From cannabis to mezcal – agave is Eric Pearson’s latest vice

While traveling in the foothills of Michoacan, Mexico, last winter, SPARC dispensary founder Eric Pearson visited a mezcal operation run by Sonoma resident Salvador Chavez, who owns Café Picazo.

Pearson returned home inspired to farm his own home.

He’s been growing cannabis as a dispensary owner since 2001, but now he and Sonoma farmer Michelle Jindal are taking their green thumb to a new crop, agave, with the goal of creating their own mezcal in the Sonoma Valley.

“I think it’s our most authentic spirit,” Pearson said. “And the culture behind it is as authentic as you can get when you go down to Oaxaca, Mexico and spend your time with multiple generations of people who have been making mezcal.”

The Jindal family has farmed Sonoma County since the early 1900s, starting with turkeys and later moving to grape farming and livestock. Now, two acres of her property on Trinity Road are dedicated to cacti. Although the business partners won’t travel by donkey across the Mayacamas Mountains like the mezcal makers of Michoacán, he and Jindal are drawing on their Sonoma Valley agricultural traditions.

“We’re basically just farmers,” Jindal said. “It stands to reason that when we start to run out of water, we should change our thought process about what we grow in Sonoma County. That’s how agave came on our radar.

At this time, Pearson and Jindal have no plans to make mezcal a commercial endeavor, but their interest may inspire more growers to consider agave as the next major crop to take hold in the region.

Northern variety

Aloe vera has not traditionally been grown in Northern California, where the cold, wet season threatens to freeze the roots with “wet feet” unless the soil has good drainage, Pearson said.

However, some cactus species are resilient to the cold, wet winters of Northern California. Agave Americanaa blue-colored variety found anywhere from the beaches of Alcatraz to the hills of Mayacamas, has managed to stick around since its introduction in the 1800s.

“There are a lot of varieties that are more cold tolerant than the next one. The question is how tolerant are they? How much do they produce? How high are the Brix? How long do they take? What is the flavor?” Pearson said. “And that’s just kind of fun. We got to reinvent that here because no one was really doing it.”

While flavor will be an important factor for the final product, the bigger question for Pearson will be how long it takes for the plants to mature so he can harvest the piña, the part of the plant that is crushed, juiced and fermented to create mezcal.

but Aloe americana It takes longer to mature than species native to the southwestern United States and Central America, such as agave Tequilana And Spain

“We are five years away from seeing any of the fruits of our labor,” Jindal said.

Pearson pointed to the cacti that dot the Mayacamas Hills while speaking to the Index Tribune, saying they appear to be aging faster than online articles indicate.

“Wikipedia will tell you it’s 14 years old,” Pearson said. “I’m not convinced because I’ve seen very big things in the valley that are only four or five years old and already have a Brix level of 27.”

Brix is ​​a measurement of sugar that helps determine when a plant is ready to harvest.

However, the agave seedlings on Trinity Road — and the prospect of growing mezcal in Sonoma — have excited Pearson and Jindal, who believe it could be another boon to Sonoma Valley’s tourism economy.

“If I could snap my fingers right now and the agave was ready to be harvested and make mezcal, I would do it. But I don’t, and it takes a while to grow,” Pearson said. “So I just started growing it.”

Romantic hobby

For many Sonoma County farmers, farming is more of an art form than a business. Like wine, this literal commitment has extended to cannabis since its legalization in California. That’s why Pearson and Jindal believe mezcal can follow its roots.

When Pearson visited Michoacán last winter, he was impressed by the efforts of Oaxacan farmers who traveled into the mountains to harvest the same fields that generations of their families had done before.

“You discover that they still take donkeys into the mountains to harvest the plants and bring the pina back,” Pearson said. “And they are still climbing seedlings and such to put them back in the mountain in the same place where their grandfather and great-grandfather used to harvest.”

This generational craft gives agave and mezcal a special “romanticism” in Pearson’s eyes. He sees the future in fields of vines, hemp and agave.

“Our hemp is something the world knows. “Our wines are something the world knows,” Pearson said. “So people here are looking for experiences… an agave farm and an agave experience, all of that is going to be a successful thing here.”

Jindal and Pearson both noticed the same opportunity in yards and roadsides where cacti grow freely in the valley.

“I’ve noticed a lot in the last year that the agave in people’s yards is blooming, which is, in theory, a lot of tequila,” Jindal said. “Even one flower in someone’s yard, harvesting it is a really beautiful whole process. And because after the plant flowers it dies. So its life cycle is quite romantic.

The new endeavor tracks a growing movement in California’s agricultural industry to find more drought-tolerant plants in response to climate change.

While grapes and hemp are “high-intensity” crops that require meticulous attention to detail and a deep knowledge of horticulture, agave is simple — at least for the two farmers in Jindal and Pearson.

“It didn’t really cost us anything because I have a lot of extra stuff from my cannabis business. I have pots, I have soil, I have greenhouses. It’s just been some work, it’s a labor of love,” Pearson said.

Contact Chase Hunter at and follow up @Chase_HunterB On Twitter.

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