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Welcome to Mezcalifornia: Inside California’s Agave Boom

Spiky agave plants grow by vineyards, along scrubby hillsides, near the Pacific coastline, in residential front yards. It’s not the arid fields of Mexico, but a new set of horizons: California agave.

It’s still early days for “Mezcalifornia,” as some have jokingly dubbed the state’s burgeoning agave industry. Agave spirits produced outside Mexico can’t legally be called mezcal or tequila. But already, small batches of California-made distillate show glimmers of promise, with wild, far-ranging floral, vegetal, smoky or mineral flavors reminiscent of mezcal.

Right now, it’s challenging to get your hands on a bottle. But eventually, California agave will be coming your way.

If it weren’t for climate change, there might not be a Mezcalifornia.

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“We’re desperate for water out here,” says Alec Wasson, executive director of the California Agave Council, a trade organization of growers and distillers. “Over the last 20 years, it’s been trending less and less water. That’s how we got into agave.”

Some growers have turned to drought-resistant agave to supplement or replace crops that require lots of water; others are using the succulents as a firebreak, as increased wildfires have threatened the state’s agriculture.

Of course, California isn’t the only U.S. state working with agave: Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, among others, are also working with the plants, and other countries around the world are growing agave, too. But California is clearly at the forefront, in large part due to the work of dogged visionary Craig Reynolds, president and founding director of the California Agave Council.

Three decades of work in the California legislature (including a 14-year stint as chief of staff for now-retired senator Lois Wolk) prepared him well to navigate gnarly regulations in agriculture and beverage alcohol. Further, he and his wife were longtime volunteers with Project Amigo, traveling regularly to Colima, Mexico, to work with the non-profit, which supports educational opportunities for local children. A fundraiser selling tequila bottles to support the organization led to Reynolds trying his hand growing agave and bottling an agave spirit.

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That journey led him back to California, where he saw the potential for drought-resistant agave to supplement crops across the state. Along the way, he’s joined with other pioneers who see the possibility of creating a homegrown agave spirit.

Of course, America’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for agave suggests plenty of demand for the spirit, whatever it ends up being named. Between 2003 and 2023, tequila and mezcal volume grew 294%, or about 7.1% yearly growth on average, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

“It’s ultimately irrelevant what you call it,” says Reynolds. “We want our agave to be its own thing.”

Agave and a match illustration
Illustration by Ryan May

Agave Plants in Wine Country

While the movement started up north in Yolo County, it has since radiated all across the state.

“It feels like you’re in a different world,” Wasson says. “You’re not used to seeing this in California. Everywhere you look, there’s pointy agaves.”

For many would-be growers and distillers, the first question is which of the 200-plus types of agave will work best, depending on variables like elevation, soil types and climate. “Agaves are durable, but frost is an issue,” Wasson notes. In Mexico, the huge, green-gray blue weber (Weber Azul or Agave tequilana) is the only variety approved to make tequila—and some Californian growers are planting blue weber here. But many seek to make their mark with different varieties.

For example, at Stargazer Spirits in Glen Ellen, cofounders Laurie and Adam Goldberg cultivate more than 30 agave types in the bowl of an extinct volcano, in Sonoma’s Moon Mountain AVA. After a long career working in craft beer import and distribution, the couple finally purchased their own farmland in Sonoma County.

“As we looked to what was going on with climate change and the drought in California, it seemed like a good idea,” Laurie recalls. (Of note, agave requires about a quarter of the water that wine grapes do, they estimate.) They started by planting 1.5 acres; over three years, that has grown to six, and they’re hoping to expand that to a total of 80 acres.

Today, they’re keeping an eye on which agaves thrive best, with plans to winnow that to about 15 varieties. So far espadín— a key variety used to make mezcal—has been a bust, they say, while salmiana has thrived, offering “really beautiful bell pepper and jalapeño flavor.”

“There are hundreds of varieties of agave that can be distilled,” Adam says. “And they taste very different, like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay taste different. And the same plant grown in three different places will taste differently.”

And while grapevines mature in a season, agave plants stay in place for about seven years, the hearts buried firmly underground. “They really extract from the soil,” he says. “Agave is reflective of the soil and the place, even more so than grapes.”

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Agave Salmiana
Illustration by Ryan May

From Almonds to Agave

Similarly, Stuart Woolf works with a dozen different agave varieties, purchased in Mexico and transplanted to the U.S. His Fresno County-based Woolf Farming company is known for tomatoes, almonds and other crops—but drought concerns drove him to found California Agave Growers, which focuses on providing agave nursery stock to distillers and others in the state.

“Agave represents a glimmer of hope that we can help keep these lands and keep the water flowing,” Woolf says. “We’re vertically integrated: We grow tomatoes and process them. We grow almonds, and we process them. My vision is: Could we one day have estate-processed agave in California?”

Ultimately, he’d like to produce a distillate featuring blend of agaves that would be unique to the state—an “ensamble,” in mezcal-speak.

“Talking to other growers and craft distillers here in California, people aren’t looking to do a knock-off of tequila’s legacy or mezcal,” he posits. “We’re looking to create something a little different.”

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It's Like Caddyshack

Meanwhile, the state’s agave farmers are grappling with how to grow agave in conditions that may be very different from those in Mexico. It’s not easy—although sometimes growers find humor in the situation.

Among the key issues: differing climates and soil means differing pests. “They don’t have gophers in Mexico, at least not like they have here,” Woolf complains. “Gophers love agave! It’s our number one pest. It’s a sweet plant, there’s sugars in it, and gophers will eat the entire bulb underground and the whole plant just lays down.”

At agave symposiums, the gopher problem is often the first question posed by growers. Some set gopher traps; others encourage owls to prey on the burrowing rodents.

“It’s like Caddyshack,” Woolf says, half-joking. “My son is out in the field throwing smoke bombs into the gopher holes.”

Door-to-Door Service

Perhaps the most intriguing business model is that of Gian Nelson of Jano (pronounced “HA-no”) Spirits: while he waits multiple years for his agave plants to ripen, he has found a creative workaround to find fully matured plants to harvest and distill.

“We’ve taken to knocking on people’s doors,” he explains, approaching properties and even residential homes where fully grown plants are visible, often as decorative landscaping. “When we see Agave americanas we’ll knock on their door and start a conversation and harvest their agaves. There are plenty of ranches with them roaming free on their property. We’ve become a door-to-door service. We take the pups off the mother agaves.”

When possible, he also works with farmers on small-batch bottlings.

“Our first two batches, we were lucky enough to get to know Henry Garcia, our first Agave americana farmer,” Nelson says. “He and his father were growing these agaves to make pulque, a kind of agave wine. Unfortunately, his father passed away. I got to know him. We’re both ex-Marines, both of Mexican descent. We made our first batch with him.”

Committing to pursing a local expression, the agave was fermented with native yeast from the property and cooked in an earthen underground pit for 5–6 days, using local wood for the fire, similar to the way ancestral mezcal is made. After distillation in copper pots, the spirit was proofed with well water, also from the property. “In that way, you can really capture the land and the people who grow these plants,” Nelson explains. The finished spirit had a citrusy profile, with a bit of smokiness from the cooking process and a vegetal, jalapeño-like bite.

“There’s a lot of complexity to it,” Nelson says. “The highest compliment we ever got was, ‘Oh, this isn’t mezcal?’”

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Weber Azul
Illustration by Ryan May

The Wild West

Compared to Mexico, which has centuries of well-honed traditions, California’s fledgling distilleries are still figuring out how it’s all going to work. Some steam agaves, akin to tequila; others cook them in a pit, akin to mezcal or raicilla; still others are jerry-rigging stills typically used to make whiskey or vodka.

“We’re trying to blaze our own trail when it comes to processes,” Nelson says. “I think of our ancestors, the gold mining pioneers. They had to figure it all out, there was no mining industry. We don’t have tahonas [stone wheels to crush agave] or hornos [ovens to cook agave]. We have to figure it out. We’ve had enough harvests under our belt, we have a pretty good foundation for what we have to do. And we’re refining it every time we have to do it.”

While many have relied on consultation with legacy distillers and growers in Mexico, plenty of others relish the excitement of going their own way.

“There’s a cool freedom that comes from being outside the rules of tequila and mezcal,” Adam Goldberg says. “Because we don’t have the rules that dictate how our spirits need to be produced, how the agave needs to be registered and grown…we’ll see different styles and production methods you wouldn’t see in Mexico.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that California agave is completely freewheeling. In 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law legislation requiring that “California agave spirits” can only be made from California-grown agave, and that they cannot contain any flavor or coloring additives.

But the biggest challenge of all? Growers, distillers and agave enthusiasts alike are eager to see more bottlings come to market, and demand still outpaces supply.

“It’s so new, as soon as one of the distilleries comes out with a new batch, it sells out so quickly,” Wasson says. “People are gobbling it up, they’re so hungry to try it.”

But that scarcity won’t last forever, proponents promise.

“Right now, the biggest restriction in California is the limited availability of agaves,” laments Nelson, who is literally knocking on doors of ranchers and homeowners to harvest their plants. “But there will be more agaves, and that will open the door to other distillers that want to put their efforts in and make agave spirit.”

“A lot of great things will happen,” Nelson predicts. “It’s like the wild West. We just can’t wait to get there.”

With typical California hubris, Wasson even name-checks the Judgment of Paris in 1976, the infamous moment when a California wine bested a French favorite in competition. “I look back at my history, [when people were told] no one can make world-class wine in California; no one goes to California to drink wine,” he says.

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California Agave to Try

Made in very small batches, it’s still very difficult to get California agave spirits, especially out of state. But if you’re eager sip some, here are the ones to hunt down:

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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