Does a weekend of raicilla and delicious food create an experience?
The word “experience” is thrown around a lot in marketing, most likely because several years back folks in companies who oversaw marketing and advertising were told that the millennial juggernaut wanted experiences. Thus the birth of “experiential marketing”. But what exactly does that mean?
A few weeks ago I spent a weekend in the Valle de Guadalupe for a La Reina Experience, organized by Ana Lopez and Juan Pablo Mercado, the husband and wife team behind La Reina Raicilla. The two of them launched the Experience concept in February of 2021 with an event in Puerto Vallarta that focused on talks and lectures with people within the agave spirits industry. The second event they hosted this past July at the taberna in Atenguillo, the focus was on the production process and connection to the culture and landscape behind raicilla . The event in Valle de Guadalupe was the third and focused on food and ceremony. There is a fourth event in Los Angeles on December 3rd. The connecting thread through all of these events is the combination of education, art and fun, and the participation of the raicillero Julio Topete Becerra and his wife Silvia.
Since I first met Ana and Juan Pablo at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference in 2019, their approach to La Reina Raicilla has changed and evolved. Initially they conceived of the brand as the first cocktail raicilla in the market, but as the reality of costs, distribution, and of course the pandemic became obvious they now see greater opportunity in growing the brand through these types of experiences. This was a strategy that worked well for the mezcal brand Gem&Bolt who grew their cult following and market in the US through events in both Mexico and the US.
How it began
These events are a mix of invited guests and ticket buyers. Full disclosure, I was an invited guest. The primary venue for the weekend was Tahona Baja, the Valle de Guadalupe outpost of the terrific San Diego restaurant Tahona. Our group of four met up at Tahona where owner Amar Harrag gathered us into his car for the ride down. Aside from Amar and Ana and Juan Pablo, I knew no one else on this trip and had absolutely no expectations beyond the certainty of good food.
Our car was a mix of “creatives”– designer, videographer, writer, actor and restaurateur. Amar weaved through the streets of Tijuana, stopping at his latest venture: a bottle shop and tasting room in downtown, just a block off of Calle Revolucion. It will feature agave spirits, including special exclusive batches they have secured with Real Minero, Dixeebe, Macurichos and more. It will also be the first of its kind in a city that is now waking up to agave spirits beyond tequila. After the pit stop we headed out of town till we hit the coastal highway, stopping in Rosarito at Tacos El Yaqui for tacos with Macurichos mezcal. From there we settled into the drive to the Valle, the conversation constant, with me bugging the actor, a rising star in Hollywood, with questions about his roles and whether or not it would up my cool factor with my teenager, if we took a picture together (the answer, yes, enormously).
Ahead of the trip we had each received the itinerary for the weekend plans and events which included a group dinner on Friday night, a Saturday filled with a raicilla masterclass led by Mabi Vasquez of Agavache, an afternoon chef event with Javier Plascencia, Nico Mejia and Jodi Moreno and an evening of music and a raicilla ceremony with Sandra Gutierrez, medicine woman and healer and finally a Sunday brunch before we all headed home. But a plan is only a plan until it isn’t, and the first sign of the itinerary being perhaps aspirational was a change in our hotel accommodations which saw us shifted to the very beautiful Oeno Wine Lodge where each of us had our own little casitas. Built among hills and large boulders, it felt other worldly, even with the background techno music from the bar/restaurant next door.
After we all had a chance to settle, we were retrieved by the van which would ferry us around the rest of the weekend. Tahona Baja was about a half hour drive from our hotels, closer to Ensenada than the Valle, and it was dark when we arrived. It’s a stunning venue and as you walk into the space you are greeted by two old, and now almost fully restored boats, one of which houses a gallery space in the hull and a store on deck, the other had a beautiful altar for Dia de los Muertos as well as a meeting space. The restaurant itself is open air, like everywhere in the Valle. There is dining under trees as well as a roof trellis. We were introduced to the rest of the invited group, a collection of other artists, musicians and designers. Everyone is beautifully Instagrammable and it hits me that I am among “influencers” and that I, in this strange moment in time, am one as well.
We ate family style and got to know one another as the raicilla and conversation flowed, and by the end of the evening, we had coalesced into a friendly group, despite divergent backgrounds.
The big day
When creating an experiential event a major dilemma can be how to choreograph structure while allowing room for spontaneity? Is it enough to put a mix of people together, add some alcohol and good food and have it be someplace beautiful to call it an experience? Is this a strategy of brands looking to grow their place in the market?
In daylight, the boats at Tahona Baja are even more stunning, and an ironic reminder that there is a serious water issue in the Valle, as they sit dry docked on land. People have begun to arrive and we sit down for the masterclass on raicilla. Mabi Vasquez has a very interesting background and recently completed her WSET Level 2 and 3 in spirits, the first Mexican to do so. She and her husband founded Agavache, a consulting and education company devoted to providing technical advice on production and problem correcting in the world of distillates in Mexico. She walks us through the history and production process of raicilla and then the tasting of three La Reina expressions, a 38% reposado aged in wood, a 42% ancestral made with a filipino still and a 55% puntas that was absolutely delicious.
Shortly after the masterclass, the band Oricanti begins to play, their electronica cumbia and ambient style a perfect backdrop as the party gets underway. People are here for the food, drawn by the big name chefs Javier Plascencia, who was so instrumental in putting Baja cuisine on the international map, and Nico Mejia whose restaurant Mexía in Guadalajara garners high acclaim. Also cooking for the day is Jodi Moreno, a chef consultant, food stylist and author. The food is delicious and the courses keep coming. I have parked myself next to shoe maker and designer Paul Kaufman, who is as much a food enthusiast as I.
We finish dessert, and take bus trams up to Bar Bura at Cuatro Cuatros which sits high on a bluff overlooking the Pacific with a perfect sunset view. There is dancing and more raicilla before heading back down the hill for the raicilla ceremony.
Things we carry
When we arrive back, there is a large fire in an earthen pit lined with stone (I see a future project here…) Sandra has set up a ceremonial altar, the band is playing some serious ambient trance music, and I find a seat on one of the few benches by the fire. I am not going to lie, this is not my wheelhouse, at all. I wear my spirituality deep inside and am not a fan of these types of, as a friend says, woo-woo things that often feel manufactured to me. But then a couple sits down next to me and the man explains he doesn’t speak Spanish and is hoping I can help translate Sandra’s words once she begins. And now I can’t escape.
Sandra begins. She has one of those deep, almost throaty voices that vibrates through one’s body. She is dramatic in dress, swathed in a beautiful rebozo and silver jewelry. She has long black hair and deeply intense eyes. She demands your attention. She talks of the earth and the sky and our body relation to both. She speaks of the agave and its importance on both earth and in the sky. She is repetitive, her words an incantation. It makes it easier for me to translate for the couple and to also not roll my eyes. She then begins to speak of the approaching Dia de los Muertos and the thinning veil between worlds, she speaks again about the agave and earth and sky. The band is in tune with her words and I think this can’t be the first time they have done this together. She asks us to close our eyes, speaking again of the earth and sky, and I try to fall into a meditation. As I gather my words in my head, it is suddenly broken by Sandra’s voice saying “we are all going to die.” It is shocking, despite its truth.
“We are all going to die,” she repeats again and again before asking, “how do we want to die? What do we want to carry with us? What do we want to leave behind?” I have never really thought of death in this way, it has been more centered on, we are all going to die one day so we might as well live as best we can. Sandra repeats this again and I begin thinking on the past couple of years and the anger, frustration and depression I have felt trying to keep a business alive while caring for my family. I think of the years before the pandemic and the feelings of doubt and imposter syndrome that live in me. I think of the grief I have carried with the death of my sister and father and friends. How do I want to die, what do I want to carry with me, what do I want to leave behind? Not all of this shit, that is for sure.
I realize I stopped translating for the couple next to me as my thoughts and feelings overwhelmed me and when I open my eyes and turn to them they are gone. I hear sobbing, snoring, murmured words, the hissing sound of splashes of raicilla hitting the fire and I hear Sandra say, “open your heart, open your heart and let go. We are all going to die, what do we want to carry with us, what do we want to let go of?”
I focus on what I want to let go of, what I want to carry with me. Sandra’s voice again cuts through the night, ”But we must also live. We must live. How do we want to live?”
These words are nothing new, these ideas are nothing new, but strung together they are powerful, especially in these pandemic times when we have lost so much. She again repeats that we must live and when she ends the ceremony our eyes meet. She lights sage and asks if anyone wants to come up and have their soul cleansed. I do not hesitate and I am joined by a few other people who make their way to her. She waves the sage around each person who stands in front of her. When I step forward she repeats the motion and then looks into my eyes. She raises a hand and places it over my heart and I feel a jolt of energy. She continues waving the sage and then asks me if I am ready to let go and I nod my head. As she releases her hand from my heart, I feel a wave roll from the top of my head and out through my fingertips and then I feel so light.
A few of us gather and all we can muster saying is wow, again and again. We toss marigolds into the fire, sip a little more raicilla and then we are told it is time to go, the folks camping down the hill have been complaining about the noise. We gather the blankets that had been on the ground, help Sandra collect items from the altar she had built and then head toward the vans that will take us to the after party at the hotel where some of the group is staying. I was ready to dance, to howl at the moon, and then we had that half hour ride in the van and I lost all energy to go on. When we regroup at the hotel, I am surprised that there are more of us tonight, ready to call it a night. When we arrive back at Oena, we sit around talking, munching on Cheetos and potato chips before finally calling it a night.
The next day is full of packing and climbing into the vans once more to go to brunch at Finca Altozano, Javier Plascencia’s restaurant. It is a simple gathering under the trees and we drink agua fresca and house made beer alongside tacos and oysters. A mariachi band plays. When it is time to leave, a clusterfuck of epic proportions erupts as suitcases get moved back and forth between the vans. Our van is completely full and I end up on the hump seat between the driver and passenger seat, which gives me a birds eye view as we make our way to Tijuana. The Valle is stunning in the afternoon glow and crisp blue sky. We climb the windy road out of the valley, and as we begin our descent to the coast, Moby’s Porcelain begins to play. It is an achingly beautiful song playing against an achingly beautiful vista of mountain, valley and a blue ocean in the distance. It is utterly peaceful.
When we hit Tijuana, those of us who will be walking back across into the US decide to cross at Otay Mesa rather than San Ysidro which was showing a three hour wait time. As we reach the gate, I realize we make a rag tag group, three United Statesians, a Colombian, two Venezuelans in various states of post weekend festivity attire. The customs agent pulls one of us for a complete check. When we are all through to the other side it is a strange moment of goodbyes after such an intimate weekend as we all pile into different Ubers, off to different destinations and other adventures.
It was a helluva experience, and there will likely never be a time when I am drinking raicilla that I will not recall this weekend. That is some seriously successful experiential marketing.
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