springs Winery on how he started the nation’s first bicoastal winery. He’s having dinner at the Costa Kitchen & Bar at the Mar Monte hotel next week. Read all about it here.
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