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No fourth generation member at Tequila Sauza

A bottle full of fire

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.

He took his product to fairs and expositions throughout Mexico, the United States, and Europe and promoted it as “the drink of romance.” He modernized production and transportation systems and built the bottling plant in Guadalajara. Tequila Sauza sponsored radio programs and athletic teams. “I was selling more than Cuervo,” he says emphatically. “And I bought tequila from everybody except Cuervo.”

Today Javier Sauza is preoccupied with two projects. One is the construction of a massive hilltop estate in Tequila named Casa del Cielo, which looks down on the Sauza factory and, not by coincidence, on the Cuervo factory and family estate. The other project is the completion of his library, or Casa de Cultura, located in the center of Tequila across the small plaza from the house where his father was born. In the Casa de Cultura, two long galleries lead off from an open-air courtyard. Within each gallery, tables are covered with trophies from Sauza-sponsored athletic teams. On the walls hang photographs and portraits of Javier, his father, and grandfather, awards, honorary diplomas, and framed decrees that proclaim him an honorary citizen of such places as Los Angeles, Tucson, Palm Springs, and New Orleans. He seems to have saved every memento and displayed it here, including a poem of his own composition written in honor of the agave plant, from which tequila is made.

Elsewhere in Tequila, a sleepy town of 20,000 where the drink originated and continues to be made, Javier Sauza has paved roads, erected statues, and built schools. But the monument that attracts the most attention is his sprawling white Casa del Cielo, a nearly completed maze of rooms and patios that overlook agave fields, fruit trees, a vegetable garden, an irrigation pond, picnic areas, and a proposed tequila museum, where full-scale exhibits will demonstrate how tequila was produced nearly 200 years ago.

Javier Sauza would appear to be the king of Tequila, the town to which his grandfather, Cenobio Sauza, brought his first distillery in 1873. But Tequila Sauza, in fact, runs a distant second in terms of production, wealth, and status. A distant, bitter second to its longtime rival — Tequila Cuervo.

Behind the Cuervo empire is a low-key family with the unlikely name of Beckmann, whose members readily admit they are less colorful and more predictable than the Sauzas. At 78, Juan Beckmann Gallardo is the lanky, easygoing patriarch, but he takes little interest in the daily affairs of business. Forty-eight-year-old Juan Beckmann Vidal, his oldest son, holds the reins of power and manages the family holdings from the Mexico City headquarters of Tequila Cuervo. Second son Francisco supervises production from the office in Guadalajara.

Groomed for business in U.S. and Mexican universities, the two sons reflect a new generation of tequila producers. “We think differently from our fathers, the tequileros viejos,” says Francisco. “But they were the pioneers, and we will always respect them for the progress they made.” This levelheaded approach in an industry that has been traditionally dominated by volatile, romantic figures has moved Tequila Cuervo far ahead of all its competitors. Last year the business sold 25 million liters of tequila — nearly twice the production of Tequila Sauza and more than half the tequila produced in Mexico. Exports to the U.S. account for much of that success, resulting from the shrewd marketing of a softer “mainstream” image, as well as advertising campaigns that feature such celebrities as Jimmy Buffett and Willie Nelson.

Still, the old image of the tequilero is probably closer to the truth of Tequila, home to the distilleries of both the Sauza and Cuervo families. The winding two-lane road to Tequila, busy with trucks and buses on their way to and from the coast, passes through fields of the tough, spike-leafed agave plants. The town itself is built around a small colonial church at the head of a bare and dusty central plaza. Most of the town’s roads are unpaved, and it is not unusual to see men ride through on horseback. The lone hotel is a noisy, dilapidated, ten-room structure above the bus station. A few restaurants line the plaza. Women queue up at the town’s only tortilla factory, and old men pass the days on benches in front of the church. It is like hundreds of other Mexican towns, except for the liquor factories and the store shelves jammed with bottles and small casks of cut-rate tequila.

The tequila industry employs most of the town’s residents, as well as nearby farmers, and is a palpable presence. Sweet smells seep out of the factory ovens and into the streets. Nearly every adobe wall boasts tequila advertisements for the half-dozen tequila businesses. La Rojeña, the main Cuervo factory, is the town’s dominant landmark and has produced the liquor for 192 years. A tall brick chimney, which for more than a hundred years belched out the black smoke of the baking agaves, remains as a tribute to the past.

Patriarch Juan Beckmann’s primary residence is in Guadalajara, and like Nina and Javier Sauza, he and his wife Carolina maintain a residence in La Jolla. The couple’s Tequila estate, where they go to escape the noise and pollution of Guadalajara, is surrounded by 15-foot walls of adobe. From their cool patio, which faces a fountain and lush garden, one can see the familiar factory chimney and hear the whistle that signals closing time at 3:00 p.m. Occasionally, Beckmann wanders over to his factory to visit the employees, some of whom have been with Tequila Cuervo for more than 50 years.

Like Javier Sauza, Juan Beckmann has been given doctor’s orders to refrain from smoking and drinking. “I’ve had so much tequila already, I’m saturated anyway,” he jokes. And like Sauza, he has made gifts to the town of Tequila, the latest a kindergarten just down the street from the Cuervo factory.

Beckmann’s career with Tequila Cuervo began 60 years ago when he was 18 and making liquor store deliveries while attending school in Mexico City. He moved up through the business hierarchy and finally became a regional manager in Tijuana, promoting the Cuervo brand in Baja California, Sonora, and the southwestern United States. Beckmann was nearly 60 himself when, through a complex web of family connections, he inherited leadership of the company. His tie to the original José is tenuous, and Nina Sauza says that even she is more closely related to the company founder than is Beckmann.

Beckmann has taken pains, however, to map his Cuervo connection; on the walls of his Tequila home hang portraits of ancestors on the Cuervo side, and the line of inheritance is inscribed on a large tile facing the patio. Family ties are important in a business that bases much of its sales pitch on romance and tradition. It is especially important for Tequila Cuervo, which is the oldest of all tequila producers.


The story of tequila begins nearly 200 years ago, according to Beckmann, when 32-year-old José Guadalupe de Cuervo began production of “mescal wine” on a dry mountainous piece of central Mexico that had been granted to his father by the king of Spain. Mescal wine, which is distilled from the juices of agave leaves, is made elsewhere in Mexico, but it was José Cuervo’s liquor, made in the village of Tequila, that soon acquired renown. His mescal business grew, as did his land holdings, and an enormous estate was handed down from father to son in a long line of José Cuervos.

The last José Cuervo ran the family empire through the Mexican Revolution, during which time most of the holdings were confiscated. “He was tall and thin, with a big mustache,” says Juan Beckmann in recollection of the last Cuervo, who was his godfather. Beckmann keeps a photograph of José Cuervo in his Tequila home: it is a 1919 family portrait, and among the posed figures is a dapper young man standing beside his seated wife. “He was a nice man, not a great businessman, but he had good people working for him. He had many, many friends.” Cuervo died without a son and left the business to his wife. She in turn passed it to her sister’s son; and when the son died, the business went to his cousin, Juan Beckmann. Today the Tequila Cuervo empire also includes ownership of the national rights to Smirnoff vodka, the top-selling vodka in Mexico, as well as the second-best-selling vodka and the number-two rum.

There are approximately 23 significant tequila producers in Mexico, and all of them are located in the dry, mountainous heart of the country in the state of Jalisco. Under a national law passed in 1974, tequila may be produced nowhere else. The law also regulates the distillation process and restricts the primary material to one species of agave plant. These stipulations were implemented to give to tequila the same status as that enjoyed by French cognac and American bourbon. And in the best homes of Jalisco, tequila that has been aged in wooden barrels, taking on the golden color of the wood in the process, is indeed enjoyed as a fine cognac would be elsewhere.

But in most Mexican homes, tequila is consumed with less frequency. It has become a luxury in an era of austerity, and that’s bad news for the tequila barons. Mexico itself has always been the leading consumer of tequila, but its position is slipping, and producers must now push tequila as an export, aiming for large markets in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia and smaller markets from Kenya to the Persian Gulf.

The pace is slow, too, at the Sauza factory in Tequila, which has the capacity to produce up to 63,000 liters of the liquor a day (tequila is valued at approximately one dollar per liter). On two recent visits a month apart, the factory stood empty and vacant — “closed for repairs.” But just around the corner, the Cuervo factory, La Rojeña, is a bustling contrast. Trucks loaded with agave hearts pull into the gates, workers load the heavy cores into the ovens, machines grind and hiss, and an enormous raven — the Cuervo trademark — squawks from its cage just inside the entrance. “The workers are always giving him tequila,” says Francisco Beckmann. “I think he’s an alcoholic.”

An inequality has factored into the long-standing rivalry between Tequila Sauza and Tequila Cuervo, one that Javier Sauza would like to ignore. “We are the same in Mexico,” he claims, but clearly he is behind by more than a million liters in his own country. The inequality has not yet, however, cramped the Sauza style. On a tour of her Guadalajara estate, Nina Sauza points to a fountain in the garden. “It’s exactly the same as the one in front of the White House,” she says proudly. “Just a little smaller.” The fountain faces a patio where Nina hosts occasional parties. “Placido Domingo was here once. We know many famous people.” Inside the house, she moves with the energy of a woman half her age. She summons her chauffeur, calls her maid to request first a handbag, then a photograph, and calls a restaurant to secure reservations. “They love me there,” she says. All the while, a cassette tape for beginning French drones on in the background, “Où est la bibliothèque?”

Nina Sauza asks about Juan and Carolina Beckmann’s estate in nearby Tequila. She wants to know how it compares to her own majestic Casa del Cielo. “They have never invited me into their home,” she confides. Her maid returns with the photograph Nina had requested moments before. It is the identical portrait of the last José Cuervo and his family, taken in 1919, that Beckmann displays in his Tequila residence. “This woman,” Nina continues proudly, pointing to the wife of José Cuervo’s brother, “was my mother’s sister. So you see, I am closer to José Cuervo. Beckmann is not a Cuervo. He is just very lucky to be where he is.”


Update, 4/03/08: Juan Domingo Beckmann, son of Juan Beckmann Vidal, now serves as José Cuervo’s executive director; the company remains Mexico’s leading producer of tequila. Since 1994, Sauza Tequila has been operated by Allied Domecq, headquartered in Bristol, England. In 2002, Guillermo Erickson Sauza, grandson of Nina and Javier, began producing his own brand, Los Abuelos (Fortaleza in the U.S.), on the family estate in Tequila, Mexico.

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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.

He took his product to fairs and expositions throughout Mexico, the United States, and Europe and promoted it as “the drink of romance.” He modernized production and transportation systems and built the bottling plant in Guadalajara. Tequila Sauza sponsored radio programs and athletic teams. “I was selling more than Cuervo,” he says emphatically. “And I bought tequila from everybody except Cuervo.”

Today Javier Sauza is preoccupied with two projects. One is the construction of a massive hilltop estate in Tequila named Casa del Cielo, which looks down on the Sauza factory and, not by coincidence, on the Cuervo factory and family estate. The other project is the completion of his library, or Casa de Cultura, located in the center of Tequila across the small plaza from the house where his father was born. In the Casa de Cultura, two long galleries lead off from an open-air courtyard. Within each gallery, tables are covered with trophies from Sauza-sponsored athletic teams. On the walls hang photographs and portraits of Javier, his father, and grandfather, awards, honorary diplomas, and framed decrees that proclaim him an honorary citizen of such places as Los Angeles, Tucson, Palm Springs, and New Orleans. He seems to have saved every memento and displayed it here, including a poem of his own composition written in honor of the agave plant, from which tequila is made.

Elsewhere in Tequila, a sleepy town of 20,000 where the drink originated and continues to be made, Javier Sauza has paved roads, erected statues, and built schools. But the monument that attracts the most attention is his sprawling white Casa del Cielo, a nearly completed maze of rooms and patios that overlook agave fields, fruit trees, a vegetable garden, an irrigation pond, picnic areas, and a proposed tequila museum, where full-scale exhibits will demonstrate how tequila was produced nearly 200 years ago.

Javier Sauza would appear to be the king of Tequila, the town to which his grandfather, Cenobio Sauza, brought his first distillery in 1873. But Tequila Sauza, in fact, runs a distant second in terms of production, wealth, and status. A distant, bitter second to its longtime rival — Tequila Cuervo.

Behind the Cuervo empire is a low-key family with the unlikely name of Beckmann, whose members readily admit they are less colorful and more predictable than the Sauzas. At 78, Juan Beckmann Gallardo is the lanky, easygoing patriarch, but he takes little interest in the daily affairs of business. Forty-eight-year-old Juan Beckmann Vidal, his oldest son, holds the reins of power and manages the family holdings from the Mexico City headquarters of Tequila Cuervo. Second son Francisco supervises production from the office in Guadalajara.

Groomed for business in U.S. and Mexican universities, the two sons reflect a new generation of tequila producers. “We think differently from our fathers, the tequileros viejos,” says Francisco. “But they were the pioneers, and we will always respect them for the progress they made.” This levelheaded approach in an industry that has been traditionally dominated by volatile, romantic figures has moved Tequila Cuervo far ahead of all its competitors. Last year the business sold 25 million liters of tequila — nearly twice the production of Tequila Sauza and more than half the tequila produced in Mexico. Exports to the U.S. account for much of that success, resulting from the shrewd marketing of a softer “mainstream” image, as well as advertising campaigns that feature such celebrities as Jimmy Buffett and Willie Nelson.

Still, the old image of the tequilero is probably closer to the truth of Tequila, home to the distilleries of both the Sauza and Cuervo families. The winding two-lane road to Tequila, busy with trucks and buses on their way to and from the coast, passes through fields of the tough, spike-leafed agave plants. The town itself is built around a small colonial church at the head of a bare and dusty central plaza. Most of the town’s roads are unpaved, and it is not unusual to see men ride through on horseback. The lone hotel is a noisy, dilapidated, ten-room structure above the bus station. A few restaurants line the plaza. Women queue up at the town’s only tortilla factory, and old men pass the days on benches in front of the church. It is like hundreds of other Mexican towns, except for the liquor factories and the store shelves jammed with bottles and small casks of cut-rate tequila.

The tequila industry employs most of the town’s residents, as well as nearby farmers, and is a palpable presence. Sweet smells seep out of the factory ovens and into the streets. Nearly every adobe wall boasts tequila advertisements for the half-dozen tequila businesses. La Rojeña, the main Cuervo factory, is the town’s dominant landmark and has produced the liquor for 192 years. A tall brick chimney, which for more than a hundred years belched out the black smoke of the baking agaves, remains as a tribute to the past.

Patriarch Juan Beckmann’s primary residence is in Guadalajara, and like Nina and Javier Sauza, he and his wife Carolina maintain a residence in La Jolla. The couple’s Tequila estate, where they go to escape the noise and pollution of Guadalajara, is surrounded by 15-foot walls of adobe. From their cool patio, which faces a fountain and lush garden, one can see the familiar factory chimney and hear the whistle that signals closing time at 3:00 p.m. Occasionally, Beckmann wanders over to his factory to visit the employees, some of whom have been with Tequila Cuervo for more than 50 years.

Like Javier Sauza, Juan Beckmann has been given doctor’s orders to refrain from smoking and drinking. “I’ve had so much tequila already, I’m saturated anyway,” he jokes. And like Sauza, he has made gifts to the town of Tequila, the latest a kindergarten just down the street from the Cuervo factory.

Beckmann’s career with Tequila Cuervo began 60 years ago when he was 18 and making liquor store deliveries while attending school in Mexico City. He moved up through the business hierarchy and finally became a regional manager in Tijuana, promoting the Cuervo brand in Baja California, Sonora, and the southwestern United States. Beckmann was nearly 60 himself when, through a complex web of family connections, he inherited leadership of the company. His tie to the original José is tenuous, and Nina Sauza says that even she is more closely related to the company founder than is Beckmann.

Beckmann has taken pains, however, to map his Cuervo connection; on the walls of his Tequila home hang portraits of ancestors on the Cuervo side, and the line of inheritance is inscribed on a large tile facing the patio. Family ties are important in a business that bases much of its sales pitch on romance and tradition. It is especially important for Tequila Cuervo, which is the oldest of all tequila producers.


The story of tequila begins nearly 200 years ago, according to Beckmann, when 32-year-old José Guadalupe de Cuervo began production of “mescal wine” on a dry mountainous piece of central Mexico that had been granted to his father by the king of Spain. Mescal wine, which is distilled from the juices of agave leaves, is made elsewhere in Mexico, but it was José Cuervo’s liquor, made in the village of Tequila, that soon acquired renown. His mescal business grew, as did his land holdings, and an enormous estate was handed down from father to son in a long line of José Cuervos.

The last José Cuervo ran the family empire through the Mexican Revolution, during which time most of the holdings were confiscated. “He was tall and thin, with a big mustache,” says Juan Beckmann in recollection of the last Cuervo, who was his godfather. Beckmann keeps a photograph of José Cuervo in his Tequila home: it is a 1919 family portrait, and among the posed figures is a dapper young man standing beside his seated wife. “He was a nice man, not a great businessman, but he had good people working for him. He had many, many friends.” Cuervo died without a son and left the business to his wife. She in turn passed it to her sister’s son; and when the son died, the business went to his cousin, Juan Beckmann. Today the Tequila Cuervo empire also includes ownership of the national rights to Smirnoff vodka, the top-selling vodka in Mexico, as well as the second-best-selling vodka and the number-two rum.

There are approximately 23 significant tequila producers in Mexico, and all of them are located in the dry, mountainous heart of the country in the state of Jalisco. Under a national law passed in 1974, tequila may be produced nowhere else. The law also regulates the distillation process and restricts the primary material to one species of agave plant. These stipulations were implemented to give to tequila the same status as that enjoyed by French cognac and American bourbon. And in the best homes of Jalisco, tequila that has been aged in wooden barrels, taking on the golden color of the wood in the process, is indeed enjoyed as a fine cognac would be elsewhere.

But in most Mexican homes, tequila is consumed with less frequency. It has become a luxury in an era of austerity, and that’s bad news for the tequila barons. Mexico itself has always been the leading consumer of tequila, but its position is slipping, and producers must now push tequila as an export, aiming for large markets in the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia and smaller markets from Kenya to the Persian Gulf.

The pace is slow, too, at the Sauza factory in Tequila, which has the capacity to produce up to 63,000 liters of the liquor a day (tequila is valued at approximately one dollar per liter). On two recent visits a month apart, the factory stood empty and vacant — “closed for repairs.” But just around the corner, the Cuervo factory, La Rojeña, is a bustling contrast. Trucks loaded with agave hearts pull into the gates, workers load the heavy cores into the ovens, machines grind and hiss, and an enormous raven — the Cuervo trademark — squawks from its cage just inside the entrance. “The workers are always giving him tequila,” says Francisco Beckmann. “I think he’s an alcoholic.”

An inequality has factored into the long-standing rivalry between Tequila Sauza and Tequila Cuervo, one that Javier Sauza would like to ignore. “We are the same in Mexico,” he claims, but clearly he is behind by more than a million liters in his own country. The inequality has not yet, however, cramped the Sauza style. On a tour of her Guadalajara estate, Nina Sauza points to a fountain in the garden. “It’s exactly the same as the one in front of the White House,” she says proudly. “Just a little smaller.” The fountain faces a patio where Nina hosts occasional parties. “Placido Domingo was here once. We know many famous people.” Inside the house, she moves with the energy of a woman half her age. She summons her chauffeur, calls her maid to request first a handbag, then a photograph, and calls a restaurant to secure reservations. “They love me there,” she says. All the while, a cassette tape for beginning French drones on in the background, “Où est la bibliothèque?”

Nina Sauza asks about Juan and Carolina Beckmann’s estate in nearby Tequila. She wants to know how it compares to her own majestic Casa del Cielo. “They have never invited me into their home,” she confides. Her maid returns with the photograph Nina had requested moments before. It is the identical portrait of the last José Cuervo and his family, taken in 1919, that Beckmann displays in his Tequila residence. “This woman,” Nina continues proudly, pointing to the wife of José Cuervo’s brother, “was my mother’s sister. So you see, I am closer to José Cuervo. Beckmann is not a Cuervo. He is just very lucky to be where he is.”


Update, 4/03/08: Juan Domingo Beckmann, son of Juan Beckmann Vidal, now serves as José Cuervo’s executive director; the company remains Mexico’s leading producer of tequila. Since 1994, Sauza Tequila has been operated by Allied Domecq, headquartered in Bristol, England. In 2002, Guillermo Erickson Sauza, grandson of Nina and Javier, began producing his own brand, Los Abuelos (Fortaleza in the U.S.), on the family estate in Tequila, Mexico.

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