Why don’t we drink more sherry? Every time I explore this category of fortified wines I marvel at their quality, value and suitability with a wide variety of foods. I marveled again Friday as I tasted and talked sherry with Lucas Paya, beverage director for José Andres’ Think Food Group of restaurants, and with Derek Brown and Chantal Tseng, the husband-and-wife team behind a number of Washington’s finest watering holes, including the sherry-themed Mockingbird Hill.
Is there a lingering stereotype against sherry? Do we still picture Grandma sipping a glass of cream sherry before dinner? And have we collectively decided that sherry is a medium-sweet wine with no special distinction to merit our attention?
“That medium-sweet style of sherry is perfect for the afternoon by the fire, and who does that? Your Grandma, so maybe she was right,” Paya quips. “But today most producers are leaving that middle ground and concentrating either on the very dry sherries, or the sweets.”
Paya, who was a sommelier at El Bulli restaurant in Spain before coming Stateside six years ago and joining Andres, sells sherries at the company’s four Jaleo restaurants (three in the DC area, the fourth in Las Vegas) as well as Bazaar by José Andres in L.A. and Miami. How do they sell?
“Not as much as I would like to, but there has definitely been an increase in sales over the past few years,” he says. He cites statistics from the Sherry Council that show exports to the U.S. increased by about 10 percent last year, even while global sales declined slightly.
If sherry does catch on in the U.S., it will be people like Brown and Tseng who make it happen.
“The first time we had sherry was about 10 years ago, and it was a love affair from the start, like that song that gets stuck in your head,” Brown says, mixing metaphors as easily as cocktails. “We’ve been plotting how to revitalize sherry ever since.”
To do that, they needed to “correct the errors,” Brown says. “No, your grandmother didn’t drink this one. No, this one isn’t sweet. Part of the fun of drinking sherry is saying, What the heck is this? Sherry is unusual. It’s like a relationship – you have to work at it, but there’s a higher reward.”
When the couple opened Mockingbird Hill last summer, Tseng had about 50 sherries on her list. Today she offers more than 90. That’s a dizzying array, considering that most retail shops stock a desultory one or two labels. Some retailers have even called asking Tseng where they can find sherries after her customers try to purchase them.
Since then, they’ve opened two new bars right next door – Eat the Rich is an oyster bar, while Southern Efficiency specializes in whisky. That may have siphoned off some of the buzz from Mockingbird Hill, which was only half full at 6 pm on Friday while the others were packed. But then, maybe sherry makes a nice nightcap.
(More to come on sherry … )