From the Tequila Aficionado Vault, June 2, 2002
Mike Morales and his team do it again, with the 2nd Annual New Mexico International Tequila Experience™ the largest tequila tasting in the South West.
A Night to Remember
“The demand for more information after our inaugural show had been overwhelming, and this year’s event has to be beefed up!” Jeff Young, Music Director of local radio station and sponsor, 101.3 The Horizon. Co-organizer, 2nd Annual New Mexico International Tequila Experience ™.
When my partner, Jeff, uttered those words, I knew we had our work cut out for us. Could we generate even more interest than last year? Could we round up the same support we had in 2000? Could three crazy guys out-do themselves a second time and make it a night to remember?
Did we even want to do another show…? …You bet!
What follows is an in-depth account of what it takes to put on “the largest tequila tasting of its kind in the Southwest.” The ups…the downs…the obstacles…and the fun of the 2nd Annual New Mexico International Tequila Experience ™ which took place on Friday, November 16, 2001 in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico at the historic La Posada de Albuquerque.
Earlier in the year, my partners, Jeff Young and John Samson, and I had been wined and dined by several managers of the Albuquerque location of a national hotel chain. They had heard of our phenomenal success in 2000, and wanted the Tequila Experience ™ to be held at their hotel in 2001.
Okay, so it didn’t have the same architecture–the exposed carved beams, Spanish-tile floors, tinwork, and wall murals of the La Posada de Albuquerque-but it was a bigger place. Sure they promised us their two largest rooms for the show. Sure they could help us grow the event…
…But did it have the same atmosphere? Would it add to the romance and mystique inherent to everything Southwestern? Would the show have the same impact any place else? The management of the La Posada didn’t think so! When they discovered that this rival hotel was courting us, they pulled out all the stops and came up with a wonderful offer that even Don Corleone wouldn’t refuse.
There was one small problem: Due to a scheduling conflict, we would have to hold the event inside La Posada’s dormant restaurant, Eulalia’s, that was now being used as a separate meeting room for special events. It had only one entrance and was considerably smaller than the upstairs Mezzanine and Ballroom where we hosted the Tequila Experience ™ last year.
When our point men at Southern Wine & Spirits-the official distributors for the Tequila Experience ™–Gary Allen and Ray Vaio, saw the size of Eulalia’s, they were in agreement: By all initial accounts, this year’s attendance was expected to double. Eulalia’s was just too small an area to keep the crowd moving from one station of tequilas to the next. To be fair, Eulalia’s was charming and had several booths along the perimeter that the distributors could use as tables, or let the public use to sit and savor their samples-and ease the traffic. It was also too late to change the date. We would have to trust that Gary and Ray would design a layout inside Eulalia’s that would be free-flowing enough for an overflow crowd. With the assurance of John Samson, my partner, and now the Restaurant and Bar Director of the La Posada, the tasting would fare well at Eulalia’s. (Take a virtual tour of Eulalia’s, and the La Posada de Albuquerque by logging on to www.laposada-abq.com .)
In an effort to make this year’s event even more special, Jeff, John and I decided we should give an award. Now, we don’t give away fancy medals at our show. Tequila companies won’t display on their labels that they were voted “Best at New Mexico Tequila Experience.” Hell, we’re not even a sanctioned event!
…And we like it that way!
We have always held that the Tequila Experience ™ should be geared to the consumer–you, me, your neighbor, your drinking buddy, and these days, your girlfriends and wives. We feel that the average person should know why he or she is paying $80 to $90 per bottle; $7.50 per shot; or $15 per margarita.
So whom did we know that always gave us the straight scoop on the tequila industry?
…Regardless of what the powerful tequila companies and their importers thought? Who embodied the “Tequila Attitude?”
That selection was easy, and I’ll reveal whom we chose later in this article, but…
The real challenge was coming up with a design for the award!
Should it be the size of a bowling trophy? How about a shot glass hot-glued to a small base? Maybe a snifter with something etched on the glass? A plaque in the shape of a tequila bottle? (The more we brainstormed, the tackier the designs became!)
What we decided on was something practical and useful. Every serious tequila drinker should have one. Except, of course, our Tequila Ambassador nominee!
You readers and fans of tequila may be aware of the controversy surrounding Martin Grassl, founder and importer of Porfidio tequilas. You may have even seen or bought one of those popular hand blown tequila bottles with the saguaro cactus inside. (If you haven’t kept up with all the scuttlebutt, you can do so right here at Tequila Aficionado.com. Just check out their archives on the home page.)
In a nutshell, Mr. Grassl has always been accused of producing “pseudo-tequila.” Prior to our show, there were reports that his distillery near Puerto Vallarta had been shut down. Southern Wine & Spirits had informed us that Porfidio was having a problem with their US importer, and for that reason, may not be poured at the Tequila Experience ™ even though they still had inventory in their warehouse.
In the meantime, our in-house marketing and publicity company, White Moccasins Publishing Company, had released to one of the only two tequila e-mail lists, The Blue Agave, that Porfidio might still be poured the evening of the event. That caused an uproar among the members of that list (of which I am one also), and I received a lot of flack as a result.
In the meantime, another tequila producer, Penca Azul, expressed an interest in participating in our show, but could not since they had no representation in the Southwest. We offered to introduce Penca Azul to Southern Wine & Spirits-the largest spirits distributor in the country–since there was an opportunity for them to fill the void left by Porfidio.
Although we were impressed by Penca’s powerful presentation and astonishing taste, we also knew that “business is business.” If Southern Wine & Spirits decided to pour Porfidio at the Tequila Experience ™–a very popular tequila in many high-end locations throughout New Mexico–that would be their choice. On the other hand, if we did our job correctly that night, the average person who attended our show would walk away with new knowledge that could save him or her that $80 or $90 that they were going to spend on alleged “pseudo-tequila.”
The time is 4:15PM on Friday, November 16, 2001. A cloudy autumn day, but no threat of snow or rain. A line outside of Eulalia’s is beginning to form in the Lobby of the La Posada. My fiancée, Mindy, and her son, Haley, are setting up the registration table inside Eulalia’s. The representatives of Southern Wine, and their sister company, Bacchus Wine Patrol, have also set up tables into what we hope will be a comfortable layout for the attendees. Jeff is busy supervising the food and drinks at the rear of the room. John is missing in action. Outside, Downtown Albuquerque is bustling.
Down the street, the new Century Theaters, part of the outgoing mayor’s downtown revitalization program, is opening tonight. Up the street, rock singer Melissa Etheridge was to be in concert at the Convention Center.
Without warning any of the businesses in the area, however, the city decides to convert the two-way street in front of the La Posada into a one-way street during rush hour! Traffic is a mess, people are trickling in, parking is next to impossible, and then a sudden thought hits me….
Where are the Tasting Guides? Mario Calderon in Southern’s graphics department, has worked closely with me on the Guides the last two years. Unfortunately, their main color copier on which they produce the Guides had been on the fritz for the last month making many of Southern’s promotional projects late, including ours. A quick call to Southern’s offices and I discover that Mario had left almost forty-five minutes ago to deliver the Tasting Guides himself …Southern’s offices are only ten minutes away from the La Posada!
Before I could hurl myself off the mezzanine, Mindy introduces me to Kate Eberle, a reporter from the Santa Fe New Mexican who was there to cover the Tequila Experience ™. This was her first tequila tasting and wished to be escorted by one of the organizers to conduct an interview.
Before I could give her my full attention, the game of “tag” begins….
First, Ray Vaio, our point man from Southern takes me aside and introduces me to each of the representatives of his crew.
Next, Lee Keller, the representative from Bacchus Wine Patrol whom I had not seen since last year’s event, shakes my hand and asks if we had any of the Tasting Guides left. I swallowed hard.
No sooner had I said hello when our guest speaker, Ron Cooper, founder and importer of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals, approaches, shakes my hand, and asks me when he goes on. I’d love to tell him that the schedule is in his Tasting Guide…but they still haven’t been delivered!
Mindy calls to me from the registration desk and asks a question concerning our VIP list. Jeff then gets hold of me to tell me that John is not present because he is outside the La Posada directing traffic! Never mind “tag”… I now know what a pinball feels like!
Just then, my old friend, Martin Garcia, President of one of our sponsors, Virtual Ally.com (Visit them at www.virtualally.com ) arrives and volunteers to help Haley at the registration table. This allows Mindy to escort Kate around the tequila stations until Jeff, John or myself could join them. (The truth is, Mindy is the “Mother” of this event and quite capable of handling any situation regarding the Tequila Experience ™.)
The time is now 4:30 PM. Still, no Mario. John is outside playing traffic cop. Jeff and I nod to one another and the crowd begins pouring in from the Lobby. The smiles on our faces barely hid the panicked look in our eyes as we fitted each visitor with a colored wristband that was to be punched once for every sample they tried. The embarrassment of not having anything to give these people in the way of a guide was especially tough the first fifteen minutes of the show.
At last, Mario arrives with a huge box filled with our Tasting Guides, and an uneasy calmness washes over me as we hand them out. I say uneasy because I already know from last year’s event that I really can’t relax until the show is completely over.
A quick glance behind me at the tables reveals a beautiful sight…tequila bottles galore! (To see what I saw, check out the pictures of the Tequila Experience ™ at the end of this article.)
Tequilas from Patron, D’Reyes, El Tesoro, Chinaco, Sauza, Corazon, and Don Alejo. Also on-hand were tequilas from Don Julio, Chamucos, Lapis, Espolon and Casa San Matias. Every shape and size of bottle imaginable!
At the far end of Eulalia’s were the famous Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals, from San Luis Del Rio to Minero. Holding court was Ron Cooper (Visit his website at www.mezcal.com ) with a special treat for those who visited his section….A brown chunk of fibrous maguey, soaked in a sweet liquid on a serving plate, was available for all to taste. Many had never seen where tequila or mezcal actually comes from until they stopped at Ron’s table. Then something magical happened….
The Human Element
Maybe it was the tequila…maybe it was the atmosphere of the La Posada…maybe it was the warm feeling of the mezcals….
The evening was sprinkled with very human moments. A tap on the shoulder, and a middle-aged couple from Denver, Colorado introduced themselves as members of my e-mail list group, Tequila Aficionados. They, too, have their own tequila website, which I had visited. It was truly electrifying to place real people to their “cyber-handles” as I’m sure it was for them.
Several familiar faces approached me and said that they had had such a good time at last year’s event that they couldn’t wait until the 2001 edition!
One such couple, a young man with his wife and infant son, told me that they were at last year’s show and were so fascinated that they were determined to attend again. Then he asked whether I remembered them. I admitted that I did not until he told me that last year, his wife could not sample any tequilas because she was expecting. Then, I recalled that last year on the Mezzanine, I briefly spoke to a young woman who was very pregnant and seemed rather uncomfortable sitting on one of the wooden “bancos.” She had said she was due any day and that her husband was at one of the tables. Since then, she had given birth to a healthy baby boy. That man’s son had also been to both our events!
Four women from Northern California approached the registration table. They had walked from another nearby hotel to the Tequila Experience ™ on the advice of a gentleman they had struck up a conversation with at the San Jose Airport. This gentleman was on a layover from Albuquerque, and they were waiting for their flight to our city where they were to attend a seminar. When they asked him what there was to do here, this gentleman recommended that they attend the Tequila Experience ™ and that it would be great fun!
On their way out that night, those gals took fourteen Tasting Guides that they were going to use for their report on what they had learned at our seminar. (They promised me that they would e-mail me with their results!) It was incredibly gratifying to know that through simple-yet powerful-word-of-mouth, the Tequila Experience ™ was gaining a name for itself.
The Tequila Ambassador
Around 6:30 PM, another wave of tequila and mezcal enthusiasts slammed Eulalia’s. John had returned from his duties outside to divide his time between our event, and the overflow throng that mingled from the Lobby Bar and the hotel’s restaurant, Conrad’s Downtown at La Posada.
The buzz created by the crowd was dizzying. Swarming around each table–sometimes lined five or six deep-and then flitting on to the next one, resembled life in a beehive!
Coming up for air, Southern’s reps took short breaks from continuously pouring samples. One rep even confided that it was all she could do to teach these folks not to guzzle their tequila. (The legal limit for a spirits sample in New Mexico is a half-ounce, so they had to make the most of it!) Again, the Tequila Experience ™ was an educational experience, as well, thanks to the fine representatives of Southern Wine & Spirits and Bacchus Wine Patrol.
To top off their education, Ron Cooper of Del Maguey spoke about the virtues and ceremony involved in the production of his Single Village Mezcals. His breakthrough revelations about the tequila industry kept the crowd on the edge of their seats inside the intimate meeting room next to Eulalia’s.
A very real human moment occurred at the end of Ron’s speech and slide show. Jeff and I took over the dais to thank Ron for his support, his time, and input to our event. As Jeff put it, “Ron has been with us since the beginning. It’s because of guys like him that the Tequila Experience has become such a success.”
To show our gratitude, Jeff and I presented Ron with our first “Tequila Ambassador” award.
…Ron was dumbfounded!
He had heard that we were going to award a prize, but even he didn’t figure on winning. His mouth dropped open, and for the first time, was at a loss for words! That look alone was priceless!
As I mentioned earlier, the award would be both useful and practical. Something every serious tequila and mezcal drinker should have.
…And we were right. Ron didn’t have one. We awarded our Tequila Ambassador a beautiful flask inscribed with the words,
“For embodying the ‘Tequila Attitude’ Ron Cooper Tequila/Mezcal Ambassador, 2nd Annual New Mexico International Tequila Experience”
After the initial shock and hugs all around, Ron promptly turned his back to the audience and slipped the flask into his back pocket with a slap on the rump!
The Loose Ends
It was now 8:15 PM. It had been four hours of the most intense tequila tasting ever! The crowd was filtering into the Lobby Bar to get good seats for the jazz band that was to play in a few minutes. Others moved into Conrad’s to enjoy a late dinner and to compare notes.
Having experienced our first event in much more spacious surroundings, and then surviving our second show “in the trenches,” I must say I prefer the former.
The crews of both Southern Wine & Spirits and Bacchus Wine Patrol were exhausted! While I handed out cigars to them for a job well done, Ray Vaio related that the layout of Eulalia’s really did accommodate the increased attendance, and that the traffic was never a problem.
Just then, a highly placed official of Southern Wine & Spirits sidled over to me and apologized for a grave mistake. He pointed to one of the tables at the front of the room.
Next to the tequilas from “Casa Sauza” were several rows of Porfidio tequila, the anejo in the famous cactus bottle. Even though they were not listed in the Tasting Guide, Porfidio had apparently been sampled, and as usual, caused quite a stir. That cactus bottle had the public hooked.
According to this official, Porfidio had told Southern not to sample any of their tequilas-anywhere. It seems that for the time being, the push for Porfidio has come to a screeching halt. (Oops! …Someone just didn’t get the word in time!)
The potential replacement, Penca Azul, technically could not be poured by Southern, but the public was intrigued by its hand blown bottle with the glass blue agave inside. Many asked where it could be obtained. As of this writing, Southern is seriously considering the opportunities that Penca Azul could present to them. (You can learn more about Penca Azul on their website at www.pencazul.com)
By contrast, Paradiso tequila was an enormous hit with a large number of the women in attendance. Its smooth flavor made it easy to fall in love with. I suspect that many a husband or boyfriend will find themselves with very expensive dates during the upcoming holidays…especially when their ladies ask for Paradiso by name!
Marketing versus Content…. A debate that will never be settled! Nevertheless, that’s what makes the International Tequila Experience ™ so refreshing! For instance… Ron Cooper waved to me with a small plastic water bottle in his hand. He poured its contents into one of his clay “copitas” that he uses to sample his Del Maguey products to the public. Instantly, the trademark smoky aroma alerted me that this was not water.
Taking a small sip, it didn’t take long to sense that warm, fuzzy feeling inside!
Ron revealed that he had discovered another remote village in Oaxaca that produced its own unique mezcal. I can’t tell you what a treat it was for me to sample a new Single Village Mezcal that isn’t on the market, yet. In my opinion, he has another winner on his hands! Watch for it some time next year.
As for Kate Eberle, the reporter for the Santa Fe New Mexican, she and Mindy hit it off famously. During short lulls in the action, Jeff, John and I were able to share some time with her relating the story behind the International Tequila Experience ™. She also sat in on Ron Cooper’s dissertation and took notes furiously all night! She confided that she had thoroughly enjoyed herself, and stayed to the very end. Her article should appear in the paper’s Digest Magazine in mid-July, 2002.
…Just in time for us to start thinking about our next show!
Co-organizer Mike Morales is now CEO of Tequila Aficionado Media.