Here Comes Sherry!

Juliet Glass - October 2006

In the age of tapas, a Midwestern restaurant demonstrates how a once enigmatic wine can add allure to an already ample list and fortify sales.

"Sherry is the poster child for misunderstood wine," comments Bill Summerville, managing director of Minneapolis' Solera, a high energy Spanish spot that takes its name from Sherry's methodical aging system. "Most people think it's sweet, thick, and sugary, that it's in Grandma's cabinet and she breaks it out once a year. In fact, Sherry can be bone-dry, and you can drink it throughout a meal." In America such widespread misconceptions about Spain's fortified wine scare off many restaurants, even Spanish ones.

But when chef Tim McKee and managing partner Josh Thoma (both, along with Summerville, are also behind Minneapolis' La Belle Vie) opened Solera in 2003, they wanted a wine list that included Sherries to pair with the lengthy tapas menu, which, while decidedly upscale and not particularly traditional, is rooted in authentic Iberian flavors. "In Spain they often match tapas with Sherries," explains McKee of his initial inspiration for the list.

"With clams and shrimp, you might have cold dry Manzanilla, since it has a briny side and is almost a little salty. A really good Manzanilla reminds me of sea water."

Summerville, chief architect of the Solera wine list, has assembled a dazzling list of Sherries, all sold by the bottle and the glass. Currently there are 35, including several Montilla-Moriles, wines produced in a manner similar to Sherry that claim their own distinct Denomination of Origin, making Solera's Sherry program one of the largest and most ambitious in the country.

Solera is popular with both young hipsters and suburban thrill-seekers, and thanks to its prime downtown location in the heart of the expense account belt, it gets its share of business travelers too. Solera does a brisk and enviable bar business. Sherry may not be the house cash cow, but it does account for a respectable 10 percent of total wine sales and, more significantly, makes Solera stand out in the crowded world of restaurants serving small plates. "Sherry is uniquely Spanish. You can't find the same climate and soil outside of Spain. Selling it sets us apart from other restaurants," says Summerville.

But what is it that sets Sherry apart from other wines? Elucidating this mystery plays a key role in Solera's success at selling it. Sherry, also known officially as Jerez and Xérès, is a meticulously crafted fortified wine that runs the gamut from sharp and dry to sweet and viscous. Made from Palomino, Pedro Ximénez, and Moscatel (Muscat) grapes, it's produced exclusively in the region of Andalucia, in and around the town of Jerez within a triangle of land prized for its albariza (porous, chalky white soil). Lying between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and El Puerto de Santa María, this little wedge of southwestern Spain boasts an odd and not particularly wine-friendly climate: 300 days a year of beating sunlight tempered only by damp sea winds that form a briny early morning dew.

Even more than its geographical peculiarity, its dynamic aging process sets it apart. After fermentation, the wine is sampled, classified according to quality, fortified with varying amounts of wine distillate—in other words, brandy—and added to the top criadera of the solera system: stacked rows or scales of barrels from which wine is methodically bottled from the bottom up, with the youngest wines on top and progressively blended down ("running the scales").

The minimum aging for any Sherry is three years, but because the finished bottled product invariably contains wines of different ages, most labels do not specify vintages, though some will indicate approximate ages. Very Old Sherry (V.O.S.) is older than 20 years and Very Old Rare Sherry (V.O.R.S.) is older than 30 years.

According to quality designation, the finest wines are allowed to develop a cap of yeast (flor) to keep from oxidizing, becoming pale, dry finos and Manzanillas. Darker amontillados are first aged beneath the flor and then aged oxidatively. Amber- and mahogany-hued palo cortados and olorosos are heavier fuller-bodied wines fortified with enough brandy to prevent any flor growth and allowed to oxidize. All of these dry Sherries are known collectively as vinos generosos (generous wines) and all are made from Palomino grapes.

To craft sweet natural Sherries, on the other hand, Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel grapes are sun-dried to develop pronounced raisiny flavors and then aged oxidatively. Sweet blended Sherries (pale cream, medium, and cream) are made by blending dry vino generoso (typically oloroso) with naturally sweet Pedro Ximénez and Moscatel wines.

Given the complex aging process and the wide-ranging flavor profiles of the wines—largely unfamiliar territory even to wine connoisseurs—Sherry can be a tough sell. Solera, however, turns the fact that Sherry is terra incognita to most Americans to its advantage. "Sherry can be very confusing, but it also allows you to form a bond with the guest. If you have a wine geek who doesn't know much about Sherry, that person wants to be the first kid on the block to try the next new thing," Summerville notes. "People are either curious and adventurous or they are not. We have people come in on the weekend who have never heard of tapas, and they will never try Sherry. You need to read the guest—ask them if they want to try something different or say, ‘If you want a real Spanish experience, try starting the evening with a glass of Sherry.' Offer them a taste, and if they scrunch up their noses, bring them their pitcher of sangria and move on."

In a world where $12 for a glass of wine is common, Sherry's generally lower price should be a selling point. "A Sherry pour is two to three ounces, so you can sell it for five or six dollars. Per ounce it might be the same as or more than wine, but it doesn't seem like that to the diner," notes Summerville. And the seemingly low price point can be a real incentive for a knowledgeable waiter who can deftly read guests, separating the Cosmo drinkers from the wine curious.

The key, then, to selling Sherry is staff education. In addition to opportunistically educating servers on the fundamentals of Sherry's history, the basic differences in style, and food pairing fundamentals, Summerville drums in staff training at both Solera and La Belle Vie every other week, sometimes conducting blind tastings or recruiting a staff member to lead a class on a particular wine.

For wine directors interested in giving Sherry a try, Summerville suggests including at least one Sherry from each basic category: serve a dry fino, a Manzanilla or Manzanilla pasada (a Manzanilla whose flor has faded and starts to oxidize, thus taking on the amber hues and aromas and flavors of an amontillado), an off-dry variety (these Sherries have a sweet bouquet but dry mouthfeel) such as an amontillado, palo cortado, or oloroso, and lastly, a sweet Sherry. Summerville recommends Emilio Lustau, which offers a broad range of consistently high quality Sherries, as a reliable springboard. Gonzalez Byass makes beautiful and complex olorosos and palo cortados that can be hard to find, but should be sought out. Finally, Bodegas Hidalgo-La Gitana produces a classic quaffable Manzanilla, La Gitana, which claims to be Seville's best selling wine.

A few caveats: Some Sherries are quite perishable. Lighter Sherries, such as finos and Manzanillas, must be consumed within 18 months after being bottled, while amontillados have a slightly longer shelf life of 24 to 36 months. Most Sherries should be consumed within a few days after opening and can be stored, corked and refrigerated, to extend their lifespan. Summerville suggests trying to purchase half-bottles whenever possible. Unlike unfortified wines, store them standing upright to minimize oxidation.

The kitchen is an obvious destination for half finished bottles—Mission figs sautéed in Pedro Ximénez and spooned over vanilla ice cream was a cult favorite from McKee's D'Amico Cucina days. And Sherries blend beautifully in drinks, so urge bartenders to explore. A hit from the current Solera cocktail menu is Cortez the Killer, an inebriating elixir of Absolut vodka, Licor 43, and oloroso served straight up in a sea salt rimmed glass with a Marcona almond stuffed olive. Finally, although classic Sherry glasses are nice, they aren't necessary—Solera uses Riedel Tequila glasses—and Champagne flutes make an acceptable substitute.

But above all, if you want to sell Sherry, educate yourself and the staff first. "It's about knowing how to sell something. Whether it's a car or a glass of fino, you have to figure out what the customer wants, what tweaks them, and get them interested," says Summerville. "I'll say, ‘This wine isn't for everybody,' so I've warned them, but I've also challenged them to try it. It's about baiting a hook and reeling them in. If they like it, I've gained their trust and they'll come back next time and ask me to select a bottle for them or say, ‘I'd like to try a flight.'"