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In Praise of Small Producers

In Praise of Small Producers

Earlier this week, Mezcal Vago, a small Oaxacan company that specializes in single producer mezcals announced that their first distiller had passed away unexpectedly. 

Aquilino García López was a fifth-generation distiller. Before Mezcal Vago (which was started by his son-in-law), he had never produced commercially, only selling to locals in his area. His mezcal was the inspiration for the founding of Mezcal Vago, and in a very real way he sits at the heart of the business and the brand. 

Tributes to El Maestro, as he was known, were shared from the mezcal community around the world. Again and again people spoke of his dedication, integrity, generosity, and commitment to his craft.

The work of a single producer mezcalero is not easy. It takes about ten kilos of agave to distill one liter of mezcal. Wild-harvesting agave, as El Maestro did, means locating it in the often remote places where it grows, sometimes bringing it down from the mountains by burro. After laborious cleaning and preparing, the agave hearts - pinas - are roasted for 3-5 days in an underground pit oven. Next, they're ground using a traditional stone tahona; a full oven of roasted pinas can take several weeks to grind. All of that mashed agave and its juices is then fermented, filtered and bottled. The skill and care that goes into a single bottle of mezcal from a small producer comes from a place of passion, perseverance and commitment to quality.  This is evident in the way Aquilino García López is and will be remembered by all who knew him and were touched by his work.

This integrity, care, and resoluteness is very similar to what you find amongst small producers the world over. 

Consider French wine and champagne. It's renowned, and rightfully so, but in most countries, and certainly in the US, we only have access to the largest brands and those that are valuable enough (and produced in large enough quantities) to be distributed abroad.

In contrast, I find that the most interesting and exciting bottles are usually the ones being produced locally and not distributed widely.  You'll often find them sold to neighbors, local restaurants and shops, but rarely on the shelves of a chain supermarket. It's a living for these small producers, not one that earns them millions, but one that makes them a valuable and beloved member of their communities. And for most of them, that's enough.  But this way of life is increasingly precarious, especially in a world of economic uncertainty and looming climate change.

When I was living in Paris with my then-fiance, we drove one weekend to the Champagne region to meet with one of these small champagne vitners. He was a family friend of one of our friends, who was raised in the region, and we intended to move a number of cases of his Jean Carbonneaux champagne back to the US with us, and serve it at our wedding.

On leaving Paris it very quickly becomes rural and it is easy to drift into pastoral reverie. The fields and hills are very green, the cows are very white (“trois vaches dans le pré,” I dutifully practiced), the villages are tiny and far away.

After the highway we drove an unmarked country road past stacked bales of hay, turning a corner and descending into a valley, a hamlet with perhaps twenty-five houses nestled at the heart-center of the hills of green.

The vitner and his wife invited us in and we all sat down together. They answered all our questions. They shared that that year’s harvest would be later and smaller because of the previous cold summer. They requested, chagrined, that we pray for rain in September, otherwise the grapes wouldn’t flourish and the fruit would be tiny – all skin.

Plateware with blue writing on it.

The vitner brought out a bottle of champagne – uncorked and very young, but still exceptional. As he poured, his wife told me that the key to lots of bubbles is that the glasses have to be a little less than perfectly clean. That it’s actually the minuscule particles of dust and debris with which the champagne comes into contact that causes the oxygen to rush upward. Never wash your champagne glasses in the dishwasher, she instructed me.

The vitner’s parents had owned the vineyard, and it was divided into three parts between their three sons. Of the brothers, he is the only one who still makes champagne. The others just grow the grapes and sell their harvest to the big houses (“grosses maisons”), which is a more secure way of life. Less dependent on prayers for rain. The big houses don’t have their own vineyards – did you know that? They buy their grapes from the regional growers, and so their champagne is always a mix, never single-origin.

Here at this vineyard they produce less than ten thousand bottles a year. Their largest customer is a man who owns a restaurant near Bordeaux; he buys 400 bottles each year. Mostly, they tell us, it’s little grandmothers who come around for a demi-bouteille. If they advertised – had a sign in front of their house, for instance, as many of the local producers do – they would sell out their year’s production very easily. But this doesn’t seem to be the primary goal.

There are two ways to harvest: the traditional way, with a team paid by the day, everyone working alongside each other – harvesters and owners alike – for eight days straight (though not on Sundays) and all breaking to eat all together: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Or you can hire workers who are paid by the kilo. They are very fast, the vitner tells us, but they will harvest “anything that weighs” and the quality suffers.

With the economy and the climate, the horizon doesn’t look promising. Each year they set aside half the grapes for the next year, in case of a bad harvest. But two bad harvests in a row you can’t prepare for. 

Investors have already bought and seeded vineyards in Cornwall, England, anticipating that in five years the best grapes for champagne will be grown even further north. There are always folks lobbying the European Commission to declassify champagne – to make it a variety and not an appellation, which means it could be grown anywhere. Which means it could be grown anywhere.

There is a french expression my husband uses when we’re cooking together, or when I’ve made something he finds especially good. He says, “we’re close to the truth,” or “baby, you’ve found the truth.” It’s a charming idiom weighted with centuries of French culture: we know something by its origin. And we know it is good by its origin, and we can rely on the truth of its goodness because we know its origin.

Two hours and one bottle of champagne after we arrived, the man who harvested the grapes loaded the magnums into the back of our car. He and his wife stood in their driveway and waved goodbye until we were gone from view. Explore more today.






photo credit: Guilhem Velut

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