Secrets of the San Fernando Valley: Mariscos Corona

Screen Shot 2019-07-17 at 9.42.34 AM.png

Los Angeles is a paradise of incredible Mexican food. So much so, that it’s all I think about every single day, from the instant I wake up to the moment I finish dinner: what am I going to try today? Since moving here, I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the quality, the variety, and the regional diversity of cuisines represented. There’s so much going on just between East LA and Pasadena, but especially here in the San Fernando Valley—a hotbed of fantastic Mexican restaurants that exist almost completely off the radar. If you live in LA, but never venture north of Hollywood, the goal of these forthcoming blogs is to nudge you outside your comfort zone (and into a hot plate of food). If you’re reading this from outside LA, start putting these spots on your to-do list next time you visit. As a Mexican food junkie, I can tell you in all seriousness: I’ve never eaten this well on a daily basis.

I remember the heady years of the early millennium—circa 2002—when my co-workers and I would finish our lunch shift waiting tables at Pier 39 in San Francisco and head over to the Mission for late-afternoon tacos and beer. We would bounce around all the dive bars, taking shots until late in the evening, before finishing the night with a burrito from Pancho Villa or one of the twenty other incredible taquerías in the neighborhood.

By the time I left San Francisco at the end of 2018, things in the Mission had changed, just like they had everywhere else in the Bay. The hole-in-the-wall restaurants had been replaced by upscale, New American eateries. The dive bars had been replaced by $15 cocktail lounges with Instagram-friendly interiors. The Mission was trendier and more popular than ever, but the soul was somehow gone.

That’s all I’ll say about that.

The unassuming interior of Mariscos Corona on Sherman Way in Van Nuys

The unassuming interior of Mariscos Corona on Sherman Way in Van Nuys

Having purchased a home in Sherman Oaks at the beginning of 2019, my wife and I were ready for a new start. I had spent some time in the San Fernando Valley in the late nineties, but it had been more than twenty years since I had driven its many streets and examined its plentiful offerings. After seven months of doing reconnaissance, I can say one thing with certainty: every day feels like a time machine back to the Mission of 2002. It’s all here. The hole-in-the-wall hotspots, the longstanding dives, the colorful characters, and the chaos that comes with them. In between it all are the everyday folks, working for a living and just trying to get by. It’s nostalgic. It feels like a dream—like a distant memory coming back to life.

The lifeblood of our existence—community establishments I thought had vanished from California long ago—continues to exist in this gigantic melting pot of humanity. Next-door to an urban landscape that’s been gentrified to hell, transformed by modern desires, and sold to young professionals on the hunt for their next social media adventure, the San Fernando Valley ignores all of that noise and continues to operate in near anonymity to many in Los Angeles. It’s 260 square miles of strip mall madness, an endless sea of small businesses either bucking the trends in the age of tech, or adapting them to their own small ambitions. It’s almost like the internet doesn’t exist in some places.

It’s also packed with 1.8 million people, making it about the size of San Francisco and San Jose put together. That means if you moved the city limit south of 101, LA would lose over 30% of its population. There’s a lot going on here—many, many secrets, especially if you like Mexican food as much as I do. Over 40% of the San Fernando Valley is latino and the further north you drive from Ventura Boulevard, the more you can feel that influence. Heading up Van Nuys Boulevard to go shopping, or pick up food from the endless array of Mexican markets and restaurants, is both inspiring and overwhelming. If you were to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner from a new one each time, it would take you years to try all of them (and you have to try them all, right?). What better time to start than now?

Let’s talk about Mariscos Corona in Van Nuys, your first destination.

Spicy Camarones a la Diabla (shrimp in the devil’s sauce) with tomatillo

Spicy Camarones a la Diabla (shrimp in the devil’s sauce) with tomatillo

I’ve dined at Mariscos Corona once, and twice ordered takeout. All three times I’ve eaten variations of the same thing: shrimp. Shrimp cocktail, shrimp tacos, spicy shrimp—you’ve seen Forrest Gump, so you know how it goes.

Mariscos means seafood in Spanish, so I’ve stayed the course and kept to the sea. Once you’ve tried the spicy Camarones a la Diabla, it’s hard to imagine ordering anything else, even with a full menu of traditional Mexican options at hand. The first time we went, I ordered them extra spicy, but Elisabeth—the attentive and friendly hostess—took one look at me and shut down that request. Thank God she did, because even the medium spice level here packs a punch. Cooked in a fiery tomatillo sauce, both tangy and savory, you’ll be shoveling as much of that salsa as you can on to whatever’s left standing after the shrimp are long gone—your tortillas, your beans, your rice, anything. That’s how good it is.

Antonio—or Tony, as he goes by—has been manning the kitchen and running the show at Mariscos Corona for twenty years and I’d heavily advise checking out his fantastic Instagram rather than relying on my simple photos. But just to give you a better idea of what’s happening there, I’m going to steal one of them and post it below because it’s the other must-try item:

IMG_E1DB144427C1-1.jpeg

There are many, many Mexican restaurants that make a variation of a shrimp cocktail, but what makes this one particularly special is the size, the freshness, the flavor, and the price. The first time we ate at Mariscos Corona, my wife and I sat looking at each other dumbfounded. The heaps of avocado were perfectly ripe—neither too hard, nor too mushy. The shrimp was clean and juicy. The salsa was so delicious we almost drank it out of the cup. That’s a lot of bang for your buck.

One thing to note is that there’s no alcohol license, so you’ll need to order to-go if you want to enjoy a beer or a Margarita with your meal. Talking with the staff is half the fun though, so I purposely don’t call in advance and order right there in the restaurant, which gives me fifteen minutes to shoot the breeze with Tony and Elisabeth. Food always tastes better when the people who make it are humble and friendly, with or without the booze.

But for Tuesday night takeout, it’s hard to imagine doing much better than a plate of spicy shrimp and an ice cold Modelo.

-David Driscoll

Sorry — Part II

IMG_2795.jpg

I was enjoying the perspective of this past weekend’s New York Times op-ed on influencers, when I came upon this comment (posted above) in the feedback section.

Bingo.

Thank goodness other people see this glaring problem. To use an example from the article:

Four years ago, when Ms. Alzate first came to VidCon, she was a marketing student with fewer than 7,000 subscribers. She decided to study her favorite YouTubers, watch how they made their videos and then test videos in multiple genres, seeing which ones performed best on her channel.

Eventually, she hit on formats — like beauty tips and lifehacks — that reliably performed well, and she was off to the races. Today, she is a full-time YouTuber with a small staff, a production studio and the kind of fame she once coveted.

And this is supposed to be a good thing?!

To the point of NYT reader Jai from Newton, MA (and my own from a week ago): if everyone is following these influencers, simply to study their patterns so that they too can be influencers, where do the sales happen? If consumers aren’t buying as a result of their efforts, it’s not influencing. It’s just a popularity pyramid scheme.

You can definitely make the case (and the author does) that there are serious business skills one can learn by setting up his or her own influencer account. Companies study other companies all the time, and the most successful often steal or buy what they can’t create on their own. But the fact that these kids are mimicking the actions of others for the sole purpose of gaining popularity and fame, that’s another story. When I was a kid we didn’t call these people influencers. We called them posers.

And we went out of our way to avoid them, not follow their lead.

-David Driscoll

Kosher Spirits

An Etrog, a silver Etrog box, and Lulav; all used on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot

An Etrog, a silver Etrog box, and Lulav; all used on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot

“Do you know what a Sukkah is?” Howard Witkin asked me, as we sat in a booth at Pico Kosher Deli this past week, getting ready to order our food. I shook my head no.

“Its basically an open air pavilion you build in your backyard for the holiday of Sukkot,” he continued; “Mine’s like a big bamboo screen cabana, with a roof of palm fronds draped in zillions of twinkly lights and paper lanterns.” You invite over all of our friends to eat and drink and celebrate—like having Thanksgiving dinner every night for a week. You drink, play games, sing, talk and just put aside all of your worries and chill with friends,” he explained between bites of pastrami.

“Do you know what Sukkot is?” he then asked. I shook my head again. There’s a lot that I don’t know about Jewish holidays and traditions, but I was eager to learn. One thing I did know: the Sukkah Hill Etrog liqueur I had been sipping on for the last few minutes was absolutely delicious; the essence of pure citrus with bits of passion fruit and some of the most divine aromatics I’ve ever smelled in a glass. “Do you know what an Etrog is?” Howard then asked. I shook my head no for a third time. “It is the original, oldest, most ‘heirloom’ citrus fruit. It’s the most perfect fruit in the world. It has the smell of the Garden of Eden.” 

So that’s why the aromas were heavenly! “During Sukkot, you’ll see Etrogs for sale around here at sixty to a hundred bucks a piece,” Howard continued; “Because they have to be perfect.” The perfect size, the perfect shape, no bruises or blemishes.

Why so picky? Because throughout the week of Sukkot, when everyone is together, eating and drinking in the Sukkah, a blessing is recited over a Lulav and an Etrog. According to Wikipedia, Rabbinic Judaism believes the biblical phrase peri eitz hadar (פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר) from Leviticus 23:40 refers to the Etrog: 

On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.

Grammatically, the Hebrew phrase is ambiguous; it is typically translated as "fruit of a beautiful tree," but it can also be read as "a beautiful fruit of a tree.” For that reason, Etrogs are carefully selected for the performance of the Sukkot holiday rituals.

etrog-liqueur-production.jpg

“But there’s no way you’re paying sixty to a hundred bucks per Etrog to make this liqueur,” I said, soaking up every bit of previously-unknown information about Jewish history and tradition, and waiting for Howard to explain further.

“No,” he answered matter of factly; “because you have to do something with all the imperfect Etrogs.” 

“When God gives you imperfect Etrogs, you make Etrog liqueur?” I asked with a smile. 

Something like that.

Howard and his wife Marni Witkin started the Sukkah Hill Spirits company (“When we built our house, we thought of it as a Sukkah on the hill,” he told me) after his wife Marni, an avid baker, began experimenting with her own infusions at home. The idea of an Etrog liqueur seemed like a fun idea for holiday celebrations with friends and neighbors, so Marni began working with sugar cane spirit and all natural ingredients to make her elixir, one that was both delicious and Kosher. They managed to find an orchard in California with Etrog trees, grown entirely from seed—not grafted—and tended by hand without pesticides or machines, which made for a fragrant and flavorful citrus. It wasn’t until a friend from the grocery business came by and tasted it (and utterly freaked out) that the idea of actually selling the Etrog liqueur became feasible. 

I have no doubt in my mind that the above story happened exactly as Howard stated it because that’s pretty much how I reacted. Imagine a clean and balanced limoncello, but without the coloring or cloying sweetness. Now add in just a touch of tropical lushness on the mid-palate, with a zingy, zesty finish that lingers on the back of your mouth for a full five minutes. Don’t like sipping liqueurs? Make a Margarita with it. Make a Sidecar. Make your favorite citrus-based cocktail at home, then sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s that good.

And then there’s the Besamim.

Howard and Marni Witkin with their two kosher liqueurs

Howard and Marni Witkin with their two kosher liqueurs

As I sat there, gorging myself on thin-cut pastrami and rye bread, Howard enlightened me as to the Jewish ceremony of Havdalah, which marks the end of Shabbat and involves lighting a Havdalah candle while blessing a cup of wine and sweet smelling spices. Those spices are called besamim in Hebrew, and they’re the basis of the Sukkah Hill Besamim liqueur. According to a few sources online, the sages instituted the “smelling of fragrant spices (besamim) in order to comfort the soul,” which is saddened by the departure of the “extra soul” that it received on Shabbat. What is the extra soul?

On a basic level, this refers to the fact that on Shabbat a person is more disposed toward relaxation, joy, and celebrating the holy day with extra food and drink. 

What better way to relax on Shabbat with a bottle of Besamim? Particularly in a Bourbon cocktail with ice. Brimming with clove, cinnamon, and other baking spices on the nose, imagine something between an Italian amaro and an herbal German liqueur, sweet and pungent on the palate with a savory and spicy finish. While the classical heritage of amaro and other localized European aperitifs has played a huge role in the popularity of those spirits, it’s also quite interesting to think about the millennia of Jewish tradition being infused into the Sukkah Hill liqueurs by Howard and Marni.  

The spirits world has promoted history and tradition as a marketing tool for the last decade, using authenticity as a draw for consumers who want to follow protocol. For example, the bold flavor of Fernet Branca has made it one of the most popular liqueurs on the market. The fact that it’s made from a secret Italian recipe that dates back to 1845 makes it even more interesting to curious consumers who want to get in on that heritage. On that same note, the Sukkah Hill Etrog liqueur is one of the best citrus liqueurs I’ve ever tasted. The fact that it’s Kosher, and made with a special fruit that may date back to the Garden of Eden makes it just as compelling as traditional Fernet, in my opinion.

Granted, the heritage of the spirits themselves may not be thousands of years old, but the culture they represent and the history behind its traditions most certainly are. Although the flavors and aromas in the bottle arise from the Witkin’s family traditions, their Etrog and Besamim liqueurs are attracting more attention from mixologists and social media than from the Kosher world. 

Simply put, you can enjoy either of them far beyond the holiday season, outside of the celebrations from which they draw their inspiration.

-David Driscoll

The Golden Circle

goldencircle.jpg

I texted my old boss a photo of the above graphic last week and added: “I’m willing to bet my life savings that whichever retailer can plug this into an easy-to-understand e-marketing format can unseat the 100 point system and create the new model for quick evaluation. I don’t have anywhere to try it out, however, so I’m passing it along to you.”

It’s the Golden Circle: start with why, then work your way out to what, rather than the other way around.

During the ten months I spent doing tech marketing in Silicon Valley, I became intimately familiar with the philosophy of Simon Sinek and his motivational “Start With Why” approach to business. In order to be an effective visionary, one must first inspire. People who only motivate by profit are never as successful, which is why great motivational CEOs start by telling you what they believe in. Sinek believes too many companies start by talking about WHAT they sell, rather than why they sell it in the first place. "People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it," he repeats in his famous Ted Talk. Therefore, you should start any presentation with your reason for being—WHY—then move into HOW you do it, and then finally WHAT it is you’ve done.

For many years I unconsciously utilized a similar strategy while working wine and spirits retail, formulating passionate mission statements about our products that more or less followed Sinek’s outlook. They generally started with why we believed in a product’s quality, and how it was that we came upon it. Only at the very end did I touch on what the product actually tasted like. Therefore, I found a kinship with Sinek’s mantra: WHY is the reason to buy, and WHAT is the tangible proof that we believe. WHAT is the result of our belief, not the reason for it.

The problem with that strategy today, however, is that we're all spending far too much time in the booze industry focusing on WHY and HOW, without enough consideration for WHAT. On top of that, it’s often the same WHY and HOW over and over and over again:

We believe in artisanal, small batch, handcrafted blah blah blah that speaks to the terroir of our region and the tradition of our forefathers because we respect the heritage and the time-honored practices of doing things the right way.

Something like that, right? It's everywhere. It's everyone's raison d'être all of a sudden, from the organic restaurant down the street to the latest craft gin distillery to hit the market. It needs a little tweaking, hence my text message to my old boss. Whomever can effectively tweak their WHYs to cut through all the other bullshit WHYs will dominate in 2020. That’s what I believe, at least.

There are two glaring problems with the current craft spirit approach when it comes to the Golden Circle:

1) Everyone is saying the exact same thing, so no one stands out.

2) The quality of the product itself often doesn’t match the expectation.

The wine and spirits industry has become so good at selling WHY at this point that WHAT has become almost irrelevant. It’s a veritable sea of inspirational doctrine and ideology without much payoff in the glass—and that’s where the story falls short (plus, it's been manipulated to no end). A great comedian will suck you into a long, drawn-out routine and have the audience in stitches when he finally gets to the punchline, just like an effective mystery engulfs the reader right up to the big reveal. Marketing is no different. If you build up consumer expectations and fail to deliver on the actual product, that’s called a flop.

I’d like to see someone flip the script for a change and start by putting their WHAT into my glass, allowing me to ask them WHY if I still cared to know. That would be refreshing. Start by wowing consumers your with supreme flavor for a great price. Then talk about HOW it was made. Then, if anyone still cares at that point, the reason for making it. We’ve got more than enough passion to go around at this point. What we don’t have enough of are exciting new products for reasonable prices.

We don’t need more of the same WHYs. We need more WHAT. Now HOW is that going to happen?

-David Driscoll

Sorry, Booze Professionals; It's No Longer About You

Joe Nicchi announces that social media influencers will now pay double at his ice cream truck in LA

Joe Nicchi announces that social media influencers will now pay double at his ice cream truck in LA

CVT Soft Serve owner Joe Nicchi isn’t the only person who’s over the era of influencers. Wine and spirits customers are as well.

For nearly the last two decades, the renaissance surrounding boutique alcohol has been led by professional tasters, influential writers, and outspoken personalities, looking to guide beginning and unsure consumers towards quality and taste and make a career out of doing so. Today, however, with so much information available online, an endless amount of new books on the subject, and social media content overflowing with thought and opinions, consumers are pretty well-versed, and rarely do they fret over making the wrong decision like many anxious customers once did. Today’s drinker is more headstrong, looking to exert his or her own experience into the equation. There’s a reason business leaders are calling this emerging consumer group the “hero generation.” Rather than defer to the “qualified expert” at this point, these drinkers are ready to write their own story, one in which they’re at the center.

For over a decade, I crafted retail marketing that focused on presenting a different level of expertise to our customers as part of a large California chain. We were more than just a booze shop. We were on the road, searching out new producers, traveling overseas to find the best possible wines and spirits. That was the differentiating factor between us and every other wine store. I spent years making sure consumers knew how dedicated we were to our craft by documenting those adventures, hoping that our experience would improve our credibility.

In the year 2019, however; this strategy is moot. Dead. Gone. Bye bye. It’s no longer about us. Customers don’t want to live vicariously through our experiences. They want to experience the adventure first hand. More importantly, consumers in 2019 don’t want to know what you drank over the weekend. They’re more concerned with what they are going to drink over the weekend and how you can best deliver it to them. If you think you’re influencing customers by humbly bragging about all the good stuff you consumed with last night’s dinner, check the likes on your Instagram page. That shit isn’t working. Consumers are too busy posting their own bottle shots to worry about yours. In today’s market, your job is to make them look good, not the other way around.

That’s not to say established influencers have completely lost their influence, mind you. Like an iconic rock band with a core base of fans, there will always be a certain amount of loyalty towards familiarity. It’s just to say that, moving forward, it’s going to be very difficult to cut through all the noise out there. When everyone considers themselves an influencer—posting photos, opinions, likes, and reviews online incessantly—it lessens the impact of any singular voice.

Screen Shot 2019-07-07 at 2.03.02 PM.png

To better understand the psychology behind this phenomenon, look at the backlash on Instagram against users who follow personal accounts without ever interacting, i.e. refusing to like or comment on photos, despite the fact they’re closely observing every post.

Why would someone follow you, look at all your stories, and keep tabs on everything that’s happening in your life without liking one of your photos? Because the people on social media who consider themselves influencers want to be doing the influencing! They certainly don’t want to give off the vibe that they too can be influenced. At the same time, they can’t exist in a vacuum, as an influencer without any followers, so they have to make nice for a short period of time. As soon as they establish themselves, the “social” relationship becomes one-sided, not unlike a teacher who considers himself above the student.

However, when everyone considers themselves the influencer and not the influencee—the teacher and not the student—it creates a wall of content creation without results. It’s all push, no pull. It leads to thousands—if not millions—of people who think they’re increasing awareness, when in reality they’re increasing the level of resentment against their “brand.” It’s like talking without ever listening.

Look at Joe Nicchi, who has been inundated by requests for free products, both online and face-to-face at his ice cream truck, by “influencers” asking him if they can have one of his $4 ice cream cones for free in exchange for a post or a tag.

"I'd stare at them like 'Are you out of your mind?' Nicchi said. "It's all the time, all the time. They love using the word exposure, they use it all the time."

They also love to use the words “I” and “me.” I ate this. I drank that. I was here. I went there. But in order to win over today’s consumer—to influence them without them knowing they’ve been influenced—you’re going to have to stop using first person pronouns and switch over to the second. You can eat this. You can drink that. You can be here. You can go there.

In short, you can be the hero.

But, of course, to convince a certain number of wine and spirits professionals to stop talking about their own exploits is to take away from them the whole reason they joined the industry in the first place. If they’re not doing the influencing, they’re not the hero of their own wine and spirits journey.

-David Driscoll

Organic Tequila

Tequilashots.jpg

I had never even heard of Don Abraham Tequila until I joined Pacific Edge as the director of sales this past December. Since then, I’ve consumed at least six bottles of the blanco expression on my own time and it’s become my go-to label for recommendations. So much so, that I haven’t strayed from the brand since the year started. With fruity aromatics, a soft and supple palate, and a clean finish loaded with baking spices and citrus, it’s pretty much everything I want from my Jalisco hooch. I’ve always advocated for agave spirits like I’ve advocated for wine over the years, letting consumers know that the real work is done in the vineyard/field, not the production facility. If you wanna pay $100 for a chemically-enhanced, manipulated, Frankensteinian bottle of booze, that’s your decision. But like a hand-beaded garment or a hand-rolled cigar, it’s the little details resulting from time-intensive labor that ultimately provide a luxury product with its value.

The faster, easier, and cheaper it is to make something, the cheaper it should be; not the other way around. Personally, if I’m paying $100 for a bottle of Tequila, it had better be made with the ripest, most expressive agave piñas, distilled and bottled with as little intervention as possible. Fortunately for me, the Don Abraham Blanco is exactly that and it only runs about $30-$35. Made with 100% organic blue agave, farmed organically by hand—free of pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals—by Alvaro Montes and his son Marco, those little details make all the difference. “Everyone loves our agave,” Marco told me over the phone this week; “Don Julio offered my father a contract to buy it all, but he said no. We’re going to keep it for ourselves and our own products.”

That’s not surprising. It’s not easy to do what the Montes family does, taking care of over 500,000 organic agaves across Amatitán without the aid of weed killers and other time-saving short cuts, so it’s natural that other producers would want a piece of the action—after all the hard work is done, of course. “If you have a lot of weeds, they soak up nutrients in the soil and take them from the agave, so you have to get rid of them,” Marco explained; “If you use chemicals, one person alone can spray around 3,000 agaves per day. When we do it by hand, we can only get to around 300. It’s basically ten times the work if you do it the way we do.” With a team of sixteen workers in the fields every day (Alvaro and Marco included), tracking down the Montes family for a quick phone conversation is no easy task. Even during our FaceTime session, Marco was walking through rows of agave, grabbing weeds and grunting as he spoke to me about the process.

don-abraham-blanco-2_1400x.jpg


Just because someone makes booze the old fashioned way, however, doesn’t necessarily entail quality (as we know from a priori vs. a posteriori reasoning). I can assure you: the proof of Don Abraham’s supreme quality is in the glass, but I still wanted to know more about how organic agave farming led to such clean and pronounced Tequila flavor. Marco was happy to oblige. “The first thing is to be free of chemicals,” he said; “because pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides can affect the flavor when we roast the agaves. They make it spicier. Compost is also important. We use 100 tons of compost per hectare. The cow manure helps the agave get the nutrients from the soil, which leads to healthier piñas. The CRT average right now is 19.5 kilos per agave. Our average is around 60 kilos.” That means Montes family’s organic piñas are three times the standard size, but are they ripe? “Other agaves are often harvested between 3-4 years of age, which is really tender. It doesn’t have enough sugar,” Marco added; “We wait until late in the fifth year to harvest, so ours have plenty. We’re not in a hurry.”

As with winemaking, sugar is necessary to begin fermentation. Unripe grapes from colder vintages tend to create wines with thin, vegetal flavors, and the same goes for Tequila. In order to increase production without having to wait for agave piñas to ripen, some producers have turned to a vile machine called a diffuser, which essentially strips the starch from the agave (in lieu of sugar), converts that starch into sugar with an enzyme, then ferments and distills that flavorless liquid into a spirit, allowing the producer to add flavor artificially on the backend. That loophole allows them to claim 100% blue agave on the label, despite the fact its a complete bastardization of the process. Clearly, that’s not happening with the Montes family. “If you have good agave, you’re going to have good sugar levels,” Marco told me; “Once the yeast does its job, you’re going to have better output with more Tequila per kilo of agave.”

More sugar in the agave equals more Tequila off the still, but what the flavors? “Right away, the nose is clean with our agave,” Marco said; “You don’t get the cooked agave smell or any vegetal notes. It’s more reminiscent of the field. It’s fresher, cleaner, and purer on the nose because it’s made from healthy piñas. In Amatitán, the soil is easier to grow in because of nutrients, as compared to the Highlands. In the valley, you have more herbal Tequilas. In the Highlands, they’re more fruity.”

altensjaojssateq10+1+of+1.jpg

Given all the changes that have happened in Jalisco over the last decade, with corporate buyouts of small distilleries and manipulation of production methods to meet to demand, it was heartening to speak with Marco about old school tradition and a commitment to certain standards at his family’s distillery: NOM 1480, Tequilas Las Americas. “It started with my grandfather, then my uncles and father took over,” Marco explained; “I’m third generation, so we’ve spent about fifty years growing agave, even though we started the distillery twenty years ago. If you compare us with other Tequila houses like Sauza, Cuervo, Herradurra, we’re fairly new to this. We try to do our best always, putting quality first and foremost. We stand out in the crowd because of that quality. It’s working, so we must be doing something right.”

Like most serious winemakers I know, Marco is far more interested in farming than the process of creating the alcohol itself. No matter how much I tried to steer him towards production methods, he would always go right back to agricultural details. “Most of the agave growers in the region don’t pay as much attention to their campo,” he said, after I asked him what the biggest difference was between Don Abraham and other Tequilas; “We do a lot of research on organic fertilizing. We have a new one that was made in Spain and is doing well over there, so we’re going to try it over here in a few hectares. We do a lot of testing and experimentation to get better at farming. It’s trial and error.”

What ultimately makes Don Abraham Tequila taste better than others? Better agave.

“Our fields are always cleaner, no weeds, and other plants that take nutrients from the soil,” Marco summarized; “We pull out the weeds by hand, leave them to decay, and turn them into compost for the future. The roots of the agaves get all the nutrients. That’s the difference. As a result, the smell and the smoothness are unparalleled.”

I couldn’t argue with him.

-David Driscoll

The Craft Revolution Will Not Be Global

Winemakers gather at Four Pillars Distillery in Healesville, Australia for post-work G&Ts

Winemakers gather at Four Pillars Distillery in Healesville, Australia for post-work G&Ts

It wasn’t until my first time at Four Pillars Distillery, back in February of 2017, that I realized where the craft spirits movement was heading. Actually, let me rephrase that: it’s when I realized where the craft spirits, craft beer, and boutique wine industries were all heading. I was sitting with acclaimed winemaker Steve Flamsteed (pictured above right), drinking a gin and tonic on a Thursday afternoon, and taking in the packed room at the distillery bar.

“Is it always like this?” I asked, in complete bewilderment. There were at least 50 people in the house, filling the room with conversation and life, transforming the concept of a gin distillery into more of a meeting hall. A clubhouse. A community center.

“Yeah, mate,” Flamo answered; “It’s happy hour and the winemakers are thirsty.” I remember thinking to myself that Four Pillars must sell more gin out of its own bar to the local clientele on an average weeknight than it does in the entire state of California.

“What an absolutely genius idea,” I said to myself; “A gin distillery in the middle of Australian wine country!” At the end of the day, when everyone has spent their entire shift working with wine, everyone goes to the gin distillery for a cocktail. It was a complete departure from the craft distillery model I had grown up with—the hybrid column-pot still, packed into an industrial warehouse somewhere on the outskirts of town. The mindset that the quality of the spirit itself mattered more than its presentation, and that building a global distribution network was the only way to grow. That formative idea was now completely destroyed. Four Pillars had invested in hospitality first and foremost. Start with your own backyard, then worry about the global market afterward.

Two and a half years later, this model is ubiquitous. Small wineries are now hosting women’s bookclub meetings and yoga retreats. Craft breweries have trivia nights and show movies outside in the summer. Micro-distilleries are bringing in local bartenders for cocktail events, throwing soirées with live music. Once considered “additional revenue streams,” the hospitality-centered services around alcohol production are quickly becoming just as important as the product itself, providing quick capital for cash-strapped enterprises who have found a way to engrain themselves as a community pillar.

Of course, it’s not just the small producers who are jumping into this arena, and it’s not just the drinks industry. Lifestyle brands of all sorts are getting their feet wet with hospitality. Equinox has set up its own hotel in New York, for those who consider health and fitness part of their vacation needs. Taco Bell recently launched a hotel in Palm Springs, for those who can’t be bothered to hit the drive thru after getting shit-faced in the desert. It’s pretty much everything you learn in “Marketing to Millenials 101” come to fruition: today’s consumers want experiences, not things.

As more products come to market and the competition gets tighter, today’s craft producers can’t afford to focus solely on the product. They have to put just as much effort into their Instagram rooms and their keto-friendly small bites. It’s the new reality of the drinks business in 2019.

-David Driscoll

Blending - Part II

chardgrapes.jpg

I have a friend who pretty much works out for a living. He’s very much into bodybuilding and over the course of his career has used his size and strength to become quite successful. With his 60th birthday on the horizon, I wanted to send him a nice bottle of wine for the occasion, but before doing so I asked him via text:

How do you feel about illicit performance enhancers when it comes to bodybuilding? Is it cheating? Or does the end justify the means?

Knowing the incredible amount of respect my friend has for both natural athletic ability and a hard day’s work at the gym, I wasn’t surprised by his response:

“Natural is always better,” he texted back.

Now apply the same analogy to wine. How do you feel about flavor enhancers? How do you feel about wine being changed and manipulated after it’s been fermented, using products like oak chips, toasted staves, chemical powders, or proprietary concentrates like Mega Purple? How do you feel about changing the alcohol level of a wine to make it fuller? How do you feel about micro-oxygenation (pumping in tiny bubbles) to make it softer? How do you feel about putting a wine through a reverse osmosis process in order to remove certain chemical flaws in the winemaking?

Is that cheating? Some people think so.

In the world of Scotch whisky, many of the genre’s most devout purists are fervently against the addition of sweeteners, coloring, or any other enhancement that artificially manipulates the inherent flavor of the malt. However, few if any serious whisky drinkers have a problem with blending whiskies together if the resulting liquid is sublime. In fact, when you buy just about any standard single malt expression in the store today, the odds are you’re drinking a marriage of whiskies matured in a number of different cask types. Ex-Bourbon barrels impart vanilla. Ex-Sherry barrels impart sweetness. You need a little more texture in your single malt? Blend in a little more sherry-aged whisky. You want it less sweet? Add in more whisky from a second-fill hogshead. Blending is a way to balance out a whisky’s flavor without resorting to chemical enhancements. It’s what Bob and Jim Varner, the twin brothers behind some of California’s best wines, refer to as “non-interventionist” methods.

Bob and Jim Varner at their winery

Bob and Jim Varner at their winery

“In Santa Barbara County, sometimes the acid in the Chardonnay is on the high side and, for the style, we don’t want it to go through malo,” Bob told me during our phone conversation this week; “So we blend in the Paso Robles Chardonnay, which is lower in acid and has more mid-palate texture. That’s our non-interventionist way of lowering the acidity: by blending in a wine with lower acid.” Malo is short for malolactic fermentation, often a natural process which turns the tart malic acid, like in a lemon, into the softer lactic acid, like in milk. It’s what transforms a Chardonnay from crisp and refreshing into creamy and sometimes buttery.

Bob was referring to his Foxglove Chardonnay, one of the best value wines I’ve ever tasted from the state of California. I say this without hyperbole: I personally hand-sold more than 300 cases of Foxglove during my decade of retail on the San Francisco Peninsula. It helped that Bob and Jim are just down the street in Menlo Park, are two of the nicest guys in the business, and are frequently buying wine from the store, but the wine is also crisp, clean, delicious, and 100% additive-free. At less than fifteen bucks a bottle, there’s really no comparison. Before asking what makes the wine so good, I thought it was important to ask Bob and Jim why they felt the need to make it in the first place. With the Varner portfolio already encompassing some of the best wines from the Santa Cruz Mountains (perennial contenders for best in the state), why bother going after the value market?

“For a couple of reasons,” Bob told me; “There is satisfaction in providing an everyday wine. It’s satisfying to provide people a wine they can afford at a high quality and we stuck to the idea of expressing the site first. We thought about where in the state we could get grapes that overdeliver for the price. That turned out to be the Central Coast.”

“One can challenge themself by making an expensive wine and saying money is no object,” Jim added; “But it’s equally as challenging to ask how can I make a good wine with character and personality on a restrained budget.”

foxglovechard.jpg

In bodybuilding or winemaking, it’s often the challenge that drives those in pursuit of integrity. For Bob and Jim, the challenge in making a great value wine started with sourcing the fruit. I asked why they decided to venture south, rather than somewhere in their own backyard. “We thought about where in the state we could get grapes that overdeliver for the price. That turned out to be the Central Coast,” Bob explained; “Along the Central Coast, the Chardonnay grapes are less phenolic driven, with less structure, In the Santa Cruz Mountains, you need oak to soften those tannins, if you want to be non-interventionist. But on the Central Coast you don’t need that oak, so stainless steel is the vessel, and that keeps the cost down. You have to pay attention not just to the flavors, but also to the structure of the grapes from the site that is given. The phenolic compounds are what give Chardonnay its depth.” 

“We got shut out of some grapes in Edna Valley,” Jim explained, “so we looked around and found a vineyard manager in that area who has been there since the seventies, and we convinced him that we were salt of the earth guys who knew viticulture. He said ‘I could sell you some grapes, but what you’re looking for is across the street from me.’ When we’re looking for site character, it’s better to talk with vineyard managers than landowners.”

In California, it’s not uncommon to find vineyard owners that do little more than hold a deed or a title. Many are unfamiliar with how their vineyards are being farmed, which can be a risk for winemakers that want to purchase grapes with character, free of pesticides and other chemicals. It’s why some winemakers will often offer to farm the vineyards themselves in order to ensure the quality they’re after, or select certain parcels based on their flavor.

“When sourcing from that vineyard, we took several blocks,” Jim added; “We tried to keep the blocks separate to understand what each could give. Then we started refining from there: when we would pick each block, how much you would use from each, etc. One had more tropical flavors, one would have more structure, one had more acid. Depending on the year, we might put more or less of one of these characteristics into the wine.”

varnervines.jpeg

If you read the previous post about blending with distiller Todd Leopold, then you have an idea of how far Todd was willing to go to ensure the texture in his gin, creating dozens of individual distillates that could be blended as needed, rather than a single spirit. In the case of the Varner brothers, they were willing to create multiple wines from separate parcels, that could be blended to ensure the character of their everyday Chardonnay, rather than fermenting all the grapes together. I asked how they approached that monumental task on an annual basis. You know you’ve hit the perfect spot when there’s energy and tension,” Jim explained; “It’s not necessarily about flavor, it’s about those two elements working together. You look for the focal point. You go past it, then you’re out of focus. It’s trial and error, but you can taste it and feel it when it’s there.”

“With blending, have a sense of where you’re going, but be open minded about how you get there,” Bob continued: “Throw away your preconceptions and concentrate on what’s in the glass. You might have an idea about how the components will react, but you won’t know until you taste it.” How’s that for an a posteriori mindset?!

That’s when I mentioned the name and the intent of this blog, and both brothers began to laugh. “All of us have tasted a wine that’s fooled us with our preconceptions,” Bob said; “There’s always an exception. You have to go to the glass first.”

“If you put aside the preconceptions and look only in the glass, it’s a challenge,” Jim added, talking both about the winemaking process and the analysis of quality itself. “When Bob and I do it, we’re challenging ourselves. It keeps the job interesting. You’re engaged and thrilled when you win, and there’s emotion when you succeed.”

-David Driscoll