One of the great perks of working in the wine industry is world travel.
I’ve traveled to wineries and tasted wines across New York, Pennsylvania, Canada, Germany and France. Meeting the people who grow the grapes, care for the vineyards and make the wine is a valuable experience to bring back to customers, associates and friends.
Once I was flown with about two dozen retailers, restaurateurs and wholesalers to Germany for a whirlwind tour of various vineyards. We saw the vineyards, tasted the wine, and listened to history, many times through a translator. We felt the sun over the vines, saw where the slope faced a local river for radiant heat, touched the soil and sampled the traditional local cuisine. Through all that, we found a connection with local growers and families that had farmed there for more generations than anyone could count.
Could all the “information” we received have been more efficiently sent via an email, fax, or by and sending a few sample bottles? Perhaps. Could the knowledge we gained have been transmitted in a conference? I don’t think so!
We left Germany and returned to our jobs with a new relationship and a friendship with our grower partners. We also had a better understanding of the wines and the passion with which they were made. But we had so much more.
On those visits I started to recognize that tasting was only a small part of what the whole thing was about. Five years ago Dave Miller approached me about visiting some mezcal palenques [think distillery] in Oaxaca. I was intrigued, but in all honesty, a bit skeptical. What could a “distillery” show me? I was a cultured “wine guy!”
What insight could I learn from the distillers? What artistry, tradition or terroir could be experienced with this spirit? I agreed to go with an open mind and take a few tasting notes. Little did I know that I was in for the experience of a lifetime, one that would rival my visits to the finest and most famous wineries in Europe.
Beyond the basics of methods, equipment, stills and agaves, I received unparalleled insight into the true art of distilling spirits. And just like those great wineries in Europe, I saw traditions that had been passed on for several generations. Traditions that go into each and every bottle of mezcal.
The terroir (for our purposes where nature and tradition meet) was a true experience I’ve relished since Dave took me to that first palenque. I had a chance to walk the fields on mountain tops, in valleys, on steep slopes and flat land. I was walking with men whose ancient ancestors first chose those places to harvest wild agaves. They were men who spent their childhood living in those fields.
I got an education differentiating the mineral, floral, grassy or floral notes reflecting those places. I spent time learning the advantages of different still types and how they bring out the flavors. I listened as mezcaleros shared how their grandfathers taught them when to harvest a plant at its perfect time, how to roast, crush, and ferment the agaves used to make mezcal. And I learned how different families decided on the perfect levels of alcohol for their particular mezcal.
I saw large production facilities where a sense of quality and consistency showed pure genius and visited places where the production is so small, careful and artisinal, it was done a few liters at a time. I’ve watched young boys learning the craft from their fathers, excited to carry on the family tradition. The closeness of the mezcaleros to their land, their Mexico and their heritage is an amazing thing to experience.
You can pop into my store any day here in Buffalo, New York for some great mezcal, or even call me for a recommendation. I’ll make sure you get something that will impress your friends as you mark a special occasion.
(Editors Note: please email me at [email protected] for current selection, our website does not show most of our vast selection)
But if you want to really experience the true terroir of mezcal, you need to experience this great spirit where it’s rooted. In Oaxaca, because that’s where you learn the importance of being there!