A Tequila Pilgrimage To the Agave Shrine

Michael Riley in the Houston Chronicle, January 22, 2000

TEQUILA, Mexico -- Folktales describe tequila as the drink of the
ancient gods. And long before the conquest of Mexico, Indian makers
reserved tequila's antecedents for kings and priests.

Although any religious experience the drink brings is subject to
question, tequila does have a Mecca in western Mexico's high desert.
Here, the spiny blue agave plant reluctantly gives up its juice
to make the fiery liquor.

And believers make their own pilgrimage via the Tequila Express.

Every Saturday, the passenger train leaves Guadalajara and winds
its way to Tequila, the town that gave the liquor its name. American
tourists and groups of Mexicans who each pay a fare of about $50
board the train. Many say they are enticed by the prospect of all
the tequila they can drink. Some come curious. Others come thirsty.

For Barbara Geldert,  29, a former Minnesota truant officer, this
particular train ride is a rite of passage.

Just after the New Year, she says, she sold all her furniture,
quit her job and came to Guadalajara seeking work as a teacher
of English. She says her goal is to live in Mexico for at least five years
-- preferably near a beach and definitely where the tequila flows.

"I basically sold everything. What I've got fits into two suitcases,"
Geldert says. "There is really nothing to go back to."

Started a year and a half ago by the regional chamber of commerce,
the Tequila Express has become part landlocked cruise, part rolling
frat party, part cultural excursion.

Mater Martinez, a college student who works on the train as a tour
guide, says that sometimes things can get out of hand. But there
is plenty of security, she adds, and a doctor on board.

The journey begins in Guadalajara's cavernous terminal, 40 miles
to the east. As riders mill in groups, a mariachi band starts to
play, and some of the Mexicans begin to sing along. Once all the
passengers have boarded, the tequila starts to flow -- in shots,
mixed with lime soda or in margaritas.

Tequila is the fastest growing liquor in the world. Consumption has
climbed an average of over 20 percent a year for the past four years.
Now, producers are trying hard to upgrade tequila's image as merely
the party drink of choice in the United States and as a working-class
libation in Mexico. They have secured special rights for the name of
the drink under the terms of the North American Free Trade
Agreement and through the European Union. They say the status
grants tequila the same kind of exclusive preserve as champagne.

A blend of tequila made from only 51 percent agave and 49 percent
sugar holds by far the largest part of the market in the United States
and Europe. Many smaller producers would like that to change.
They say that tequila's vicious hangovers come only from that blended

(Ediotr's Note: This is true.)

Premium tequilas made from 100 percent agave are the fastest growing
part of the market. One reason may be the Tequila Regulatory Council
formed in 1994.

According to director Ramon Gonzalez, the council strictly oversees
production in Mexico, testing to make sure that basic standards are met.
The best tequila must age in wooden barrels for at least a year.
Another grade must remain in the casks for at least two months.

Increasingly, producers are marketing 100 percent agave tequila
in expensive, hand-blown bottles. They hope to make the liquor
sophisticated enough to cut into the premium market now dominated
by fine whiskies and brandies.

"It's very similar to the wine sector in the United States," says
Enrique Fonseca, the director of Tequileña, a small distillery here.

"Twenty-five years ago, the majority of California wines on the
market were low-quality," Fonseca says. "Producers slowly began
to increase the varieties available and their quality. Tequila is more
than just something to put in margaritas or to drink as shots."

Fonseca plans to release a six-bottle set of premium tequila this spring,
with each bottle made from a different year's agave, "so that the
consumer can see how different harvests result in a different taste."

Fonseca says that each bottle in the set will cost more than $100.
But aboard the Tequila Express, the up-market image is a long way off.

The train reached the town and the excursion goers continued to sing
when a bus carried them through the cobbled streets to the main square.

There, they were entertained by ruggedly handsome charros -- or
Mexican cowboys. The tour included traditional dancing and a trip
to a museum that gives a glimpse of the drink's history.

Behind the square stood the towering walls of distilleries owned
by Cuervo and Sauza, the world's two biggest tequila makers. Cuervo's
stunning grounds and corporate offices would rank with those of
any international corporation -- a testament to the wealth the
drink has brought to at least some in the region.

After the museum tour and a meal of traditional food and more tequila,
the passengers board the train and begin their return journey.

As the sun begins to sink and the tequila continues to flow,
inhibitions seem to melt away.

"This is just a great atmosphere," says Adolfo Mares, 38, a lawyer
from Guadalajara who was making his third trip on the Tequila Express.

Mares adds that by comparison this trip seemed relatively calm.
"Now we are all friends," he says. "The divide between people disappears."

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