Grover Sanschagrin scrambled up a hillside at the Tequila Fortaleza distillery in Jalisco, Mexico. All around him was blue agave. Some of the plants had a feature we don’t often see on the spiky succulent: the quiote, a flowering stalk stretching skyward from the agave’s center. As thick as a man’s arm, the quiote can grow three feet a week, shooting out blossoms to entice pollinators—bats, mainly. But there’s a rub: The quiote saps sugar from the piña, the fructose-rich heart of the agave that is processed to make tequila.
Because the agave can reproduce through cloning too—pushing Mini-Me’s out from its base—Jalisco producers don’t rely on pollination for new plants. They whack off the quiote before it grows. Not only do bats lose their food source because of this measure, but the crop also loses genetic diversity as pollinators cease to transfer pollen between plants. Without such diversity, a single disease could wipe out the lot, like late blight did Lumper spuds during the Irish potato famine.
So Sanschagrin has begun working with Guillermo Erickson Sauza, the owner of this traditional estate distillery in the town of Tequila, to find out more about growing blue agave from seed. With market demand for tequila outpacing cultivation of the plant, the two want to know if the seeds can help secure a genetically more diverse and therefore healthier crop for the future. With harvest seeds from Sauza’s quiotes, Sanschagrin is germinating agave in an experimental garden on his Guadalajara rooftop.
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In an industry in which lots of producers have met market demand by going industrial—using pressurized heaters, starch-sucking diffusers, and hydrochloric acid to speed immature agave from field to bottle—Sanschagrin’s experiment in sustainability is radical. But it’s all the more extraordinary because Sanschagrin is not a scientist. He isn’t a farmer or distiller. He’s a blogger, a photographer, an app developer, and an ardent fan of tequila. He got involved in the cultivation project because, as he says, “No other spirit has source material that can bring so many rows of flavors and complexity. For me, it’s all about the agave.”
But there’s also a potential business angle. Sanschagrin imagines a collective of producers supporting his seed-grown agave. “Many brands are interested,” he says, “but they don’t have the time, staff, or knowledge to do it themselves. So together, they could fund the project and we’d run it.”
It would add another dimension to the profusion of opportunities that have sprung out of Taste Tequila, the blog Sanschagrin and his wife, Scarlet, cofounded, and Tequila Matchmaker, the tequila-rating app they developed. But it also provides a metaphor for the Sanschagrins’ overall business, which they sprouted from a seed of an idea and have cultivated into a unique niche. With a digitally driven, multipronged approach, they’re making their mark in the world of tequila. And though their startup is still evolving, the couple’s experiences on the road to influence, innovation, and profit offer lessons for other tech-savvy drinks fans looking for an entrée.
Lead with the Heart and Grow Incrementally
Tequila brought Grover and Scarlet Sanschagrin together. In the mid-2000s, when the couple met, Scarlet, who had worked as a reporter in Mexico, already loved the stuff. Visiting tequila bars in the Bay Area, where they both lived, was the glue for a friendship that turned romantic after a joint tasting trip to Jalisco. The Taste Tequila site followed, in early 2009. Because Scarlet worked as a tech journalist, and Grover was a founder of Photoshelter, the professional photo-hosting platform, making digital stories from their hobby was a no-brainer. But they didn’t expect to gain such quick traction.
“We launched on Word Press and the next day had email from brands wanting us to review their stuff,” says Grover. Maybe it was their strong URL, or the quality of the content that two professional journalists can generate. “We honestly don’t know how it happened,” Grover says. “But people started sending us things.”
Amid the disillusionment of the financial crisis of 2008, when digital entrepreneurs like the Photoshelter team found themselves taking drastic pay cuts to keep their projects afloat, the attention that Taste Tequila drew was encouraging. It led the couple to make a big move—to Mexico. Relocating, they figured, would kill two birds: They’d save money despite their diminished income, and they could bolster their opinions about tequila with education. They also hoped to meet distillers face-to-face and get a closer look at their production.
“We knew zero people [at the time]. We didn’t know the language,” says Grover. “We were just tequila lovers putting up reviews.”
In Guadalajara in 2010, all that changed. The two took in-depth classes and got certified as catadores, trained tequila tasters. They also got connected. “Distillers were very forthcoming,” says Grover. “They extended invitations.” The Sanschagrins acquired the lingo and palates that gained them respect and access. But it also helped that they put the kibosh on handouts from brands’ marketing departments. With their background in journalism guiding them, the couple laid down a ground rule: Always buy retail to rate and review. “That’s seen as good thing by the brands,” says Grover. “We’re seen as impartial.”
The blog served as a marketing tool to advertise the Sanschagrins’ content-generating skills to distillers, who hired them to create videos to feed their social media, with rates that matched Grover’s past journalism work—about $1,000 a day, for a total of anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 a project. But though the Sanschagrins were starting to make custom content, the separation of church and state they maintained on the blog—that impartiality—was the basis for their next move: an app that would allow users to join them in rating and reviewing tequilas.
Define Your Audience and Learn as You Go
Grover knew app developers he could turn to for assistance, and the couple could afford to experiment because they didn’t need the app to be immediately profitable. They both had their day jobs, working remotely from Guadalajara—which they still do today. But the app, they suspected, could help them grow a real business. It would be the yang to the blog’s yin—data-driven and crowdsourced rather than opinionated and personal. “We decided we would see if we could get to a certain audience size,” says Grover. “We wouldn’t think about revenue until we hit that magic number.”
The build-out wasn’t easy. “We made a bunch of stupid mistakes,” says Grover. The Sanschagrins went through multiple designers and developers. “Finally,” Grover says, “we went with a simple IOS application, and I designed it myself.” After spending $50,000, the couple had a “super basic” app—Tequila Matchmaker—with no photos, little text, and not that many tequilas. “But we built it to test our theories about how people would rate tequilas. We learned a lot of valuable lessons about things we assumed.”
The Sanschagrins hit their target number within a year and a half: 10,000 users. Though that doesn’t sound like so many, the couple was looking for depth, not reach. “We wanted to collect data from the industry’s hard cores, the elite tequila nerd freaks who can’t get enough and who will rate everything,” says Grover. “You don’t need millions of people to give you meaningful data if you’re looking at a niche like that.”
Small but sticky, Tequila Matchmaker gave aficionados the ability to like and rate tequilas for aroma, flavor, finish, and value. It asked whether they’d drink a tequila again or recommend it. And with flavor as the most heavily weighted feature, followed by aroma and finish, the app assigned a rating to each tequila based on a scale from 0 to 100. Users could build their own library of favorites and share data to add to the overall rating of each bottle.
As it turns out, the app served a purpose different from what the Sanschagrins had expected. They had thought aficionados would use it to find new tequilas that matched their tastes. But that’s not what user behavior looked like at launch. “We stepped away and realized that what they really wanted was a lookup tool,” says Scarlet. “They wanted the NOM number for a tequila, where it’s made, the production details.”
The Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT), the Mexican certifying agency for tequila, assigns every brand a unique Norma Oficial Mexicana, or NOM, which identifies it as 100 percent agave and points to the distillery where it is produced. The Sanschagrins pulled the CRT data and cleaned it up, making it user friendly. They backed it up with assiduous research into production methods: Were distilleries using the traditional methods that result in the best tequila, or were they manipulating agave with additives and high-speed machinery? As tequila has been industrialized and brands have consolidated, that information is crucial to bartenders who pride themselves on artisanal drinks. Says Adam Stemmler of Berkeley’s acclaimed East Bay Spice Company, “Salespeople show up and tell romantic stories, but then you go to the app and say, ‘Wait. This is made in the same facility as 40 other brands.’ It’s nice to have unbiased information that you can access to validate or invalidate misleading marketing claims.”
How did the Sanschagrins find out what the tequila world wanted? They listened. “Anybody who wrote us commentary, even if it was scathing, we wrote back and made adjustments,” says Grover. Their audience rewarded them for their responsiveness. The app is now on its third iteration, and as it’s grown, dedicated users have begun to trust Tequila Matchmaker to guide their personal tastes. “We have a whole new design that’s a bit more modern,” says Grover, “but we’re also giving people info about themselves, about their own palate. That was an inflection point. People really love learning about themselves.”
Users can now “fingerprint” rated bottles, assigning them any of 120 flavor and aroma characteristics—floral notes like rose and lavender; herbal hints, including sage and spearmint; wood, citrus, and even defect notes (vinegar, wet dog). Tequila Matchmaker aggregates those fingerprints and includes them in the overall profile of each bottle, a function Stemmler says is “wildly helpful when you’re trying to build flavors into a cocktail.” As users save fingerprints and ratings in the app, they can track their own “taste profile” and discover the flavor characteristics, production methods, and growing regions they prefer. The app then uses its algorithm to suggest new tequilas they might like to try.
Additionally, Tequila Matchmaker now lets users enter tequilas, both historic and current, that the Sanschagrins haven’t heard of. “We’re trying to be the biggest, most complete database that exists,” says Grover. The users are helping with that. And so are the distillers whose trust the Sanschagrins cultivated when they first moved south of the border. “Mexico is our support system,” Grover says. “When we have a question about something, when we need details on a specific process, we have 30 people that we can contact who will drop everything to get us an answer. If we didn’t have access to that kind of information, we’d be building a tone-deaf app.”
Capitalize on Interactivity
Many distillers—particularly those that use the traditional methods tequila fans prefer—love that the Sanschagrins are exposing industry practices. “That transparency has given us a leg up,” says William Erickson, son of Guillermo, who works as a sales and marketing manager at Fortaleza, “because we’ve always been honest about how we make our product and what we use, and some of our competition hasn’t. And the education that one can get from reading about tequila on the [Sanschagrins’] website is also second to none. We’ve found that the more educated our consumers are, the better it is for us.”
One producer, Patrón, even licensed the Sanschagrins’ database to create its own website, KnowYourNOM, that helps attest to the tequila giant’s dedicated-distillery, nonmanipulative methods. “We’re not disparaging other brands. We’re just letting people better understand what they’re drinking,” says the brand’s vice president of corporate communications, Greg Cohen. “We’re proud that at Patrón, we only make Patrón.”
Cohen and his colleagues have also embraced another aspect of the Sanschagrins’ business: blind tastings. Tequila Matchmaker’s most successful functionality grew out of user suggestions. “After we built the app,” says Grover, “some of the hard-core users said it would be great to have a special area where we could do our own blind tastings, so we built the interface and it took off.”
Users loved this section of the app, which allows them to rate tequilas without knowing which bottle they’re drinking. The Sanschagrins also quickly realized that they could use this technology themselves. They put together blind-tasting kits, mailed them out to elite users, and charged brands to have their bottles included. They formed a 60-strong tasting panel based on user activity.
“I watch every rating that everybody does,” says Grover, “and when I see somebody who has a knack for this, who rates all tequilas fairly and can articulate aromas and flavors and has completed at least 50 ratings, I will ask that person onto the panel.”
The blind tastings are a win-win-win. For panelists like Adam Stemmler, they help check biases. “Grover and Scarlet gave me six blancos—two cooked in brick ovens and traditionally made, two in autoclaves, and two in diffusers,” he recalls. “I had no clue what I was tasting. Being old-school, I always preach that traditional is better. I rated the brick ovens highest, the autoclaves second, and the diffusers substantially lower. I love being able to go back and find the things I believe to be true are actually true!”
Brands can test bottles against others in the industry and use that data to tout the merits or tweak the formulas of their tequilas. Grover recounts how, when the producers at Don Pilar were developing their first reposado, they assumed they should age it for three months. The Sanschagrins conducted a blind tasting of various age expressions for them and discovered, however, that six months was the real sweet spot. Says Grover, “They used the data to change their product decisions.”
And for the creators of Tequila Matchmaker? They are attracting attention and revenue as never before—not just from brands but from festivals, like Spirits of Mexico, that pay them to conduct blind tastings for their awards programs. Even the Taste Tequila blog benefits, because the couple creates new posts by reporting on the results of the blind tastings.
All this activity caught the couple by surprise, but their business has evolved and works because they stayed open to possibilities. As Scarlet says, “When you’re thinking about revenue, be prepared to widen your view. We realized the rating and matching wasn’t heading toward a personal thing. The data is for both consumers and brands, but the brands [are] where the revenue comes from.”
How much revenue is it? “We’ve never even actually considered tracking that,” says Grover. “Most of it is completely not about the money.” But he figures that they’re generating about $50,000 a year now, all of which goes right back into upgrades to Tequila Matchmaker.
Commit, Don’t Compromise
Staying so self-sufficient requires work. “We’re getting requests to license out our tech. You could use it for a beer, wine, mezcal, even coffee,” says Grover. “But we always caution people: This is just tech. It doesn’t buy you the person needed to maintain the system. We’re geeks. We can’t get enough of the care and feeding of the database. You have to be able to objectively tell yourself that 10 years from now I’m going to still be as obsessive.”
Along the way, the Sanschagrins could have sold out. They could have made more money by running online ads or charging for the app. But they didn’t want to sully the user experience. They could have launched a tequila themselves; they’ve had offers. But then they’d lose their objectivity, and if they lost that, they’d lose everything. They’re all about the data. That may not be for everyone, but for a couple of obsessives, their model is happiness.
“It’s a slow burn,” says Scarlet, “taking something that you’re passionate about, and then adding in revenue. It’s a different approach to going into an idea with a dollar amount in mind and working toward that. We’re trying to build opportunities with our framework.”
They want to see some earnings, yes, but they also want to support an industry that they love. “If someone comes to us with a bunch of money and it won’t improve the category,” Grover says, “then we don’t do it for any amount of money.” The couple’s reputation, and thus their access, depends on their discretion. Says Grover, “We have to defend what we’re doing.”
And it’s working. Today industry people like Patrón’s Greg Cohen call the couple very influential. With that reputation and the package of services they provide, including content creation and data crunching, the Sanschagrins, says Grover, can now “help conduct and also promote the experimental kinds of things that brand partners want to do.”
That’s where the seed cultivation comes in. It’s a new way to expand on this adventure in tequila. “Revenue is not the first thought, to be honest,” says Scarlet. “For some of these ideas, we’re just passionate and then an opportunity will come by. I guess if you want to jump into something just to make money, you’d make different choices than we have.”
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Betsy Andrews is an award-winning journalist and poet. Her latest book is Crowded. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.