Shakespeare’s bon vivant Falstaff said that if he had a thousand sons, he would urge them to “addict themselves” to sherry. He would no doubt approve of the fervent interest in the wine that is gripping parts of America today. The excitement will come to a head at the first-ever Sherryfest in New York City on October 20 to 24.
Officially four days of sherry tastings, with events that can sharpen the ability to tell tangy fino from an older oloroso, Sherryfest’s capstone event is a tasting with 20 bodegas pouring 150 wines. The 350 tickets for this consumer event – on a Monday during the workday, no less – have already sold out.
Thirty wine shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn will kick things off with free sherry tastings on Saturday (with some starting on Friday evening). The festivities continue with seminars, master classes, and intimate dinners with producers around the city, including Spanish restaurants such as Tía Pol and Palo Cortado along with non-Spanish restaurants that nonetheless prioritize sherry, like Hearth.
Sherry is arguably New York’s wine of the moment. Although overall sales of the wine in the U.S. have dropped in the past five years, the top-line figure is muddied somewhat by a decline in sweet cream sherry – that favorite of grannies and tweedy faculty lounges – and a rise in interest in dry styles. The North American market still represents only a tiny portion of worldwide sherry consumption and the (mostly) dry styles are but a sliver of that. About 40,000 cases of non-cream sherry were sold in the United States last year, equal to the production of one mid-sized California winery.
Even so, according to Andre Tamers of De Maison Selections, “the sherry thing is out of control." Tamers started off importing one sherry producer but now has five (all are participating in Sherryfest). When he began importing sherries, he said he would give it ten years. Now, in year six, his sherry sales were up 80 percent over the last 12 months.
New York's many tapas bars and Spanish restaurants, such as Tía Pol, Bar Jamon, Pata Negra and Casa Mono, have served as a beachhead for sherry in the city. But if those were the sparks of interest, the flames have been fanned by specialty wine stores such as Crush Wine and Spirits, Despaña Vinos y Mas, and Tinto Fino, as well as sommeliers with an interest in sherry.
And evidence exists that the growing taste for sherry extends beyond New York City; Portland has the second-largest number of attendees at Sherryfest. Around the country, Mateo, a bar in Raleigh, North Carolina, has the first page of the wine list devoted to sherries, including several flights. Many wine lists in San Francisco are practically floating in fino.
Sherryfest is the brainchild of Peter Liem. Formerly a critic for Wine & Spirits magazine, he is now an independent wine writer based in Champagne. Liem has written what he claims is the first new book on Jerez wines to be published in the United States in the last 20 years: "Sherry, Manzanilla, & Montilla." It's on the shelves in time for Sherryfest. Liem co-authored the introduction of the book with Jesús Barquín, a criminal law professor at the University of Granada who is better known in the wine world as a sherry expert and a partner at Equipo Navazos – makers of the La Bota series of sherries that have won much acclaim.
At first glance, Jerez bears little resemblance to Champagne, but Liem asserts that there are more similarities than meet the eye; both deal with yeasts, have two different phases of aging, shy away from primary fruit character, and have a degree of scalability that make a rare blend of quality and quantity. He contends that both were also misunderstood, but have experienced recent revivals. But in Liem's view, the foremost parallel between the regions is that “vineyard site matters” – an outlook that has gained traction in Champagne in recent years but has yet to take hold in a big way in sherry. In Spain, the location of the bodega has been seen as the more dominant aspect of terroir in the finished wine.
Even with those parallels, some wine geeks admit that it’s still an acquired taste – one that they have yet to acquire. While not opposed to sherry, a leading sommelier told me that if he wanted an oxidative wine, he’d opt for one from the Jura, since they were more interesting and he liked the lower alcohol level. A wine shop manager said that he stocked several sherries because that was required in order to be a “destination” wine shop. However, he admitted that they don’t sell a lot.
Carla Rzeszewski, who oversees the wine programs at April Bloomfield’s restaurants and is a fan of sherry in all its forms, says the key to turning diners on to sherry is to make it fun, since “nobody wants to be schooled at dinner.” To that end, she mixes some sherry cocktails and serves a cream sherry with orange zest. From there, some diners want to learn more and can be guided through the eight selections at The Breslin; the general buzz about sherry has made many curious.
One factor that accounts for sherry's surge in popularity is its food friendliness. That’s why Liem wanted to include the dinners in Sherryfest, since sherry is always served with food in Jerez. Liem said he even had sherry at Franny’s Pizza the other night; Tamers, the importer, says he enjoys it with the fish sauces of Vietnamese food and also says that natural wine enthusiasts “fell right into” sherry, since it is a biological wine (aged under yeasts) and oxidative.
Sommelier Rzeszewski also highlights its relative value as prices in other regions have risen. She says that Liem stopped by The Breslin recently and had a glass of the single-vineyard Valdespino Palo Cortado Calle Ponce. According to Rzeszewski, Liem expressed amazement that she was able to pour a wine of that caliber by the glass, saying: “Some time in the future, we’ll look back at this and it will be as if you were pouring DRC by the glass.”
When I asked him about it, Liem replied: “People don't realize how fortunate we are right now to have access to these wines, and it's certainly not going to last forever. Not at these prices, anyway.”