We didn’t start out planning a trip to San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca. It just happened as we moved into the day. Friend Sheri Brautigam, textile designer, collector and Living Textiles of Mexico blogger, is visiting me. After a roundabout through the Teotitlan del Valle morning market, we headed out to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to visit master flying shuttle loom weaver Arturo Hernandez.
Don Arturo creates fine ikat wool shawls and scarves colored with natural dyes, including cochineal, indigo, wild marigold and zapote negro (wild black persimmon). Sheri knew him from the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market where he exhibited in summer 2014. I’ve known him for years through my friend Eric Chavez Santiago, education director at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. So, of course, we couldn’t help ourselves and new rebozos made it into our collections.
It was only eleven in the morning. I asked Don Arturo if he knew the village of San Juan del Rio, where some of Oaxaca’s finest mezcal is produced and sold under private label. He said, Yes, it’s only about forty-five minutes from here.
I looked at Sheri, she looked at me. We said, Let’s go. I invited Don Arturo to come with us and he said Yes, once more. A native Zapotec speaker, we were lucky to have him with us. He helped find our way!
About Mezcal: The agave piña or pineapple is dug up out of the ground at maturity (seven to twelves years of field growth) and taken to the distillery, where it is roasted over a wood fired, rock-lined pit. That’s what gives it a smokey flavor. It’s then crushed to yield the liquid that becomes mezcal. Good mezcal goes through two distillations.
Years ago, Sheri worked with a seamstress embroiderer Alma Teresa who lives in San Juan del Rio. Sheri designs gorgeous quechquemitls and Teresa crochets the pieces together. To reconnect with her was another reason to go. Notice Teresa’s blouse and jacket, with the elaborate crochet trim. Seems like some of the most fun days in Oaxaca start with no particular plan.
We headed out toward Hierve del Agua but made a left turn onto a winding road that soon became unpaved dirt, rough from recent rains. It took a good hour plus to get there from Mitla. The road ends at the picturesque village, tucked away in a river valley. Houses are built on hillsides. Other hillsides are terraced with mezcal palenques and maize crops. The stills are at river level. They use the water to cool the distillation process. This is not yet a tourist destination.
This village is known for small production, artesenal mezcal. I was on a hunt for reposado. What I found was an extraordinary reposado at a third the price of what I usually pay in Oaxaca city, plus a wild agave (silvestre) mezcal called Tepeztate from a mezcalero who is akin to a winemaker. He produces mezcal that he sells to some of the top hand-crafted brands.
Sheri got a taste of just distilled mezcal, warm and just out of the still. At eighty-percent alcohol her engine was roaring after just a sip. I inhaled and almost fell over. Don Arturo joined us. Being the designated driver, I had to be more careful. The whole thing reminded me of North Carolina moonshine, but the resulting product here is so much more refined it’s not even comparable.
There are now so many varieties of mezcal, depending on the type of agave used and whether the mezcal is aged and for how long. Añejo can be aged as long as twelve years in oak which takes on characteristics of the wood. Wild agave has a distinctive herbal flavor and aroma. You need to taste to see which you prefer.
This is a full day trip. We could have stayed longer and visited more mezcaleros. But I think we came home with some of the best produced in the village at a fraction of the retail price. If you go, bring your own liter size glass bottles with tight lids. Some bring gallon jugs to fill up. Plan to leave Oaxaca by nine in the morning. You’ll return around seven at night. Don’t go in the rainy season! You will slide all over the road!
Who to visit?
- Redondo de San Juan del Rio, Rodolfo Juan Juarez, mezcalero. Tel. (951) 546 5260. Reposado and Tepeztate
- Perla del Rio Mezcal, Ignacio Juan Antonio, mezcalero, Tel. (951) 546 5056. Espadin joven.
- Alma Teresa’s clothing cooperative, a block from the church. She is sending two daughters to university in Oaxaca. Her husband went to the U.S. to work years ago and never came back.
You can buy a road map of Oaxaca state at the Proveedora, corner Reforma and Independencia, in the Centro Historico. Comes in handy for exploring and having an aventura, like we did.
Coming Up: Oaxaca Portrait Photography Workshop, Starts Jan. 30, 2015