It’s 8AM, and I’m sitting in a very plushy chair on a tour bus in Sanlucar de Barrameda, Southwest Spain with a bunch of other winebuyers from the US. We are here by invitation of André Tamers from Demaison Selections, an importer of French and Spanish wines, to tour their artisanal sherry bodegas. André is all charisma. He walks like a tiny matador and has a smile that makes you want to do bad deeds. We are here to learn about sherry. To spend 5 days drinking sherry from noon till dawn, to see the vineyards and the towns, to dine in the bodegas with the winemakers, to walk the sandy floors of the cellars and smell the sea air. Sherry is only made here. It is only here that we find Albariza soils in proximity to the Atlantic, which carries the wild yeasts that develop the flor–a layer that protects the wine from oxidation and allows it to mature over time–under which sherry does its thing.
Steven Alexander is our host today. A knight in a basball cap and Vans, Steven is the master of ceremonies on our tour today, and he gestures east out the windows at all the vineyards we are passing. All we see is white. We are in a thick fog bank with about 20 feet of visibility. This is a southwest Spain. It is very hot and dry here. The daily fog is vital for the vines to cool down at night thus allowing the wines to retain there acidity. The sun is close to the horizon, a hazy 40 watt bulb through a diaphanous sheet.The bus huffs along slowly, negotiating the curvy road. We have to stop several times for a petite winebuyer from North Carolina to hurl on the side of the road, insisting her illness is motion sickness and has nothing at all to do with the unlimited sherry-from-the barrel we drank at the welcome reception til 1AM last night.
By the time we reach the first vineyard the fog has begun to move out. The Albariza soils in Jerez are white as chalk and, from a distance, make the vineyards look like they are covered in snow. Close up it feels like you are standing on the moon. We are in Trebujena being led through rows of vines by their owner, Juan Francisco Polido. For all the magic that is found in the glass, standing on the vineyard is pretty dull and the labor required to tend the vines is evident. Large spider webs drape many of the vines. Juan says they are a good sign. He is one of a handful of farmers working organically. Back in the day, sherry producers grew their own grapes. But the beverage’s success as a commercial product gave rise to a merchant class in the 1800s, and the producers stopped farming. Now the big sherry houses dictate prices to the growers. It is difficult for them to make any money, and thus there is no motivation to farm organically, which is more expensive. The smaller bodegas are now working closely with the growers to change this, but they have a long way to go.
As we pull away from Juan’s vineyard, the fog bank towers over the landscape to our right. It is massive, like a giant sandstorm swallowing everything in its path. We turn left toward the sun. 20 minutes later, we reach the gates of Bodegas Grant.
Grant is a tiny family owned winery opened in 1841. It’s run by 4th generation winemaker Edmundo Grant and his son, Edmundo. As we enter the bodega, Edmundo Senior pours Manzanilla straight from the barrel for each guest–and it is quite a feat. He dips a venencia, a small cup at the end of a long handle, into the barrel and, holding the wine glass low, pours the sherry into the glass from above, hardly spilling a drop. He does this over and over again–we are very thirsty.
The room is set for a wedding, and with much merriment, we all mill about and eventually find a seat. We are a group of gregarious sommeliers, wine shop owners and wine distributors. We know how to interact and we know about wine. And we’re in Spain, for fuck’s sake. The table is decked out with jamón, jamón, cheeses and more jamón, and we are here for hours. We drink Manzanilla with chorizo, manchego and olives, Amontillado with Sopa di Ajo, Oloroso with Bresaola. Day becomes night, and the festivities continue under a brisk night sky in the outdoor courtyard of La Cigarrera. More jamón, Manzinilla Pasada with anchovies and cuttlefish, Manzanilla Pasado and langostinos, Amontillado with squid and croquettes, Moscatel with chocolate cookies. Around midnight, we spill into the quiet streets of Sanlucar in search of more revelry.
A few days later, I have the honor of visiting El Maestro Sierra, which has been operating for 250 years. Entering the cellar is like walking into a chapel. Rows and rows of black barrels crowd the walls, each covered in chalk markings indicating levels, dates and styles. The floor of the bodega is a fine mustard yellow sand, spread like a zen garden. I feel guilty leaving footprints as I walk on it. The vaulted ceiling is heavily mottled and weathered by time. The only light passes through open windows high above, whose loosely woven grass curtains allow yeast to float in on the gentle sea breeze and form the flor. The bodega is now run by three women—unheard of in this industry—Pilar Pla Pechovierto, her daughter Carmen Borrego Pla, and Capataza Ana Cabastrero. We walk slowly behind Ana in total silence as she takes us into the cellars and demonstrates how the sherry is moved from one barrel to another. She shows us a leaking barrel of sherry from 1830 and pours us samples. Later in the courtyard, there will be more jamón (naturally) and some lively flamenco.
Back in the States, I set about reorganizing my sherry shelves at the store. I upgrade them from the lower to the upper. I brainstorm cocktail recipes that customers can take away. I bring a bottle of La Cigarrera Manzanilla to my restaurant for each of my employees. I put a sherry on the list of my wines for my weekend tasting. I’m on a mission to spread the word.