State - INACTIVE

Gallo picks up tequila from like-minded family

In 1938, five years after Ernest and Julio Gallo started making wine in Modesto, the Camarena family was up to something in Mexico.

The family began to produce tequila, the nation's signature liquor, in the highlands of the state of Jalisco.

Seven decades later, the two companies have crossed paths. E.&J. Gallo Winery has started distributing a new brand from the Mexican distillery in U.S. markets.

The tequila sells under the Familia Camarena label at a suggested $20 for a 750-milliliter bottle.

This week, Mauricio Camarena, a third-generation tequila producer, was in Modesto to talk about the venture.

"We don't see Gallo as a distributor," he said between sips of his product at Galletto Ristorante. "We see them as part of our family because we share the same philosophy."

The tequila has started to appear in stores and bars in California and Nevada, said Charles Littlefield, Gallo's marketing manager for the brand. Other states will follow.

There are two choices. One is reposado, a light gold tequila aged in oak for two months. The other is silver, a clear liquor that is not aged.

Gallo is the top seller of wine to the U.S. market, with about 68 million cases last year under about 60 brands, according to Wine Business Monthly.

The company has had just a few forays into liquor. It started making E&J brandy in Fresno in 1977. Two years ago, it launched New Amsterdam gin, which it makes in Modesto.

Joseph Gallo, president and chief executive at the winery, mentioned the tequila prospect in a 2008 Bee interview.

"One of the most important things we have is our distribution system, where we can go across the country with many different outlets and sell different products," he said. "(Liquor) is a natural complement to our distribution system."

The tequila distribution will not add to Gallo's work force, said Katie Ballou Calhoun, whose San Francisco public relations firm has helped with the launch.

Camarena said he likes the fact that Gallo, like his company, remains family-owned. The Camarenas have grown agave, the raw material for the tequila, since 1860.

Mauricio Camarena, who also is descended from tequila pioneer Jose Cuervo, oversees the farming of this crop, which takes at least six years to mature. The cores of the plant are roasted in stone ovens to extract a sweet liquid, which then ferments with the help of yeast. The liquid then goes into a still, which refines it into tequila that's 40 percent alcohol.

Unlike cheaper tequilas, Familia Camarena does not use other sources of alcohol in addition to agave.

"My grandfather taught me to produce tequila in the right, traditional way," Camarena said.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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