He´d picked me up at my hostel on the other side of Av. Miguel Grau, with just one seat left in the car. The front seat was taken by his wife, Giuliana, and I squeezed in between his two kids, Joaquín and Micaela. I wasn´t joining in on a family picnic though. I´d contacted him a couple of weeks earlier to arrange to meet him and visit his distillery, or bodega as they´re called in Peru. So the nature of our encounter was strictly business talk. So why the family?
Because, you see, in Peru, family and business often go hand in hand. This is particularly true for the world of pisco, where pisco making traditions are transmitted from one generation to the next. Social ties, friendships, and above all- family - is the superglue, the paramount ingredient to success in Peru, and Latin America generally speaking. Pepe´s bodega enchanted me. It enchanted me not necessarily because it was the largest, or the most sophisticated, or because it had the oldest pisco-making tradition, no. I fell in love with it for a much more important reason- it simply felt like a home, with a heart, with people who pass through to have a glass with Pepe, with banquets, feasts, horse riding through the vineyards, and so on. It´s not a place where people just show up to fulfil a bunch of tasks in the simple quest to make a product. It´s a place where pisco isn´t just a product- it´s the cement of the family. It´s something you´re proud and happy to serve when a neighbour comes knocking on your door to enjoy simple conversation.
The Distillery is located in Lunahuaná, at the foothill of the Andes, about 3h30 driving distance southeast of Peru´s capital, Lima. Photo- José Antonio Espinoza
I don´t see pisco-making as a business.
It´s a tradition.
The source of all this had been Pepe´s grandfather, Benedicto Peña. He´d started the bodega back in 1929. He established early success but was soon hampered by the phylloxera disease that ravaged through a large part of Peru´s vineyards. The disease wasn´t new- it had made its first appearance in France in the early 1800s, forcing the French to re-import vines from the Americas (mainly Chile and Argentina). This time, it was showing its dirty face in Peru, and blew a near-deadly blow to its pisco industry. Another factor making things harder for pisco producers was the growing trend of beer consumption in Peru at the time.
Then, massive rural migration to large urban centers began to erode the availability of labour for the harvest. In Pepe´s case, 6 of his uncles left Lunahuaná, his natal village - only his mother stayed. To make matters worse, the few laborers who stayed now started working for cotton farmers instead- in fact, droves of farmers were pulling out all their vineyards to replace them with cotton, known then as "the white gold". As a result, people began distilling pisco by using sugar (which is not allowed under the pisco D.O), and quality dropped. Consumers felt duped and stopped consuming the drink almost altogether.
Don Benedicto with his wife Rosa, and their 7 kids. 2nd from right, front row- Pepe´s mother. Photo - José Antonio Espinoza
The inevitable deadly blow then occurs: Pepe´s grandfather passed away in 1983, and the bodega ceased all its activities soon after. This was not an isolated case - Lunahuaná had 60 distilleries back in the days - and only 2 were left standing by the time Pepe was 15 years of age.
In 1996, Pepe returns to Lunahuaná, equipped only with a diploma in industrial engineering and the dream of relaunching the distillery with the help of his mother. He returns to continue his father´s legacy, but also because he simply loves the countryside.
Pepe with two friends enjoying a horse ride through the vineyards. Photo- José Antonio Espinoza
The idea of building a livelihood in the countryside is one that greatly inspires me. City life has its charms, but what truly stirs my spirit is roaming the vineyards and the bodega.
He calls his brand simply Don Benedicto. The context is now favorable, with the Peruvian government organizing pisco contests around the nation and providing technical assistance to would-be pisco producers. Pepe starts the only way one can, small, producing tiny lots, and patiently planting new vineyards. He then undertakes some oenology and viticulture studies in Spain and Japan for a couple of months.
Today, he exports to the US, Australia, China, France, Belgium, Chile, and Lebanon. Although most of his income still comes from wine production, Pepe firmly believes that there´s a bright future for pisco in the world. But not any pisco - a pisco made with the best grapes, with the best process, respecting the tradition of pisco making. He hopes Joaquín or Micaela will continue the legacy, though says, with a smile, that he can´t force their paths...
Pepe´s face when I asked him to work with Rompe Mar