Californians bet farming agave for spirits holds key to weathering drought and groundwater limits

Nov 4, 2023, 9:36 PM

Leo Ortega and his wife walk around their property, surrounded by blue agave plants, in Murrieta, C...

Leo Ortega and his wife walk around their property, surrounded by blue agave plants, in Murrieta, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. Ortega started growing blue agave plants on the hillsides of his Southern California home because his wife liked the way they looked. Today, his property is littered with what some say could be a promising new crop for water-challenged California. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

MURRIETA, Calif. (AP) — Leo Ortega started growing spiky blue agave plants on the arid hillsides around his Southern California home because his wife liked the way they looked.

A decade later, his property is now dotted with thousands of what he and others hope is a promising new crop for the state following years of punishing drought and a push to scale back on groundwater pumping.

The 49-year-old mechanical engineer is one of a growing number of Californians planting agave to be harvested and used to make spirits, much like the way tequila and mezcal are made in Mexico. The trend is fueled by the need to find hardy crops that don’t need much water and a booming appetite for premium alcoholic beverages since the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s attracted entrepreneurs such as Ortega, as well as some California farmers. They’re seeking to shift to more water-efficient crops and irrigation methods to avoid fallowing their fields with looming limits on how much groundwater they can pump, as well as more extreme weather patterns anticipated with climate change. Agave, unlike most other crops, thrives on almost no water.

“When we were watering them, they didn’t really grow much, and the ones that weren’t watered were actually growing better,” Ortega said, walking past rows of the succulents.

He is now investing in a distillery after his initial batches of spirits, made from Agave americana, sold for $160 a bottle.

Consumers started spending more on high-quality spirits during the pandemic shutdowns, which spurred a rise in premium beverage products, said Erlinda A. Doherty, an agave spirits expert and consultant.

Tequila and mezcal were the second-fastest growing spirit category in the country in 2022, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Both are proprietary spirits under Mexican laws, which are recognized in U.S. trade agreements. Much like how champagne hails from a region of France, anything called tequila must contain at least 51% blue Weber agave and be distilled in Jalisco or a handful of other Mexican states. Mezcal can be made from a variety of agave types but must be produced in certain Mexican states.

Agave growers and distillers in California — as well as some in Texas and Arizona — are betting there is an appetite for more agave-based spirits even if they are produced outside of Mexico and not called tequila or mezcal.

“We seem to have this insatiable thirst for agave, so why not have a domestically grown supply?” Doherty said. “I am kind of bullish on it.”

Alfonso Mojica Navarro, director of the Mexican Chamber of the Tequila Industry, said tequila has a lengthy history, global reputation for excellence and close connection with Mexican culture. While he didn’t comment specifically on California’s foray into agave spirits, he said he believes Mexico can respond to the growing demand.

“The tequila industry is concerned that each time there are more players trying to take advantage of tequila’s success by producing agave spirits, liqueurs or other beverages that allude to the Mexican drink, its origins and characteristics despite not being the same,” he said in a statement.

Agave isn’t grown on a large scale in California yet, and it would take years for that to happen. But spirits, made by cooking the plant’s core to produce sugars that are fermented, are proving popular, said Ventura Spirits owner Henry Tarmy, who distilled his first batch five years ago.

“We’ve sold everything we’ve made,” he said.

Much like Mexico has, California is taking steps to protect its nascent industry. The state legislature enacted a law last year requiring “California agave spirits” be made solely with plants grown in the state and without additives.

A dozen growers and a handful of distillers also formed the California Agave Council last year, and the group has tripled in size since then, said Craig Reynolds, the founding director who planted agave in the Northern California community of Davis. He said those making agave spirits have a deep appreciation for Mexican tequila.

“We have about 45 member growers,” he said. “All of them want more plants.”

Agave takes little water but presents other challenges. The plant typically takes at least seven years to grow and is tough to harvest, and a mature plant can weigh hundreds of pounds. Once cut, it has to be grown all over again.

Still, many see agave as a viable alternative as California — which supplies the bulk of the country’s produce — explores ways to cut back water use.

While record rain and snowfall over the winter mostly ended a three-year drought in California, more dry periods are likely in store. The state enacted a law nearly a decade ago to regulate the pumping of groundwater after excessive pumping led some residents’ wells to run dry and the land to sink. Scientists expect extreme weather patterns will become even more common as the planet warms, causing more drought.

Stuart Woolf, who grows tomatoes and almonds in the state’s crop-rich Central Valley, said he started thinking about agave after estimating he’ll only be able to farm about 60% of his land in 20 years due to water limitations. And that’s despite investing in solar energy and groundwater recharge projects to protect the farm that has been in his family for generations.

After trying out a test plot a few years ago, Woolf went on to plant some 200,000 agave on land he otherwise would have fallowed. Each acre of agave is taking only 3 inches (7.6 centimeters) of water a year — a tenth of what row crops demand and even less than pistachio and almond trees, he said.

Woolf and his wife Lisa gave a $100,000 donation to the University of California, Davis, which formed a research fund to look at the succulent’s varieties and its potential as a low-water crop.

“I have been trying to figure out what is a crop that I can grow that is somewhat climate-resilient, drought-tolerant, so I can utilize our land,” Woolf said. “The amount of water I am giving them is so low, I don’t think I am ever going to have a problem.”

United States News

FILE - A marquee promoting a fundraiser with President Joe Biden is on display outside the Lunt-Fon...

Associated Press

Big money, fancy homes, old jokes — inside Joe Biden’s fundraisers

LOS ANGELES (AP) — If you’re a Democrat with money to burn and friends in high places, you can spend thousands on tickets to a fundraiser with President Joe Biden. If not, keep reading to see what you’re missing. With an election year around the corner, Biden is accelerating his fundraising to prepare for an […]

3 hours ago

FILE - Republican presidential candidates from left, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Florida Gov....

Associated Press

DeSantis, Haley and Ramaswamy will appear in northwest Iowa days after a combative GOP debate

SIOUX CENTER, Iowa (AP) — Republican presidential candidates will cross paths again in Iowa just days after a fractious debate and as the countdown to the caucuses nears the one-month mark. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy will make their case — this time without the others […]

3 hours ago

FILE - Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks to Texas state tr...

Associated Press

Appeals court upholds gag order on Trump in Washington case but narrows restrictions on his speech

A federal appeals court in Washington on Friday largely upheld a gag order on former President Donald Trump in his 2020 election interference case but narrowed the restrictions on his speech.

7 hours ago

FILE - Migrant families wade through shallow waters toward Roma, Texas, March 24, 2021. A federal j...

Associated Press

Federal judge prohibits separating migrant families at US border for 8 years

A federal judge on Friday prohibited the separation of families at the border for purposes of deterring immigration for eight years.

8 hours ago

Associated Press

Indiana secretary of state appeals ruling for US Senate candidate seeking GOP nod

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana secretary of state is appealing a ruling that a law stipulating voting requirements for a candidate’s party affiliation is unconstitutional in a decision that lifted the hopes of a U.S. Senate hopeful who wants to run as a Republican. The Indiana attorney general’s office filed the notice of appeal Friday […]

8 hours ago

Associated Press

Nashville Police investigation into leak of Covenant School shooter’s writings is inconclusive

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Nashville Police have “exhausted all available investigative avenues” in the hunt for the person who leaked pages from a school shooter’s journals to a conservative commentator, the department announced in an email sent to media late on Friday. The writings are part of an ongoing legal battle over whether they should […]

8 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Follow @KTAR923...

West Hunsaker at Morris Hall supports Make-A-Wish Foundation in Arizona

KTAR's Community Spotlight this month focuses on Morris Hall and its commitment to supporting the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Arizona.


Midwestern University

Midwestern University: innovating Arizona health care education

Midwestern University’s Glendale Campus near Loop 101 and 59th Avenue is an established leader in health care education and one of Arizona’s largest and most valuable health care resources.



Key dates for Arizona sports fans to look forward to this fall

Fall brings new beginnings in different ways for Arizona’s professional sports teams like the Cardinals and Coyotes.

Californians bet farming agave for spirits holds key to weathering drought and groundwater limits