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Tequila Sunrise

How a New Upscale Day Dawned for Mexico's Ancient Firewater
Jonathan Kandell
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

(continued from page 3)

Grassl prefers to buy his agave piñas on the open market rather than commit himself to any particular growers. When he rents a distillery or bottling plant, he orders the staff out and replaces them with his own crews. At the bottling facility he has rented near the old distillery, seven young men and women dressed in shorts and T-shirts are corking and packing Porfidio bottles by hand. "I look for people with no previous job experience--to make sure they haven't had time to learn bad work habits," says Martin. His entire labor force--in the distilleries, bottling plants, administration and sales--amounts to fewer than 60 people.

On the way back to Guadalajara, we stop at one of Grassl's favorite lunch places, a restaurant in an ejido, or communal farm, that harvests agave plants and processes its own Tequila. He orders a medley of spicy pork and beef dishes, along with guacamole and tortillas. "Sometimes their Tequila is pretty good," he says, bringing a shot glass of the liquid up to his nose for sniff. Apparently, not today, though. He asks for beer instead.

Back at his office in the late afternoon, Grassl recounts anecdotes about his native country--his adolescence on the ski slopes and his son's panicked reaction to snow when he made his first trip to Austria. Grassl says he would never consider moving back.

So what's left on his wish list, after having amassed a megafortune at a youthful age in the New World under the unlikeliest circumstances? "I'd like to meet Arnie Schwarzenegger," Grassl says about another Austrian who did pretty well on this side of the Atlantic. "We probably have a lot in common."

Jonathan Kandell formerly reported on Latin America for The New York Times. Tasting Away in Mescal-Ville

As with Tequila, the concept of a superpremium mescal was pioneered by foreigners. In 1995, two California importers--Pamela Hunter, who runs a public relations agency, and Carl Doumani, then co-owner of Stags' Leap Winery--began marketing their Encantado brand across the United States at $40 a bottle.

"It has a smoky taste, far more complex than Tequila," says Hunter. The business, sociology and politics of mescal, as Hunter and Doumani have discovered, are also a good deal more complex. Mescal production is concentrated in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and the 4.5 million-liter annual total there amounts to only about 5 percent of Tequila output. Mescal is produced by 160 small distilleries, called palenques. The producers, or mezcaleros, are organized into associations whose leaders often mix politics and business. Unlike Tequila, there are no Normas, or government regulations, to encourage at least minimal standards of quality.

Thus, it took perseverance by Hunter and Doumani to fashion a superpremium mescal business. They met local university professors who introduced them to mezcaleros and association leaders. After tasting scores of mescal brands, they picked out 29 palenques grouped under a single association of mezcaleros.

Mescal from these distilleries was mixed and sampled by Doumani, Hunter and a team of American and Mexican experts. When the blend was deemed sublime, most was bottled as Encantado and some was set aside as a tasting reference for future production. "We wanted to emphasize Encantado's purity," says Hunter. "So, we made it a clear liquid in a transparent bottle. And of course, we eliminated the worm from the bottle."

Initially, some 10,000 cases were imported into the United States. Despite rave reviews in trade publications and encouragement from owners of prominent Mexican restaurant, sales stagnated. In the United States, Doumani and Hunter have expressed dissatisfaction with their distributors, and in Mexico they have encountered friction with Valeriano Martínez, the leader of the mezcaleros who produce Encantado. "We haven't sold as quickly as we hoped," says Hunter. "It's turned out to be a very steep learning curve."

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