Every weekend when I head to the farmers' market and pick up my box of produce I am thankful that buying locally-made goods straight from the farm has once again become the thing to do. It is a great experience to buy a product directly from the producer, which is why K&L acts also as a wine merchant—in addition to its role as a retailer— traveling abroad to find the best wines and buying them straight from the source. It offers insight into the story behind a wine, learning how a producer manages their soils, how they prune their vines, the topography of their sites, the weather and how it effects ripening, and many other factors of viticulture that precede the wine making process.
When you learn how much effort one person or family has put into each bottle it truly enhances the enjoyment you receive from drinking one. It is even more rewarding when that person is a member of your own community. While the origins of a wine can be influential in helping one to select a bottle for purchase, I find that such factors are rarely, if ever, applicable to spirits. While it is true that the farming of the grain and the sourcing of the water are both very important to whiskies, gins and vodkas, it is rarely the case that a distiller is handling the entire process from the soil to the bottle. Tequila, however, is a spirit that sees some producers shouldering 100% of the load, but they are usually small operations that never make it to the shelves of American retail stores. Most of the time, smaller agave farmers make their living selling their plants to larger producers like Sauza or Jose Cuervo, but much like in the wine industry, smaller producers are turning to co-ops to help manage the high cost of producing their own distillates.
Don Pilar Contreras is from a family of farmers in the highlands of Jalisco that has been growing agave for three generations. His family owns their own fields, works their own land, and, in the past, has annually sold off the harvest to Sauza. Wanting to experience life away from his family's ranch, Contreras came to California in the late 1960s at the age of 18 as part of the guest worker program that allowed him to work in the state's many orchards. Over the next 20 years he managed to save his earnings, become a permanent resident and open several successful restaurants here in Northern California (including Tres Amigos in my home city of San Mateo). Despite his new life as a businessman in America, Don Pilar returned home every year to work the agave fields with his family. It was in 2002, after discussing it with some friends at a co-op distillery in Jalisco, that he decided to keep his own estate-grown agave and use it to make his own tequila.
Unlike most tequila producers who have a triple line-up of blanco, reposado and añejo, Don Pilar was only interested in making one product and making it well: a smooth and creamy aged tequila that he could sip neatly. He also didn't want to try and get on board with a big distributor, so he hired his son to set up an import/distribution center in nearby Belmont to reach out to the northern California community. His two associates recently strolled into the Redwood City store and asked if they could taste me on the Don Pilar Anejo Tequila ($39.99). I took one sip and immediately warmed to the smooth richness and the delicacy of the spirit. The pure agave flavor is intricately balanced with the sixteen months of barrel influence it has soaked in. There was no doubt that the tequila was great, and when I heard the story and saw the price tag, I was sure that we were getting in on the beginning of something big.
K&L does buy wines directly, and therefore seeks out the finest small producers in the world, though we do not have the ability to import spirits. Because of this limitation, it is rare that we get to see the fruits of the small foreign distiller grace our own shelves, let alone one with ties to the local community. I am so happy to present the Don Pilar Añejo tequila to our customers, not only because it is a delicious product at a great price, but also because, like the farmers' market I visit every weekend, I get to buy it directly from the man himself. There are no middlemen or sales agents taking a cut of the operation: I simply make the call to Don's son Juan Carlos and he drives over to drop it off. This is the type of local commerce I am so happy to experience as a consumer, and now I am proud to be a part of it as a vendor here at K&L. This is the beginning in what I hope is the expansion of our liquor department to include quality distillations from smaller, locally-based producers, and I couldn’t be more excited to start with the Don Pilar Añejo. Enjoy!
David Driscoll, Spirits Buyer