While traveling the hillsides of Michoac?n, Mexico last winter, SPARC dispensary founder Erich Pearson visited the mezcal operation run by Sonoma resident Salvador Chavez, who owns Picazo Cafe.
Pearson returned home inspired to cultivate his own.
He has grown cannabis as a dispensary owner since 2001, but now he and Sonoma farmer Michele Gendall are taking their green thumbs to a new crop, agave, with a goal to create a mezcal of their own in Sonoma Valley.
“I think it’s the most authentic spirit we have,” Pearson said. “And the culture behind that is as authentic as you can get when you go down to Oaxaca, Mexico and hang out with multiple generations of people that have been making mezcal.”
Gendall’s family has farmed Sonoma County since the early 1900s, beginning with turkeys and later moving on to grapes and cattle. Now, 2 acres on her Trinity Road property are dedicated to agave. And while the business partners won’t be traveling by burro through the Mayacamas like the mezcal makers of Michoacan, he and Gendall are building on their agricultural traditions in Sonoma Valley.
“We’re essentially, at our heart, just farmers,” Gendall said. “It makes sense that as we start running out of water, we should be shifting our thought process on what we grow in Sonoma County. And so agave kind of came on our radar.”
At this time, Pearson and Gendall have no plans to make mezcal a commercial endeavor, but their interest could inspire more farmers to consider agave as the next major crop to take root in the region.
A northern varietal
Agave has not been traditionally farmed in Northern California where cold and wet season threatens to freeze the roots with “wet feet” unless the soil has good drainage, Pearson said.
Still, some species of agave are resilient to Northern California’s cold and damp winters. Agave americana, a blue-hued variety found anywhere from the shores of Alcatraz to the hills of the Mayacamas, has managed to survive here since its introduction in the 1800s.
“There’s a lot of varieties that are more tolerant than the next for cold. The question is how tolerant are they? How much do they produce? How high is the brix? How long does it take? What is the flavor?” Pearson said. “And so that’s just kind of fun. We get to reinvent that up here because no one’s really been doing this.”
While flavor will be an important factor for the ultimate product, the bigger question for Pearson will be how long the plants take to mature so he can harvest the pi?a, the part of the plant that is crushed, squeezed and fermented to create mezcal.
But agave americana takes longer to mature than the species native to the Southwestern United States and Central America, like the agave tequilana and espadin.
“We’re five years away from seeing any of the fruits of our labor,” Gendall said.
Pearson pointed to the agave that dots the hills of Mayacamas while speaking to the Index-Tribune, saying it appears to age faster than what online articles suggest.
“Wikipedia will tell you it’s a 14-year plant,” Pearson said. “I’m not convinced because I’ve seen stuff in the Valley that’s rather large and only four or five years old and already has a brix level of 27.”
Brix is a measurement of sugar that helps determine when the plant is ready to harvest.
Still, the agave saplings on Trinity Road — and the prospect of a Sonoma-grown mezcal — has piqued the excitement of Pearson and Gendall who believe it could be another boon to Sonoma Valley’s tourism economy.
“If I could snap my fingers now and have agave ready to harvest and make mezcal, I’d do it. But I don’t, and it takes a while to grow,” Pearson said. “So I just started growing them.”
A romantic hobby
Agriculture is more of an art form than a business for many Sonoma County farmers. Like wine, that artisan commitment has extended to cannabis since its legalization in California. That’s why Pearson and Gendall believe mezcal can follow in their roots.
When Pearson visited Michoacan last winter, he was moved by the efforts of Oaxacan farmers who traveled into the mountains to harvest the same fields where generations of their family had done so before.
“You find out that they’re still taking donkeys up into the mountains to harvest the plants and bring the pi?as back,” Pearson said. “And they’re still hiking up seedlings and whatnot to put back into the mountain in the same spot that their grandfather and great grandfather were harvesting.”
This generational craft gives agave and mezcal a particular “romanticism” in Pearson’s eyes. He sees the future in fields of vineyards, cannabis and agave.
“Our cannabis is something that the world knows about. Our wine is something that the world knows about,” Pearson said. “So people are up here, they’re looking for experiences … An agave farm and an agave experience, all that would be something that would be successful up here.”
Both Gendall and Pearson noticed the same opportunity in the yards and roadsides where agave grows free in the Valley.
“I noticed a lot last year, agave in people’s yards is flowering, which is, in theory, a lot of tequila,” Gendall said. “Even one flower in someone’s yard, harvesting it is a whole process that’s really beautiful. And because after the plant flowers, it dies. So its life cycle has quite a romance to it.”
The new endeavor tracks with a growing movement in the California agriculture industry to find more drought-tolerant plants in response to climate change.
While grapes and cannabis are both “high intensity” crops that require minute attention to detail and a deep knowledge of horticulture, agave is simple — at least for the likes of two farmers in Gendall and Pearson.
“It hasn’t really cost us anything because I have so much extra stuff from my cannabis business. I have pots, I have soil, I have greenhouses. It’s just been some labor,” Pearson said, “it’s a labor of love.”
The owner of SPARC cannabis dispensary, Erich Pearson, is exploring his passion for agave in the Mayacamas Mountains. Read More