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On-trade: Sherry – Sack the sommelier

“standfirst”>If you want UK restaurateurs to start treating Sherry as it deserves to be treated – like a wine – then it might be best to ditch the ‘Sherry’ name. Have you considered ‘Vinos de Jerez’? asks Charlotte Hey

A few weeks ago I decided to conduct some rather crude research into the price of Sherry in UK restaurants should I ever want to buy a whole bottle to drink with a meal. I rang half a dozen eateries; three in London, three in other parts of the country. All had good reputations for their food and their wine lists; all were well-known within their area. None of them served Spanish food or any type of tapas menu.
At each restaurant I explained that I was bringing in a group of Spanish colleagues and I would like to have a bottle, or two, of Sherry. In some cases I was put through to the sommelier, or whoever was responsible for wine sales. “What price would you charge me for a full bottle of Sherry?” I asked. In most cases there was a hesitation before I got a response; in some complete bafflement. “A whole bottle?” one woman exclaimed, “Are you sure?” When I confirmed that there would be five of us and so I didn’t think that was excessive, she answered, “Well, I suppose not. But we don’t get a lot of customers asking for that kind of thing.”

Now I might be mad, but I don’t think asking for a bottle of Sherry between five is such an odd request. It’s not as if I’d asked for something really weird or debauched. Surely ordering a bottle of Sherry is really only the same as ordering a bottle of wine isn’t it?

But that’s the thing. If my quick piece of research is anything to go by, for the majority of restaurateurs put in this situation Sherry is treated very differently to other wines. In fact, if the prices I was quoted by the various establishments is a guide – in four out of the six restaurants the price ranged variously from £45 to over £100 – then Sherry is not being treated like wine at all.

Spirited away
I know my research wasn’t exhaustive – I talked to only six venues – so the responses shouldn’t be seen as a general indication of on-trade attitudes towards Sherry. But it does seem to indicate that most restaurateurs treat Sherry like a spirit; in other words charging by multiples of the serving measure. And this is a worrying indication for Sherry producers who are working hard to re-establish the product in this sector of the UK trade.

In fact it’s something The Sherry Institute of Spain plans to actively campaign against with its Perfect Serve initiative, which will be launched officially over the summer. One of its key objectives is to promote Sherry styles such as fino and manzanilla as wine, as well as improving staff and consumer understanding of Sherry in general and promoting new ways of selling and serving it to on-trade customers.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Sherry distributors are already on the case. Sarah Woodward brand manager for fortified spirits at Mentzendorff, which supplies La Gitana says, “Representation on restaurant wine lists is key. Sherry should be moved into the aperitif or white wine section.”

Getting fresh
Glassware and measures are also important in this respect. “We tell the on-trade venues we work with that La Gitana doesn’t need to be served in a proper Sherry glass, a small white wine glass will do. But measures should be at least 125ml.” Woodward also believes that Sherry should reach consumers in peak condition. “We’ve been looking at different formats and we now provide 75cl and 50cl bottles, as well as half-bottles. We’re currently introducing a single-serve bottle, at 18cl, with a screwcap. It’s all about keeping the product fresh,” she says.

Other producers have had the same idea, including González Byass, which introduced a 20cl bottle for its Tio Pepe brand earlier this year. Jeremy Rockett, marketing director at González Byass UK, agrees with Woodward that freshness and presenting the category to consumers in a positive way are vital. “If Sherry is served in the right way and at a sensible price – in other words, treated like a wine – customer satisfaction will be higher. The product will be fresher because the turnover is higher; you create a virtuous circle,” he explains. “If the price is ridiculous, you create the opposite effect, customers will be dissatisfied, turnover will not be good and, therefore, the product will not be fresh.”

Restaurateurs who have taken a serious approach towards selling Sherry have already realised this. “We buy all half-bottles as this format helps to retain the freshness in such a low-volume category,” says Adrian Abbey, commercial director for La Tasca, the largest Spanish restaurant group outside Spain, which has 60 outlets in the UK. Furthermore, Abbey has taken a stand to rid Sherry of its dusty image in the UK and promotes it as an authentic and modern Spanish drink. “I want to keep the word ‘Sherry’ away from the La Tasca list,” he states. “So all our Sherry is listed as regional wine under ‘Vinos de Jerez’.” 

The next step is explaining this to consumers. “A lot of it is about education,” says Abbey, adding that La Tasca has invested in training so that staff can deal confidently with customers’ queries and help to promote Sherry by hand-selling. And the results have been impressive. “We are now selling around 5,000 half-bottles of Sherry a year in our UK restaurants,” says Abbey. “Sherry is a product that can repay effort – and it deserves more effort from other restaurateurs,” he argues.

It’s a fair point, but other restaurateurs can argue that it’s easier for Spanish restaurants to promote Sherry using this model. “The half-bottle is a rather nice way for four people to drink Sherry,” says Morfudd Richards, owner of Lola’s restaurant in London, which has a modern European menu. “We’ve been doing a Sherry flight for quite a few years now,” she continues, “and I think Sherry is tremendous value for money. The problem is that, while I have seen an increased interest from my customers, Sherry just doesn’t have the buzz.”

Peter Horton, general manager at London Capital Club, agrees that there needs to be more interest in the category before restaurateurs will start changing their lists. “If I saw the demand for a lovely nutty manzanilla or a bone dry fino by the bottle, then I would definitely charge it at a price akin to our wine prices. It is a wine after all and should be treated as such,” he says. Currently Horton lists only one Sherry, a PX, by the half-bottle.

Changing consumer attitudes is no easy task, but Woodward at Mentzendorff thinks that one way to help create a buzz around the category is by targeting specific cuisines with a taste profile that complements Sherry. “We need to look at seafood and Japanese restaurants, as Sherry matches particularly well with these types of food,” she believes.

The variety of the UK eating-out scene could be a bonus for Sherry and help to expand its horizons beyond Spanish eateries. But if my research is anything to go by, I may be hanging on the telephone for quite a while, waiting for Brits to become a nation of Sherry drinkers, downing Jerez’s finest by the bottle – and paying a reasonable price.

© db August 2006

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