In June 2013, Chantal Tseng and Derek Brown launched Mockingbird Hill in Washington D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. Inspired by the jamón and sherry bars of Spain, Mockingbird Hill’s mission, as printed on its street-facing front window, was clear: “Drink More Sherry.”
“We wanted to make sherry punk rock,” Tseng tells VinePair in a phone interview. Sadly, despite being named one of “D.C.’s Most Anticipated Spring Restaurant Openings” by Eater, Mockingbird Hill failed to deliver on initial excitement. In June 2016, Eater reported the bar was to close for a revamp, with plans to reopen with “more of a cocktail bar focus” (versus exclusively sherry). “We had a good three-year run,” Tseng says.
Despite a high-profile following (including Jancis Robinson, The Guardian’s Fiona Beckett, The New York Times’s Eric Asimov, and The Washington Post’s M. Carrie Allan), the famous fortified wine has not reached the American mainstream.
Sherry has an identity crisis among contemporary drinkers. Sommeliers and wine professionals sing its praises, but it’s often an afterthought along with Ports and dessert wines on restaurant lists. Meanwhile, bartenders love it, but, unlike Campari’s cherry-red glare, sherry is more of a team player than easily discernible star in cocktails.
“Cocktails are a great way of introducing somebody to sherry,” Tseng says, but just like dry vermouth, another complex fortified wine tipped for a grand renaissance, 2-ounce pours do little to impact volume sales. According to data provided to VinePair by the IWSR, U.S. sherry sales have dropped almost every year since 1999, when they stood at 515,000 9-liter cases. Last year, barely 170,000 cases were sold stateside. On a global scale, too, sales are contracting, to the tune of 3.6 percent over the past five years.
Instead, the fate of the fortified wine is likely closer tied to a different arm of the industry. “More and more, sommeliers are embracing sherry,” says Andy Myers, Master Sommelier and beverage director for José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup, “though, that doesn’t mean we’re selling any of it!”
Myers is among a number of aficionados who cite sherry’s complexity as a double-edged sword. “I teach sherry and it’s daunting at first because there’s a lot to take in,” he says, referencing the differences between biological and oxidative styles, ranging levels of sweetness, and the unique Solera aging system. “But give me one hour,” he says, “and you’ll understand sherry. As I tell my staff, I just need you to know three things: Fino is super dry and light; manzanilla tastes like fino, it just comes from somewhere else; [and] oloroso is full-bodied and dark. If you know nothing else, you know enough.”
Tseng, also a sherry educator, believes that, from an educational standpoint, the problem lies with bodies like the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS). Each treats sherry as an afterthought, she says, and groups all sherry categories alongside sweet fortified styles. “When you’re tasting a [dry] manzanilla or fino, you should be learning about it at the same time [as] you’re learning about high-mineral content Greek Assyrtiko.”
Restaurants and bars would also be wise to adopt this approach. Though many of its iterations are sweet, bone dry manzanilla and fino sherries share little in common with the sweet Ports and dessert wines with which they almost always share the latter pages of wine lists.
Offering sherry alongside whites in by-the-glass lists would also constitute a huge success for the category, Tseng says. It’s something Myers has already introduced at Mercado Little Spain, a 35,000-foot food hall that recently opened as part of the $20 billion, 27-acre Hudson Yards development.
Others call for more drastic measures.
Patrick Mata, partner at Olé Imports, which specializes in Spanish wines, wants restaurants to physically place glasses in diners’ hands by offering special dishes that arrive with designated, 2-once sherry pairings. “Until chefs and sommeliers work together to put these things together, I don’t think sherry will be as popular as it can be,” Mata says.
André Tamers, founder of De Maison Selections (another specialist Spanish wine importer), wants bars to rethink glassware. In a March 29 video posted on De Maison’s Instagram account, Tamers picks up a small sherry snifter, calls it “BS,” then smashes it on the floor out of frame. “How about a big, fat Burgundy glass?” he says. “This way, you get all the amazing aromatics.”
But even if restaurants and bars implemented every one of these measures, it wouldn’t change one fundamental aspect of sherry — its unique flavor profile.
“[Sherry] is always going to be a slight niche,” says Veronica Stoler, manager and wine buyer at (NYC Spanish wine store) Despaña Vinos. “The way American consumers have been educated to talk about wine is in terms of fruit,” she says. “Sherry is a totally different style of beverage.”
Once again, this attribute could also be viewed as a double-edged sword. While baby boomers have typically skewed toward sweeter styles (whether they want to admit it or not), younger categories, including millennials, “tend to be more experimental,” Stoler says.
Its oxidative, complex character could turn out to be an asset. “I have great hopes in the millennial community,” Katrin Naelapaa, director of Wines From Spain USA, says of sherry’s potential with younger drinkers. “They like natural wines and they like orange wines, and if their palate is ready for that, they’re absolutely ready for sherry.”