From Wine to Tequila

T Updated

Hollister - If Frank Leal has his way, San Benito County won't only be famous for wine, but also for tequila.

Last week, Leal, who owns Leal Vineyards in Hollister, received 16,000 blue agaves, a plant cultivated in Mexico, to produce tequila. Leal planted 6,000 of the agaves on five acres of John Eade's ranch in the Santa Ana Valley on Monday and Tuesday. He'll plant more on land near Pacheco Pass and near Gilroy and Prunedale.

Leal believes he is the first person to legally import the variety agave azul tequilana weber into the United States.

"It's a total experiment," Leal said. "I'm not saying I know a lot about it, because I don't."

The 6,000 plants alone should be enough to produce 60,000 bottles of tequila, Leal said. He said he hopes to begin producing tequila within 10 years.

With more and more options available to Americans, consumers are developing a taste for tequila that could keep Leal selling those bottles.

James Silva, an assistant manager at Beverages and More in Gilroy, said tequila is one of the store's most popular spirits. He said most consumers pay $40 to $50 per bottle.

Silva believes consumers would try an American tequila.

"I would definitely try it," Silva said. "Especially if it's local."

And with luck, Leal will ride a tequila drinking trend in the United States.

According to Vinexpo's December 2006 International Wine and Spirit Record, tequila consumption in the United States rose 38 percent between 2001 and 2005. In 2005, Americans consumed 9.1 million cases of tequila, according to the study. Tequila consumption in the U.S. is expected to rise 45 percent from 2005 to 2010, according to the study.

Agave is an incredibly resilient plant, Leal said. Despite a touch of mold, the agaves survived a two-month customs hold at the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales.

"They grow extremely fast for being in infertile soil without irrigation," he said. "It's kind of a dream crop."

As the plants take hold, their roots grow and sprout up through the soil, allowing the agave field to reproduce, Leal said.

Once mature, the agave's heart, or pina, is harvested, roasted, shredded and pressed. The agave juice is then fermented into pulque, or agave wine, which is then distilled into tequila, Leal said.

Still a novice, Leal began flying to the Mexican state of Jalisco to explore its agave fields and tequila distilleries about a year ago. And like his time at Napa Valley wineries a decade ago, Leal fell in love with the region and its product.

"The good tequilas don't leave Mexico," Leal said.

Under trade agreements, any spirit labeled tequila must be produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

Every month, Leal has taken the three and a half hour flight and 45-minute car ride to Ameca, Jalisco, where he and his business partner, Albaro Gonzalez, grow about 600 acres of agave. Leal is using re-toasted wine barrels and new American oak barrels to produce his 5150 American Tequila, of which he hopes to bring 9,000 bottles to the U.S. in May.

The 5150 American Tequila, like most other 100 percent agave tequilas, will come aged three different ways. Blanco, or white tequila, is not aged. Reposado, or rested, is aged a minimum of two months and a maximum of one year. A'ejo, or aged, is aged from one to three years.

By planting the agaves in San Benito County and using winemaking techniques and yeast, Leal hopes to make an American product of comparable quality to boutique Mexican tequila.

"You have to respect the Mexican people for making it for so many centuries," Leal said. "But it doesn't mean it's at its best."

Hollister Free Lance
by Michael Van Cassell

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