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The 1927 romance of Maria Elena “Nina” Gutierrez Salcedo and Francisco Javier Sauza Mora had a made-in-Hollywood feel to it. She was a red-haired beauty from an old, moneyed Guadalajara family; he was a dashing playboy, also from Guadalajara, whose lineage was equally privileged. They were both young and wild, and their families hated each other.

Even now, 60 years after the whirlwind courtship, Nina smiles when she recalls the night she met the heir to the Tequila Sauza fortune. It was in Chicago, where Nina had been studying at St. Mary’s College. Javier Sauza’s father had ordered him out of Guadalajara until the latest tempest from one of Javier’s party binges subsided, and the wayward son was cooling his heels. The 23-year-olds met at a party attended by the youthful cream of Mexican society. “He walked into the room, and I knew I must meet him,” Nina says. “He was the most beautiful man at the party.”

They must have known then that a relationship would create problems. Nina herself had cousins in the powerful Cuervo family, whose financial empire was also rooted in the production of tequila. For four generations, the Cuervos and the Sauzas, who both ran profitable distilleries in the town of Tequila, 40 miles northwest of Guadalajara, had feuded. It was rumored that Javier’s own father had shot and killed a Cuervo man on one of Tequila’s dusty streets. But the couple romanced each other anyway and were married a month after they met. “They were the Romeo and Juliet of Mexico,” says Eladio Sauza, the couple’s only son.

Javier’s father immediately disowned him, and the young husband rambled through a series of jobs: as a logger in northern California, a folklorico singer in Chicago, a tour guide in Mexico City. There was a daughter, Sylvia, born in 1932, and the son Eladio, born five years later. In addition, Nina had a daughter, Mimi, from a previous marriage. It was not until 1946, 19 years after the scandalous wedding, that Javier’s father relented and asked his 42-year-old son to rejoin the family business.

Perhaps to cancel out past transgressions, Javier Sauza took over Tequila Sauza with an obsessive enthusiasm. There were many things he was not — a devoted father, for example — but he was good for the firm. During his reign, Tequila Sauza grew meteorically. “I was the primer tequilero he recalls, slapping his palm on the massive, uncluttered desk in his Guadalajara office. “All the others, they were all afraid of me.”

Today Nina and Javier Sauza are 83 years old. They are both white haired but worn by time in different ways. Nina Sauza is a lively, graceful, quick-witted woman who does not look her age. She spends several months each year, with or without her husband, in the couple’s canyon-front La Jolla home, just around the corner from son Eladio’s house. She has a passion for margaritas and, especially, for the way her favorite bartender at La Valencia mixes them. “I like to drink, I like to dance,” she says dreamily, making a half-turn in her La Jolla living room with an imaginary partner. “I am a night person.”

She is a woman without guilt or pretense, sure of her position and accustomed to wealth and the influence it can buy. On shopping trips to Mexico City, she eschews her apartment there in favor of a central hotel suite. She has flown on the Concorde to Paris. She has, on occasion, summoned her La Jolla hairdresser to Guadalajara. She dines at the Maitre D’ in Bird Rock and at the Westgate Hotel’s Fontainebleau, where, she says, “They all know me. They love me there.”

Javier Sauza, on doctor’s orders, can no longer drink and complains that his memory is failing. He rarely comes to San Diego, preferring to stay in Guadalajara at the family’s block-long estate (the Sauzas also own two walled estates 40 miles away in Tequila) and spends nearly every day in his office at Tequila Sauza’s Guadalajara bottling plant. On his office desk are photographs and mementos from the early days of his leadership; behind him a miniature flag of Mexico and three telephones that ring occasionally, though not as much as they once did. His role in the company these days is that of a figurehead. What does he do here every day? “Not much,” he says with a mocking laugh. “They want me here for my name.”

Eight years ago, Javier Sauza impulsively, perhaps vindictively, sold Tequila Sauza to a consortium of Mexico City businessmen. He did it, he says, because his son Eladio refused to move to Guadalajara and assume the chairmanship of the firm. Eladio, now 49, rarely visits Mexico at all, except to escort his mother, and has never shown more than a cursory interest in the tequila business. A recovering alcoholic for the past 13 years, he recently opened a drug-and-alcohol treatment center in Dulzura, and the center and his real estate interests in La Jolla occupy his time. He talks about his long years of drinking and explains, “It’s handed down from one generation to the next. Well, I decided it was going to stop here with me.” He gives a what-can-you-do? roll of the eyes. The only son of a notorious tequila baron turns out to be a nondrinking alcoholic with little interest in Mexico. Now that’s irony, he says.

Javier Sauza, too, shakes his head in bewilderment at the idea that there will be no fourth-generation Sauza at the firm. Portraits of his father and his grandfather, the founder of Tequila Sauza, gaze down on him from the far office wall. The three men have formed the Sauza triumvirate; they are the architects of a failing empire.

When Javier Sauza took over Tequila Sauza in 1946, shortly before his father’s death, he began plans at once to change the image of tequila from a drink of the campesinos to a refined spirit of the upper classes. His competitors scoffed when he redesigned the bottles and labels for a more tasteful look and when he began to age some of the tequila in wooden barrels for a smoother taste and color.

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