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Does Wine Evangelism Work? Part 2

Somms, writers and other wine tastemakers are sold on Sherry. But is anyone else buying it?

Posted: Apr 19, 2013 11:45am ET

By Ben O'Donnell

Sherry is hot right now among sommeliers, writers and other opinion peddlers in the wine world. But few would call it an easy sell. It's a style of drink from another era, when wine was more like booze, and even among the great fortified wines, it's hard to deny that Sherry sticks out.

It doesn't taste like wine is "supposed" to taste. The main grape variety, Palomino, is generally considered too bland for table wine. Sherry's 10-or-so different styles are all over the map in flavor profile. The winemaking process involves a series of bizarre-seeming selections and aging regimens that wouldn't make sense in most viniculture—from aging some styles under a protective, foamy cap of yeast called flor to letting others oxidize extensively, to blending the young wines into older wines in a complex rotating system of barrels called a solera. In my last post, I discussed why Sherry, the great flightless bird of wine, provokes such fierce admiration from a small-but-growing group of American wine sellers.

Getting the tastemakers in your corner is half the battle, but is the Sherry pitch working on drinkers? Yes and no. Since their 2008 inception, one mission of New York's Terroir bars has been stated on the wine lists: "To increase Sherry consumption three-fold over the next five years." Strictly speaking, the opposite has happened. In 2002, the United States imported 2.3 million liters of Sherry; by 2011, the most recent year for which there are figures—and which arguably predates the recent Sherry wave—that number had fallen to 1.4 million, a 38 percent drop.

"We still have a long way to go," acknowledged co-owner Paul Grieco. "It's a tall order that we put in front of our guests when we say, hey, we're going to match some Sherries with this course, so why don't you begin your night with a glass of manzanilla—people are still too reluctant to jump in and play."

But there are bright spots. The premium-ization of Sherry did not begin in earnest until the 1990s and 2000s, with the adoption of standards for VOS ("Very Old Sherry"—an average of 20 years in the solera) and VORS ("Very Old Rare Sherry"—30 years) and the practice of releasing single-almacenista bottlings from the small producers who would typically sell their wines off to larger houses, to disappear into the big soleras. Sweet, plonky, grandma-style Sherry—generally the cream category—still retains the lion's share of the American market, but styles that are more likely to be finely tuned are gaining ground.

In 2006, Americans brought over 94,000 liters of amontillado; in 2011 the number had ramped up to 146,000. We now drink more amontillado than the Spanish themselves do. Oloroso—fermented dry but richer and higher in alcohol—has gone up from 19,000 liters to 22,000. Pedro Ximénez (abbreviated PX), a unique and gratifying dessert style made from raisinated grapes, was not even listed in the Jerez wine authority's 2006 report, but by 2011, Americans imported more than 13,000 liters of it.

It's not much, but it's a rumbling, and the Jerezanos hear it. For the González Byass house, a big player, shipments to the U.S. have increased threefold since 2003, according to CEO Jorge Grosse. "In the early 2000s, our exports to the market were concentrated around Tio Pepe and the more traditional styles of Sherry. Where we have seen growth in the last four or five years is in the more premium wines such as Nectar PX, Solera 1847 and the entire VORS range," he said. Premium Sherries accounted for 0.29 percent of GB's exports in 2003; by 2012 that number reached 25 percent.

Grosse thinks potential U.S. growth "will never be based on volume, rather on value" in this premium segment. And for now, he acknowledged, "sales of Sherries are definitely concentrated more in markets such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco"—helped out by the recent storm of tapas bar openings and small-plate restaurants.

So I had to ask: Are we looking at a fad, or something with more permanence? "Why we were all drinking grappa in the 1980s, I have no goddamn clue. It was a very rustic beverage. There was very little refinement to it," said Grieco. "That was a fad. Drinking Sherry is not a fad. It's pushing us forward on trying to rethink what wine can be. It's forcing us all to think about the history of these products, and Sherry is almost unparalleled in its aspect of history involved."

"Ten years ago, I think Sherry was totally relegated to being more of a back-bar afterthought or strictly a dessert wine," said Grosse. "Now, it has a real place on American wine lists."

And the sommeliers who believe in it are putting in the work to make a wine they love take off. "It's a slow process, it's a process of a lot of education. When I first brought it into the restaurants, it required a lot of patience. It required a lot of revisiting ideas I kept bringing up—OK, this is what a solera is, this is what flor is and why it affects the wine—and it requires a ton of tasting, a ton of pairing with food," admitted Carla Rzeszewski, wine director of the Breslin, the John Dory Oyster Bar and the Spotted Pig in New York. "But once it hits, it hits."

Will it stick? Sherry is heating up, but no wine stays hot forever. What's going for it: Its new crowd of U.S. drinkers is largely young, and the kids coming of wine-age right now are willing to try anything, particularly if it feels pedigreed rather than crassly branded. Sherry is the real deal.

But Sherry's unusual taste profile is reason enough why, while the preachers will reach as many people as they can, some converts will inevitably lose the faith. I think it's also the reason, however, that many people discovering it today will be drinking it long after other hot wines are dumped off the clearance racks: There's nothing else quite like it out there.

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

Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  April 19, 2013 1:04pm ET

I have a question. I had the great pleasure of ordering and drinking a lot of great wine earlier in the year at Terroir in Murray Hill (also had some tasty food). I did indeed have a glass of Sherry. It was free (I think they still offer free Sherry before 7pm).

Quite frankly, I probably wouldn't have ordered it if it wasn't free so that definitely drew me in. At the same time, had a glass of Athiri been free, I would have ordered that. After the one glass, I didn't order any more Sherry.

So I have to wonder if there is a difference in consumption vs. purchasing, drinking vs. buying? Any thoughts on that?

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines
Nestor Gonzalez
Colombia —  April 19, 2013 11:50pm ET
Aside from metaphysical questions. Sherry has been a staple drink of all wine and food loving globally aware people for the last 400 years. Thank god for the english traders! There is a lot to learn about winemaking from Sherry. Sherry has had its stellar as well as its reclusive moments. Today Sherry is more artful and is considered as one of the greatest wines in the world. A contribution to all of us.
I am glad North Americans are opening there senses to new aromas, flavors and wines with a sense of legacy. It was about time to come out of the boonies.

Ben Odonnell
New York —  April 20, 2013 11:59am ET
Nestor: Thanks for your thoughts, and I'd also add that the prices are darn good.

Adam: As Paul put it, "Who in New York could say no to a free glass of alcohol?" and I suspect that extends to your coast too. I think in the scheme of things, people who get it free, restaurant workers having it for shift drinks and industry folks who love Sherry do account for a fair bit of the consumption in the U.S., so far. Certainly that doesn't account for all the growth in the premium categories, but the extent to which Sherry clicks with consumers, where they are buying bottles to drink with dinner, is still a number in flux. Somms are doing their best to get it in front of people, so that increases that probability that someone who might not have considered Sherry drinks it and happens to really like it. It's obviously not for everyone, but as with any drink (and especially particularly unique styles) people who like it will continue drinking it. I also think that the folks in Jerez continuing to step up their game will play a role here.

Ben O'Donnell
Wine Spectator
Jon Begos
Petoskey, MI —  April 23, 2013 7:57am ET
OK Ben,

I know nothing about Sherry but I'm willing to give one a try. What would be a good, reasonably priced sherry that I can relatively easily find and will be a good representation of what a good sherry should taste like. It doesn't have to be the DRC of sherry (although I would be interested in knowing what the top sherries are) but I also don't want a total dud that will never want me to try another.


Ben Odonnell
New York —  April 23, 2013 11:16am ET

Two brands the folks I spoke to like that are reasonably priced and widely available at retail are Lustau and (obviously) González Byass. The Lustau "Solera Reserva" series includes pretty much the whole range of styles—as an introduction, I'd recommend an amontillado as a drier style or oloroso for a richer and more oxidized type—at around $15 to $20 per bottle.

For around $40 per half-bottle, González Byass has a range of VORS wines. These are all aged an average of over 30 years, with some of the soleras begun in the 19th century. The amontillado is called "Del Duque" and the oloroso is called "Matusalem." If you like dessert wines, PX is definitely a trip. Their VORS PX is called "Noé."

Hope that helps,

Ben O'Donnell
Wine Spectator
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  April 23, 2013 6:10pm ET
It was sherry accompanied by tapas (or the reverse) that got me into wine in the first place.
F M Daily
Medford NJ USA —  May 4, 2013 3:44pm ET
In 1973 my soon to be wife gave me as a present Hugh Johnson's classic "On Wine" which contained an extensive chapter on sherry. In it Hugh suggested that the pre-dinner cocktail was a very bad idea in that spirits dried out the mouth and dulled the taste buds with the result that one could not truly appreciate the food and wine to follow. According to Hugh the proper preparation for a meal with fine wine was a fine dry sherry. Although I don't always follow this advice (barrel aged High West Manhattans are hard to pass up) my experience is that Hugh was spot on. I therefore am glad to see a resurgence of sherry.

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