Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons released “Sherry Baby” in 1962. Did you know that originally the song was entitled “Jackie Baby” as an homage to then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy? Anyway, the song was an instant Top 40 hit, although I was three years old at the time and probably was unaware of its existence. Does a three year-old even know 40 songs? As near as I can recall my top two were “Rock-a-Bye Baby” and “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” But 58 years later, I’m a fan of Frankie and his opus.
I’m a fan of the liquid type of sherry as well. My parents didn’t stock it, and it’s not exactly the drink of choice at college keggers, so sherry was a mystery to me well into adulthood. It was something that people who were about to murder or be murdered drank before dinner in English manor houses. That all sounded terribly sophisticated, if a little ominous. But Mark and I bought a trial bottle many years ago, and we’ve been fans ever since. And I’m happy to report zero murders in conjunction with said sherries, although there have been a few manor houses along the way.
That’s why I was so glad recently to have the opportunity to tour a sherry production facility, or bodega, in Jerez. Jerez, a city in Spain very near the border with Portugal, is the birthplace of sherry. The Phoenicians brought wine-making to the area in 1100 BC or thereabouts. The Greeks kicked out the Phoenicians but kept the grapes; the Romans did the same when they supplanted the Greeks. The Romans named the town “Ceret.” The Moors conquered this part of Spain in 711 and adapted the Latin name to “Sherish” – hence, the name “Sherry.” While Muslims aren’t allowed to consume alcohol, wine was produced for export to non-Muslim countries, and grew significantly after the area was reconquered by the Spanish in 1231. Inhabitants of Iberia became big fans of the fortified wine produced in this area. Columbus took sherry on his voyages to the New World, and when Magellan outfitted his ships for his Around-the-world voyage, he spent more on sherry than on armaments. (This seems like a solid choice to me.) The Brits became big fans when Sir Frances Drake captured 2900 barrels of sherry from the Spanish During a raid on Cádiz and brought them back to what was probably soon a very cheerful Queen Elizabeth. To this day, a drink called “sherry” must come from this region. It’s the oldest official denomination of origin in Spain.
Sherry is made by aging, fermenting, and mixing wine in casks like the ones you see in the picture here. Different methods are used to create different types of sherries. A fino, for example, is made with a cap of yeast in the barrel to prevent additional oxygen from getting into the wine. It ends up being very dry and rather sharp. An oloroso is a middle-type sherry, which is more robust and sweeter. Cream sherry is the classic choice for Brits, and amontillado (of Poe fame) is common in the USA.
The part of the process I found most interesting was the blending. The producers use the solero method. This refers to the three-row stacking you see in the picture (suelo means “ground” in Spanish). The youngest wine is always on the top row. The middle-aged wine is in the center, and the oldest is on the bottom. Twice a year, a percentage of the oldest sherry is taken from the bottom casks. That percentage is replaced by wine from the middle row. The middle row is replenished by the top row, and the top row gets new product. In this way, many years’ vintages are present in each bottle, and it’s said that to drink sherry is “to drink time.”
It seems to me that, at least in this regard, we’re all a little like sherry. I’m 61, and people expect me to act like I’m 61, whatever that means. But inside me is the three year-old singing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” quietly to herself and working her chubby fingers to get the hand movements right. There’s also the slightly snotty, anxious girl of 15 and the gung-ho young woman of 22 wearing a suit and one of those dreadful bow ties from the 1980s. There’s the busy-ness of Ms. 35, who’s running from job to job to daycare to school to home with a to-do list that keeps getting bigger and an energy supply that keeps getting inversely shorter. There’s the woman in her late 40s, watching both parents die and both kids head off to high school and college and adulthood and wondering who she will be when no one needs her any more. There’s the woman of 56, seeing gray hairs in the mirror and the clock on the wall that ticks faster and faster each year. And there are all the other ages in between. You get the idea. That most American of poets, Walt Whitman, said that he contained multitudes. That’s usually interpreted as meaning that he had many facets to his personality, but I think we also each contain many ages in us. Like the sherry, we’re a blend, and to know a person is to taste their time.
I find this idea comforting, in a way. It’s normal that my 61 year-old body wants to parasail and ride roller coasters and hike in the woods; it thinks it’s 21, sometimes. And if I’m cranky and tired and hungry, well, my three year-old is just showing up. And if I’m ready for an adventure now because
time is just so bloody short, welcome to my current age. I’m in the cask on the bottom row, and all of my vintages want to sit on my tongue and be noticed.
So here’s my toast to all of you who read this, to every age that you’ve ever been: Let’s raise a glass to Sherry Baby. And may wine and music infuse each and every one of your days.