By and large, browsing wine enthusiasts expect a whole bunch of information from labels – the variety or varieties of grape that went into the bottle, where the grapes were grown, the year they were harvested.
Spirits enthusiasts? Not so much. They’re accustomed to seeing the name of the spirit and little else. Craig Reynolds, however, is keen to bring the transparency and marketing acumen of the wine trade to the world of spirits.
His vehicle to accomplish this is Dos Volcanes, a bracing yet satiny distilled spirit he and several colleagues make in Mexico and which they are marketing ambitiously in Sacramento.
“I thought I was getting a little donkey, but it’s turned into a bucking bronco,” says Reynolds of his introduction to farming, distilling and marketing, chores not at all on his agenda when he started to visit Mexico.
Reynolds is an old hand at the state Capitol. He’s in his 13th year as chief of staff for Lois Wolk, a fellow Davis resident elected to the Assembly in 2002 and to the Senate in 2008.
Thirty years ago, Reynolds began to visit the Mexican state of Colima as a volunteer with Project Amigo, a nascent program to help educate children of the small community Cofradia de Suchitlan. Underwritten largely by Rotary International, the project now also involves providing college scholarships for the community’s youths and a student dormitory at the University of Colima, Casa Amiga.
In April 2006 Reynolds, Ted Rose, who with his wife, Susan Hill, founded Project Amigo, and Diego Martinez, Project Amigo’s director of operations, planted 4 1/2 acres of blue agave in a former pasture of Martinez’s ranch. The plot is 4,278 feet up the Colima highlands, on rich red soils deposited by two volcanos, the active Volcan de Colima and the dormant Volcan de Nevado. Their long-range goal was to produce a distilled spirit not unlike tequila to help finance Project Amigo.
Blue agave takes about eight years to mature before its husky core, the pina, can be harvested and laboriously processed into tequila. Crews harvested the Reynolds, Rose and Martinez patch of agave in 2014. The approximate 60 tons of pinas that were dug up yielded around 6,000 liters of distilled spirit, now bottled as Dos Volcanes.
For all intents and purposes, it looks like, smells like, tastes like and feels like tequila. It’s available in two versions, an aromatic, citric and herbal blanco, smooth in texture and saturating in warmth ($60), and a golden hued and somewhat rounder reposado, aged 10 months in barrels of French oak that previously housed red wine ($70).
Dos Volcanes, however, can’t be called tequila because of Mexico’s regulations governing the spirit’s place of origin. Colima is a small state squeezed between the larger states of Jalisco and Michoacán, which include officially defined tequila and mezcal districts. None of them, however, stretches to Cofradia de Suchitlan, though the partners’ field of agave is only 3 miles outside of a designated tequila area.
What’s more, Dos Volcanes is distilled by seasoned tequila distiller Ernesto Granados Cardoso at a tequilera in Guadalajara, the city most closely identified with the spirit.
And on top of that, Colima well might be where both tequila and mezcal originated, according to recent research by ethno-biologists Patricia Colunga and Daniel Zizumbo, who say Spanish immigrants began to distill agave in the area 400 years ago. The region’s native Nahautl may even have been roasting and distilling agave long before the Spanish arrived, notes Reynolds. “While Colima is in neither region, it is the birthplace of both,” he says.
Reynolds isn’t miffed that Dos Volcanes can’t be called tequila, and isn’t entertaining thoughts of using his legislative experience to lobby for a change in Mexico’s appellation boundaries. At least for the time being he is content with labeling Dos Volcanes as “spirits distilled from blue agave,” along with such wine-inspired information as the variety of agave (“tequilana weber azul”), place of origin (“Colima Highlands”), vintage (“2014”) and style (“Blanco” or “Reposado”). Nevertheless, when talking of Dos Volcanes he occasionally slips into calling it “tequila.”
Some fans of Dos Volcanes are urging him to come up with a short and catchy name for the spirit. Oscar Escobar, bartender at the restaurant Tequila Museo Mayahuel along K Street, coined and suggested that “mezquila” be used for Dos Volcanes.
Reynolds isn’t estimating how much money Dos Volcanes will raise for Project Amigo, but figures “several dollars per bottle.” The cost to make Dos Volcanes has included attorney fees for handling paperwork required by liquor-control authorities in Mexico and the United States, the design and manufacture of a traditionally artful bottle and so forth, but the single largest expense has been the $30,000 the partners paid a gardener to remove weeds from their organically cultivated agave over the eight years it matured, Reynolds says. “Our goal is to make good tequila and to help the project, regardless of whether we (personally) make any money at all.”
Now captivated by the spirits industry, Reynolds also is involved with experimental agave fields at Lake Elsinore in Riverside County and Woodland in Yolo County to see if a viable tequila-like spirit can be made in California.
Reynolds prefers to savor Dos Volcanes straight, as “a sipping tequila, like cognac, bourbon or scotch.” He and his wife, Cass Sylvia, have built a home at Cofradia de Suchitlan that they share with project volunteers, but they don’t have to visit it to be reminded of life in the village. Dos Volcanes does that for them.
“The biggest surprise has been how good the tequila is,” Reynolds says. “That’s because the agave has been treated well, we’ve had good luck, and we have a really good tequila maker. He knew what he was doing. He gave us the fullest expression of the agave. …When I taste it I hear the chickens, the rooster, the bells ringing and the fireworks going off. It takes me back to the place where it was grown.”
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.