Why would you want to read a book on an unfashionable drink like sherry? What would I find coming back to a book I first read in the mid 1970's? At the time of release it was much praised and subsequent editions came out in 1970 and 1978.
The way to enjoy this book is not to see it as a guide to sherry. Rather approach it as a book on commerce. The commodity being traded is sherry and the period covers a vast sweep of Andalusian and British history spanning 650 years. As a business book it covers getting the product to market, marketing the brand, staying relevant as consumer tastes change, prospering in good times and weathering every imaginable crisis from war to pests and plagues, from sudden changes of trading terms bought about by Royal decree to staying one step in front of the Inquisition.
This is a book full of extraordinary characters who built businesses that lasted for hundreds of years and is in part a ‘book of lessons' that may teach you how to survive in business and what you must do to at least give yourself a chance. Approached this way the book is a great tale.
Jeff's may not have had any of this in mind when he wrote this but that is what I found reading it the second time. One of the marks of a great book is that another generation can see a different insight that is relevant to them.
It is uncertain when wine was first made in the district of Jerez. Cadiz the closest port was established some 3100 years ago and vines may have been planted about that time. Perhaps it was later, though vineyards were present by the time the Romans arrived.
What the wines would have tasted like is very difficult to answer. Recent studies of ancient wines suggest that at least some of them were made by boiling down grape juice to concentrate the sweetness or by allowing the grapes to become raisin like on the vine before pressing, a method that can be also achieved by picking grapes and leaving them in the sun to dry. This very sweet juice would ferment very slowly and would have been used to add back to the new wine of each vintage and would have delayed the wine turning to vinegar. The sweet juice would also disguise faults in the newly fermented wines.
The boiling down of wine to form dark brown syrup was well known in Roman times and these methods would have been used in Spain. The methods of developing the sweet bases used in sherry making are well covered in this book. It is interesting when you see how wines are made in some remote wine regions such as Georgia how little they seem to have changed over thousands of years and the origins of sherry can also be traced back a long way.
'Sherry' also gives many insights into marketing. What sherry was initially called in the English market is vague. Chaucer refers to Lepe, not far from Jerez, in Canterbury Tales (1374-1386?) as a fortified wine, possibly even sherry. In 1491 there is a Spanish reference to rumney as a sweet export wine, presumably sherry. More commonly this style of wine was referred to in the English market as sack, a term thought to have originated at the end of the fifteenth century. Sack was later fixed to the place of origin so there was sherry sack, Malaga sack and Canary sack.
However the term sherry as a place of origin may have been used as there is this intriguing comment from1580; 'The Moriscos have risen again and done great harm….Sheris is in doubt of them because they are many”
By the seventeenth century, of the many types of sack, sherry sack was thought the best. At the end of this century the term sack had been replaced by sherry in the English market. There is an English reference to the town of Jerez as Sherries in 1625. So it seems that many hundreds of years passed before the brand sherry meant the wines from Jerez.
Also of significance is the mention in 1634 of Bristol milk in this case relating the port of Bristol to the wine. A branded product called Bristol Milk is not recorded until the Avery Company produced Bristol Milk in the early nineteenth century, several hundred years later.
The distinctive and quite advanced branding of sherry did not happen until later. Initially is would seem that sherry started to be identified by the name of the shipper when it was purchased and later a brand was added that helped define the wine style. The chance to market in the modern manner did of course require advances in bottle production and the ability to print and apply labels.
As companies began to differentiate their range, both to find a competitive advantage and to move away from the generic term sherry, and take advantage of the embryo idea of advertising, distinctive brands developed.
Harveys of Bristol (founded 1796) introduced Bristol Cream in 1882 and the story of its origin is as follows;
"They intended to introduce a new desert sherry blended with an even older oloroso than that in Bristol Milk, but had not decided what to call it when a lady visited their offices and was given a glass of Bristol Milk; then she was asked to try a sample of the new sherry, and she gave the wine its name: 'If the first was Bristol Milk, then this must surely be Bristol Cream?”
Williams and Humbert (founded1877) began their distinctive branding with Dry Sack in 1905, Walnut Brown in 1919, As You Like It in 1929, A Winters Tale in 1933 and Equator in 1955.
One of the most brilliant drink symbols ever is the distinctive silhouette of the black coated Spaniard of Sandeman (founded around 1796) and this was introduced in 1926.
Another brand was created by Findlaters (founded 1823) who in 1934 were marketing a popular brown sherry called March Brown named after a fly used in trout fishing. Later they launched Dry Fly a brand for a lighter fino style.
The Domecq group (founded 1730) developed La Ina but the most famous of all the dry or fino sherry brands was Tio Pepe the flagship of Gonzales Byass (founded1835). Jeffs tells the following story;
"A friend of mine once overheard two old gentlemen talking to one another in a dining-car on British railways;
'Will you have a glass of sherry?'
'Yes, I think I will. What sherry are you drinking?'
'Is that a dry sherry?'
'Yes, it's very dry. "Tio" means "very" and "Pepe" means "dry".
The fellow was a humbug! 'Tio Pepe' means 'Uncle Joe'."
Brand Development Opportunities
Looking back over the long history of the sherry trade it is studded with great marketing opportunities, no doubt hard to use at the time and now possibly too late to use, but what a wealth of possibilities passed by. The buccaneers Drake and Hawkins constantly harassed the shipping lanes of the Spanish and in 1587 Drake burnt the Spanish fleet in Cadiz and headed off with 2,900 pipes of sherry. Far from being a disaster this is said to have made sherry even more popular in Britain. Where is the Sir Francis Drake Sherry?
No English writer has been more enthusiastic about sherry than Shakespeare (the plays written in the late sixteenth century) and it seems remarkable that no sherry pays tribute to the great playwright. Somewhere I read there is a restaurant, El Bosque, near Jerez that has his statue in the grounds but it's not much recognition for someone who has popularised your brand.
Then in 1663 the chronicler of life Samuel Pepys bought with friends two butts of sherry and in 1683 followed this up with a trip to Jerez. That is dedication and a modern marketer would not let this opportunity slip by.
Producers and exporters were battling constant market changes as English imports varied. A healthy 40,000 butts in 1548 out of a total Spanish production of 60,000 butts fell to low levels from 1653-1659 under Cromwell and the Puritans. It rose again under the Restoration in1660, and then fell again to 5,000 butts in the middle of the eighteenth century. In the early nineteenth century it was about 8000 butts and steadily climbed to 68,000 butts in 1863. This was the golden age of sherry in England and vast fortunes were made.
The current import level is about 40,000 butts but is declining. At its peak in 1864, 43% of English wine imports were sherry and this has now declined to well under 10%.
Production varied with seasonal problems but was regularly disrupted by plagues, internal wars and constant bickering and wars between England and Spain. These are chronicled at the end of this review.
The importance of the wine trade was of course recognised thus a proclamation in 1491 allowed Spanish and foreign merchants to export without paying customs duty. Also in 1517 the English merchants in Sanlucar de Barrameda, the sherry port, were given special privileges. And wine merchants were well aware of the connection of sales with quality and in 1483 at least one governor proclaimed that only the best wines were to be shipped.
Legal Restrictions Hurting Trade
The sherry trade with England suffered numerous disruptions, many quite severe due to changes of preferential trading terms. In 1703 the Methuen treaty set favourable rates for Portugal and this also created a demand for Madeira and of course sherry sales suffered.
In 1860 Gladstone cut the duty on French wine and removed the Empire preference which altered the drinking mix away from fortified wines. The following year, 1861 Gladstone passed the single bottle act which created off-licenses and opened the wine trade to grocers. This disrupted supply chains and trading methods that had developed over centuries.
The impact of these changes took decades to evolve but seem to have influenced the trend to table wine that was well established by 1900.
The response to these types of challenges were not always thoughtfully considered in Jerez and in 1733 a growers guild was created to fix grape prices in a way designed to reduce the power of the sherry shipping firms and keep more power in the hands of the growers. This altered the type of product offered with wine of lower quality being purchased from outlying regions. As the English merchants wished to maintain steady selling prices they in turn purchased lower quality wines.
The formation of the Guild saw a large rise in the imports of Malaga (a rival fortified from Southern Spain) which became popular in Britain under the name Mountain. The Guild was not dissolved until 1834.
Perhaps the most interesting insight is Jeffs view of why the sherry trade collapsed after the rise through the nineteenth century that saw sales peak in the 'sherry boom' of the 1870's. He identifies five principle reasons and they provide lessons for today. The boom brought sherry imitations and concoctions from many other countries; the quality from Jerez declined due to demand exceeding supply; reports from some doctors suggested that the common practise of adding gypsum termed 'plastering' to the grape ferment was bad for health; changes of fashion led to a decline in popularity; and outbreaks of new fungal diseases (odium is recorded from 1855) and finally phylloxera sapped the financial strength of the growers.
Several of these are particularly relevant to today. Poor wines and imitators of sherry, the so called Hamburg sherries, being passed off as the real thing did great damage to confidence and by the late 1870's reports from merchants made note that customers were giving up sherry. A modern corollary may be the constant reoccurrence of this type of scandal, no matter how small compared to the size of the industry, has damaged the image of French wine.
It has also been argued that the opening of the wine trade to grocers in 1861 created new avenues for cheaper and poorer substitutes to real sherry to come to the market. Today it will be interesting to see what influence the dynamic growth of the grocery trade in the liquor trade will have in Australia. They are too careful to sell inferior products though the perception of the brand called wine may well shift. At the very least it will accelerate a trend that is already apparent which is the division of the wine trade into two separate industries, fast moving wines with strong brand appeal and boutique wines that are more expensive and sell on mystery and quality.
The attack by a small group of doctors about the process of adding lime and or gypsum to the grape ferments in Jerez put doubt in the buyers mind about whether it was healthy to drink which with other concerns altered the consumer's perception of sherry. Modern day equivalents are common as we have watched the swing from the negatives of a few years ago that all drinking was bad to the mood today that a few glasses of wine are good for you. The lesson is how quickly this can change.
A further set back to the popularity of sherry came in June, 1901 with the sale of a large quantity of sherry from stocks of the Royal Household by Edward VII. This led the Daily Mail to say; "Sherry is a neglected drink quite fallen from the fashionable estate in which our forbears held it."
Modern day equivalents of bad news that reinforces a perception that has already taken root are not hard to find.
Changing Consumer Tastes and New Products
The sherry trade adapted and evolved to shifts in tastes although for the greater part of its long history is was a sweet fortified wine. The sweetening agent came from sweet wine and sherry that was boiled down and added to the final blend. The questions that you would like answered such as what did the early wines taste like, how great were the differences between various suppliers, and did these tastes evolve over the many centuries of trade are unanswered. The idea of writing a wine tasting note, no matter how basic and subjective they are even today was an idea that had not developed.
The first recorded use of amontillado, one of the drier styles, is recorded in the books of Pascual Moren de Mora, a sherry shipper, in 1769. This may mean that drier wines were being made and shipped before this time although other sources believe drier styles were only developed in Victorian times (approximately 1840 to 1890). When fino's were first shipped is even more obscure though Jeffs believes they were not part of the regular trade until the 1850's. From this time it is said the sherry trade is like its modern equivalent.
The time of development of the very light fino, manzanilla is also uncertain although it may date from 1800. The name though did not become common in commercial records until after 1814. Its popularity in Britain came much later.
A more sophisticated consumer required a consistent product and this led to the development of the bodega-solera system. This probably developed over a long time though the best guess is to place it in the late 18th or early 19th century. The records of the sherry company Garvey do not mention a solera until 1849. The invention of this method of making a uniform product is of immense importance and was a major commercial achievement.
The history of sherry also confirms the business adage that in times of change it is a good time to open a new business.
And lastly the emphasis on the special soils and underlying bedrock that are needed to make sherry is quite striking. It is not only this book but all those about sherry who make a strong connection between the white chalky albariza soils and the highest wine quality. While many contemporary books relate the importance of rocks and soil to wine quality the evidence for this is meagre and only two instances come to mind where the connection may be proven these being the white soils of Jerez and the red soils of Coonawarra.
And for a strange expression of the notion of terroir what about the effect of the sea air of Sanlucar de Barrameda on fino that changes it to the delicate fino called manzanilla.
This wonderfully researched book is full of interest and since its commercial descriptions may have the most appeal let us finish with a quote from a letter sent by C. F. Humbert to his son Arthur Humbert. Alexander Williams while in Jerez married Amy Humbert and he asked Amy's father for a loan to start a new business. This was agreed to as long as Amy's brother Arthur could also join the fledgling firm. It went on to become the famous sherry house of Williams and Humbert.
Remembering these lines will reward anyone contemplating going into any business.
"My Dear Arthur,
….if the firm fails I shall lose my 1000 pounds and as to Williams and Amy all will be destruction. You must, therefore, succeed, and I am sure the way to do it is to sell good wine at a reasonable rate of profit, at less profit in fact than has usually been taken, and to do the business honourably , and as well as it can be done…….
Kind love from all,
Yours affectionately, C.F. Humbert." >From a letter dated October 16th, 1877.
A Chronology of the Sherry Trade
The dates and events discussed by Jeffs are arranged by time and provide a summary of the many challenges that the sherry trade battled over its 650 years of trade with Britain. The Spanish dates refer to events covering Jerez and the shipping ports of Sanlucar de Barrameda, Cadiz and Peurto de Santa Maria.
1340 A record of Spanish wine being imported. Edward III's maritime policy encouraged trade.
1342-1400 Chaucer wrote of a wine very similar to sherry, it was certainly already fortified.
1402 Serious floods ushered in the new century and the population was devastated by plagues. During this century the best vineyard land was first planted.
1435 Exports were forbidden due to poor harvests.
1483 English ships had stopped calling owing to a war with Vizcaya (a northern Spanish province).
1483 At least one provincial governor proclaimed that only the best wines were to be shipped to England.
1485 A record of shipping sherry to Plymouth.
1491 A proclamation that Spanish and foreign merchants could export without paying customs duty.
1492 The Jews were expelled and foreigners arrived to fill the vacuum.
1498 Columbus on his third voyage set sail from Sanlucar and the town became a major centre for the American trade.
1500-1599 The sherry trade was solidly established in this century.
1517 The English trade was so important that the English merchants were given special privileges such as customs allowances and a special court to try civil actions between Englishmen.
1533-1603 After Henry VIII was excommunicated in 1533 the English merchant's lives and businesses were full of peril. This continued under the reign of Elizabeth I which ended in 1603.
1540 The English merchants began to be hounded by the inquisition.
1548 The total wine production of Jerez was 60,000 butts of which 40,000 went to England so business was still good despite increasing problems.
1558-1603 Under the reign of Elizabeth I conflict between the countries increased and trade was at times banned.
1561 Merchants exported 40,000 butts which is about 20,000,000 litres.
1585 The merchant buccaneers Hawkins and Drake harassing the shipping lanes which infuriated the Spaniards. English merchants in Sanlucar were arrested but kept shipping.
1587 Drake burnt the Spanish fleet in Cadiz and headed off with 2,900 pipes which are larger than butts. This publicity helped sherry sales.
1570 Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth I.
1580 'The Moriscos have risen again and done great harm….Sheris is in doubt of them because they are many"
1587 Mary Queen of Scots was executed and Pope Sixtus V proclaimed a crusade.
1588 Spain responds with the Spanish Armada sent to attack England.
1595 English sack Cadiz for the second time.
1603 Elizabeth I dies.
1604 Peace with Spain and the sack flows again.
1610 Poor quality sherry was being shipped.
1611 By now there is a big colony of British merchants in and around Sanlucar and not just sherry traders.
1625 The earliest English document that calls the town of Jerez, Sherries.
1625 Charles I invaded the region but the troops are poorly equipped and the soldiers got drunk on sherry and were defeated.
1653-1659 The Puritans gain control in Britain with a protectorate under Cromwell. Consumption of sherry drops.
1660 The restoration of the monarchy and the sherry flows again.
1655 The English capture Jamaica, and a year later Spain declares war and seizes all ships and goods belonging to English merchants in Spanish ports
1668 After this declaration of war import of Spanish wine were hindered by excessive duties.
1662 Samuel Pepys and others buy two butts of sherry.
1683 Pepys visits sherry country and the flourishing colony of British merchants at Sanlucar.
1700-1799 It is not a great century for sherry and at the lowest point imports drop to 5000 butts per year. The reasons are not really clear but there are endless squabbles between the countries and Spain has fallen into economic stagnation.
1703 The Methuen treaty gives preferential rates of duty to Portugal. The English begin trading in Madiera. Sherry sales decline.
1733 The growers of grapes around Jerez set up a guild to fix prices and restricted what the merchants could store in the way of completed wine in a way designed to keep more profit in the hands of the grape growers.
1733 and later. The sales of Malaga (another Spanish fortified), in response to these restrictions, particularly a brand called Mountain, grow. Exports from Malaga were greater than from Cadiz or Sanlucar
1754 Trade is poor with only nine sherry shippers left and only one an Englishman.
1800 Merchants work hard to revive the English trade with success and prosperity grows.
1804-1813 The Peninsula wars disrupt trade and after troops are garrisoned in Jerez the town is left in ruins.
1810-1812 The French occupy Jerez.
1834 The growers Guild is dissolved after 101 years.
1834 An outbreak of cholera in Jerez. Four thousand people die over three months.
1840 English social conventions began to develop that made it correct to entertain with wine so a decanter of sherry was always available. This is very good for sales.
1810-1873 Sales improve at a steady rate. In the early years of the century 8000 butts were exported. By 1840 it was17000 butts, by1860 it was 30,000 butts and increased by 1873 to 68000 butts. This equals about 46 million bottles or close to 4 million cases.
1855 The imported fungal pest, oidium spreads just at a point of unprecedented demand. Poorer quality wine was bought in from outlying areas to satisfy demand. Some English wine merchants lowered quality to maintain price points.
1860 Gladstone cut the duty on French wine and removed the Empire preference.
1861 Gladstone changes the licensing laws and off-licences are allowed which opens the trade to grocers.
1864 43.41% of total wine imports to Great Britain are sherry.
1870's-1880's A shortage of sherry and a boom in demand leads to short cuts and concocted wines being passed off as sherry. This finally did great damage to the market. It is said that grocers sold these inferior products.
1873 The start of a debate by a doctor that suggested sherry contained odd chemicals with the assumption being it may be unhealthy. This is said to affect sales.
1892 Peasant rebellion breaks out in the vineyards
1894 Phylloxera appears and its devastation weakened the grower and made it even harder to get stock to supply the boom.
1901 Queen Victoria died and a great deal of surplus sherry was sold from the royal cellars which suggesting it was no longer fashionable.
1910 In Jerez they formed the Sherry Shippers Association to promote sherry.
1933 The standard of sherry begins to be controlled by the Consejo Regulador de la Denominacion de Origin Jerez-Xeres-Sherry.