Great Escapes

06.15.14

Why Maya Angelou Loved Sherry, The Drink of Brilliant Renegades

She usually had a glass at eleven a.m., and—along with a Bible and Roget’s Thesaurus—sherry was a vital writing accessory of Maya Angelou’s. What makes it so good, and where should the sherry virgin begin?

In 1990, during an interview with George Plimpton for The Paris Review, Maya Angelou revealed the few items she brought into Spartan hotel rooms in which she wrote her seminal works: the Bible, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow notepads, an ashtray and a bottle of sherry.

“I might have it at six-fifteen a.m.,” she explained, “just as soon as I get in, but usually it’s about eleven o’clock when I’ll have a glass of sherry.”

Angelou was otherworldly, even during her lifetime. At her memorial service last week, former president Bill Clinton commended her for calling our attention to “dignity, work, love and kindness.” Oprah Winfrey called her “spiritual queen mother” and “my anchor,” and Michelle Obama praised her as “one of the greatest spirits the world has ever known.”

Her hardships and accolades are well documented. Before she turned thirty, she was raped, became a mute child, dropped out of high school to become San Francisco’s first black female streetcar conductor, graduated high school, gave birth to a son, supported herself as a waitress, and danced on television with Alvin Ailey. In her early thirties she moved to Egypt to run a newspaper, learned five languages and met Malcolm X, whom she returned to America to work for. Her close friend, Martin Luther King, was assassinated on her 30th birthday.

Angelou never conformed to anyone else’s version of ‘normal.’  Her poem, Phenomenal Woman, captures her swagger and authenticity, her clear understanding of self, her disinterest in limitation through outside expectation, her curiosity. It radiates her inner light and compass, her disregard for status quo.

Angelou’s beverage choice, sherry, brazenly reflects that same spirit.  She drank sherry because she enjoyed it, not because it was popular or stylish. At the time of that interview, it was decidedly neither.

“And then, finally, you write ‘The End,’” George Plimpton surmised, “and there it is; you have a little bit ofsherry.” “A lot of sherry then,” Angelou said.

Sherry is finally, slowly, coming back into fashion. British author Julian Jeffs published his first edition of the important book, Sherry, in 1961. Peter Liem authored Sherry, Manzanilla, Montilla in 2012; it became the first new sherry book to be published in the United States in over two decades.  Talia Baiocchi, editor-in-chief of the drinks culture website PUNCH, will release Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World’s Best-Kept Secret, with Cocktails and Recipes, published by Ten Speed Press, this fall. I asked her what inspired this sherry renaissance. “Derek Brown asked me, on the topic of sherry’s apparent austerity, ‘When you think about things in life you truly love, how many of them were immediate?’ During the 1990s, wine was praised for its immediacy. We are starting to outgrow that. We’re becoming more curious as a culture.”

It seems entirely fitting that Angelou championed sherry, a fortified wine from Andalucía, in Southern Spain often described as “forgotten,” “great,” “misunderstood,” “utterly unique.” Sherry is a wine of many styles and narratives, and Angelou appreciated challenge. “I write for myself and that reader who will pay the dues,” she once noted. “There’s a phrase in … Ghana; it’s called ‘deep talk,’ [language that] when you really think about it, it takes you deeper…I’d like to think I write ‘deep talk.’”

Perhaps sherry is the ‘deep talk’ of the wine world. Xeres (where sherry originates) constitutes one of the few wine regions without a definite traceable origin. It’s likely that the Phoenicians first planted vines and Romans evolved viticulture, but no one knows for certain. Sherry’s grape, Palomino, is no star.

The capataz (roughly winemaker or cellarmaster) works with external factors like temperature and humidity to shepherd flor, a yeast that grows atop the wine in each barrel. Smaller soleras include only three or four barrels; larger ones can reach ten thousand barrels. Each barrel is unique. The capataz must “create consistency out of chaos” (Baiocchi) and usher a house style in which the whole is greater than the sum of individual parts—similar to how writers must craft a cohesive message in a book of separate chapters.

Flor growth (or its absence) dictates a range of styles within the larger sherry umbrella. Fino and Manzanilla age beneath healthy layers flor and are therefore the crispest and brightest. Manzanilla is produced identically to Fino, but it’s made in a different location, closer to the ocean (where more flor develops, which results in lighter, more ethereal, more saline wines) in and around the village Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

Amontillado spends time under flor initially, but the flor dissipates for a variety of reasons, which results in a darker color and a nuttier taste. Oloroso is even darker and nuttier; flor growth is suppressed and the wine is exposed to oxygen from an early age. Palo Cortado tastes like a lovechild born from Amontillado and Oloroso.  There is nothing simple about sherry. It is delicious, yes, but it is even more delicious when the consumer has pried into its history and process a bit. When they have followed their curiosity and done some work.

Closing his interview with Angelou, Plimpton wondered how sherry influenced her rituals after finishing a project. “And then, finally, you write ‘The End,’” he surmised, “and there it is; you have a little bit of sherry.”

“A lot of sherry then,” she said.

SHERRY FOR BEGINNERS

To get you started, below are a few suggestions from some of the country’s most passionate and informed enthusiasts. I asked them to share what inspires them at the moment and, if applicable, what sherries they drink in the morning.

Peter Liem

“I’m hardly a writer of the stature of Maya Angelou, but perhaps I ought to drink sherry in the morning too, before sitting down to write!

“Fino and manzanilla are terrific when dining, but to accompany a demanding activity such as writing, I think a grand, old amontillado or palo cortado is ideal. Something like Bodegas Tradición’s Amontillado VORS demonstrates the inimitable complexity and concentration of a wine that’s aged in cask for nearly a half-century. You don’t need a lot—just a little sip delivers an incredible intensity of flavor. Valdespino’s Viejo C.P. Palo Cortado isn’t quite as old, but it still averages about 25 years of age, and it’s wonderfully complex and refined, offering both intellectual and emotional stimulation.”

Kerin Auth, managing partner at Peninsula Wines

“While I adore Manzanilla (Orleans Borbon Manzanilla Fina or Equipos Navazos, I Think Manzanilla) and Fino (Fernando de Castilla, Antique Fino) I drink various shades of brown Sherry most often at home. An Amontillado (Lustau ‘Almacenista’ Gonzalez Obregon) or a late night, Palo Cortado (Emilio Hidalgo, Marques de Rodil) with a movie or a book. An Oloroso (Alvear Oloroso Asuncion) with Korean Food, braised meats, French Onion Soup, or aged cow’s milk cheese and a piece of chocolate.

“I am over the moon that my favorite Oloroso ever was just brought back into the market called Sibarita, a 30 year old Oloroso with a dash of PX from Bodegas Osborne. So rich and delicious, so dark and layered with coffee and hazelnuts, toffee, orange peel, cigar box.  Love.”

And in the mornings?

“I have been drinking a lot of Orleans Borbón Manzanilla Fina lately—a fresh on the US scene five-year-old Manzanilla with just the sweetest label ever.  Valdespino ‘Ideal’ and Alvear Pale Cream are sweetened Fino and make delicious mid-day nips.  Pears and Almonds, succulent textures, notes of marzipan…My mother and I (mostly me) drink a bottle of Pale Cream every Thanksgiving while we prepare our family’s feast.”

Talia Baiocchi

“I love the Barbadillo “En Rama” series, which the bodega bottles seasonally.  Flor growth fluctuates according to the time of year, and flor is the most active during the spring and the fall. I love tasting the various bottlings side by side, because it offers the opportunity to understand first-hand how the wine is in a constant state of flux and evolution. If I had to pick one, I’d pick the springtime edition, Saca de Primavera.”

Derek Brown of Laughing Cocktail LLC, cocktail + spirits writer and owner of several acclaimed bars in Washington, DC

“When I write, Fino or Manzanilla is the drink of choice. Great drink for writing because a bottle down and you can still write. (Half bottle, of course.) I don’t feel tipsy after. It actually makes me feel more sober. It also makes me hungry. So I fight through the writing that’s more of a chore to get to a civilized sip with a meal. Maybe that hunger makes me sharper, more aware. Whatever it is, it works.

“The Manzanilla that’s been blowing my mind lately is Fernando de Castillo’s Manzanilla. It’s über briny… salty, tangy and dry. It feels like swallowing the ocean.

“Otherwise, the morning started at 1 AM. I had a Williams & Humbert “Jalifa” VORS Amontillado. Minimum age of 30 years. Nutty, pungent and rich but still dry. The finish lasts forever and—I imagine but haven’t tried yet—works well with eggs and sausage. Maybe pancakes.”