I spent three decades in F&B management, created dozens of wine lists, and taught many a beverage sales staff in hotels, casinos, restaurants and resorts, etc. My takeaway, in relation to this feature article and to what I do today? That fortified wine has always been a tough sell—no matter how prominently it’s listed on menus, featured in pairings, or aligned with desserts.
Yes, today we might see the tide turning (if sluggishly, haltingly). Sherry, in particular, has seen a tremendous resurgence in the US over the past three or four years. One of Portugal’s best-kept secrets, the seductively sweet Moscatel de Setúbal is exhilarating. Port’s prominence has begun to rebound as sales of its premium categories continue to gain popularity in America, and as creative Port-centric cocktails emerge. Several underutilized Port categories beyond vintage and tawnies with age indication are beginning to amiably enhance dessert wine lists’ arsenal: Colheita (vintage-dated tawnies), Aged White, LBV and Crusted Port are just a few examples. Last but certainly not least, we have Madeira. Not only have sales of Madeira continued to grow in the US, but savvy restaurateurs are increasingly finding enticing ways to pair Madeira with all courses of the meal.
Still. Even with all those positive notes acknowledged, this piece unveils no great secret. Sales of fortified wines remain difficult today. Of the numerous challenges faced, we must consider:
And so, the question becomes: can we, as professionals, reconsider our approach? Our framing of the fortified wine category? Its relation to food—and to the dining experience as a whole? Can we reconsider and revamp our entire understanding of these historically esteemed and presently extraordinarily versatile wines?
– Roy Hersh, Founder, www.fortheloveofport.com
The intention of this feature is to observe, discuss and creatively address the current state of fortified wine sales in our industry. What is the perception of these wines among consumers? How can we, as an entire community or as an individual salesperson, change or enhance that perception (if desired)? What are the challenges we face in selling these products, and how can we more effectively or creatively overcome them? What are our hopes and goals for these products and their sales, and how can we achieve them?
To begin the conversation, we interviewed a range of sommeliers from unique markets: Jackson Rohrbaugh (Assistant Wine Director at Canlis, Seattle, WA), Jonathan Ross (Sommelier at Eleven Madison Park in New York, NY), Allegra Angelo (Sommelier at AQ and TBD in San Francisco, California), Arthur Hon (Wine Director at Sepia in Chicago, IL), and David Keck (General Manager and Wine Director at Camerata at Paulie’s in Houston, TX).
Fortified Wine Sales: The Numbers
To supplement the interviews below, we surveyed our membership on fortified wine sales and patterns in an attempt to gauge nationwide averages and help sommeliers assess where strengths or areas for improvement may lie in their fortified wine programs. Just over 100 sommeliers in US restaurants took the survey. Without further ado…
27% of respondents said they also sold a significant amount of a fortified wines beside Sherry, Port and/or Madeira. Of those, other French VDNs were most commonly mentioned (e.g. Banyuls, Rivesaltes) in the restaurant setting, while cooking Marsala (twice appended in the survey responses with a frown face) was the most commonly mentioned for those in a retail setting.
63% of respondents said they sold little to no fortified wine due to lack of guest interest. 5% said low sales were due to the wine style not fitting the restaurant menu/cuisine; 2% said low sales were due to a lack of fortified wine options available in their market.
The most commonly reported place for fortified wines to be listed on the menu is on the dessert menu—dry styles included. But nearly equal parts of respondents also said they list their fortified wines both in the dessert menu and in another part of the menu… usually the back or bottom of the list, though frequently with dry wines listed in their own section. Most “additional comments” noted that they thought pulling dry styles to the front or top of the list would help drive sales of those styles, as would special pairings. Indeed, many who noted higher sales admitted that those came particularly from a prix fixe menu with pairings. Additionally, many who said that they do list their fortified wines in a unique way to enable sales suggested that placing food and wine pairings next to each other on the menu contributed to higher sales, as did offering fortified flights and a “sommelier suggestions” section of the menu.
Fortified Wines: In Practice
What’s the most popular brand, category or style of fortified wine on your list?Arthur: Port, followed by certain styles of VDN and fortified, aromatized wines.
David: We sell a lot of Sherry of all different styles—a fair amount of Fino, but also some of the richer PX and Olorosos as well. It just barely outsells the drier styles of Madeira.
Jackson: Madeira sells most frequently, although generally by the glass rather than full bottles. Our tasting menu dessert incorporates pecans and chocolate ganache and is perfect with Madeira. We’re using Rare Wine Company’s Boston Bual, since it’s complex, soft, and not overly sweet.
Allegra: We’ve been selling a ton of Madeira this season, but we kind of cheat a little bit… At AQ, we infuse a Rainwater medium-dry style with freshly roasted Kenya coffee beans and call it our “Coffee Madeira.” We do another one with cacao at our other restaurant, TBD. So we buy Madeira by the case, which is nuts. We also make a “Citrus Amontillado” with grapefruit and star anise—which I’m hoping to have on tap this winter.
What’s your favorite bottle of fortified wine on your list?Jackson: Osborne Capuchino Palo Cortado VORS—a very old, very complex dry Sherry. The solera was laid down over 100 years ago. Each sip is so powerful and full of flavor that you don’t need a lot to really savor it.
Allegra: I’m a big fan of tawny Port, especially Quinta do Noval… the 40-Year (when you can get it) is my favorite, followed by the Colheita 2000.
Jonathan: We have a few off-the-beaten-path options that are a lot of fun. The Domaine Gauby Rivesaltes is fantastic, ultra-pure and energetic. Le Chais du Vieux Bourg ‘Le Finot,’ an all-Pinot Noir Macvin du Jura, is really good too. It’s extremely well-integrated and a great by-the-glass offering. However, century-old Madeira is one of my absolute favorite smells in the world. I think Madeira is the ultimate beverage to carry along with you in a flask.
David: I’m loving De Bartoli’s Marsala Superiore Riserva 10-year. It’s just a wonderful combination of savory and sweet—it has enough power and complexity to remind you that you’re drinking some serious wine, while not being weighty or overbearing. It pairs well with food but is also a killer wine just to sip on its own.
Arthur: Priorate Natur Vermuth. I like its versatility when it comes to pairing—as well as its ability to stand alone. We can all agree, when it comes to pairing with sweet courses, our options in the wine category can be limited. I find myself looking for other “wine-like” beverages with which to experiment, and I think a vermouth like the Priorate Natur falls sort of in between cocktail and wine territory, working wonders in these situations.
What’s your favorite specific fortified wine pairing on your menu and list?David: We don’t do much in the way of food, but with the firm Tarentaise cheese from Spring Brook Farm in Vermont, I think Equipo Navazos’s Fino En Rama is absolutely delicious. Served with some Marcona almonds, it may be the most obvious pairing, but there’s also a reason for it. It makes me happy.
Jonathan: Frasqueira Sercial Madeira with our seared foie gras. The dish isn’t all that sweet and features a homemade blood sausage, cranberries and a crumble made from duck fat and shallot; it needs the salty tang of a good Sercial.
Jackson: My favorite pairing is Fernando de Castilla Oloroso Antique with Comte Saint-Antoine, a two-year cave-aged cow’s milk cheese from the Jura. The nuttiness of both the Oloroso and the Comte complement and amplify one another. It’s insane.
Arthur: Niepoort dry white Port with uni chawanmushi, lobster, saffron and lobster consommé.
Allegra: I know there is debate about whether or not Barolo Chinato is a fortified wine (I vote with the side that says it is). We’ve been pouring G.D. Vajra Barolo Chinato with our huckleberry savarin and goat cheese ice cream. It seems like a gross pairing, but for some reason it works. We also offer the Chinato by the glass mirrored with a dry Nebbiolo from Roero, so it entices guests to try a glass of Nebbiolo in two different expressions.
What’s the average selling price of fortified wine on your list?Arthur: $16 per 3 oz. pour (the average wholesale price is around $55 for a 750 ml format).
Jackson: The average is based more on glass sales, which is between $12-24.
Allegra: I would estimate that our mean selling price for fortified wines is $15 for a 2.5 oz. pour. We always factor in waste/comps, so per 750ml bottle, we expect nine pours. So $15 x 9 = $135. We run a higher cost percentage on fortified wines, because we keep a small fluid inventory. So, depending on what we want to move or keep, we would charge about $15 a glass (2.5oz) for a 750ml bottle that we’d purchase for $40-$60, which would put us between 30%-44%.
Jonathan: We have a huge range, including over 15 Madeira wines offered by the glass… from $25 to $295. The average on that page is about $60 and costs us about $150 per bottle. The lower priced mistelles and VDNs start at around $13 and average around $18 a glass (cost to us is about $35 per bottle).
David: We don’t mark up our fortified wines very much as we like to reward people for ordering them (“Thank you for drinking awesome things…”). The average wholesale is between $10 and $35 for mostly 375-ml bottles, average menu price is $6-$17 per glass, and we generally just do a 1x mark-up for the bottle prices.
How does your team approach selling fortified wine?Jackson: We introduce fortified wines via the chef’s tasting menu, which is a sort of “safe place” for showcasing new flavors to guests. Chef recently made a dish of octopus with braised pork trotter and Sherry vinegar, and we paired it with Valdespino’s Manzanilla Deliciosa En Rama—two things that seem strange to many of our guests, but the strength of the pairing brings the point home.
Arthur: I like to have my staff taste specific dishes with the fortified wine pairing I’ve chosen. This takes away the “mystery” of the fortified wines by putting them in context with applications. It's much easier to understand them this way.
Allegra: We have a young staff, but they’re sharp and eager, so we encourage them to sell wine at their table and not rely on a manager/sommelier. If they stumble about a particular fortified wine, we want them to be honest and always offer the guest a taste. We constantly taste wines with our staff, whether it is in small groups at line-up or with one-on-one sessions after service. It’s important for them to develop their own opinions about a wine and create their personal “arsenal of secret weapons.”
Jonathan: We use quite a bit of fortified wine in our pairings. Many guests ordering our current menu’s pairings will see both a Palo Cortado and a Madeira during their dinner, because these wines work so well with the current season. Otherwise, guests drinking à la carte will be offered a beverage between the savory portion of the menu and the cheese cart, and then once again after cheese and before dessert—fortified wines come into play frequently here.
David: Provided that the guest wasn’t already looking for a fortified wine, I think the conversation begins with: “Do you want to try something different?” One of the challenges with fortified wines is that sommeliers and servers frequently try to sell them as they would any other wine… and, frankly, the flavor profiles can scare the guest. As with everything in this business, it’s all about communication—the more clearly we can communicate what a beverage is going to taste like, the more likely they are to enjoy it. My team does a great job of talking a guest through the ACTUAL flavor profiles and textures—don’t drink Madeira ‘cause it’s hip and cool, drink it because it tastes like THIS.
What's challenging for you personally in understanding and selling fortified wine?Arthur: My challenge is moving away from sweeter styles into the savory realm of fortified wines. I’m also striving to take guests out of their “Port comfort zone,” where that’s really their only fortified choice. To achieve this, I’m trying to gain a very broad understanding of the cuisines alongside which these fortified wines originated while at the same time experimenting with new ways of using the wines.
Jonathan: At Eleven Madison Park, we constantly talk about acidity in food, and therefore the need for acidity in wine. But many styles of fortified wines don’t have a lot of acid. We’ve all, at one time, mistaken alcohol for the presence of acid in a blind tasting. So that starts the conversation of how a higher-alcohol wine can be useful in pairing with food. And it begs the question: If Palomino is such a low-acid gape and is almost always acidified pre-fermentation, but flor metabolizes the acid, then why do so many people view Sherry as a high-acid wine? Is it not alcohol tricking the palate… or is my logic completely wrong?
Jackson: My difficulty is trying to overcome people’s assumptions about what Sherry tastes like. Did everyone’s first experience with Sherry come from a bottle of bulk California “Sherry?” It’s automatically assumed to be sweet, strong, and disgusting… which couldn’t be further from the truth! The En Rama I mentioned earlier clocks in at 15% ABV—less than many Washington and Napa Cabs.
David: I think the biggest challenge and the greatest asset in selling fortified wines are one in the same: they are frequently the most alien beverages to our guests. Unless that guest happens to be older and British, most of this category just isn’t consumed on a regular basis. I’m challenged by understanding how the weight and sweetness levels of all these beverages compare and contrast and how they work with food—then challenged to convey this to the guest.
Allegra: The challenge is in the name: “fortified wines.” The awesome crusade in promoting dry wines/lighter wines/leaner wines has created a confusing dichotomy for the consumer. Can't we just rename the entire category? What about something like “Marvel wines?”
What do you think has helped or hindered your sales of fortified wine recently? Are there any bigger trends in the industry that you think have contributed to the current sales trends you experience? Allegra: Helped: Beverage programs that integrate fortified wines with other sections of wine list besides “Dessert Wines”; bartenders and sommeliers that get along and co-create, sell, and drink specialty cocktails made with fortified wines. Hindered: High mark-ups on by-the-glass offerings.
Arthur: I think the overall sale of fortified wines in my market has thrived and will continue to thrive—and not just Port but Sherry, Madeira and beyond. I think this is partly because our consumers are always looking for “the next thing.” I believe the cocktail/mixology trend definitely had something to do with it—likewise the craze for quirky wines of the Jura, orange wine, etc. There’s a movement toward exposing average but adventurous consumers to things they might not find on their own, and that’s fueling an overall trend to try new things including, of course, different types of fortified wines.
Jonathan: I think people are close-minded when it comes to wines with residual sugar. The moment that sugar pricks a consumer’s tongue, he or she formulates an opinion… without even letting the wine move across the palate! As consumers’ tolerance and preference for sweet wines has diminished, so have levels of residual sugar in wines overall. That hinders a large portion of fortified wines right off the bat. That said, while I haven’t looked at national sales numbers, labels like Equipo Navazos, Niepoort, Noval, D’Oliveiras, Barbieto, and Valdespino—to name just a few in the New York market—seem to have had great success recently, which makes me believe that fortified wine is definitely on the upswing. There are so many high quality wines out there, and many more are available today as compared to five or 10 years ago. You can find over a dozen different Sherries—each from different bodegas!—offered by the glass within a five-mile radius of the Lower East Side. It didn’t used to be that way.
Jackson: Sherry is everywhere! The Wall Street Journal, Wine Spectator, and Decanter have all done features or articles on Sherry in the last 6-8 months. Plus PUNCH, Hot Rum Cow, and many other smaller publications have featured it. But I don’t think we’ve reached a tipping point yet. According to the site www.sherrynotes.com, sales are still trending downward. Once a four-top of businessmen comes in and orders a 750 of Tío Pepe En Rama to start the night, then we’ll have arrived.
David: A lot of fortified wines also have an element of sweetness, and this might be the one structural element that most challenges our “I don’t like sweet wines” guests. That conversation continues to be difficult. At the same time, education and availability on fortified wines continues to grow, and I would argue that there are more and more guests that actually come in actively looking for Sherry and Madeira. I would also argue, however, that we both help and hurt ourselves by “geeking out” on a lot of these wines—as I said above, just because we think it’s cool and weird and delicious does not mean we should push it on unsuspecting guests. The overall trend is most likely an increase from such fanaticism, so perhaps this is sacrilegious to say, but… I think we’ve simultaneously scared a number of people off.
Do you align with any bigger social media campaigns, industry events or local/national occasions (e.g. Sherryfest) in pushing fortified wine sales?Arthur: Not at the moment… but I try to continue to promote different styles through different selections on my list and through new applications.
David: Not currently.
Allegra: Not recently, but I competed in Copa Jerez in 2009. I’d love to get more involved!
Jackson: In Seattle there’s not a ton of fortified wine events, but I do my best to connect on Twitter with Sherry bodegas and producers. Fernando de Castilla, Lustau and Equipo Navazos have a great social media presence, which is working to raise awareness for their products. I haven’t noticed much social media presence from Port or Madeira houses, however.
Have you traveled to any regions producing fortified wines?David: Not yet!
Arthur: Jerez and Porto/Douro Valley.
Allegra: I’ve been to the Douro, parts of the Languedoc and the Roussillon, and Sherry. I’d love to go to Madeira someday; it’s #2 on my list!
Jonathan: Yes, the Duoro. It is one of the most magnificently beautiful and extreme wine-growing terrains. The intensely sloped vineyards of the Duoro literally hanging above the river look like nothing I’ve ever seen.
Jackson: My first experience with Port was in Porto, drinking some lovely old Tawny out of an unlabeled, green glass bottle at a Portuguese friend’s house.
What resources would help you better sell fortified wines?Arthur: I think resources on the production methods and labor-intensiveness of how these wines came about would be really helpful. Also, I think sharing information on alternative pairings for different fortified wines would be very helpful.
Allegra: Having more discussions with the importers who represent the wines in the US. André Tamers (De Maison Selections) completely changed the way I thought about fortified wines in 2006.
David: I think a stronger presence in the market from fortified wine importers and educators would be fantastic—not only to discuss their portfolios but also to discuss what else is available, taste a greater range, and facilitate forging relationships with specific producers.
Jackson: Education is the thing holding back fortified wine sales. The public image of every major fortified wine region is still severely tarnished in the US, and it will take continued, patient reminders to reform the idea of what Port, Sherry and Madeira actually are, since the production of cheap California copies continues. These regions have also shot themselves in the foot at various times in their history by mass-producing cheap bulk wine. There is such a resurgence in quality right now, though, that I don’t think it would take more than another decade or two to reverse consumer perceptions.
Any other fun thoughts/comments/stories you really want to share about fortified wine? David: The age-worthy nature of fortified wines frequently makes them a killer option for guests who are intrigued by older wines but don’t want to drop thousands of dollars on a bottle. We’re a small establishment, and we crushed a case of 1961 Rivesaltes in about two weeks recently! Our guests all thought it was an amazing deal—which it was!
Jackson: I LOVE Sherry and want everyone to know how good it is as a food-pairing wine. Sherry and mushrooms, Sherry and chicken, Sherry and black truffle. Sherry and chicken stuffed with mushrooms and black truffle! Sherry is the Michael Caine of wine: a genteel British gentleman with a long and illustrious career, a period of obscurity (the '90s) and a sudden rise back to the top. It’s time for dry Sherry to shine and become a beloved fixture at tables everywhere. I’ll drink whatever you guys don’t finish.
Arthur: A guest once adamantly accused me of attempting to poison her by serving a glass of Fino Sherry with the tasting menu. Ever since, whenever I encounter a tricky situation while selling fortified wine, I always tell myself, it can’t be as bad as being accused of murder, can it?
Great insights, thank you all.
I've always found one of the big impediments to fortified wines BTG is the likelihood of it being open too long. I'm super skeptical when I see more than one or at most two open by the glass and without featuring it in a pairing or giving it some reasonable chance of turning on a regular basis. I think we under estimate the effect of oxidation on many of these wines; even Madiera.