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Interview with Roy Hersh

It was about 3 years ago that I first started visiting the bulletin board over at erobertparker.com. At that time, I was just starting to fall in love with wine, and I found this forum to be a good place to ask questions that I couldn’t find answers to elsewhere. And as a result of the high level of wine knowledge among the board members, I was able to learn not only about regions, grapes etc, and concepts and ideas that I had never considered before.

One such member of the board is Roy Hersh, a man who has probably forgotten more about Port wine than I will ever fully know. I found that reading his tasting notes and listening to his comments helped me to learn and appreciate port in a new way. About a year ago, this sharing of knowledge became a bit more formal when Roy launched an email only newsletter called: For the Love of Port. At first, an informal “send me your email” type arrangement, it is currently about to go public with the introduction of For the Love of Port website.

Last month, I sent Roy a note requesting an interview. My hope is that the following Q&A, conducted by email, will provide all of you with some good information about Port wine and other wines of the Iberian peninsula. This is the first in what I hope to be a long line of interviews with wine producers, importers, and other people with a high knowledge of wine from Spain and Portugal. Enjoy the interview and let me know what you think.

-Ryan

Interview with Roy Hersh by email during June of 2005

1) When did you fall in love with port and why?

I worked in a fine dining restaurant in NYC called, The Water Club, which was literally situated directly on the East River. I was the Back of House Manager and responsible for all of the purchasing and other duties. We had a very progressive Wine Steward named Sam Correnti, who created one of the finest dessert wine lists in the city back then. We had one of the early Cruvinet systems which kept wine preserved with inert gas for a few days or longer. There were a few great vintage Ports on the list and my favorite was the 1963 Sandeman at the time. Whenever Sam would decant a new bottle to remove the sediment, he’d make sure I was present. He’d filter it through cheese cloth and we’d each have a sip. He knew I loved the stuff so he would hand me the still dripping cheese cloth when he was done. It had the sediment in it and I would hold it above my head and ratchet it tightly and squeeze every last drop from it. He used to get a kick out of watching me do that. This is my earliest memory of Port that goes back 22 years, now.


2) In your opinion what is the most exciting non-port wine currently coming out of Portugal?

Ok, let me ask you, what is your favorite child? Neither are easy questions to answer. For whites I am really excited to see the great progress that has been made qualitatively speaking, with Vinho Verde. I first started to drink it, in 1994 when I ventured north of the Douro Valley into the where much of the top “Green Wine” comes from. At the time, there was very little in terms of exuberant juice and most was sold in bulk or made for supermarket brands at very low price points. There has been a lot more attention paid to this wine today and the quality has increased exponentially. Fortunately, the USA has started to catch on, and some importers are doing a great job with this wine but it is still far from a mainstream wine on the shelf.

The red wines that I love from Portugal, are naturally from the Douro River Valley region and come from the same grapes as Port, and are fermented dry and obviously, not fortified. The Touriga Nacional grape and also Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo in Spain) are probably my two favorites for dry red table wine production. There are currently about 2 dozen world class wines that are coming out of the Douro today and many new entries are taking the domestic market in Portugal by storm. Dirk van der Niepoort is one of the leaders with his troika of Charme, Betuta and Redoma (tinta and branco). Fabulous quality. Quinta do Crasto is another fine producer and their Reserve Red and Touriga Nacional bottlings are at the top of my list. Quinta do Ventozelo, Quinta de Roriz, and a red called Pintas from the husband and wife team of Jorge Borges and Sandra Tavares-Borges, are doing wonderful things and gaining notoriety too.

3) Who are the most exciting new producers?

I am glad you asked. Port as we all know, has a very long and storied tradition behind it. Some of the old guard have been around since the 1600s. Along with some regulatory changes in 1986 which permit the cellaring and marketing of Port wine from the Quintas up the Douro River, (instead of Vila Nova de Gaia’s historic Port Lodges), has brought forth many Single Quinta Ports and some spectacular Vintage Ports, not to mention their stunning table wines too. But back to Port!

Some of the new names to keep an eye on are Quinta do Portal which has been around since the 1994 Vintage and is making some of the most exciting new Vintage Ports, with the 1999 vintage being the turning point, in my opinion. Quinta do Vallado, Quinta do Ventozelo, Quinta do Vale Dona Maria are just a few of the dozen rising stars that I have enjoyed. There are many other names and wines to be tried and I have a report on over 40 of the 2003 Vintage Ports in my upcoming July issue of my newsletter. I bet there are nearly ten producers of the 40 that almost no Americans have even heard of. This too shall change.

4) Do you think Portugal will survive the “wine glut” that is occurring world wide, and if so, why or why not?

I foresee four countries on the verge of a world wide break out situation in terms of a wine explosion. They are Spain, South Africa, New Zealand and Portugal. All but NZ are traditional old world wine producing nations, with a variety of terrains, regions and grapes. The current “wine glut” is their opportunity to gain market share, even though I believe the cyclical nature of the glut, will change market dynamics during the rest of this decade.

Portugal is a very diverse country when it comes to wine production. In addition to the Vinho Verde and Douro regions, I foresee the Alentejo and Dao regions as becoming “hot spots” in the coming years. They can produce both red and white wines that are not only gaining in popularity, but the prices are quite palatable. There is no shortage of juice and the producers have been ramping up the quality slowly over the past 5-10 years and they’re poised for a breakthrough. The tidal wave is coming as consumers become more open minded and look to find something besides Australia, Chile and Argentinean in their quest for value added wine experiences.

5) How is the 2005 vintage shaping up for Portugal?

Honestly, I have no idea. I am so focused on evaluating 40+ cask samples of 2003 Vintage Ports, my focus has been solely on that vintage recently. I can tell you that the 2004 Vintage Ports are of a high quality and had 2003 not been generally declared, my bet is that 2004 would have been. I still think there will be some very good VPs to come from that vintage. As to 2005, it is just about time for veraison to occur in the vineyards, so it is really still too early to make any type of forecast.

6) 2003 was a declared vintage for Port, how do you think 2003 will compare to the past vintages?

Quite favorably. For specifics, you’ll just have to read my next newsletter. I will say though, that from the 30+ Vintage Ports I have opened so far, my expectations have been exceeded, in terms of overall quality. Sorry, but I can’t elaborate more, but in three weeks, my opinions will no longer be closely guarded.

7) Some questions about your “For The Love Of Port” newsletter:

Why did you start it?

Okay, I am still waiting for the easy questions to come!
Seriously though, your questions are thought provoking and I hope my responses do not bore your readers.

In June of 2003, I was one of two Americans “enthroned” into the IVDP or Port and Douro Wine Institute’s “Confraria” (or Brotherhood) in a somber ceremony attended by Portuguese President Sampaio in addition to all members of the Portuguese trade and many past Confraria members. For this honor, I took an oath, “I swear to lend my support to the Confraria and to continue fighting for the dignification of Port wine.” If you’d ask my wife, she’d tell you that I take this oath, way too seriously. I truly have dedicated the title of my newsletter to this quest and that is the reason, I will never charge for subscriptions. FOR THE LOVE OF PORT, is truly just that and the newsletter is both educational and promotional while offering Port related insights, that are not found in your typical wine magazine.

What do you want people to get from it?

I would like to believe that my passion comes across to subscribers and that they gain knowledge and have access to tasting notes, articles and breaking news that makes each issue worth reading from start to finish.

What are your future plans for it?

My future plans for the newsletter are humble. I expect that the format won’t change too drastically. I have yet to decide if it will remain a monthly venture or if it may eventually wind up a quarterly newsletter instead. That will probably be decided by the readership. I am pushing for more interactivity with myself and the readers. Currently, I receive about 30-40 emails a week requesting information on Ports and also Madeira which is another Portuguese passion of mine. This summer, the newsletter will be linked with my articles by a website: www.fortheloveofport.com

Any hints about upcoming article ideas?

I have been writing articles on Port since 1995 and will have some of my archived pieces on the aforementioned website. In the upcoming July issue of FTLOP newsletter, I will release my 2003 Vintage Port Forecast and it promises to be informative. My article on the 2000 Vintage Port Forecast was copied in six languages and placed on websites around the globe. I hope this garners the same level of attention. Beyond July, I foresee doing a 2005 harvest issue and a few interviews later in the year.

What do you hope the future holds for your newsletter?

The future for the newsletter and website are bright and I plan to make a career change, enabling me to visit the Port and Madeira areas, numerous times during the year. I am going to be starting up an “insider’s” tour of everything Port and a separate itinerary for Madeira. In leading these trips with a Portuguese partner who is a close buddy of mine, we’ll present “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences that will include exciting culinary and vinous explorations, that will be not only fun, but almost like a casual, sensorial seminar. This will provide me with great photo opportunities and fodder for timely articles in the future, while offering our guests, experiences to “meet, eat and drink” in ways they could never duplicate on their own. I am looking forward to this change in life.

8) Have you explored Spanish wine much, and if so, what excites you?

I can not claim to be well-versed in Spanish wines, but I have had my share. I have been fortunate to try some old bottles of Rioja from the late 1950s through the late ’70s. Castillo Ygay’s 1959 and Ribera Del Duero’s Vega Sicilia’s Unico from ’53, ’70, ’75 and ’91 stand out in memory. I have enjoyed lots of sherry but can never wrap my mind around the Fino style, as I have a sweet tooth. I was fortunate to unearth a gold mine of ancient Malaga and PX wines from 1911 through the early 1930s bottlings. Great stuff! Currently, one of my newest fascinations in wine is Priorat, over the past year or so. So far my epiphanal Priorat experience was a 1994 Clos Erasmus, but I have had quite a few great bottlings from the late 1990s and am a big fan of Clos Martinet and Mogado too. My own collection ranges with a few older bottles but contains mostly 2001s. These are great wines and I am glad that they have not become more mainstream yet, as they are already quite pricey.

9) Finally, and most importantly, what is your favorite $10, or less wine, and your favorite “no budget” wine?

Yikes, I don’t get to drink enough wines in that price range. I recently had a great bottle of Broadbent Vinho Verde that was an excellent value at $9. I have also had the good fortune to buy very reasonably priced South African wines during a couple of trips to the winelands. There are so many bargains over there. Ahh, I did buy a handful of 2001 Onix Priorats, the entry level bottling and paid $11 a piece (close enough to $10) and they were terrific in the scheme of things. On the high end, I am a sucker for Henschke’s Hill of Grace, Phelps Insignia, Pichon Baron and Hanzell Pinot Noir … but my dessert island wine would be a great 19th century Madeira, without question.

On a final note, after I sent Roy these questions, I received his For the Love of Port newsletter issue #9 where I read this:


No one who knows me would normally describe me as naive, but little did I realize the impact of my words in the May edition of FTLOP newsletter. That all changed over the past few weeks, after I featured a piece in issue #8, entitled: Ranking the Port Shippers and Producers: The Top 30. After publication, I rather quickly received around a half dozen emails and even a phone call one very early morning, from principals within the Port trade. It seems that my placement of Shippers and Producers into a tier system caused a minor commotion and certainly a few discussions. I no longer have any claims of naivete as a writer. As with each and every segment that is included in FOR THE LOVE OF PORT, considerable thought went into the rankings as well as the parameters utilized to determine the placement within the various tiers. As a Port loving amateur journalist, I lacked the perspective to foresee the train wreck just around the bend. In all fairness, the emails were extremely professional and polite. However, they were clear as an azure sky in summer, and their “suggestions” left little to the imagination. One such
respected industry respondent explained that these rankings could take on more historical significance than he believed I had realized. Humility tastes better, when sprinkled with sugar and consumed for breakfast. Although it would have been easy to ignore or to politely brush these comments aside, I realized that within a week, I would be facing a few of these same gents whom had penned critiques, in person. So, with honesty as the best policy, no excuses were offered and I did my best to provide specific details, stating my case backing up the rankings.

Wanting to know more about the stir that occurred, I asked Roy:

I read about your “ranking” of Port producers causing quite a commotion in the port community. I was wondering what you hope the rating system you implemented might do for/to the trade?

I don’t know what my rankings will do for the trade. I am just one man and this was my opinion of what are the top 30 companies producing Vintage Ports given specific determinants. I now know that the Port trade certainly was paying attention to what I wrote, which I guess was the positive facet that came out of the entire clamor at the time.

So with Roy’s permission, I am reprinting:

Roy Hersh’s Top 30 Ranking of Port Shippers & Producers
(originally printed in issue #8 of “For the love of Port”)

Recently, I was requested to submit a list of Port Shippers and Producers, after placing them in a semblance of order. This was no easy feat, the least of which was to decide on specific criterion that would be used in the process. I quickly recognized that this was no way to win friends and influence people, nonetheless, as it was initially printed in the public domain, it certainly is worthy of publication in this newsletter. Below, you will find the parameters used for my selection process, which is then followed by the 30 Port companies that are segregated into four tiers.

Rankings were based on the following:

  • Vintage Ports only
  • Considering the overall quality of vintages from 1900 – 2000
  • Cellar worthiness of the specific houses Vintage Ports
  • Price was not a factor
Grand Cru ~ Top Tier Port Shippers & Producers
1. [Quinta do Noval Nacional->http://www.quintadonoval.com/]
2. [Fonseca->http://www.fonseca.pt/]
3. [Taylor->http://www.taylor.pt/]
4. [Graham->http://www.grahams-port.com/]
5. Niepoort
2nd Tier Vintage Port Shippers & Producers
6. [Dow*->http://www.dows-port.com/]
7. [Quinta do Noval*->http://www.quintadonoval.com/]
8. [Croft*->http://www.croftport.com/]
9. [Sandeman*->http://www.sandeman.com/]
10. [Warre->http://www.warre.com/]
11. [Quinta do Vesuvio->http://www.quinta-do-vesuvio.com/]
12. [Cockburn->http://www.cockburns-usa.com/]
3rd Tier Vintage Port Shippers & Producers
13. Ferreira
14. [Quinta de Vargellas*->http://www.taylor.pt/qtvargellas.asp]
15. [Gould Campbell*->http://www.smithwoodhouse.com/gc.htm]
16. [Smith Woodhouse*->http://www.smithwoodhouse.com/]
17. [Quinta do Crasto->http://www.broadbent-wines.com/wines/crasto.html]
18. Offley Forrester (and Boa Vista)
19. [Delaforce->http://www.kobrandwine.com/prodbook/del000.html]
20. [Quinta do Portal->http://www.quintadoportal.com/main.php]
4th Tier Vintage Port Shippers & Producers
21. [Quinta do Infantado->http://www.wineanorak.com/douro9Infantado.htm]
22. [Churchill->http://www.churchills-port.com/]
23. [Burmester->http://www.burmesterporto.com/en/historia/historia.htm]
24. [Kopke->http://www.kopkeports.com/]
25. Quarles Harris
26. Andresen
27. [Ramos Pinto->http://www.ramospinto.pt/home_ing.htm]
28. Feist
29. [Martinez->http://www.martinez.pt/ing/main.html]
30. Royal Oporto

* denotes a minor change of positioning, since my original ranking was published

Any last comments?

The ONLY other thing I would very much appreciate is if you would have folks email me: Portolover [at] aol.com, if they’d like to get free subscription to the newsletter. All I need is the following information:

  • first and last name
  • city, state and country of residence
  • With that I would like to thank Roy for taking the time to talk with me and lending his expertise on Port wine. Make sure to check out For the Love of Port, it should be up and running sometime near the end of July. Also, let me know what you think of this interview and let me know if there is anyone else you would like to see interviewed in the comments below.

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