How a wine pro flipped the script and anticipated an industry shift.

By Scott Brown | Photos by Manny Espinoza

San Francisco’s North Beach is drenched in the past. The neighborhood is also known as Little Italy, with a history that dates back to the late 1800s, when thousands of Italians stepped onto the North Point docks and made the area their home. Today that history is evident in the area’s intimate cafes, artisan delis, check-clothed ristorantes,

There is also wine — lots and lots of wine. Some say that wine rescued North Beach when fire tore through San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. They say inhabitants broke open their cellar barrels and saved their homes and businesses by covering them with wine-soaked sheets.

John Hanson understands that history. On this day he emerges from an intimate office on the second floor of an appropriately historic Columbus Street walk-up. He is tall and impeccably dressed, with a turquoise agave plant inlaid in his belt buckle. Of Norwegian descent, with flame-blue eyes and curly, dirty blonde hair, he is an anachronism in these parts.

This is fitting, because while North Beach and wine will always be a part of his history, Hanson has always had a special gift: the ability to see where things are going before anyone else.

Hanson used this talent when he pivoted from wine to tequila, gaining first-mover status on the rest of his peers. He’s now using the same gift to identify brands that he think hold particular promise and propel them to new heights. The Tequila Prince has a new role: king maker.

Hanson was born with his entrepreneurial fire lit bright.

“In high school, I was the guy organizing the ski trips,” he said. “I was the guy going to the liquor store, buying the kegs, selling cups for $5 apiece. I was the guy screen-printing the t-shirts and selling for big events. I was the guy who’d say, ‘Someone ought to do that,’ and find a way to monetize it.”
The spirited Hanson, 46, has been in the food and beverage business since he was 15, when he was fired from his first job as a bag boy when he refused to retrieve any more carts in the 115-degree Phoenix heat. He continued his education at a pair of corporate restaurants, The Pointe Resort and Chili’s.

“I learned the clock doesn’t stop in the restaurant business,” Hanson said.

Hanson then moved to Tempe, where he attended Arizona State University. He took a full course-load and pair his own way by working 50-60 hours a week in a high-volume Italian restaurant called The Spaghetti Company and a campus pizza place known as Gus’s. Both were small businesses that he helped grow at a preternaturally young age.

“It taught me the possibility of being a small business owner,” said Hanson, who also joked that these restaurants began his “assimilation into the Italian community.” “You always hear about success stories where they go from rags to riches, but rarely do you see the steps in between. I got to see the steps.”

After college, Hanson moved to Los Angeles where he worked in the fine-dining restaurant at Hollywood Bowl. After starting as a server, he was soon managing the place, which included making wine lists. At the same time he was learning brewing science in Hermosa Beach, where he discovered he had a great palate.

“That’s where things started to come together,” Hanson said. “My love for food and wine, my entrepreneurial spirit, the discovery I had this palate — everything came into focus.”

Hanson moved to San Francisco in 1994, where he began work with Southern Wine & Spirits, primarily selling wine to hotels, restaurants, and bars. This was when he started developing the muscles that he would use 10 years later when he carved out a new price point in — of all things — tequila.

When Hanson first considered getting into the space around 2004, tequila had a nasty reputation for inducing bad behavior.

By this point, Hanson had two decades of formal training in the food and beverage industry and his intuition was well-honed. He saw a few things others didn’t.

In general, the drinking population was consuming less but sipping more, and moving toward high-end spirits. Hanson sensed that tequila could be the next big thing.
Hanson also knew that if he wanted to sell a top-end tequila — the category for which did not yet exist — he would have to do it at his old stomping grounds: luxury restaurants or fashionable hotels, where bartenders held dominion and a $16 shot could be savored as an extravagance.

Hanson forged ahead by starting Tequilas Premium, which had a relationship that allowed it to be the exclusive U.S. importer of a premium line of tequila called Clase Azul. Produced near Guadalajara, it is made by one of Hanson’s co-founders, master distiller Arturo Lomeli, who uses organic agave. It is produced in small batches using regional recipes, with Lomeli as the secret ingredient.

Lomeli is well-known for mixing innovation with tradition. He is also patient — very, very patient. He waits for at least nine years before he will harvest agave, because it is only then that he feels the plant reaches the apex of its maturation and the plant is at its fullest flavor. He then steams the agave in brick ovens, which brings juices to the fore and evokes a profound flavor. Lomeli also uses a proprietary yeast for fermentation. He then filters the product not once, but three times, after distilling it in copper stills. The product of his patience is quite simply a superior tequila.

They launched U.S. distribution in Hanson’s native Arizona and California, as well as New Mexico, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest. Within a year they were in 24 states nationwide.

The strategy worked, with retail pricing ranging from $39.99 to $2,000 for Clase Azul Ultra, a collector’s item produced in batches of 100, aged five years, and bottled in a hand-painted decanter with a label using 24-karat gold. Tequila Premium grew its revenues year after year, including 30-to-40 percent annually during the Great Recession.

“The price became an advantage because the public was becoming so savvy bartenders were looking for an alternative and an upsell,” Hanson said. “If someone said they’d tried all the tequilas in the $10 and $12 range, the bartender could say, ‘Hey try this Clase Azul. It’s $16 but it’s very unique. You sip it instead of shoot it.’”

Ten years later, Hanson and Lomeli employed about 85 percent of the residents of a small community where the distillery is located, about a 4.5-hour drive from Guadalajara. Artisans paint the bottles at a local ceramic facility, which they also partly owned.

After an incredible decade, Hanson sold his shares of Tequilas Premium to Lomeli. He had a new vision.

The company is Hanson Imports, and it is designed to take advantage of Hanson’s ability to sense the next big thing. It is a vertical business model through which Hanson will do everything from consulting on everything from go-to-market strategy, pricing, and label design, on down to distribution if need be, on products like those that appear here (previous page).

“For example, I can discover an Italian wine, import it into the United States, and sell it to a distributor, or I can deliver it myself,” Hanson said. “It used to be that distributors were courting brands when I got into the industry. Now it’s the opposite. Fortunately I have the distribution relationships that are really prized in today’s market. It’s a big leap — kind of a crazy jump — but the plan is to capitalize on all I’ve learned over 30 years.

“There’s a 75-year-old guy who is the patron of the distillery where we produce our tequila. I was thinking out loud and said to him, ‘It’s crazy what I’m doing, leaving a successful business behind to start a new one. I must be crazy.’ He said, ‘Crazy men run the world.’

“That’s so damn true. So long as it’s a good crazy, I’ll be alright.” >