Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Tawny Port's popularity, such as it is, comes from San Francisco restaurants

George Sandeman
Tawny Port, now easily the best-selling fortified wine in the US, is apparently a San Francisco phenomenon.

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
Problem is, that's 61% of a market that seems to drop every year. We are out of the habit of ordering after-dinner drinks of any kind because dinners are getting shorter and more informal in most restaurants, while lasting unbearably longer in fancy restaurants, with 16-course tasting menus and pairings of 16 wines, beers, sakes and home-fermented kombuchas to go with them.

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
🍷 Sandeman no longer uses foot treading. This sucks. Foot treading is part of what makes Port cool! Esporão bought a property in the Douro Valley, Quinta dos Murças, and put "old vines and foot treading" right on the label! (More on that in a later post.) For fermentation, Sandeman still uses lagars -- rectangular open vats that allow plenty of oxygen -- but it uses robotic stompers, which is not nearly as cool as the term "robotic stompers" implies.

🍷 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.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


guren said...

Nice post, Blake. Did Mr. Sandeman mention how he positions his brand versus other Tawny Ports? I was first introduced to Sandeman ports over 30 years ago, and I seem to recall that it was a lower to medium level brand back then.

W. Blake Gray said...

Interesting question. I think the answer might be in that statement about being under-priced in the market. With the new packaging, they might be looking to move upscale.

guren said...

That makes sense. Blake, I understand that you have been known to enjoy a well-made cocktail on occasion. Do you like cocktails made with port as the main ingredient, or do you feel they are a waste of good port? How about Madeira?

W. Blake Gray said...

I have used tawny Port in cocktails, but I prefer Madeira for the same purpose. It adds a richness and really extends the finish. I made a cocktail this week with reposado Tequila, Campari and rosé Vermouth, and a half-measure of Bual Madeira, which didn't compete with the flavors but just extended the finish so I could savor them. Tawny Port would also work.