Tequila: The New Corona? Exploring the recent rise in tequila’s popularity

Whenever we think of an epic party night, chances are the clear liquid made from the agave plant had a role to play (as well as one or more shot glasses).

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While our neighbors to the North expect their consumption of one of the most regulated spirits to increase in the coming years, it has been expected to replace vodka as a number-one drink in the homeland for a while now. But where is tequila really from, and why is consumption in the US increasing?

First of all, no, Tequila has not made a total transformation from the party-fuel widespread across the globe, and it is still the same stuff you used to shoot in college (for the most part). The production in designated regions of Mexico (the only area in the world allowed to produce both  “Mixto” [no less than 51% agave] and “100% Agave” tequila) has increased by 250%, from 104 million liters in 1995 to 261 million liters in 2011.

Surprisingly, until 2008 the majority of production (steadily at or above 100 million liters per year) was “Mixto” tequila, a spirit like the well-known Jose Cuervo Especial Silver and Gold. While the Especial Silver has added sugarcane to it, Especial Gold is a mixture of Reposados (tequila aged more than two months but less than a year) and younger tequilas consisting of 51% Agave or more.

What really is driving the popularity of tequila in the 104 countries it is exported to is the growing variety and depth of selection in the “100% Agave” tequila family. While in 1995 only a little more than 15 million liters of this aged tequila were produced, the numbers rose to a staggering 155 million liters in 2011, after peaking at 163 million liters in 2008.

Tequila producers, while applying the century-old know-how passed down from generation to generation, are adapting their aging process and started using oak barrels previously used to age whiskey (Jack Daniels barrels are the favorite) in order to give their tequila a smoky flavor, darker color, and new complexity. This exploring of new possibilities is what every industry does to expand its reach in the global market, and the tequila Industry is ever-growing, increasing the export into the United States, which imports 76% of available tequila, by 25% in the last 8 years, while Spain’s appetite for the exclusive Mexican spirit has grown by 600% in the same time period, and now accounts for a total of 3% of exported product.

Finding the Great Wine Next Door

Fine wine next door

As a lover of fine wines, there’s perhaps only one thing better than lobbying for commanding vintage wine that you know is going to cost a small fortune: finding a product just about like that in quality, for about one third the price. Such is the fine work of the subculture of sommeliers across America.

By understanding the famous appellations or regions in every country, you can began to negotiate through many fine dining wine lists according to price and year. However, a favorite technique to apply is finding that appealing friend next door – a wine that has most all of the body and strength of its grand cru neighbor, that few people ever hear of outside their country. Usually, but not always, trying this strategy at your next big fundraising charity, celebrity banquet, or client prospect dinner will treat you right – both in taste and on your final invoice.

For example, it pays to know about the neighbors to the legendary Corton Charlemagne plots in Burgundy, France. Are these chardonnays that command between two and three Ben Franklins really worth it? To a sommelier or serious collector, a Bonneau du Martray Corton Charlemagne is worth every penny, and you should buy all you can in this short supply.

However, literally around the hillside, just down the road, lies the lesser-known city of Pernand Vergelesses. With a region so small, yet so similar to Corton, how can you go wrong by trying something like a group of us tried at the Coral Gables Biltmore hotel? For a fraction of the Corton price, we’re enjoying fine, complex, long-finish chardonnay from Vallet Freres — less than one mile away from some of the largest Corton names in France.
It pays to know a little more about the micro-climate and geography of your wine, for sure.

But how can others with less training or firsthand knowledge of these regions apply this strategy? Quite simply, you must be willing to ask for a sommelier early in your dining experience. Too often, your first server is not any more capable than you in making this kind of selection. Occasionally, you will meet someone who is so excited to share something that he or she is bound to introduce you to it. If that doesn’t happen, no worries. Ask and wait for someone who is in charge of maintaining the wine list, usually a sommelier (but not always).

During one visit in Chicago, I deviated off my usual Cabernet path under the passion of a local wine merchant at his steakhouse. I found a grand cru blend that drinks like a Mouton-Rothschild, for one fifth of the price. Since that time, with more tasting experience, I have traveled to France just to visit this estate. Don’t give up the great wine next door. But first, you must ask about it.

Travis Brown Photography: The Color of Wine

A bottle of Chateauneuf de Papes:  Vieux Telegraphe, “La Crau,” over the Missouri River

A bottle of Chateauneuf de Papes: Vieux Telegraphe, “La Crau,” over the Missouri River

Even within the Show Me State of Missouri, you can find many Travis Browns.  Travis Brown the cyclist.  Travis Brown the school superintendent.  A Travis Browne that fights.  There are Travis Browns that sing, that play professional football, and even Travis Browns that advertise tattoos.  However, I think that my profile is still relatively-unique in its focus on fine wines, entrepreneurship, and growing our Midwest economy.

If there’s one Travis Brown that I should partner with, it is likely another Travis Brown with a creative focus on photography, graphic arts, and creative productions.  It turns out that even near Saint Louis, there’s another Travis Brown whose career is precisely that as well.  Even though the two of us have never met, occasionally I get to observe his handiwork inside an Opera Theatre of Saint Louis event.

Growing up on our family farm in Ste. Genevieve County, my mother and father used to say that “there’s a Brown in everything.”

There are certainly fewer Travis Brown searches related to the Northern or Southern Rhone valleys in France.  That is likely in part due merely to the fact that the name “Travis” is often thought to be derived from native American/French Canadian roots (like travois).  In any event, for those looking for great wines on this blog, I often refer you, again, to the South of France.

A recent cover article for Decanter Magazine outlines my case better than I could do for myself.  There’s so much diversity – of color, of varietals, and of blending, to be found within the Great Rhone river regions.  Even the bodies, depths, and range of colors found within Rhone whites can be incredibly complex, just like the spectrum of google searches for Travis Brown.

“Vino en Hiver” (Wine in Winter)

This winter, I had occasion to work in the Windy City of Chicago again before the Holidays.  My next lobbying mission was to audit a few of Chicago’s oldest wine bars like a presidential candidate’s community organizer on precinct data.  Just like in marketing communications, what someone calls a wine bar can scurry around about as wide as Johnnie Football at the Cotton Bowl (another story).

Anyone in a hard core city lobbying to keep the title as the “oldest & finest wine  bar” received our attention for our group that night.  The owners’ story about being burned out lawyers also intrigued me a bit on our journey north of downtown.

Where are we?  Webster’s wine bar, of course, where there is always Music Mondays.  Their neighborhood location was matted to the North Chicago streets like a cocklebur on a collie’s back.

From the moment that you set foot into this community watering hole, it is clear that wine-friendly personalities drive it.  The folks are very willing to fit your personality like Johnnie Cochran trying on a glove.

Recently, they unveiled their top 10 aha wines of 2012 in a blog.  For a lobbyist with discriminating taste, their extensive wine list across many unusual regions of the world was like finding that your hard-fought legislation was just signed into law.

Their Riesling list – outstanding.  Pinot Noir and chardonnay – very diverse.  But this time around, what struck me were their Spanish Red wines off the coast of various islands.

When a wine list is carrying small case products from the Canary Islands, and moving it as a decent price, you know that you’ve left the backroom brokers, distributors, and dealmakers behind.

We tried a 2005 Bodegas Buten “Crater,” from the Canary Islands, and it drink similar to a rustic Chateauneuf-de-Pape with an Atlantic twist.  For the company involved, we opted for the higher price point, and it was worth it at $85.

With the atmosphere in this place, I could see myself returning for more entertainment.  However, in the Bears town, I might have to bring my own “G-Force” wine glass.

A Lobbyist, A Plane, A Business Representative, & A Nice Sommelier Book

By Travis H. Brown

It’s hard to be an engaged lobbyist across several states without spending significant time in and out of airplanes.  Anyone who has a business, or is a representative of a trade association, eventually finds their weeks to involve more travel than they might have preferred.  That’s why your mission is critical to carry around a few progressive things that you can read to relax, to unwind, or to shift the mind away from lobbying.

A colleague recently-traveling with me suggested this book below on the Secrets of the Sommeliers.  If you do not know of anyone trained as a sommelier, perhaps a worthy goal is getting to know one personally at your next fine dining establishment.  Most sommeliers are proud to share their experience, willing to take you various flights of wine, and eager to make you a true advocate.  Most sommeliers are trained to help you find your own path for what you like or dislike, even when your palette is not well known.  Sommeliers can improve not just your wine knowledge, but also your overall dining experience, the entertainment value of your guests, and your global interests about the world.

Until then, here’s a book worth exploring in the place of having a true professional at your tray or round table.


A Missourian Stray from Chardonnay in Saint Joseph

By Travis H. Brown

Finding a slower day amidst the hectic political campaigns during a presidential election year can be difficult to negotiate, but I managed to find a half day recently in Saint Louis to tidy up the wine cellar.  Finding a box of wine that you have forgotten to try can be like Christmas in July, which leads me back to the Northern Rhone region of France, thanks to one of my Californian wine brokers.

I took the pleasure of trying a 2006 Saint Joseph Pierre Jean Villa from Seyssuel, France.  This is not like any Chardonnay you have ever tried, mainly because it is a Rhone blend of 60% Marsanne and 40% Roussanne, aged 12 months in oak barrels.  Wild and nutty can perhaps describe this Rhone combination that was bottled on the right bank between Vienne and Valence.  Since it already had six years on it, I did not get a lot aromatic notes such as pear, but I did get the classic Rhone spice blend such as white pepper.

This Rhone producer, Pierre Jean Villa, has others taking notice for his bold expression of local varietals.  My sense is if you like bigger body Burgundian whites, you should try this Marsanne/Rousanne blend a little farther south.  If you get a chance to explore whites of the Rhone, do not be afraid to give it a go as I have.

Having the Oldest, and Perhaps Now, the Best

By Travis H. Brown

Some sommeliers from the Court of Master Sommeliers probably have been tracking the oldest bottles of champagne in the world at auction.  A few years ago it may have been hard to beat the age of a bottle of bubbly that has laid on the bottom of the ocean for 170 years.

However, Decanter Magazine just released news from China that may blow away any European claims that Bacchus vino started in the Western Hemisphere.  It seems that the historic set, complete with a “drink in moderation” table set, have now been unearthed with dates likely to be older than 3,000 years.  It may be that everything old is new again in China soon.

Several years, I had the occasion to travel extensively on a healthcare-related business mission across China, from Beijing to Xian to Shanghai.  Back then, it was still far easier to find many exotic green teas at elaborate tea houses, before you would find lots of fine wine lists.  However, with a taste for global offerings of luxury, China is replacing the historic demand in European wines that was once lead by Americans.

Chinese wine buyers lobbying to buy up the best of Bordeaux have now surpassed German buying on the famed Atlantic Coast.  Wine Spectator also had a recent article that Chinese investors are buying up some California estates such as Atlas Peak.  Whenever a NBA superstar sports brand like Yao Ming can move in to peddle $625 bottles of Cabernet to China, you know that market demand is really hot.

In honor of participating the next Saint Louis, Missouri china air cargo hub deal, I am offering up my 2005 DRC Montrachet Chardonnay below for the low low price of $5,500.

A Look at Tuscan Reds Under Golden Sun

By Travis H. Brown

Recently, I had the pleasure of exploring most of the Italian Wine Regions within Tuscany, with a particular focus on their signature red wines.  For the focus of our wine buying we started North in Florence, and moved South past Siena, as we navigated the scenic countryside.

By way of explanation, the vast majority of our wine buying for clients and entertainment insists on following only those vineyards of high quality at medium to higher price points.  In Italy, there are two designations under wine law to guide you to consistent quality:  Denominazinione di Origine Controllata, or “DOC,” and the highest appellation designation, Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, “DOCG.”  It is to be noted that there are many fine Italian wines that do not carry the DOC label, but rather are IGT wines.

To the north end of Toscana, it’s about Chianti Classico, which in most cases gives you the higher altitude, bone dry, sangiovese wine that many Americans love.  We found all DOC-labeled chiantis to meet our expectations, but our palettes were looking for something more complex.  Before we leave Chianti Classico, however, it is worth noting that their viticulturists are collaborating in many creative ways to promote their region, mostly through the label marketing of the black rooster.  Most Chianti Classicos (DOC grade or better) were selling on or above 25 euros (or roughly $35-40).  Along the way, we stumbled across Percarlo wines from Chianti, which were dynamite for us.

While all of Tuscany is panoramically-beautiful, our quest for the best red wines quickly narrowed us to the summit town of Montalcino.  This one little isolated town has preserved perhaps the best rendition of Sangiovese for centuries, off the beaten path, at the base of Mount Amiata.  It was this volcano that helped create the rich soil diversity, terroir, and atmospheric protection from cloudbursts and hailstorms.   Only Sangiovese grapes found within the municipal territory of Montalcino carry the famed label:  Brunello di Montalcino.  Only 15% of these 24,000 hectares of land is occupied by vineyards since the Etruscan times.

Certainly the international reputation of Brunello means that you can find some great selections in many fine dining establishments within the United States.  However, our buying focus was to find a few great local producers not likely to be marketed by most brokers and large suppliers.  Toward this end, we got help from the friendly owners at Enoteca La Fortezza di Montalcino.  Giorella rolled out a fine map that every serious Brunello buyer should have from the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino.

We sampled more than a dozen local producers (out of several hundred available) from all four corners of this small Montalcino territory:  the north (for fresh & elegant styles), the east (for robust styles), the south (for sunny fruit expressions), and the west (for classic dry spices).  Our three palettes ended up rating the Terre Nere the best overall.  We liked Mate as a producer for their expression of spices.  If you sample the wines there, make sure to also sample the local honeys for dessert.  For a main course in Tuscan, one must try the ragu pasta with wild boar to be completely indigenous.

My experience in Italian-American restaurants is that they tend to give you a more limited exposure to the incredible diversity within this one varietal.  The Terre Nere 2006 & 2007 releases gave us strong red fruits with pinot noir smoothness up front, followed by a long finish into soft tannins and well-balanced earthy spices.  If you’re feeling intimated about an Italian wine selection, remember and use “Brunello” as your flag word from which to start a great red wine experience.

When it comes to reds, Tuscany is the gift that keeps on giving.  We made it over to Montepulciano just about 45 minutes east of Montalcino for a completely different excursion.  Here, we sampled the Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (or VNM), a blend of several local red varietals though by papal lords to be a perfect expression of a red wine.

What I expected from these tasting would be grapes with a wild side, something perhaps the Grenache-driven Chateauneuf de Papes that we’ve had in the Southern Rhone.  However, to my surprise, I found these reds (granted, mostly riservas) to full of violets in the nose, and smooth on the finish.  We can recommend Politiziano and Avignonesi as well-known producers that you can likely find.  However, we also found some newcomers, like Dei, a lady singer/entrepreneur making new waves near the town with even more feminine fruit notes in her bottles.

Avignonesi’s Desiderio

Despite our focused adventure to buy the classic labels this trip, we could not help but notice (and try) many of the new red blends or new varieties that have emerged across Tuscany.  Both Syrahs and Merlots are making their way through the next generation producers, with some noteworthy success.  I found both (near Cortona) to impart strong Montepulciano earth notes.  Their alcoholic content was a bit higher than expected (> 14%),  but one Italian sommelier assured me that such labels were often given higher numbers than actually what is bottled just to be safe with Italian regulators.

Italian wine tasting without a Brunello experience is like a wedding without a cake.  There are many more wines that are super than just the Super-Tuscans.

A Small French Wine Name to Remember: Cornas

By Travis H. Brown

Last fall, our wine buying trip took us up and down the Rhone River in the South of France.  Thanks to a fellow Sommelier Guild member in Chicago, I did find the off-the-beaten vineyard of Mas Daumas Gassac.  This Grand Cru Bordeaux style blend of red was amazing in the Languedoc region, close to virtually nothing else halfway between Barcelona and Lyon.  Quel plaisir!

After that drive, however, we anchored in near Gordes, France, in the Luberon mountains (Cotes des Luberons) in Provence.   Going from the bottom up, we tasted most of the Grenache-driven areas, including Gigonda, which we have enjoyed.  However, to our surprise, we found that our taste buds kept us going north, into the Cote-Rotie (or “Roasted Coast”) for more and more syrah-driven reds.  The Rhone river is to France what the Mississippi is to America’s heartland.   During one minute, the central artery may showcase biodynamic grapes on a steep, narrow slope.  During the next, you might pass a high-tech nuclear reactor.

Not far from this unique Northern Rhone domain known for its viognier/syrah symphonies is a small town called Cornas.  The terroir and micro-climate from these river banks seems to weave a beautiful tapestry of earth notes into this grape that my wife and I now seek out.  Finding a Cornas can be like truffle-hunting I suppose:  you need to be a good sniffer on all wine lists, and you need to be at the right place at the right time.

The Rhone valley is likely less understood to most American consumers that perhaps Bordeaux or even Burgundy.  Since our visit, we have found a few cellars primarily in New York City and one in South Carolina to carry a Cornas appellation.  The pride and history of this wine’s tradition have kept its quality high and its profile stable across the several vintages that we’ve tried so far.  Since the area under French wine law is so discrete to its town, Cornas, there’s a great chance you’re finding a great local producer if you spot it on the menu.

On a more basic level, any wine enthusiast trying to understand the vast difference between a red wine being earth-driven, vs. fruit-forward, can simply try pairing any French Syrah against an Australian Shiraz or Napa Valley Syrah.  The differences are stark and obvious to even most vino neophytes.  If you want berries and fruit, you’ll stay in the New World with future selections.  If you want spice of the earth, you’ll be looking for the Old World again.  Que Syrah Syrah!

Grapes, Grasshoppers, & Grafting

By Travis H. Brown

As a native of Ste. Genevieve County and their Route Du Vin, it is pleasing to report that Missouri now has more than 100 local wineries in production.  As regions such as Hermann, St. James, and Augusta lobby hard for local tourism dollars and regional respect, many Missourians may not realize how much le monde du vin (the world of wine) owes to Show Me State discovery.

In the 1860’s, an aphid-based plague known as phylloxera ravaged most of Europe’s most precious vines.  It was to grapes what the black plaque was human civilization, threatening to ruin entire populations of varietals within a few growing seasons.  It is such an important threat the Institut Francais de la Vigne et du Vin (IFV) has numerous research studies on its impact still today.

Then our Missouri valentine arrived.  Enter a bug doctor – Charles Valentine Riley, to be precise, Missouri’s first state entomologist.  Thanks to Riley’s tedious study of grasshopper infestations across various states, he lobbied hard for our United States Department of Agriculture to advance many of his biological control methods.  Riley helped develop a grafting technique using native Missouri rootstocks resistant to the pest, which arguably saved the world of fine wines.

I am told that Missouri had more than 200 active wineries prior to the government policy swing brought by the Prohibition Era.  A curious political twist of fate from this movement was that the alliance between the women’s temperance movement and anti-saloon league to ban alcohol ironically helped propel a national income tax.

So, the next time you met a French viticulturist, remind him that he should thank Missouri for giving his vineyard strong American roots.  If the comments back were like mine years ago in Sancerre, you’ll be saying “a la vache!”