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Does Wine Evangelism Work?

Why are American wine's tastemakers falling in love with Sherry—and can they sell the stuff? Part 1 of a case study

Posted: Apr 18, 2013 11:15am ET

By Ben O'Donnell

Readers of a certain age will recall this enduring line from the 2004 Tina Fey-Lindsay Lohan picture Mean Girls, snapped by Regina George—the meanest girl—at her lieutenant: "Gretchen, stop trying to make 'fetch' happen! It's not going to happen!" (For readers of a different age: In the movie, "fetch" is a vaguely approving slang term "from England" that Gretchen haplessly tries to popularize.)

Regina's admonition has come to mind at times on the subject of Sherry. Perhaps you know Sherry from Sherryfest, a weeklong celebration of the Spanish fortified wine, held last month in Portland, Ore., and last fall in New York, or from the buildup to next month's World Sherry Day. Maybe you (I) went to that party last year at that East Village Dutch-fusion joint (now closed) where guests were encouraged to write their Twitter handles on their nametags and do a "bone luge" (scoop the marrow out of a bone, then glug amontillado through the hollow shank). Or perhaps you've sipped it at one of New York's Terroir bars, on whose eclectic wine lists Sherry is, plainly stated, "the world's greatest beverage."

If you live somewhere like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, Austin or Asheville, Sherry is, by all appearances, very fetch right now. Yet at first glance, these wines seem an odd fit on wine lists touting small growers, single vineyards, specific vintage characteristics or minimalist winemaking. However, folks who call the shots at many of these places are the passionate devotees of Sherry fueling what seems to be real momentum.

Even at the premium end, Sherry is dominated by big firms like Domecq, Barbadillo, Lustau and González Byass. I visited González Byass in 2010 (NB: before it was cool); the compound is so vast it has engulfed and walled in whole city blocks of Old Jerez. The grapes can usually come from just about anywhere in an 18,000-acre triangle of chalky, clay and sandy soils; vintages are blended; and to hell with the "non-interventionist" movement: The Jerezanos do all kinds of fiddling around with their wines—for instance, adding alcohol to them.

As the Sherry moment continued to linger, I began to wonder if just maybe sommeliers were colluding to foist Sherry on us mostly because it is the ultimate geek wine: hard to understand, with its arcane practices and byzantine style distinctions, and frankly hard to like for many people. Even Matt Kramer—champion of weird wines—doesn't drink it.

In light of that, it's actually an ideal test case for the power of persuasion in wine culture. Chardonnay sells itself. Can sommeliers, writers and retailers "make Sherry happen"? And why are they trying in the first place?

The answer to the latter question is pretty simple: They're crazy about the stuff. Carla Rzeszewski—wine director at the Breslin, the John Dory Oyster Bar and the Spotted Pig, all in Manhattan—visited Jerez twice between October 2011 and 2012. "I fell head over heels in love with the wines," she told me. "This whole culture down there just seduced me. I think it's important for people to not divorce the wines from the culture."

Skepticism about the nature of the wine is not uncommon, she said. "A lot of it is counterintuitive: What do you mean it's non-vintage? What do you mean they're not really focusing on the vineyard sites? Part of my teaching with staff, and definitely tableside, is you have to take your idea of wine and reimagine it."

Paul Grieco, who co-owns the restaurant Hearth and the Terroir bars called it "by far, by far, the most underrated great wine on the planet." When I questioned whether terroir plays a lesser role in these wines, he countered, "I would say it is one of the most terroir-driven products there is. You have the uniqueness of that grape grown in that region, you have the amount of yeast that is flying around that region. You also have the terroir of the bodega itself, the axis on which almost all great bodegas are built: the high ceilings, the open windows to allow the airflow through that, the watering of the dirt floors to create humidity—all of these things."

Sherry is made in a range of styles, from the light finos to motor-oil stickies from the Pedro Ximénez grape. The drier styles share a savory profile, from a bit of saltiness or a distinctive tang to the rich nuttiness that results from oxidation during aging. And this gives Sherry its secret superpower: food versatility.

"Ultimately to sit down and throw back a glass of Sherry may never be part of our culture like it would with a vodka martini," conceded Grieco. "But when you have that with a piece of sushi or sashimi or you go to a Mexican restaurant, then you see where Sherry stands tallest, with food, at the table. And with the wide range of flavors that we have on the American table today, Sherry has power." 

Nothing radical about liking a wine for its food friendliness. But can the customer be convinced?

In my next post, I'll parse the level of consumer interest with a look at recent Sherry sales numbers.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter, at twitter.com/BenODonn.

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