Turning Cattle Feed into Wine
[private] When Ryan Saunders, a Canadian divemaster, contacted Carlos Talavera, a Honduran biochemical engineer, in June 2011 to request samples of Talavera’s cashew fruit wine, which he first heard about from a friend at a Roatan bar, neither man expected to forge a lasting business partnership. Now they aspire to place Honduras on the world wine map through online sales of their Acaxú brand, although Saunders admits that is “no easy task.”
Acaxú, which Talavera’s company, Industrias del Llano, produces in Tegucigalpa, debuted in Roatan in January 2012. Saunders and his partner Fritz Strube market and distribute the wine through their company, Stone Temple Holdings.
“When people travel to different countries they ought to be able to sample the cultures,” said Saunders, who moved to Roatan in 2007. That’s what he envisioned when he first put his lips to a glass of Talavera’s exotic libation. However, both he and Talavera realized curiosity could drive sales only so far.
“There is no point in having an exotic image for a foul stuff that people will buy once, never to want to sip again,” said Talavera.
For that reason, Saunders and Talavera want Acaxú to stand apart from other tropical fruit wines, most of which are cloudy, extremely sweet and strong-smelling. Saunders says the dry version of Acaxú is dry enough to suit a chardonnay drinker. The semi-dry – the most popular version – is sweeter, like a German Riesling. The sweet version is not quite as sweet as an ice wine. All three are much drier than Belizean cashew wine, which is generally closer to liqueur in weight and sweetness than wine, he said.
The Acaxú production and distribution chain is completely Honduran. Talavera purchases the fruit through a Honduran distributor, who buys directly from small farmers around the town of Namasigüe in Choluteca Department. It is pressed and fermented into wine at Talavera’s plant in Tegucigalpa, bottled and shipped to Roatan, where it sells for $13-15 a bottle in restaurants, souvenir shops and even corner pulperías.
Currently demand is far outstripping supply, says Saunders, “so prices aren’t going to drop anytime soon.” He is currently working to expand distribution to Utila and Guanaja, then to Costa Rica.
Talavera began making wine from cashew fruit in the 1980s in the kitchen of his old family house in Llanos del Potrero, on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa. He had been looking for ways to use the cashew fruit that Honduran farmers usually dumped or fed to their cattle. Drawing on his training in fermentation technology and after reading lots of winemaking literature, he experimented.
His initial idea was to use the wine to make vinegar. But he was inspired by the quality of his first few batches. He thought it tasted good.
Talavera risked what little savings he had to build a “proper shack” for a winery. He named the wine Acaxú, from acajú, the word for cashew in the language of the indigenous Tupi people of Brazil, where the cashew originated.
Talavera was encouraged to continue his efforts by the reactions of two French wine critics, who called his product “outstanding” and “astonishing.” He received assistance from the Honduran National Autonomous University in Tegucigalpa, where chemical engineering students got academic credit for working on product development in his winery.
Talavera first tried to market his wine in Tegucigalpa, through supermarkets and the Mayoreo open-air market. But he encountered numerous obstacles.
“It’s a competitive world out there,” said Talavera, and Honduras “lacks commercial options for emerging entrepreneurs and small-scale producers.”
For one thing, he said, small-scale producers need middlemen known as impulsadores to market their product. On top of that, Honduras has never been much of a wine-drinking society, and Honduran consumers typically assume that anything made in Honduras must be of inferior quality.
That’s why places like the Bay Islands and Copán, which receive lots of foreign visitors, are logical places to market Acaxú and why when Talavera received the call from Saunders last June he realized Saunders’s marketing assistance was “the complement I was needing.”
Talavera intends to fly in the face of Hondurans’ negative self-image by producing a good-quality wine that is proudly labeled as “Honduran cashew fruit wine” so as to “fly the flag and scream to the world that, when Hondurans want to, they can do good things.”
He also expects to unveil a new line of exotic cooking products for the summer of 2012, including a spiced cashew vinegar and a cashew cooking sherry. Preserves and liqueurs are in the works, too. [/private]