Sonoma County mesmerized by mezcal
The smoky, complex distillate known as mezcal - one of the oldest distilled beverages in the New World and quickly becoming one of the trendiest as well - has been flying under the radar for centuries.
Made in tiny batches, from the fruit of up to 30 varieties of agave plants, the smoky cousin of tequila is currently being heralded as the ultimate artisanal spirit, with wild varietals such as Tepextate selling for over $150 a bottle. Mezcal sales between 2007 and 2011 grew by 48 percent, according to data from the Mexican government, and Mexican restaurants such as Agave in Healdsburg are championing the higher-end mezcals in special tasting flights and cocktails.
“We introduced mezcal to Sonoma County about 12 or 13 years ago, when nobody wanted it,” said Agave owner Octavio Diaz, who also opened Agave Uptown restaurant in Oakland last year. “People are just hooked into it, and they drink a lot of mezcal now.”
One of the high-quality mezcals that Agave restaurant serves comes from Benesin and San Juan del Rio, two brands of organic mezcals made by Santa Rosa resident Efrain Nolasco, who grows and ferments mezcal in his Oaxacan hometown of San Juan del Rio.
During a tasting by a New York Times Wine Critic in 2010, two of Nolasco’s mezcals were singled out for best value among a total of seven brands. In 2013, the product review site, TheFiftyBest.com, awarded the Benesin Añejo a Double Gold medal.
After those accolades, industry insiders started referring to Nolasco as “Señor Mezcal.”
“We started doing mezcal tastings with Efrain in 2011, and foodies loved it,” Diaz said. “When it comes to mezcal, he is very hands on - he’s the number one guy in the states who knows the whole process, from harvesting and planting to distillation.”
Growing up in the tiny, mountainous village of San Juan del Rio, Nolasco learned the artisanal craft firsthand from his father.
Using the same methods practiced for hundreds of years, the maestro mezcalero harvests the heavy plants, then extracts the heart, or piña, by cutting off the leaves and roots. The hearts are cooked in rustic, underground pit ovens lined with river rock, then crushed by a stone wheel turned by a horse and fermented in wood vats. Finally, the fermented mash is distilled in clay or copper vats and bottled.
“As a kid, I would go out to help harvest the agave and push the horse,” recalled Nolasco, 56, who has lived in Santa Rosa for the past 30 years. “It’s very hard work.”
Throughout Mexico, mezcal is known and loved as the “elixir of the gods” because of its mythical creation story. Mezcal - derived from the Nahuatl word mexcalli, meaning “oven-cooked agave” - is believed to have been born when a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, cooking and opening it,
“We connect mezcal to the gods,” Nolasco said. “In my hometown, we use it for everything … to ease terrible pain and childbirth. And when we have a party, we have to toast with mezcal first, and we pour a few drops on the ground … the earth gave it to us, so we have to give back to it.”
In 1987, Nolasco emigrated to the states in search of a better life and ended up working in construction and landscaping. After the 1990s, when he found out that his hometown’s mezcal industry had bottomed out, he decided he had to do something.
“In the 1990s, when the tequila boom started, the state of Jalisco came and bought all the agave, and the mezcal production collapsed,” he said. “Then Jalisco started growing their own and stopped buying the agave.”
That meant that the agave grown by his town became worthless. With about 80 percent of the residents employed by the mezcal industry, it was a near-fatal blow to the local economy.
Around 2000, Nolasco started making plans to produce his own, high-quality, organic mezcal in San Juan del Rio that would rely on natural processes and a double distillation process. He spent the next five years learning about all the regulations surrounding mezcal production.
By 2006, Nolasco had launched his mezcal business and became the first maker to become certified organic. His distillery was built with gutters on the roof to catch the mountain rainwater used in the fermentation process.
“The pureness is important,” he said. “I also improved the production, using no chemicals and only natural fermentation.”
Nolasco said he produces about 2,000 liters of mezcal per month. A shipping company delivers the cases to Tijuana, where it goes through customs, then he sends a truck to pick it up.
“I was the first person from Oaxaca to export to here,” he said. “There are a lot of brands now … the good mezcal is pricey; my mezcal is affordable. I want to educate people, and let them know what good mezcal is.”