Napa Valley trio finds early success navigating new industry

Napa Valley trio finds early success navigating new industry

Gian Pablo Nelson quit his summer job in 2016 and was about to start his career as head distiller at Loch & Union Distilling Co. in American Canyon. Before starting, he took a trip to visit family in Mexico.

Nelson grew up in Zihuateanejo, Mexico, a small fishing village on the belly of the Pacific coast. When he saw his grandmother in Mexico City and told her he was going to be a distiller, she disappeared for a moment.

“My abuelita … comes out of her room with these little round bottles of Boston,” Nelson said.

The bottles contained mezcal and belonged to his grandfather, a civil engineer in Mexico. When his grandfather was building roads and bridges across the country, he would stop and buy small bottles of mezcal from the farmers.

“Tasting these mezcals that were older than me made me think about drinking with my abuelito,” said Nelson, whose grandfather died when he was young.

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Nelson kept that memory, and in 2021, after gaining years of experience distilling gin, whiskey, brandy and rum — even appearing on the Discovery Channel show “Master Distiller” — he partnered with friends and other employees of Loch & Union to create their own mezcal-style spirit.

He and his business partners — custom winemaker Brian Mascia and digital marketer David Ortega — co-founded Jano Spirits. Jano, named after a name given to Nelson by his abuelita, is one of several labels producing an agave spirit in California.

What started as an experiment quickly became a small top shelf product. Their third batch, bottled this fall, was snapped up by upscale local bars and restaurants and sold out within weeks.

Although mezcal has been around for centuries in Mexico, it has only gained popularity in the US in recent years.

The most popular type of mezcal is tequila, which must be produced in Jalisco and the surrounding regions and is made from the agave tequilana, otherwise known as blue weber agave. Mezcal must be produced in and around Oaxaca, but there are no restrictions on the varieties of agave. Like champagne and cognac in France, producers must adhere to strict rules set by the Mexican government.

Unlike tequila, mezcal has a characteristic smokiness imparted when piñas, or the hearts of the agave plant, are aged over wood—Jano uses old French oak barrels—in a clay pit lined with scorching hot volcanic rocks. The piñas are mashed into a pulp, the mashed mash is fermented in open vats and the juice is distilled twice.

California’s agave spirits movement, still in its infancy, is being led by farmer Craig Reynolds, who founded the California Agave Council trade association in March.

In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that defines and limits beverages labeled “California agave spirits.” Like its south-of-the-border counterparts, mezcal and tequila, the “California agave spirits” designation applies strict guidelines for designation, a major win for the fledgling industry.

The amendment requires California agave spirits to be produced entirely in the state of California and prohibits the addition of flavorings, colors and additives.

For Mexican Americans like Nelson, bringing this industry to California is more than a business venture; it’s a way to connect with their roots.

“Being a Mexican American, agave is always around us, and our culture and what we drink…” Nelson said. “I wanted to do something that resonated with me, and maybe resonated with someone else in California (who) lacked an identity in California as a Mexican American, or a Chicano.”

The cultural significance also runs deep for Henry Garcia, a Woodland farmer who sells oats and hay at R. Garcia Farms.

He never set out to sell his agave commercially. About 25 years ago, he started growing agave with his father, Regino Garcia, to make the Mexican drink, pulque, and they made the drink for several years before his father died.

Pulque, a low-alcohol Mexican drink is made when the juice, or aguamiel, is milked from a ripe agave and fermented. Pulque is sometimes called the “drink of the gods.”

Garcia was born in Woodland and spent her childhood in Sonora, Mexico. He has vivid memories of seeing pulque sold in corner shops and roadsides in milk jugs.

Garcia grew large, hearty agaves indigenous to the US called agave Americana. Americans are larger than many of the other varieties and take longer to reach maturity – 10 to 13 years. In 2021, he sold some agave plants to Janos.

“For me, planting these plants with my dad (who is no longer) with us brings back a bit of his life. There is a lot of heart and memory in these plants,” Garcia said as she held back tears.

Thrilled with the quality of Jano’s product, he thought, “…to think it came from our backyard.”

Agaves are drought tolerant succulents native to the Americas. Many enthusiasts of agave-based drinks tout the plant’s low water consumption and resilience, and believe the no-nonsense culture will make agave spirits a good business in increasingly arid California.

Steve Vierra, certified soil scientist and director of vineyard operations for Derby Wine Estates in Paso Robles, is excited to see what comes of this growing agave movement.

He is experimentally growing different species of agave on his land east of Paso Robles and believes agave Americana has great growing potential in California. “It’s almost bulletproof,” he said of the species.

Perhaps in part because Jano is making his mezcal-style California agave spirit in the middle of prestigious Napa wine country, it’s instinctive to draw comparisons between agave drinks and the California wine boom of the 1970s.

“Great wines should not be made in old Europe. I see the same thing happening (with agave) on the West Coast. We will never be tequila. We can’t be either,” said Vierra, who believes a 1976 Paris-style, blind California agave mezcal tasting could showcase some of California’s offerings.

The industry still has a ways to go to establish itself in the US and rival Mexico’s mezcal and tequila industries, but growing national demand is encouraging.

In 2021, US consumer demand for mezcal increased by more than 50% according to SipSource. This year the same report found that the market continued to grow by 16%.

Mezcal currently accounts for only 0.2% of US spirits by volume, while tequila accounts for 11.4%. While it will likely take years for mezcal to reach 1% of liquor volume in the US, SipSource data analyst Dale Stratton predicts that tequila will soon overtake American whiskey as the second most popular liquor after vodka.

With growing international interest in agave spirits, tequila and mezcal producers in Mexico may soon struggle to meet demand, which is where California agave spirits could fill a market gap.

Napa Valley, with its agricultural, wine and tourism infrastructure could be an ideal place to test the waters.

“There’s already a system in place for vineyard management, for harvesting, for winemaking,” Nelson said. “It’s a hub for people to come enjoy the wine and promote the Napa region.”

As the groundwork is being laid for the rise of California’s agave industry, the local trio behind Jano Spirits is off to a flying start on producing a top-shelf, small-batch, mezcal-style libation.

Harvesting heirloom wheat to make Napa Valley single origin beers. Video by Tim Carl

Tim Karl

You can reach Danielle Wilde at 707-256-2212 or [email protected].

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