Agave Festival makes triumphant return after COVID-19

From left, Hector M. Sanchez, his son Hector Sanchez, and Primo Carrasco perform conjunto music at El Cosmico. Photo by Sarah M. Vasquez for The Big Bend Sentinel

MARFA – A yearlong hiatus due to COVID-19 did not stop Marfa’s Agave Festival from coming back to a roaring success over the weekend.

Friday night kickstarted the fourth annual iteration of the three-day festival, celebrating the succulent plant made internationally beloved by tequila. This began at 5 p.m. with Waterstop and Judd Foundation events, but drinking lasted far into the night with a Sentinel-hosted cocktail reception and a party at the Saint George Hotel.

Saturday and Sunday followed with live panels, parties and musical performances as well as public liquor tastings hosted by local businesses with guests from across the country. Events included a special Agave Fest iteration of the Marfa Saturday Market, a tour of the Marfa Spirit Co.’s new distillery and tastings at Cactus Liquors, Freda and Do Your Thing. Other cultural events included a panel of distinguished border journalists hosted by the Marfa Book Co. and Marfa Public Radio, a talk by writer and educator Roberto Tejada, and a tour of the native plants garden at Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute led by landscape designer Jim Martinez.

Saturday ended with a singalong presented by the Marfa Municipal Alliance for Dead Country and Folk Singers at El Cosmico, and an Agave Festival DJ set from local DJs Yasmine Guevara and Tana Vargas. Convenience West closed the Agave Festival on Sunday night with a barbecue party

The festival was a success according to founder Tim Johnson. According to Johnson, last year’s cancellation of the festival amid the pandemic had tempered his expectations when putting this year’s festival together, but several crowded events — notably Planet Marfa’s Friday-night scene as well as Saturday’s Cactus Liquors affair — proved the demand for tequila, sotol and whiskey is still high.

“If it was just a few people locally — that would’ve been successful to me,” he told The Big Bend Sentinel. “For me it sort of succeeded in its expectations for audience.”

Copious tourism was something guests took notice of too.

National brand ambassador Ninotchka “Nino” Gandulla attended Friday’s Waterstop event, Saturday’s public tastings at Freda and Cactus Liquors, and Para Llevar’s outdoor party on behalf of Ojo De Tigre Mezcal. “Getting to have that experience, connecting with other ‘agaveros’ has been really wonderful,” she said. “So far it’s been a really great turnout, and great people –– people who really do care about learning what’s behind the spirit, versus people who just want to drink.”

Ricardo Sandoval, a journalist and public editor for PBS who spoke about the nuances of identity and border reporting at the journalism panel, concurred.

“This kind of festival allows Marfa to stand up and say, ‘This is who we are,’” he said. “Agave is a product that becomes tequila and that is enjoyed around the world, and I think that it’s natural that you’d have something like that be the focal point of a festival here, in a place — in a community that draws people from around the globe.”

For some tourists, however, the festival marked an unexpected diversion on their trip to West Texas. Ria Aiken came all the way from Atlanta, Georgia. While it was her fourth time in the small city of Marfa (which she calls her “happy place”), it was her first time at the festival, which ended up serving as a pleasant surprise to her and her husband Ryan, who hadn’t heard about the festival prior.

“It’s just a place that we really enjoy, to decompress,” she said. “But we did not know about the festival.”

“There’s this vibe here that’s singular, and I think this festival then emerges as an outward representation of that vibe,” said Sandoval. “I think that once we all recover from the pandemic, next year’s iteration, I think, is just going to explode.”