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Wine Tourism in Sherry Country and a Lesson from Portugal

Two weeks ago, after a very relaxing holiday in Galicia, we chose to make our way home to Jerez via Portugal, stopping off for two nights in Oporto on the way. I’ve been to where they make Madeira, I live where they make sherry but I had never been to Oporto, so this was an exciting opportunity to visit the place where they make Port. For me, the “traditional” fortified wines are madeira, sherry and port so in a way this completes the circle.

What struck me immediately on arriving at Vila Nova de Gaia, where all the port lodges are, was how geared up they are for visitors. This is starkly different to the experiences to be had at the sherry bodegas in Jerez. I’m being general here, so there are exceptions, but I think the sherry trade could learn a lot from their cousins in Portugal. But of course that’s only if the sherry trade sees any benefit in visitors to their bodegas. I often wonder if they really do.

If I were a winemaker and someone made the effort to turn up at my cellar door, interested in my product, I’d be more than happy to show them around, give them a taste and hopefully sell them a bottle or, even better, a case or two. Surely, that’s good PR? Is there any point in catering for wine tourism? Is it worth opening up to visitors? Actions speak louder than words, so the port companies obviously think wine tourism is a good thing. The morning we arrived in Oporto we managed to visit four different lodges (Calem, Kopke, Sandeman and Grahams), take the tour and try their wines. None cost more than €3, and some were free. Every lodge seemed to have tours starting at regular intervals throughout the day, and only a few were not open on Sundays. They all had shops, and the ones I went into were doing a brisk trade. Some of the port houses even had little minibuses doing the rounds, picking up visitors for their next tour. That’s how we landed up at Grahams. Everywhere the guides spoke impeccable English, were all very knowledgeable and able to answer technical questions. Very professional.

The following day, a Saturday, I went in for a bit of retail therapy. My goal was to buy a bottle from as many different producers as possible. I didn’t do too badly, coming away with bottles from Grahams, Quinto do Vesuvio, Croft, Vasconcellos, Sandeman, Fonseca, Ferreira and Offley. The whole experience was so simple, so easy. All the staff I encountered were friendly and helpful. Try that in Jerez on any day of the week! Once I tried to buy the new Harveys VORS wines, their Amontillado, Oloroso and PX and after two hours of wasted time, failed. I was promised by phone call that the wines were in stock and the shop open for several more hours. I immediately went to the bodega and followed signs for the shop only to find it closed, so I went to the porter’s lodge where I found myself in trouble with the porter for not signing in first. Surely a dressing down is not the best way to treat a potential customer? It turns out the person in charge of the shop was “away” and not due back for a couple of hours. When I finally made it into the shop the VORS Sherries were not in stock after all. Frustration!

There is only one sherry bodega in Jerez where you can turn up any time, where they take tours in Spanish, English, French and German hourly throughout the day, even on Sundays. Not surprisingly, of the approximately 500,000 people who visit a bodega in the whole Sherry region every year, about 210 thousand of those go to Gonzalez Byass, the makers of Tio Pepe Fino. Their tour costs the best part of 10€, but it is quite thorough and their shop is excellent although annoyingly can only be accessed from inside the bodega. If you want to buy something from the shop, but don’t want to take the tour, you have to wait to be escorted over.

The usual form when it comes to visiting a bodega in Jerez is to ring in advance and arrange a time. You can’t just turn up and expect a tour. Quite often if you try this, and arrive unannounced, you will be treated with hostility! Sometimes it can take several phone calls to arrange the tour and don’t bother with e-mail – it’s very unlikely to be answered. If you’re visiting over a weekend then Gonzalez Byass is probably your only option, because all the other bodegas will be closed. In most cases forget about a visit after 3pm on weekdays. That’s home time! As I mentioned earlier, there are exceptions, but this has been my general experience, especially before I knew anyone at the bodegas. They don’t exactly make it easy for people to visit. Once you are inside then the tour can be variable. I have been on some fantastic tours, and if you ever get the chance to be shown around Emilio Hidalgo‘s bodegas by their tame American, Peter De Trolio, you are in for a great treat. I highly recommend their tour and their wines. Sadly, there is another end to the scale and I’ve had a gum-chewing guide take a personal call on her mobile phone half-way through an explanation about the solera system. Not professional!

This is my suggestion to the sherry bodegas. Make it easy for people to visit and buy wine. Have tours often, all day and every day, given by knowledgeable guides. Co-operate and co-ordinate with each other, for example, to save costs there could be a rota of visits spread out amongst the various bodegas with transport provided from certain points in the city as necessary. Open shops staffed by friendly people. Keep these shops open during office hours. Send your staff on courses to improve their customer service.

Last year, 2007, just over 7 million visitors came to the region. I’m sure that’s a fraction of the people who visit Oporto, but it’s many times the numbers who visit a sherry bodega. So even though it’s very frustrating for me when I think about the opportunities being lost for sherry at the moment, I also get very excited when I think about the huge potential. There is easily the possibility to double or even triple the number of people visiting a sherry bodega every year, many potential converts to this great wine. This has got to be a good thing. Being able to introduce people to sherry, where it’s made and showing them how to best enjoy it must be a fantastic opportunity.

Hasta la Proxima,

Justin Roberts

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