Wine Researchers Turn to Tequila

© Getty Images| Agave works well in California, as it is robustly drought resistant.

As California wine won the heart of first the nation and then the world, UC Davis was always in the background, giving support with academic research into grapegrowing and winemaking.

Now, some farmers growing agave in California's hot San Joaquin Valley hope the university can do the same for US-made agave spirits.

The university received a $100,000 seed grant to stimulate agave research from Stuart and Lisa Woolf, who mostly farm almonds and tomatoes, but have a test plant of 900 agave plants on 1.5 acres. The Woolfs believe California can make agave liquors to compete with Tequila and mezcal from Mexico. Given the ongoing boom in the US for both local artisan spirits and Tequila, it seems possible.

Ron Runnebaum, UC Davis associate professor of viticulture and enology, is in charge of using the grant. We talked about what UC Davis can and can't do, and whether US agave liquors could become a major product.

Water is obviously a concern for central valley farmers. How drought-tolerant is agave?

That's one of the things that will need to be investigated. It seems like from the grower standpoint, it needs to be a crop that if you do not have water to irrigate, it will at least not die, or be impacted from future production. If you can come back and irrigate at a later point it might delay your harvest, but you would still have a crop at some point. That's a question that we'll pursue – what is the impact of not providing irrigation for certain amounts of time? It's my understanding that in general they're not irrigated in Mexico. That's an opportunity in California. There's plenty of agave you can see growing in California that is not irrigated. It's my understanding that agave grows wild here and through Mexico and further south into central America. But if you want to make it a commercial enterprise, you have to consider irrigation at some point.

I know UC Davis makes some wine, but I wasn't aware that you did any distillation.

For the past 40 years, not to a great extent. We still teach distillation courses. We don't have a lab currently for doing laboratory teaching. It was much more important for the state and the department for post-Prohibition when a larger portion of the products being sold would be fortified wines. We do have staff that will publish analytic research on distillation. Until the early 1980s we did have a faculty member that was mainly responsible for distilled spirits. One faculty member would have been hired post-Prohibition in the 1940s. He retired in the 1970s. Another faculty member – Lynn Williams – passed away in the 1980s. Nobody was hired after that. The courses continued to be taught by Roger Boulton. I recently took that over with Roger's retirement.

Do you get students hoping to go into a career in distillation?

We have students who are a bit more curious in the last five or so years, because of the increase in micro-distilleries. Before, with so few jobs for distillers in the industry, for many of our students it would have been difficult to imagine what a career might look like, focused on distillation. We have had recent graduates that have gone into distillation.

I understand you and others at the university tried a number of California agave products before taking this on. How were they?

A number of people considered them to be quite high quality. There were some that were pit-roasted (like mezcal), and some that were were processed with steam (like Tequila). (The Woolfs) provided a broad range of the types of products that might be possible. I think they were all nicely made products. There's not a lot of California agave available for distilleries to work with. Most of these were batches on the order of hundreds of bottles.

Do we know anything about whether California has good terroir for agave?

I think that's to be determined. It maybe depends on what you're trying to optimize. There are growers in Yolo County and other North Coast counties. In the central valley, the Wolff family has a plot that is not so far along. There has been some harvested in the Santa Barbaraarea. These different areas might lead to not only different sensory qualities but also different ripening. There's a lot of opportunities for growers to explore this. With this initial seed funding, it's a chance to bring these data sets together. Hopefully that information will help people make better decisions for themselves.

$100,000 doesn't sound like much money for something like this. What can you accomplish with it?

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

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