George Sandeman, chairman of the brand named after his ancestors (it's now owned by Sogrape), told this story while promoting a new bottle design for Sandeman Tawny Ports.
Sandeman Tawny Ports now look just like whiskey. This is an attempt to confer some of whiskey's cachet with millennials, but I digress. Here's the San Francisco-discovers-Tawny story.
Sandeman said he was working in New York for the big wine importer Chateau & Estate Wines. Sales of vintage Port in San Francisco were dead.
"This was in the '80s, when our vintage wines weren't very good," Sandeman told me. "Tawny was easier for restaurants. They didn't have to worry about which vintage was good, and neither did customers."
San Francisco restaurants started selling Tawny Port after meals with cheese or dessert, and it quickly took off, spreading as a trend to Los Angeles and then eastward. The trend was so successful that by the mid-'90s Sandeman stopped making 10-year Tawny because it needed to build up stocks of older wine to support production of the 20-year, a better product both aesthetically and sales-wise.
By 2006, stocks had rebuilt enough -- and fortified wine sales overall had cooled enough -- for Sandeman to get back into the 10-year Tawny market. Now the challenge, and it's a big one, is to spark interest again.
If it's hard to sell Tawny Port, it's hard to sell any fortified wine. Don't let New York wine geeks fool you: Sherry sales continue to drop. Vintage Port isn't something Americans drink anymore. Speaking of wine geeks, Madeira is an obsession for many of us (guilty!), but it hasn't penetrated the outside world.
Tawny Port is actually the most successful fortified wine in today's dining environment. Check out this Guild of Sommeliers survey from last year: 61% of the fortified wine sold in restaurants is Tawny Port. Hurray for San Francisco!
|Looks like Bourbon; tastes like Port|
George Sandeman came to San Francisco to show off the new whiskey-like bottles, and to get bloggers like me to come, he offered a Tawny Port pairing dinner. This excited me. Can one actually drink Tawny Port throughout a meal?
The answer is no. For the main course, even George himself ordered a Cabernet. Sitting right next to him, I gamely tried to enjoy 40-year Tawny with rare roast beast, but ended up unsatisfied with the combination and drunker than I wanted to be (Tawny Port is about 19% alcohol.)
I did enjoy some great Tawny Port, though, and here are some interesting bits in my notebook from when I can still read the handwriting.
|Robots, not feet|
🍷 Blending might be making Tawny Port less interesting. Sandeman brought two samples of components, and in each case I liked the finished product less than the raw barrel sample, which is rare for me, as I generally dislike barrel samples but have to taste scores of them. These were no ordinary barrel samples: one was an 18-year-old Port that tasted lively with pronounced cola notes; the other was old enough to be in the 40-year Tawny, but was more interesting, with more richness and fruitiness. In both cases, blending dulled the excitement, though it did make a polished and dependable product, and I did enjoy both the 20-year and 40-year Sandeman Tawny Ports.
🍷 The 40-year is expensive, at over $100 a bottle, but Sandeman 20-year Tawny Port is good value at $45 a bottle, especially because Tawny Port will last for weeks in the refrigerator after opening, allowing you to savor it a small glass at a time. Buy it here.
🍷 Me: "Will the new bottle cost more?" Sandeman: "I don't think the package has added anything to the price. (pause) However, we are underpriced in the market."
🍷 Sandeman: "Making a vintage Port is very easy. Making an aged Tawny is really difficult. We compare sometimes with our friends in Scotland. To make a 12-year-old Scotch, you put the spirit in a barrel. You put the barrel in a warehouse. You give the key to customs. And you come back in 12 years, open the warehouse, drain the barrel and you sell it."
In contrast, Tawny Port starts out as Ruby Port and is racked every year to give it oxygen. The winemaker keeps tasting the barrels all along to come up with the right blend, because 20-year doesn't literally mean 20 years old, OR a minimum of 20 years -- it's just a target age. (To be fair to their friends in Scotland, when you buy an 18-year-old Scotch, that's the minimum age of the components in the bottle.)
" 'Recipe' would not be a good word," Sandeman said. "By saying 'recipe' you imply that you have the same ingredients. They never put together the lot (for 10 year or 20 year, etc) the first time. It takes a week or two weeks of work."
🍷 Do I have to stay for dessert if I'm already drinking 40-year Tawny? My notes end there. I did not get dessert.