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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Prominent Latino friends target healthy slice of growing U.S. mezcal market

A retired Seattle baseball hero and two successful entrepreneur friends, all of Latino heritage, are embarked on an effort to bring Mexico's most popular mezcal spirit to successful penetration of the U.S., and possibly other parts of the world where the cousin of tequila might find a market.

 

It was five years ago that Mike Sotelo, a Seattle businessman with deep roots in the Latino communities around the state, formed La Plaza International LLC with exclusive U.S. and world rights to El Zacatecano and sought out Gene Juarez and Edgar Martinez as partners.

 

Gene
Gene Juarez

Juarez, who grew up poor in the Yakima Valley but went on to establish the Northwest's best-known chain of hair salons that still bears his name, and Martinez, whose career with the Seattle Mariners likely destines him for baseball's Hall of Fame, quickly decided to come aboard.

 

So did Greg Brown, managing director of the Caprock Group, a wealth management firm, whom Sotelo sought out as a partner who brought both money and financial expertise to the business.

"Mike brought in a money guy, a marketer and a celebrity," says Spencer Kunath, whom Sotelo and Juarez brought aboard as the key executive to oversee the business operations and growth of the company.

 

Mike Sotelo
Mike Sotelo

Juarez and Martinez, who have already had substantial financial success in their professional lives, seem less intent on making a fortune in the mezcal business than they do on raising the fortunes of the 400 or so residents of Huitzila, where El Zacatecano has been made for almost 100 years. The spirit gets its name from Zacatecas, the state in which the town is located.

 

Mezcal is the older but less-known brother of tequila. But sales of the two in the U.S. in recent years suggest Mezcal, which was actually created by the conquistadors whose experimenting with the maguey plant to find a fermented mash resulted in the first mezcal, is overtaking tequila, the national liquor of Mexico.

 

Edgar
Edgar Martinez
Although mezcal's share of the agave spirits market (tequila and mezcal) is only 5 percent, sales of mezcal are growing four times as rapidly as tequila sales and have a compound annual growth rate of 42 percent over the past three years, according to figures from the U.S. International trade Commission.

 

El Zacatecano is fermented from the Highland Weber Blue Agave plants that stretch beyond Huitzila and have been harvested for almost 100 years by the family with which Sotelo and his team have an agreement.

 

The El Zacatecano distillery is the largest employer in
Huitzila , which lies in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains, about 10 miles northeast of Jalisco state but 141 kilometers, or two and a half hours, by rough road and Mexico 23, to Guadalajara.

 

In an interview, the three principals agreed that their objective is to "support the organic and sustainable economic development of Huitzila by focusing on employment growth. We want people to have good quality and regular jobs to support their families," said Juarez.

 

I asked the three if tourism might become a residual benefit for Huitzila in the event they are as successful developing the brand as they hope.

 

"Not with 75 miles of dirt road to get to the town," Sotelo replied.

 

In addition, Kunath noted the name of the product is about to change.

 

"We are migrating our brand over from El Zacatecano to ZAC," he said. "The bottles currently say El Zacatecano but that will be changing next month. It is a slow process. We don't want to do it instantly as we could risk losing loyal customers."

 

Asked to explain the reason for the change, Kunath quipped: "We want our customers who are downing their third shot to still be able to pronounce the name of their mezcal."

 

This isn't the first business venture for Sotelo and Juarez. Sotelo was the founder-organizer of Plaza Bank, with the goal of creating a lender whose focus would be on "enhancing the opportunity for Latino entrepreneurs in the state to find funding."

 

A year after its founding in 2007, the bank, on which Juarez served as a board member, ran into the economic storm that impacted a host of small banks in Washington and across the country.

 

Kunath says the effort to expand current ZAC distribution on the West Coast will soon expand to Texas, Arizona and Nevada, He adds that they are "close to securing distribution in Korea, Japan and the Emirates Group in the Middle East and North Africa. We have tantalizing opportunities in front of us."
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Rushworth's portraits of the prominent present career-transition success story

As then-Gov. Gary Locke's staff was weighing which artist to hire to paint his official portrait, he was on hand at Safeco Field for the unveiling of the retirement portrait of Seattle Mariner great Edgar Martinez in the fall of 2004. After Mariner CEO Howard Lincoln unveiled the portrait on the field before 40,000 appreciative fans, Locke contacted his staff and basically said "I want that artist."

 

The artist who painted Edgar was Michele Rushworth and Locke, whose eight-year tenure as governor was nearing conclusion, thus became the first public commission for the Sammamish, WA, artist. It was a noteworthy step for a woman who, with little formal training in that medium, had decided a few years earlier to make portrait painting her career.


 
The portrait of Locke, completed several months later, opened important and extensive new doors for Rushworth with governors in other states, as well as high-ranking officials, contracting with her to do their portraits.

It was in the late 1990s that Rushworth, with two toddlers she and husband, Tim Jones, had adopted from China a couple of years earlier, decided to give up her career as an office-products sales executive and turn to portrait painting fulltime.

 

When I asked her about formal training, she admitted that her art-college schooling some 20 years earlier was "avant garde video production, performance art and scrap metal welding. Not much drawing or painting at all."

 

"I've taken a few week-long workshops since then, but that was about it," she added.

 

It was really more of a "eureka moment" for Rushworth, who recalls having done portraits "rather informally" in high school and college, as she thought about what line of work to go into after the kids started full time in school.

 

She says she found a website she describes as "like a portal site for portrait artists. I remember thinking, I could do this, and saying out loud, 'this is it!'"

 

From the late '90s until the breakthrough with the Martinez portrait, much of what she did was "dozens of private family portraits, mostly children," including daughters Rachel and Emily.

 

How competitive is her business?

 

Well, it's not like Michelango or Renior lounging about waiting for a summons from the Pope or the monarch. Rather there's an entrepreneurism and business savvy that come into play to be successful, and she says her sales years "were actually a big help in knowing how to run a business and work in a professional way with people in all sorts of fields."  

 

"The business of doing portraits is very competitive," she told me. "There are probably 50 to 100 artists in the United States who do what I do and we all know each other."

 

As to how decisions are made on who to hire to do a portrait, she says "whenever someone needs a portrait done they may have a favorite artist in mind or they may look at dozens of portfolios. Quite often they'll have seen a portrait they liked and want to work with that same artist."

 

So it was with the charge to do portraits of two Nevada governors after the Nevada Arts Council saw the Locke portrait.

 

And the Nevada commission led to an unusual assignment to do several Wyoming governors after that state's legislature decided to "fill in the blanks" of 12 former governors who had never had portraits painted, and hired three artists to do the work.

 

"Some were recent governors and some were from a hundred years ago," says Rushworth, who actually did five of the 12. "For the posthumous ones I worked with archive photos, history books, family records, etc. In cases where the former governors were still living I went to meet them."

 

Rushworth recently completed official portraits of two high-ranking military officers in Washington D.C: retired Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Thad Allen, and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz at the Pentagon.

 

Now she is engaged in a couple of special assignments, one is to do Locke's successor, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, whom Rushworth describes as "delightful to work with," for a portrait that will be completed near year-end as Gregoire's eight years as governor come to a close. Gregoire's portrait will then hang next to Locke's in the gallery of paintings of the former state chief executives.

 

Then there is the second portrait of Locke, contracted for by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which Locke headed before becoming ambassador to China. That portrait will be unveiled in the fall, she expects.

 

Working with the man who is now ambassador to China on the portrait may serve as reminder for Rushworth of the memories of the country to which she and Tim, at the time vice president of sales for Puget Sound Business Journal, twice traveled to adopt their daughters.

 
 

She's fond of recalling how the portrait of Martinez that really opened the door to her success could have ended in amusement rather than applause from the thousands of fans. As she put the final finishing touches on the portrait, showing Martinez at home plate in his classic batter's stance, she recalls thinking that she was finished. Then she realized that she had left out home plate from the portrait. "I quickly fixed the oversight."

 

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