How Sommeliers Convince People to Try Sherry
Wine pros all share a certain affinity for the nutty, sea air-inflected flavors of sherry, but the general population has yet to fully embrace the category as part of their regular drinking regimen. What gives?
No matter how many recent books, articles, and tasting celebrations have sung its praises, moving the dial of sherry street cred has proven slower than molasses. Other sommelier darlings—like, say, Beaujolais (and to a lesser degree, Riesling)—finally seem to have made their way into the national limelight. But the traditional wines of Jerez in coastal Spain? “They are some of the least understood wines of this era, while being some of the most complex and labor-intensive to make,” says Ryan Ibsen of L.A.’s Bestia.
“It’ll take a little bit of time,” says McGuire Moorman Hospitality beverage director June Rodil. “Look at the rosé category. Now, tidal waves of it are being sold every summer, but it took a while for people to latch on.” Like rosé’s early struggles, a wide misconception regarding sherry is that the wines are always sweet. To get past that initial hurdle, sommeliers are making a concerted effort to get people to taste it. But where rosé can be blissfully simple, sherry styles run the gamut from light and bright to rich and dense, bone-dry to unctuous, with varying degrees of oxidative character, requiring a little more of a dialogue. “People don’t like asking questions,” says Rodil, “so as a sommelier, you need to form a trust relationship and strike up the conversation.”
Here, sommeliers from around the country weigh in on how they get diners to try sherry for the first time:
“You can tell right away if someone orders a dish like boquerones (white anchovies) that that person has the sort of a palate that can appreciate the beautiful brininess of a sherry like the Orleans Borbón Manzanilla. And if they’re really intrigued, I might talk about where sherry fits in the meal, offering a kind of roadmap to help them understand that sherry works all the way from the beginning through the end: the fino and the manzanilla styles filling the same space an apéritif or Champagne might, amontillado filling the spot of the white wine, oloroso filling the spot of the red wine, and then those more dessert styles of Moscatel and Pedro Ximanez at the end. When you explain it that way to people, you see this lightbulb go off.”
-Liz Mendez, Vera Restaurant & Wine Bar, Chicago
“We keep a jamón de bellota leg on display that we hand slice to order. Our servers have all been able to try it with the Equipo Navazos La Bota de Manzanilla #55, basically, a mind-blowing food and wine experience. So usually, if someone is curious about the "Rolls Royce" of ham, we’ll always suggest taking the experience and turning it up to 11 by enjoying a glass of one of the most complex manzanilla sherries alongside.”
-Caleb Ganzer, La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, N.Y.
“The first sherries I recommend to folks who've never tasted them are amontillado and oloroso. They have a lot in common with whisky's flavor palette, and their dryness makes them a little easier for people who are squeamish about sugar. I think having even a small amount of food in the picture is the slam-dunk way to get someone into sherry. Its intense savoriness makes it a match for almost anything, depending on the cuisine. We've also had a lot of success with showing guests sherry alongside a spirit aged in sherry barrels.”
-Justin Vann, Public Services Wine & Whisky, Houston
“There isn't a sherry culture to speak of at Augustine, so people don’t exactly order it on their own, but they LOVE the Fernando de Castilla Palo Cortado Antique when we recommend it. Sh#@t is DELICIOUS. We need to inspire people to travel to Spain and have sherry with tapas to really understand how to apply it in their drinking lives back home.”
-Matthew Kaner, Bar Covell & Augustine Wine Bar, L.A.
“We focus on dry sherries, like the Lustau Amontillado Almacenista José Luis Obregón or the Valdespino Fino Inocente. I find younger wine drinkers more open to the idea of sherry, where older generations are stuck on the idea that all the wines are sweet. And part of the success with millennials is due to their interest in wines from the Jura, which can often have similar flavor and textures to sherry.”
-Patrick Cappiello, Pearl & Ash, N.Y.
“For guests who have never tasted it before, sherry in a cocktail is the best intro. It’s the same for people who are curious about bourbon: they might start out drinking bourbon and coke, then graduate to bourbon and water, and finally to straight bourbon. If they warm up to sherry-based cocktails, eventually, they’ll be open to higher end things like palo cortado or the V.O.R.S. sherries that we pour at our higher end restaurants. The other – and maybe best – method we use is incorporating them into our pairings for tasting menus. I find that people who opt into pairings are the kinds of people who really want to experiment and try new things. Sherry is in its best light in the context of an awesome pairing.”
-June Rodil MS, McGuire Moorman Hospitality, Austin
“My method is to succeed for a few days and then fail for a lot of days. You have to get your staff to believe in it and then get them behind a couple of specific pairings that they can tinker with. Sherry is the kind of thing that’s just weird enough that not everybody is going to be into it. It’s the struggle to keep reminding people that it is actually cool.”
-Steven Grubbs, Empire State South, Atlanta
“After customers finish our roasted bone marrow, we come by with the Valdespino Palo Cortado Viejo Calle Ponce and do what we call a ‘bone luge.’ That is, we pour some of this absolutely mind-bending, super-fine sherry through the leftover bones right into their eager mouths. I generally acknowledge to any new sherry enthusiasts that the use of this particular wine for this purpose is basically preposterous. But it’s a fun and rather immediate introduction to one of the world’s great wines. Bonus points are awarded to those who live in the moment and don’t document the process with their cellular devices.”
-Ryan Ibsen, Bestia, L.A.
“The reason we have such a big sherry program – beyond just me loving it so much – is that with vegetables, dry sherry is a go-to. But you can’t just recommend it; you have to actually put it in someone’s glass and have them experience it for themselves. That’s usually how it goes: ‘We’re having all these vegetables… What’s a great pairing?’ ‘Let me pour you a splash of this fino or manzanilla, see if you like it.’ It’s all about being patient even though you might be excited about something.”
-Ashley Santoro, Narcissa, N.Y.