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School Spirits

Bottles of XICARU alchohol
Field full of plants
A beautiful field
A beautiful field with the sun shining over it
School Spirits

“I cook with wine,” the vaudevillian comic W.C. Fields once said. “Sometimes I even add it to the food.” The food issue of Tabor Today would not be complete without something to drink. In this article, we profile several alumni at different stages of their careers who are immersed in the world of beer, wine, and spirits.

During his senior year at Tabor, Chris Hampson ’84 took an English class that changed his worldview. “Macho Hero in American Literature” was an elective taught by Sean O’Neill. “What inspired me about it was the way it promoted a life of adventure, of just going for it,” Hampson says. “That idea has guided many of the things I’ve done throughout my life.”

This includes starting an artisanal mezcal company in 2013. Hampson previously worked for Bacardi. Over the course of a 20-year career, he oversaw sales and marketing for the beverage giant’s West Coast operations. While his passion for the industry never wavered, he found himself craving a more entrepreneurial existence.

Hampson left Bacardi in 2010 and partnered with Dennis Barnett and Fernando Santibañez, two friends with similar pedigrees. “We were all big company guys,” he says. “Fernando was the master distiller for Bacardi in Mexico, and Dennis had worked in the industry even longer than us with big distributors and suppliers.” 

Their partnership forged, they turned to a pressing question: what, exactly, was their product? Based on what he had observed from his perch at Bacardi, Hampson knew where to look. “Around 2003, I started getting wind of this craft movement that was bubbling up. It was happening in food, it was happening in beer and wine, but it hadn’t happened in spirits. So I thought there could be something there.”

Choosing the right spirit to focus on was tricky. Consumer tastes are fickle, especially when it comes to alcohol. “Something that’s hot today, by the time you get into it, it’s too late,” Hampson says. “So the challenge was identifying what we thought the next hot thing might be.” 

Mezcal was appealing for several reasons. It was gaining popularity, but it hadn’t exploded. “We also thought there was a huge barrier to entry for the big companies because of the production process,” Hampson says. “It’s not efficient. If you’re a craft distiller in the US, you can make vodka or gin and sell it tomorrow. Mezcal is different.” 

The maguey or agave plant that’s used to make mezcal takes approximately eight years to grow. Once harvested, it’s a laborious 30-day journey to cook, ferment, and distill the spirit. Authentic artisanal mezcal is made in Mexico at distilleries called palenques. During the mashing part of the process, a horse pulls a stone wheel over the roasted maguey. Through Santibañez, the group formed a partnership with a palenque in Oaxaca. 

In 2013, they officially launched Xicaru Mezcal. “Our first batch was 270 six-pack cases,” Hampson says, “and it took us more than six months to sell that.”

The first few years were slow, but the group was determined and strategic. Santibañez oversaw production at the palenque while Hampson and Barnett pounded the pavement to grow the brand and court distributors.

In 2019, Santibañez passed away unexpectedly. “That was terrible,” Hampson says. “He was my age. We were friends for twenty years.” After the tragedy, Santibañez’s wife and daughter jumped in to assume his responsibilities. “They really saved the company,” Hampson says.

Today, Xicaru can be found in 41 states. Hampson estimates annual sales of around 35,000 cases. “So many Tabor friends and classmates have helped us along the way,” he says. “I’ll get texts and emails from people saying they got a bottle. That’s loyalty.” With a chuckle, he adds, “Eric Strand [’84] is probably our best customer.” 

While the mezcal industry has grown with the arrival of multinational players, Hampson believes Xicaru will continue to do well as long as they stay true to their craft identity. “Our only competitive advantage against the big guys is to be artisanal and authentic,” he says. “I think there’s enough people out there, who value those things and look for those things, that we can be successful. And so far, we’ve been successful.” 

Growing up in San Francisco, Jody Harris ’92 spent weekends and summers at his grandparents’ home in Napa Valley. They purchased the property in 1962 as a family retreat, not because they aspired to join the region’s fledgling wine industry.

“Back then, there were a lot of wine coolers and jug wine,” Harris says. “The joke always was, my grandparents would drive by Mondavi or Krug, and my grandfather would look at my grandmother and go, ‘Oh look, these people think they can make wine. Wine comes from France!’”

Before long, California vintners proved they were no joke. When Harris returned to the Bay Area after college, he started working in construction and commercial real estate. He visited Napa often, seeking opportunities to help cultivate his family’s land in the hills above Rutherford. They planted 800 olive trees and raised honey bees. Harris and his sister, Gingy, were increasingly interested in growing the region’s most famous crop. In 2001, they planted a vineyard.

“It’s a great climate for big Napa Valley reds,” Harris says. “Warm days and cool nights.” They had their first harvest in 2004. By 2008, they were producing acclaimed wine. Their operation grew quickly. In 2011, Harris left his construction job to run the business full-time. Partnering with his sister, they named their wine Cultivar. As production and distribution increased, they sought opportunities to sell directly to consumers. 

“The foot traffic is in San Francisco,” Harris says, “so at first I thought we should open a tasting room there. But then I thought, how are we going to draw people on a regular basis if we’re just a tasting room? So that’s when the idea of a restaurant emerged.”

Cultivar San Francisco, a restaurant specializing in locally-sourced seasonal food, opened in 2017. (One of the first events they hosted was a Tabor reception.) With his construction background, Harris says building and opening the restaurant was simple. Turning it into a successful business was a different story.

“I have to say that all the rumors about owning a restaurant are absolutely true,” he laughs. “I learned on the job. And I learned a lot. It took about two years for us to get it sorted out, and then starting around 2019, things really took off.”

Just as they were gaining momentum, the pandemic hit. Restaurants shuttered across San Francisco, but Harris was determined to stay open. His resolve stemmed from a lesson he learned while remodeling a Crate & Barrel years earlier. The store insisted on staying open despite the disruptive renovation. 

“They placed such a heavy value on remaining open,” Harris recalls. “I asked the retail guys about it one day and they just said: ‘traffic patterns.’ People are used to walking by the Crate & Barrel, but as soon as they don’t see it, they’ll go across the street and start shopping at Pottery Barn.”

Running the restaurant throughout the pandemic was not easy. “There were a lot of hard days,” Harris says. “A lot of days when it was just the chef, the manager, and me. But we never closed.” 

They adapted to focus on takeout orders, sourcing good deals on lobster, crab, and other delicacies from local suppliers. They shared these deals with their customers, using social media to promote daily specials, building a lot of good will in the process.

“The other day I was walking down the street wearing a sweatshirt with our logo,” Harris shares. “Someone stopped me. ‘Cultivar? You’re the guys who were open the whole pandemic!’”

When in-person dining rebounded in 2021, Cultivar had its strongest year ever as customers flocked to the restaurant to enjoy its fresh food and signature wines. The outlook for 2022 is even brighter. Harris recently signed a lease for a second location in Sausalito.

“I’ve always been in the hospitality industry,” says Bri Grealish ’09. “I went to Boston College after Tabor and bartended my way through school. I loved that.”

After college, Grealish found herself in a cubicle. The corporate setting, she quickly realized, was not for her. “I quit and started bartending at a craft brewery. I was like, ‘okay, let’s see how this goes.’ Seven years later, here I am.” 

Grealish spent the first two years of her craft beer career at a brewery on the Southcoast of Massachusetts before joining Cambridge-based Lamplighter Brewing in 2017. “At Lamplighter, everyone starts as a barback and works their way up,” Grealish says. After six months in the tap room, she was promoted to director of sales and distribution. When Grealish assumed the role, Lamplighter had roughly 100 accounts. Today, they have over 300.

“We’re not trying to be a massive brewery,” she says. “We’re very intentional with our growth. I try to vet everyone that’s selling our beer and make sure they care about it as much as
we do. I think that’s helped the longevity of our brand.” 

Birds of a Feather, Lamplighter’s flagship New England IPA, was recently added to the taps at an iconic venue. “We just got that one into the Garden, so if you’re watching a Bruins or Celtics game, you can drink it there,” Grealish says. “That’s been a big project for me.” 

What sets Lamplighter apart from other craft breweries is its eclectic lineup. “We make a lot of different styles. We don’t pigeon-hole ourselves by only doing the beer of the moment,” Grealish says. “At any given time we have IPAs, lagers, and then we also have a robust barrel-aging program and a funky sour program. So we really cover the gamut.”

Grealish is an active member of the Pink Boots Society, a national organization for women working in craft beer. “Craft beer is a male-dominated industry,” she says. “And then you go into sales, and it’s even more male-dominated. So I absolutely love being a woman in this industry and being able to show other women they can get into it and excel.”

What Grealish enjoys most about Lamplighter, and the broader world of craft beer, is being part of a tight-knit community. “That’s something I had at Tabor too,” she says. “Having such strong role models and friendships allowed me to feel safe and part of something while also having space to grow and flourish as an individual.”