Wine researchers turn to tequila

UC Davis is looking to boost California Agave to take on Tequila.

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| Agave works well in California because it is very drought resistant.

As California wine won the hearts of first the nation and then the world, UC Davis was always in the background, supporting academic research in viticulture and winemaking.

Now some farmers growing agave in California’s warm San Joaquin Valley are hoping the university can do the same for American-made agave spirits.

The university received a $100,000 seed grant to spur agave research from Stuart and Lisa Woolf, who primarily grow almonds and tomatoes but have a test plant of 900 in 1 agave seedlings, 5 acres. The Woolfs think California can make agave liqueurs to compete with tequila and mezcal from Mexico. Given the ongoing boom in the United States for local craft spirits and tequila, it seems possible.

Ron Runnebaum, associate professor of viticulture and enology at UC Davis, is responsible for the use of the grant. We talked about what UC Davis can and can’t do, and whether American agave liquors could become a major product.

Water is obviously a concern for farmers in the Central Valley. How drought resistant is agave?

This is one of the things that will have to be studied. It seems that from the grower’s perspective, it has to be a crop that, if you don’t have water to irrigate, at least won’t die or be affected by future production. If you can come back and irrigate later, it might delay your harvest, but you would still have a harvest at some point. This is a question we will pursue – what is the impact of not providing irrigation for a period of time? I understand that in general they are not irrigated in Mexico. It’s an opportunity in California. There are many agaves that you can see growing in California that are not irrigated. I understand that agave grows wild here and across Mexico and further south in Central America. But if you want to make a business out of it, you have to consider irrigation at some point.

I know UC Davis makes wine, but I didn’t know you did distillation.

Over the past 40 years, not to a great extent. We still teach distillation classes. We do not currently have a lab to do lab teaching. This was much more important to the state and department for post-prohibition when a greater portion of the products sold would be fortified wines. We have staff who will publish analytical research on distillation. Until the early 1980s we had one faculty member who was primarily responsible for distilled spirits. One faculty member was reportedly hired after Prohibition in the 1940s. He retired in the 1970s. Another faculty member – Lynn Williams – died in the 1980s. No one was hired by the following. Classes continued to be taught by Roger Boulton. I recently took over with Roger’s retirement.

Do you have students hoping to pursue a career in distillation?

We have students who have been a little more curious for about five years, because of the proliferation of micro-distilleries. Before, with so few jobs for distillers in the industry, for many of our students it would have been hard to imagine what a career focused on distilling might look like. We have had recent graduates who have gone into distilling.

I understand that you and others in college have tried a number of California agave products before taking the plunge. How were they?

A number of people considered them to be of very good quality. Some were pit roasted (like mezcal) and some were steamed (like tequila). (The Woolfs) provided a wide range of product types that might be possible. I think they were all well made products. There is not a lot of California agave available for distilleries. These were mostly batches of the order of hundreds of bottles.

Do we know if California has a good soil for agave?

I think that’s to be determined. Maybe it depends on what you are trying to optimize. There are growers in Yolo County and other north coast counties. In the Central Valley, the Wolff family owns a plot not so remote. There have been harvests in the Santa Barbara area. These different areas can lead not only to different sensory qualities, but also to different maturation. There are plenty of opportunities for producers to explore this. With this initial seed funding, it’s a chance to bring these data sets together. Hopefully this information will help people make better decisions for themselves.

$100,000 doesn’t seem like a lot of money for something like that. What can you accomplish with it?

Most of that would end up funding a graduate student or postdoc for about a year, with funds for travel and supplies for experiments. This is going to help us start some initial experiments and start gathering some of the data that has already been generated. One of the challenges of agave is the long growing period (about seven years) before harvest. If you finance something for one or two years, you will not be able to harvest. We have to work with places where agave is already planted.

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About Michael Brafford

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