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04.2005

Massachusetts Beverage Business

archivedFeaturedArticles

Doug French

Article By: Fred Bouchard

Doug French • 51 • Mezcalero, Scorpion Mezcal & Marketer,
Caballeros Inc. • Oaxaca, Mexico

 PROFILE Born in Bronxville, NY, mezcalero Doug French grew up in Beaumont, TX, Guadalajara, Mexico, and Europe. His double major in business administration/Latin-American studies from U. Pacific helped him import hand-woven textiles and run his own weaving factory, first in Menlo Park, CA, then in Mexico. When textiles flagged, French convinced Carl Doumani of Stag's Leap Winery to hire him on the spot to oversee his Encantado mezcal contract, arguing: 'I've successfully run Mexican productions; I speak Spanish fluently; I know the ins and outs of US/Mexican customs, import/export regulations, international shipping, tax requirements, labeling, packaging, quality control - everything but the liquid inside the bottle.' The liquid French began learning in 1995 by judicious tasting and sowing his own agave (in Spanish, maguey) plantation; he soon opened his own mezcal business.

PURSUING EXCELLENCE Working for Carl, I gradually discovered why properly made mezcal was invariably an excellent product, unlike the random (bad to fair to good) bottles you'd find in the marketplace. Being a curious fellow, I found out why, if you made it right, every single batch was good. I sought that quality and image for Encantado, and later, for my brand. In textiles, I found that a niche sector always has great appreciation for things well-made. I thought that in the international liquor business that quality-minded audience would be large enough to keep a commercial mezcal operation going.

HARD WORK and HORSEPLAY Mezcals, like handcrafted textiles, are artisanal products: labor-intensive, rare, made with a lot of time, love and commitment. While the tequila industry does keep people employed, its mass-production, high volume systems use barely 1/1O the manpower needed to produce mezcal. 9O% of mezcal is still made in small batches by families making under 5OO liters a month. What's more, once you harvest an agave, you've nothing left but a hole in the ground, and it takes 6 to1O years to grow and harvest another. Other white spirits - rum, vodka - you can crank out in enormous volume year after year.

WINE and WHISKEY VARIATIONS Agave's growing conditions affect the mezcal flavor as grapes determine wine - altitude, slope, degree days, cool or hot zones. Up to 16 different varieties of agave may go into mezcal, making it in a sense like Rhone to tequila's Burgundy. Then every mezcalero's hand is a little different. Each batch and blend differs, like single-malt Scotches. I'm pleased that whiskey and scotch drinkers are favorably impressed with the flavors of añejo mezcal. They're finding they have the same qualities they demand in better whiskeys.

CRUNCH LESSONS Most Oaxacans - especially those of the dozen indigenous cultures with their own languages and traditions - earn less than $2OO a year. They survive on hardscrabble subsistence farming - corn, squash, beans - and barter. When the crunch hit in tequila production in 2OO2, desperate Jalisco tequila producers plundered the Oaxacan farmers' agave harvest (a one-time gap-closer than is unlikely to be repeated.) One upside of this one-time shortage was the lesson it taught to the dirt-poor local farmers: agave is their only chance to accumulate wealth with a cash crop. When the tequileros paid these farmers outrageous, undreamed-of sums, they added rooms on their houses and bought pickup trucks. Today that bubble has burst and prices are back to normal, yet still, in these harsh, arid plains of Oaxaca, maguey is all that grows - slowly to be sure - but more readily and profitably than corn.

SOCIAL CONSCIENCE I get along with my fellow mezcaleros, who regard me a respected businessman, another who employs the labor force in a severely depressed economy. I meet with the Governor of Oaxaca half a dozen times a year at social and business events. (Do liquor guys in California get to hang out with the governor?) Our businesses, if successful, will keep bread on the table for workers who might otherwise emigrate - or sneak into - the US.

MARKET ATTACK For our consortium of mezcal producers, we developed a bar program for the Bar Show in Las Vegas, and an exposition tasting program for Wholesalers to Distributors Show in Orlando. Though we're now in 14 states and Canada, we're still new to this sophisticated, incredibly competitive marketplace with its own techniques, rules and regulations, so we have to work twice as hard to build our niche.

NEXT CHALLENGE The main thing is to get people to taste. The flavor is what makes people love mezcal. Cracking the bars is gonna be hell. Can you believe Jagermeister sent out 1OOO women to do bar tastings? When you're drinking, they say, the first drink's the worst and the second is better. I say, throw out the first and get right to the good stuff. Mezcal, made right, is a really good drink. When I finally started to make it, I never, ever cut corners, and every single batch has been good! So now drinkers can now start enjoying their first one!

FLAVOR WATCH Flavored mezcals are not yet ready for introduction to the US, though they have a fine following in Mexico. Firms like Pensamiento are producing a wide (6O+) spectrum of flavored mezcals, called cremas whether or not they have dairy added. Carlos Leon Monterubio of Joyas Oaxacenas, a four-generation mezcalero family in Tlacolula, has created a repertory of bar drinks based on dozens of flavored mezcals. (Author's note: Mezcals flambe well with fruits, as noted at Mezcal Beneva's Rancho Zapata's extensive dessert menu pairing mezcal blanco with banana, peach or pineapple. Anejos go well with chocolate torte. We tried a mezcal-flambed steak at Paco Paco - sensational!)

NOW READING Mostly accounting statements! Seriously, industry magazines fascinate me with their diversity of information. More in-trade than consumer magazines - they're more hard-hitting, less flighty. I love reading about the wars between big and little distributors, connoisseurs dissecting fine nuances of wines and spirits, statistical charts, hot brands, new product presentations. Real issues of new closures: cork is out, plastic is in! Public perception versus expert opinion. I find this all incredibly interesting and valuable.

POP POPS Decent Mexican lagers are my usual pours, but I love red wine. As a boy in France, I tasted vin ordinaire at table. My brother has turned me onto Grand Cru Bordeaux. Down here we get a little bit of French, Chilean, Riojas - but I'm starved to learn how to pick out ones I like.


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