16 July 2005

Expatriate Canadian building chocolate empire

Story by : David Agren

Chocolatier Michael McKenna arranges six handmade truffles for an impromptu tasting session at his new Ajijic store like a sommelier would with fine wines. He recommends a cappuccino truffle - made with coffee cream ganache and dipped in dark chocolate - to start. He finishes with a creation dubbed Camille; a lemon cream ganache with perfume of rosemary, dipped in white chocolate with rosemary sprinkles.

The founder of Sensual Chocolatiers compares slowly indulging one of his truffles to sipping a fine wine.

"It's like wine where there's a beginning, a middle and an end," he explained. "As you taste it, more flavors emerge."

McKenna recently expanded his San Miguel de Allende-based chocolate business into the Lakeside area, opening an outlet in Ajijic after a year of searching for an ideal location -- meaning a spot lacking direct sunlight -- and overcoming shipping problems.

"The biggest problem was transporting chocolates in Mexico," he said.

To keep his chocolates from melting during the six-hour journey from the Bajio to Lakeside, he now packs the truffles in specially-designed Styrofoam coolers.
Sensual Chocolatiers' small Ajijic store sells dark, milk and white chocolate truffles and keepsake boxes, designed by McKenna and his partner Barbara Hartinger, a graphic designer.

Although each store offers approximately 20 different truffles at any given time, Sensual Chocolatiers' kitchen produces more than 200 varieties, which include traditional combinations like dark chocolate and orange and eclectic fusions like white chocolate and guava. Always looking to make something creative and incorporate Mexican delights in his truffles, McKenna's ingredient list includes mango, guayaba and coffee roasted in Ajijic by Jose Romero of the Oaxaca Coffee Company. And, of course, he uses cocoa from Oaxaca, a gritty, but flavorful product, which he mixes with fine imported chocolates. Some of his best creations though resulted from either accidents or pure experimentation.

"It's pretty much alchemy," he said laughingly.

"It's definitely an art -- a very complicated art."

It's also becoming a big business, with orders flowing in from fine hotels, San Miguel de Allende civic officials, the Guanajuato state government and even Los Pinos (the president's residence).

While uncertain of exactly how his truffles ended up in Los Pinos, McKenna suspects President Vicente Fox (a former governor of Guanajuato) tasted a chocolate at a wedding or that the mayor of San Miguel de Allende presented truffles as a gift. Los Pinos now gives Sensual Chocolatiers' truffles as gifts to visiting dignitaries.

"(The San Miguel de Allende municipal government) has been good to us," McKenna said.

"They've introduced us to a lot of contacts."

McKenna will open a new 500-square-meter kitchen in Jalpa, a pueblo near San Miguel de Allende later this month to meet the growing demand of supplying his four retail outlets and fulfilling wholesale orders. It will also offer badly needed jobs for local women, many of whom head households while their husbands work in the United States.

"One of our goals is to provide employment," McKenna explained.

An unconventional workplace, McKenna's employees participate in the kitchen's hiring decisions and even name many of the truffles they create. One employee christened a milk chocolate and espresso creation, "Sexy." Some truffles like "Rosa Mexicana" are named after the women who created the treats. In the case of the "Catalina" truffle, the namesake inadvertently created a caramel brittle "while daydreaming at the stove." The brittle was mixed with coconut to make a popular truffle.

"Everyone is free to say, 'I have an idea,' " McKenna said.

The management approach, in part, comes from the fact McKenna never set out to build a chocolate empire in Mexico. Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, he ran a successful industrial heating business prior to moving to Mexico. Although he never formally studied confectionery, McKenna has long made his own candies.

"I liked to cook and I had a sweet tooth," he said of his motivations.

McKenna started making truffles four years ago as a hobby, selling his first batches from a tray at the San Miguel de Allende public library. He later opened his first stores in the Bajio, a region with a dry, moderate climate ideal for making and selling chocolates.

If he finds a location without direct sunlight, McKenna will open his next retail store in Puerto Vallarta.

Each week, Sensual Chocolatiers produces 4,000 to 5,000 truffles. But even with that production, his inventory often runs low.

"There are times we don't have a single chocolate in our stores," he said.

While some chocolate makers freeze their products for future sales, Sensual Chocolatiers only sells freshly made truffles. Products stay in the display case for only 10 days. The quality becomes evident after slowly enjoying a truffle. More than 15 minutes after finishing the small indulgence, "You'll still taste it."

From the Guadalajara Colony Reporter

15 July 2005

Parras de la Fuente, Coahuila: where vineyards bloom in the desert

 Story by : David Agren

As the second-class bus neared Parras de la Fuente, Coahuila, an oasis town midway between Saltillo and Torreon, lush vegetation began to appear. Children splashed around in local swimming holes. And the air felt much cooler; a welcome respite from the oppressive heat of nearby Monterrey.

The Pueblo Magico, or Magic Town – a designation bestowed on select Mexican villas by tourism authorities – just five hours drive from the Texas border, offers a seemingly endless assortment of surprises, which contrast with its harsh surroundings.

In the middle of the Coahuila desert, the oldest vineyards in the Americas bloom at Casa Madero. Across town, the Hacienda del Perote distills sotol, an earthy spirit, from the agaves native to the northern deserts of Coahuila, Durango and Chihuahua. And in small stores around Parras de la Fuente, confectioners make sweets from the abundance of locally-grown pecans.

But Parras de la Fuente, awash in history and attractions, serves up much more than just fine food and drink.

Revolutionary hero Francisco Madero was born in Parras de la Fuente. The church, Capilla del Santo Madero, built atop Little Sombrero Hill and accessible only by foot, provides stunning views of the local area.

But more than Madero or the climate, wine put Parras de la Fuente on the map. Although it lacks the status Mexico’s better known wine regions in Baja California and Queretaro, Parras de la Fuente’s vineyards date back to the 1500s. Legend has it Hernan Cortes ordered the first Mexican vineyards planted in 1524.

Fine wine in Parras de la Fuente begins with Casa Madero, the oldest winery on the continent. It bottled its first wines in 1597.

Set in the gorgeously-restored Hacienda San Larenzo, Casa Madero makes numerous wines for export, sending most of its production to Europe and Japan.

The Spanish first planted mission grapes in Parras but an 18th century plague wiped out much the industry. While some left the wine business, planting pecans instead, those who persevered switched to lenoir grapes, which were resistant to the plague. A small grape with large seeds, it produces sweet wines - for which the region became famous. But with changing consumer tastes, Casa Madero began planting other grapes, which produce better table wines.

“It’s impossible to drink a dry red wine [made from lenoir grapes],” said Daniel Hernandez, operations manager for Casa Madero.

Nowadays, Casa Madero makes popular varieties like cabernet sauvignon, Merlot and a Chardonnay, which lacks the excessive oak common in American-made vintages.

“Casa Madero makes wine for the European market so unlike California wine, it has more fruit flavors instead of oak,” Hernandez explained.

The winery also produces a Shiraz, a newly-popular variety in North America, imported from Australia. With its semi-arid climate, Shiraz grapes grow well in Parras de la Fuente.

Besides Casa Madero, the region’s largest producer, several others make wine and grape spirits.

Hacienda del Perote makes sweet wines from lenoir grapes like Jerez and Moscatel along with a port. It also produces a sweet vermouth.

It also began distilling sotol, a regional specialty in Northern Mexico.
“Sotol here is what tequila is in Jalisco or mezcal is in Oaxaca,” said Veronica Marrero, a Hacienda del Perote employee.

Like tequila and mezcal, sotol comes from agave-like plants. And like other spirits, distilling techniques determine the quality of the beverage.

Hacienda del Perote double distills its sotol, removing many of the hangover-inducing esters and alkaloids.

“We make a clean product,” said Ignacio Chacon, owner of the hacienda.

His blanco Sotol, sold under the brand name El Mejicano, has little aroma and mixes with other beverages like a neutral spirit. Just recently, he began exporting Sotol.

“It’s a product that’s becoming popular because of the quality,” he said.

Chacon recently renovated his 407-year-old hacienda, converting it into a 19-room hotel. It boasts comfortable rooms with high ceilings, a large swimming pool fed by the oasis and complimentary beverages – made onsite.

Back down a bumpy road towards Parras de la Fuente, the Capilla Santo Madero is a can’t-miss attraction, deserving a stop before finishing a visit to the area. Although requiring a steep, but not too difficult climb to reach it, the tiny church draws the faithful in search of a blessing – along with those wanting to take in the view. On one side wall inside the three-row deep sanctuary, people post photos of loved ones and notes, requesting divine intervention.

Although simply viewed as a pit stop for many making a run for the border, Parras de la Fuente deserves a thorough exploration. Between the wine, climate and festive friendly small-town atmosphere, it’s a hard spot to avoid and even more difficult place to leave.

10 July 2005

Gringo tequila maker unsettles Jalisco's regulatory officials and connoisseurs

Story by : David Agren

J.B. Wagoner initially wanted to beautify his Southern California property with a low-maintenance plant, ideal for the region's dry climate and steep terrain. So he planted 25 acres of blue agave, the source of tequila, Mexico's famed firewater.

"It just seemed like the reasonable thing to do," he explains. "It was a plant that I didn't have to water; it would grow on my hills."

Planting blue agaves -- and later entering the "agave spirits business" -- also launched him on a collision course with tequila producers and their influential regulator.

Wagoner recently distilled his first batches of a tequila-like drink from his agave harvest, putting the 100-proof liquor in red, white and blue bottles with "Made in the U.S.A." labels. He'll produce approximately 120,000 liters in his first year of operations -- an amount he calls, "A drop in the bucket," when compared with the vast amounts bottled by tequila giants like Jose Cuervo and Sauza. He also named his beverage "Temequila," a word play on Temecula, the Riverside County suburb where he cultivates blue agave.

"It seemed to be a logical name," he explains with a laugh.

His joke fell flat in Western Mexico's agave growing regions though, where the prospect of Gringo tequila unsettles many regulatory officials, producers and connoisseurs, who consider the iconic drink a national treasure. The Guadalajara-based Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), which protects tequila's appellation of origin status, took issue with Wagoner using a similar sounding name.
"(The name) could deceive consumers, regarding the nature of the product," says Bertha Becerra, a spokeswoman for the CRT.

But non-Mexican agave beverages are creeping into the market, capitalizing on tequila's recent surge in popularity and its growing acceptance as a premium drink. Along with Skyrocket Distiller's product, now called J.B. Wagoner's Ultra Premium 100% Blue Agave Spirits, a South African firm began bottling "Spirit of Agave," which it markets as an alternative to higher-priced Mexican offerings.

Tequila is an immense source of pride in Mexico, especially in Jalisco, where residents from all social classes toast successes and drown sorrows with a shot of the locally-distilled drink. The Jalisco state government even adorns its license plates with an image of blue agave, which grows abundantly in its dry highlands.
The region's red soil and geographic setting give blue agave its unique qualities, according to the CRT, making the tequila they certify the real deal.

"In the first place, the location is everything," Becerra explains. "It's the soil conditions, it's the terrain, it's the climate, it's the altitude, it's the maturation period, it's the amount of rain, it's the whole cycle."

By law, all tequila must originate in either Jalisco or designated regions of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit or Tamaulipus states. Mexico first obtained an appellation of origin designation in 1974 for mezcal beverages from the region surrounding Tequila, a pueblo 50 kilometers west of Guadalajara. The rules are so strict, distillers in Mexican states surrounding the designated regions ceased operations after the appellation of origin laws were passed.

The designation is similar to those given to Cognac, a type of brandy from the French region of the same name, and to Champagne.

The CRT jealously guards its rights to the tequila name and even cracks down on distillers using brands it deems might damage the beverage's image or reputation. Several years back, it banished Tequila Cabron (loosely translated: Bastard Tequila). Earlier this year, disgruntled competitors and a local politician maligned Tequila Asombroso for supposedly using a phallic-shaped decanter. Now Mexican officials have Temequila and Spirit of Agave in their sights.

"They took advantage of tequila's worldwide image to promote their products," Becerra says.

Wagoner shrugs off the controversy, "I'm clearing stating, 'This is not a product of Mexico.'

"I've got a red, white and blue bottle. I don't want people to be confused by this at all."

Furthermore, he clarifies one thing almost immediately about his new line of work: "I'm not in the Tequila business ... I'm in the agave spirits business."

Despite Mexico's love of tequila, Americans drink more than half of all production. Tequila sales grew by more than five percent in 2004, making it the fastest growing product in the hard liquor category, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Taking advantage of tequila's popularity, Wagoner has found plenty of buyers for his agave beverage, quickly selling out his initial batches, which he markets as a premium product. A 750-ml bottle sells for 58 dollars. A quick scan of his customer list reveals many Latino names. He also employs many Mexican immigrants in his business.

"We probably have the highest-paid jimadores (agave harvesters) in the industry," he says.

With the tequila's popularity growing, water shortages in Southern California becoming more acute and markets for the avocado and citrus farmers in the region shrinking, Wagoner sees more agave spirits coming to liquor store shelves.

"I think the market is big enough to allow for [non-Mexican] competition"

Published in the Ottawa Citizen.