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The Great Agave Experiment

Can This Liquor-Making Plant Correct California’s Parched, Fire-Prone Landscape?

Neither much of a farmer nor drinker, La Paloma Ranch manager John Kleinwachter, (pictured with Vinnie the dog) finds himself as one of California’s first jimadors, the Mexican name for agave harvesters.
Erika Carlos

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By everyone’s admission, the first harvests of blue agave on the Gaviota Coast have been a bit clumsy. Unlike plucking fruits, picking vegetables, or mowing grains ​— ​activities that are familiar enough to the everyday Californian farmer ​— ​these sharp-spined, sturdy cacti are much more bizarre beasts. Their fibrous leaves must first be severed with a spade-like tool called a coa, and then the shallow, spindly roots are hacked away to release the piña. That oversized, pineapple-looking orb ​— ​which can grow as big as 150 pounds, although these early ones are only a third that size ​— ​is then chopped into chunks that will later be cooked, mashed, juiced, fermented, and distilled into liquor.

It’s backbreaking work, especially when you don’t really have anyone to teach you the way, and the three harvests that have happened so far at La Paloma Ranch in the foothills above Refugio State Beach have been peppered with plenty of laughter, speculation over proper technique, and severely poked butt cheeks. (“Harvest” is itself a clumsy word: Only five piñas have been unearthed in total so far.) The inexperience extends from the growing ​— ​these first agaves surprised everyone by maturing and shooting their flower stalks much sooner than the 7-10 years expected ​— ​to the processing, as the men down the coast at Ventura Spirits who’ve mastered the distillation of grain and fruit are perplexed by how to best convert these cacti into booze. (Technically, agave aren’t even cacti, but more closely related to the lily species.)

Of course, a steep, slightly silly learning curve is only natural when it comes to the first crack at a new crop. Agave, as most everyone knows by now, is the basis for Mexico’s famed tequila, one of the most sought-after liquors in the world. But tequila ​— ​which can only be made from Agave tequilana, aka blue agave, in Jalisco and a few surrounding states in Mexico ​— ​is merely an intensely regulated version of mezcal. That’s the name for spirits distilled from more than three dozen species of agave throughout Mexico, from the massive Agave mapisaga (which grows 14 feet tall and wide) to the more diminutive Agave potatorum, whose two-foot-wide piñas are turned into coveted $150 bottles labeled “Tobala.”

One of the first agaves planted in Santa Barbara County, at La Paloma Ranch on the Gaviota Coast
Matt Kettmann

So when it comes to turning agave into alcohol, Mexico enjoys a firm head start over California. The indigenous Mesoamericans came first, making a fermented, beer-like beverage called pulque from agave for at least 1,000 years. There’s a sliver of research that suggests distillation may have occurred prior to Spanish contact, but the dominant belief is that it was the conquistadors of the 1600s who first started making liquor out of the plant when they grew thirsty for brandy. The tradition was professionalized over the next two centuries, primarily by the Cuervo and Sauza families. In 1974, the Mexican government protected and regulated the “tequila” name, much like France owns “Champagne,” and did the same for “mezcal” in 1994.

The country is vigilant in their defense of those monikers, and purists are probably smirking to learn that their neighbors to the north are embarking on a grand agave experiment. La Paloma’s owner, Eric Hvolboll ​— ​whose family has tended to this slice of land for more than 150 years ​— ​is the first to admit the whole thing could completely fail. “It might just be a lark and we don’t continue it,” he said. “But we won’t know for a number of years.”

What no one is laughing about here in California, though, is the potential that agave presents for the Golden State’s drought-parched, fire-prone landscape. The plants use far less water than avocados or citrus, thrive in marginal soils where little else will grow, and are so naturally waterlogged that they can stop a wildfire in its tracks. Doug Richardson witnessed that firsthand behind his Toro Canyon home during the Thomas Fire of 2017, which couldn’t penetrate the line of cacti that he planted.

“Driving around Santa Barbara all these years, I’ve seen so many clumps of agave that are suitable for making distilled spirits just growing out on their own,” said Richardson, a longtime farmer, former SBCC professor, and landscape contractor in Carpinteria who’s fast becoming the prophet of North American agave. “I thought, ‘This is something we should look into.’ And I am definitely someone who really enjoys the distilled spirit form of agave in mezcal and tequila.”

Banana Man to Cacti Guy

“That’s mapisaga ​— ​it just thrives in California,” says Doug Richardson one morning at his nursery, which sits near the polo fields under the charred Carpinteria cliffs. He’s excitedly showing off the many species of agave that he’s collected and propagated in recent years, including this one, a preferred pulque variety in Mexico. “Look at the offshoots,” he continues. “It’s just prolific.”

Widely known as “The Banana Man” for the 15 years he farmed that tropical fruit at La Conchita in the 1980s and ’90s, Richardson is no stranger to exotic species. Raised in Manhattan Beach, he came to the University of California, Santa Barbara, to study geography but got caught up in farming while reviving an old apple orchard atop Kinevan Ranch off of San Marcos Pass, where he lived during college.

“I’m pretty much a self-taught agricultural guy, but I’ve been doing it continuously since I was about 18 ​— ​I just had my 70th birthday,” said Richardson, whose salt-and-pepper, shoulder-length hair and tanned, ever-outdoors skin looks at least 10 years younger. Among other accomplishments in his landscaping career, he served as chair of Santa Barbara City College’s Environmental Horticulture Department in the early 2000s and built the school’s ag library. “It is just a consuming passion,” he said of his decades in the dirt.

Doug Richardson at his Carpinteria nursery
Matt Kettmann

As concerns came up over how much water his bananas and more popular crops like avocados required, Richardson started investigating more sustainable plants and tuned into the potential of agave about a decade ago, just as the current drought was about to begin. Today, his Drylands Farming Company sells and plants agave, prickly pear (40 different types and every color in the rainbow), and erosion-controlling vetiver grass, as well as native and edible plants, mainly as landscaping for small residential projects.

But calls about the agave from more commercially minded entities are steadily increasing, with inquiries from all over California as well as Arizona and Texas. Most want to plant the coveted blue weber variety, but Richardson now knows that that species is very susceptible to frost.

“It’s fairly tender,” said Richardson. “In California, there are not a lot of places where you can grow that, and where you can, the land tends to be pretty expensive, and a lot of time there is not a lot of water available.”

So he’s expanded his nursery to include more than 20 other agave species that are suited for distillation yet a bit more robust, like Agave arroqueño or Agave espadin, the most popular mezcal source. “Because I have researched this agave so long and so deeply, I know there are agave species well-suited for making distilled spirits that are much more cold-hardy and can be grown over a much wider geographic range,” he said. “That’s impacting what agave species I grow in my nursery.”

He’s also tuned into archaeological research from the Southwest that indicates the indigenous people of Arizona and New Mexico were farming agave, much like their neighbors in Mesoamerica. “Agave growing for humans is by no means simply a Mexican phenomenon,” said Richardson, and he notes that more production in the United States would help defuse some of the pressure currently on native agave species in Mexico, some of which are being foraged into extinction. (There are nonalcoholic applications for agave as well: Its syrup is a popular sugar alternative, its fibers have been used for millennia, and Richardson knows of a young man making surfboards from the stalks as well.)

But it’s the low-water-use and fire-prevention aspects that have him most jazzed, as he sees agave and prickly pear as potential lines of defense around orchards and foothill neighborhoods, whether or not anyone uses them to make liquor. “When we can have plantings strictly of agave and prickly pears, they will not burn,” he said. “It would take unusual circumstances for the fire to penetrate into a succulent planting like that.”

He’d heard anecdotes and seen post-fire evidence for years, but he finally watched it with his own eyes as the Thomas Fire stopped at his cacti in Toro Canyon, where he lives on the property of renowned architect Barton Myers. “I’ve seen it over and over again,” he said. “Now I’ve tried it, and I believe in it.”

He’s quietly built his nursery and now sells quite a bit of agave, including an acre that he put on Olive Mill Road in December, among other small Montecito plantings, and many large plantings scheduled for later this year. He’s become the go-to source in the whole country right now, as potential competitors in the wholesale nursery industry are slow to adapt.

“Nobody is sticking their neck out there to grow a large quantity of plants unless they know the market is there ​— ​otherwise they’re just spending money,” he said. “I’ve stuck my neck out and grown all these plants. But I don’t sell any plants until a guy like Eric comes along and has that vision.”

Evolution of a Ranch

The human history of La Paloma Ranch goes back to the Chumash times, when the land was used as a fishing camp by Santa Ynez Valley villagers in the summertime. It served as the westernmost grazing land for Mission Santa Barbara’s cattle, was granted to the Ortega family in 1841, and 25 years later became home to the Orellas, whose ancestor Andres de Cota first crossed the property as part of the Portola expedition in 1769. In 1901, Josefa Orella de Erro christened the northern portion of the ranch La Paloma (“the dove”), and the following year built the ranch home that still stands.

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