Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tequila Anyone?

Agave fields in Jalisco, Mexico
There's tequila... and then there's tequila. I try not to be a snob, because there are a lot of folks who know way more than I do about agave, the plant that when cultivated, processed and aged with care produces a liquor as wonderful as any fine wine. In the past few years, I have learned a great deal about mezcal and tequila, and yes, some of my education involved a few sips of the stuff. But most of what I've learned was the result of the in-depth tours I took through two small boutique tequila distilleries in the state of Jalisco--which in case you weren't sure, is "tequila country". Yes, there is a town called Tequila, and I finally went there last summer. It's located about an hour west of Guadalajara, kind of a cute pueblo with cobblestone streets and a couple of small hotels. But though there are some great little family run distilleries, like the one we visited, La Alborada, which produces the amazing award-winning "El Gran Jubileo", I do NOT recommend you go. If you're driving south to Guadalajara and have the time, yes you should stop, tour and taste at La Alborada. The experience in Tequila feels like a cross between a typical Mexican bordertown and a tacky county fair (actually, don't get me wrong, I love a good county fair) but thanks to the tequila train that brings tourists to tour the giant factories of Sauza and Jose Cuervo this is not so good. Stalls line main street a few meters from the plaza, offering free tastes of watered down mixto (non-100% agave) in small plastic cups, and the few bars we found offer a disappointing selection of tequilas, served by young waiters who knew nothing about the town's most important product, and could care less.
It was especially disappointing compared to our previous trip to Arandas and Atotonilco, which are located a few km apart in the region known as Los Altos -- further east on the way to Michoacán. Doug and I have been there three times now, and found it a very cool rest stop on our way back to the U.S. and a fun place for the Mexico By Hand Art and Culture Tequila Adventure. Atotonilco, a clean and friendly little town, boasts the quality big guys, Patron and Don Julio. We found both of them closed to us when we arrived without an appointment. No big deal. Don Julio (a personal favorite of mine) was easy to find and was located just a few blocks from our very comfortable hotel. The thing is, hardly any tourists go to this town looking for tequila tasting, so they weren't prepared for us. No tour information at our hotel, and when we were directed to the "Tourist Office" we found it to be the town's government building and police headquarters. So remember... this is Mexico. The chief of police, after discovering that he couldn't find a decent map of the town, told us to get in our car and proceeded to give us a police escort to Patrón. I kid you not. But Patrón said "hoy no es posible" (today is not possible) and we continued our quest after striking out twice now. We finally found what we had been waiting for, on the road just before Arandas near La Trinidad there is a billboard with an arrow pointing to Tequila Espolon. And that was it!
Doug and Peggy in front of Tequila Espolon oak barrels
We drive about 2 kilometers down the bumpy road to the most wonderful experience anywhere for tequila lovers. Friendly, knowledgeable, generous-- these words aren't enough to describe the amazing people who work at Tequila Espolon. We received a private 2 hour tour and were invited afterwards to stay and eat with the employees. And the tequila? Some of the best you will ever drink. for more info. on all of the awards they've received at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and International Wine & Spirits they have photos and a explanation of the tequila making process. Below you can see how the jimador digs up the piñas (on left) which is where the agave nectar comes from. The piñas, which are extremely heavy, are sliced and steamed (right) and the "jugo" is extracted and sent via tubes to tanks where there are various steps involved in fermenting and processing a perfectly pure product.

The agave plants can be seen and amazing tequila tasted by joining an intimate tour with Doug and Peggy . If you speak Spanish and want to venture out on your own, here are some suggestions for staying in Atotonilco:
Hotel: Hotel Real de Cervantes, calle Dr. Espinoza, across from the market (reservations not necessary) doubles $40-$55
Breakfast: Hotel Portales de Vergel, delicious eggs & licuados $3.00-$5.00
Bar: Chatazo's on Calle Colon near the plaza. Best bar in Mexico! Complimentary healthy botanas (snacks), low priced quality tequila served with fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. Casual and "women friendly", usually musicians show up and play for tips. If you're really hungry, the taqueria across the street serves up cheap and tasty grub.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Geography Lesson

A friend asked me recently what is my favorite time of year in Michoacán, and I had to say that it's when the mirasoles are in bloom. What a surprise that was. It happens in September when the rains are pretty much over--though now due to climate change the rainy season sometimes lasts into October and even the beginning of November. We were driving in the eastern part of the state, off to experience the hot springs in the Sierra which are called Los Azufres (it means "the sulphurs") and to find the little factory where they make some dishes we wanted to buy, near an old silver mining town called Tlalpujahua. That's a long story, but I'll just say that it was quite an adventure trying to find the place, especially since we had to stop about a dozen times and ask folks for directions. Of course we had to pronounce the name of the town so people would know where we wanted to go...and for some reason we had difficulty with it. Go on, you try it. Now it rolls off my tongue like it's nothing.
Anyway...we drove through the most beautiful countryside, often the only ones around for miles, passing by these gorgeous fields of pinkish purple flowers called mirasoles that I believe we call cosmos. The sky was bright blue, the air warm and was heavenly. And then we saw the girasoles (left) and that's when I fell in love. (*click pix to enlarge)
No, Mexico is not all hot desert. Michoacán has pine forests and rolling green hills (especially during and after the rainy season) similar to what one sees in Tuscany or closer to my home in Napa Valley, California. If you go to Morelia and Patzcuaro in the summer you should not only have an umbrella but a couple of sweaters, and in December and January, you'll want your flannel pajamas. It's about a mile high, that's why. And if you are lucky enough to go to the Michoacán coast to enjoy its 200 miles of virgin beaches, it will look something like the picture below. Perfect temperatures between November and April, but too hot for most of us in the summer months. Really, you don't want to go then. But right now in February? When most of the world is suffering blizzards and freezing is sunny and warm in Maruata, Michoacán (below). For more info on