Some time in the mid-aughts, Guillermo Erickson Sauza walked into a sales manager’s office at a national wine and spirits wholesaler in California. The great-great grandson of the 19th-century “father of tequila,” Don Cenobio Sauza, arrived seeking distribution for his bootstrap venture, Tequila Fortaleza.
“Sure, we can get you everywhere,” the distributor told him. “But it’s going to cost you a million dollars.”
To outsiders, Sauza might not seem like a plucky underdog among the swathes of brands vying to enter the spirits industry. His lineage is practically tequila royalty, and though his grandfather sold the family business in 1976 — including two production facilities and over 270 square miles of land — for someone with Sauza’s background, one might assume capital and professional access flow as readily as agave distillate dripping off a copper still. Then again, we all know the old adage about assumptions.
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Sauza and Tequila Fortaleza’s story is instead one of hard hand-selling, “pulling money from thin air,” and a fight to highlight genuine tradition and authenticity in a market saturated by such terms. Spreading the word on Fortaleza, and capturing consumer attention, pitted an unlikely David against the Goliath of the marketing budgets of booze conglomerates and Hollywood A-listers. Ultimately, it meant doing things differently.
But the payoffs have been huge. Thanks to its “rock star” founder, a sleeves-rolled-up, hands-on approach, and — of course — a quality product, Tequila Fortaleza has achieved a status many brands covet but that money cannot buy. It has become the toast of industry “cool kids” and the apple in the eye of agave aficionados.
After Sauza’s grandfather, Don Javier, sold the family tequila company, all that remained for future generations was a relatively modest 80-acre plot, a picturesque hacienda perched on the highest part of the property, and a small distillery that had served for decades as museum to showcase how things were done in the old days.
It was by no means a bad inheritance, but perhaps bittersweet for the U.S.-based Sauza, who had grown up thinking he would follow his forefathers into the tequila business. Showing the fortitude that would later lend its name to his brand, Sauza eventually followed those dreams in 1999, though not as a Tequila Sauza exec.
Instead, he set his sights on the defunct museum-distillery, which he planned to restore to recapture authentic production techniques. Vital to that tradition was the facility’s steam-engine-powered brick oven, its stone milling wheel (tahona), open wooden fermentation vats, and small, copper pot stills.
Sauza’s was not an entirely romantic or nostalgic pursuit, though. Unlike many modern founders (read: Hollywood celebrities) who “just wanted to create a tequila for me and my buddies to drink,” he approached the restoration with a thought-out business plan and a clear understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of his hand.
“You can compete in the lower-end market if you have the attributes to compete in the lower-end market, which means a lot of capital,” Sauza says. “We didn’t have those kinds of attributes. In fact, we had no capital.”
What they did have, however, was a solid property, a distillery able to produce tequila in a legitimately authentic manner, and, in Sauza’s opinion, a high-end product destined to be a “hit.” “We wanted to show the authenticity of [tequila] — I thought that would certainly appeal to people,” he says. “And we were right.”
Getting that product to market would pose numerous challenges, though — particularly in the United States. Launched as Los Abuelos, to honor Sauza’s grandparents, in Mexico in 2005, Sauza had to abandon the brand name for U.S. sales because of a trademark conflict with Panama’s Ron Los Abuelos. (Fortaleza translates to both “fortitude,” and “fortress,” the latter of which was Don Javier’s name for the family’s small, hillside distillery.)
Then there was the small matter of actually getting it into the United States. Most importers wanted a 30 to 50 percent cut. Even after finding a smaller company that operated on a lower percentage scale, Sauza ran into a distributor roadblock.
Opting to first launch in California, where Sauza was still based full-time, he balked when quoted the $1 million marketing figure. “At that point, I said, ‘There has got to be another way to do this,’” Sauza says. “There’s no way I’m going to put a million dollars in these people’s hands and watch it get frittered away.”
Whether Sauza was naturally hard-wired with steely determination or if this encounter sparked a fiery ambition within him is by the by. Either way, he would indeed find “another way” to do things, and begin Tequila Fortaleza’s hard-fought battle to build a respected brand.
Through Mitch Wolf, a longtime hospitality professional and early Fortaleza supporter, Sauza then met with California’s third-largest distributor, Wine Warehouse. The person he met with wasn’t just skeptical about the brand, but unconvinced by tequila in general, which, in 2006 hadn’t yet found its widespread success. And so he told Sauza he’d only pick up his product if Sauza could land 100 accounts first. Thus began a period of extreme hand-selling.
“It started out with the bar down the street from our house, and then the bar by my karate place, and then it was my dad’s favorite spot to go out in our neighborhood — it went like that,” recalls Billy Erickson, Sauza’s son. Now sales and marketing manager at Fortaleza, at the time he was not professionally involved with the brand nor of legal drinking age, though he would help his dad set up a portable wooden bar for tastings and charity events.
“Everybody’s got the exact same table,” Erickson says. “But he had thought to himself: ‘How can I stand out in that situation?’”
Sauza spent just as much time with liquor store owners, thanking them for carrying Fortaleza. Some wouldn’t know who he was, so he’d leave small booklets with information on the tequila. Others did know his name, and were astounded that the founder of the company was paying them a visit. “We put a lot of feet on the ground, which really made a difference in the rollout in the industry,” he says.
When he says “we,” Sauza refers to the friends who were able to help out, and who were often paid in tequila — so tight were the purse strings in those early days. Wolf was among them, having serendipitously met Sauza while drinking his tequila at a bar in San Diego. Two days later, Wolf would turn up at the family distillery in Tequila, greeted by the amazed Sauza, who couldn’t believe Wolf had taken him up on an impromptu bar invitation. The pair have remained friends ever since and Wolf has worked full-time at Fortaleza for seven years, now acting as international brand ambassador.
“Guillermo was pulling money out of thin air, doing bits and pieces here and there,” Wolf says. “There was no treasure chest to get things started.”
The (Travel) Package
Shortly after Fortaleza hit its 100 account goal and gained distribution from Wine Warehouse, another early advisor to the brand suggested Sauza invite a small number of the sales team to the distillery to witness production first hand.
This practice of hosting sales reps is neither unique nor was it original at the time. But Sauza felt that his offering was. And what better way to share it with those for whom his brand was just one of 200, than walking them down the cobbled streets of Tequila, the scent of freshly cooked agave light in the evening air? They could stop in at the Los Abuelos museum in the central plaza — the house in which his great-grandfather was born — or point them to the nearby statue of his great-great-grandfather, Don Cenobio. “They came down for a three-day trip and when they went back, they had a story to tell,” Sauza says. “They had pictures, and they slowly became ambassadors. It wasn’t just marketing baloney.”
Soon enough, Fortaleza extended similar invitations to the bartending community. This was over 10 years ago, a time when even engaged tequila drinkers talked little of the distinctions between highland or lowland agave or knew to be skeptical about diffusers and additives. But industry professionals were already arriving at that point.
If the Fortaleza visits gave sales reps a story to tell, they would offer the bartending community a cause to champion. “When the cocktail movement came around, bartenders became so much more educated and they wanted everything traditionally made or ‘ancient’ if possible,” says Rick Long, a spirits specialist at David Bowler Wine who worked at Winebow when Fortaleza gained distributorship with the company in the early 2010s.
“We thought it was the perfect fit,” he recalls of Guillermo and his brand, whose “ancient” details extended to individual, hand-made glass bottles. “We always used to joke that because they’re hand-blown, maybe you’d get a little more in one than another.”
Following more or less the same agenda to this day, Fortaleza continues to host three of its trade trips annually — though industry members and consumers can also inquire about visits on their own schedules. The getaways usually take place from Sunday through Wednesday because “we figure industry people make most of their money on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday,” Wolf says.
Over the course of that period, visiting bartenders — occasionally from as far-flung reaches as Australia — will walk agave fields, watch the legendary tahona in motion, and sample plenty of tequila. They, too, will visit Sauza’s ancestral home before the trip culminates with a party in Fortaleza’s very own cave, where bats fly overhead as Sauza pours one of his three expressions: blanco, reposado, or añejo.
Where other trade visits are hyper brand-focused, Fortaleza takes its guests to visit the production facilities of friends and neighboring producers, like Arette and Don Fulano. This only adds to the impression that the visiting bartenders (who have to buy their own airfare, by law) are not being sold on anything but are instead there to experience — and, if they are so inclined, they can later spread the word.
“They’re not hiding anything, there is not one roped-off section within the facility,” recalls Javelle Taft, the head bartender at New York’s Death & Co, who recently joined a Fortaleza trip. “They’re completely transparent in terms of what they use, how they use it, and how much they can bottle per year.”
Such are the standards many consumers expect from their tequila brands in 2022, especially at premium price points. Some may soon face a reckoning on how they react to this new norm. For example, can a brand continue to market a “unique identity,” now that consumers can easily access information on all the different tequila brands produced at a single distillery, or NOM? Meanwhile, Fortaleza has spent more than a decade proactively proving it meets this mark.
“The majority of marketing for tequila are these romantic images but the reality doesn’t match up in most cases,” says Lou Bank, the founder of SACRED, a nonprofit that supports rural Mexican communities making heritage agave spirits, and the co-host of the “Agave Road Trip” podcast. “For the tequila geeks who really want it to match up, by and large Guillermo’s doing it.”
It stands as a testament to Fortaleza’s style of brand building that the trade trips have become a right of passage in the bartending community. “They’ve made it the cool kid tequila,” says Ivy Mix, the co-owner of Brooklyn’s Leyenda, who hasn’t herself been on one of the trips but instead visited when researching her book “Spirits of Latin America.” “When you go to Fortaleza, all the guys are covered in tattoos, ride motorcycles, and have a certain kind of aura about them.”
Make no mistake about it, though, as Mix also mentions: Harley Davidsons and ink sleeves do not an insiders’ tequila make. By all accounts, industry pros and aficionados regard Fortaleza as a high-quality spirit, and the brand is beloved, primarily, for that reason. “George Clooney is on every Southern Wine & Spirits delivery truck in New York City and bartenders aren’t running around saying how great Casamigos is, you know?” says Mix.
Who needs George Clooney, though, when your brand boasts its very own tequila star?
The final, inescapable piece of Fortaleza’s appeal seems to be the brand’s founder. In every conversation had in the reporting of this piece, Sauza seemed ever present, the rightful center of the brand’s solar system.
“There are very few rock stars in this industry,” says Long. “There are people that are really good at what they do and know their stuff, but there’s very few that make beautiful spirits and are rock stars as well. I put Guillermo up there with Jim McEwan and Mr. Russell.”
As of yet, Fortaleza’s is not a story that large liquor corporations have been able to mimic. And chances are, if one did swoop in to scoop up the brand and capitalize on its cool appeal, most aficionados and trade members would lose their taste for it — though Sauza has been very vocal over the years about it not being for sale.
He is, though, quick to point out that the conglomerates of this world need not keep a watchful eye in their rearview mirrors. His will never be a billion dollar company because of Fortaleza’s production process, he says. To reach a million cases per year, he wagers they’d need somewhere up to 500 tahonas, an unrealistic number by all accounts. (Fortaleza currently has one tahona, in case you were wondering.)
As for those starting their own journey in the spirits space, and looking for advice on how to emulate Fortaleza’s success, Sauza borrows some choice words he first heard in a wholesaler’s office: “You got a million dollars? I suggest you don’t give it to a distributor — but you are going to need it.”