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Andalusian Ambrosia

As Brandy Consumption Declines at Home, Spanish Producers Look for New Connoisseurs
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

(continued from page 3)

Ignacio Osborne eats his breakfast as light jazz wafts through the Icon restaurant at The Court, one of New York's new hip W Hotels. It's an unlikely place to encounter the 46-year-old chief executive officer of Osborne y Cia S.A., which produces--among many other products--four types of Spanish brandy. It would be improbable to come across any Spanish brandy producer in such a postmodern setting. Brandy is about as old-world and traditional as Spain gets, and parts of Spain still look much as they did in 711, the year the Moors invaded. Osborne isn't slugging back a brandy and coffee for his breakfast, as is the old Spanish custom; he's nibbling on fresh fruit. Clearly, something is amiss.

Despite his fashionable suit and impeccable English, Osborne is, figuratively speaking, a long way from home. The vast majority of Spanish brandy (as well as all of the world's authentic sherry) comes from a triangle of Andalusian towns in the southwest corner of Spain: Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. This Spain isn't the funky Madrid of the Almodovar movies or the futuristic Barcelona of the 1992 Olympics; these old towns look like a Hollywood stage set of Spain. Jerez is known for Spanish horses and flamenco, Sanlucar is a fishing village with cobbled streets, and the bullring in El Puerto de Santa Maria, where Osborne lives, is Spain's largest.

Amid tiled patios shaded from the relentless sun, in vast warehouses filled with ceiling-high stacks of barrels made from white American oak, the juice of the airén grape makes its way through an aging process known as the solera system. This is an expensive and time-consuming operation, which helps explain why little has changed in an industry that began about 130 years ago.

Each of those hundreds upon hundreds of old barrels contains a blend of juice from grapes of different vintages that has been fortified by additional alcohol. The youngest blends are at the top of the solera; the oldest, closest to the floor. Each year, a certain percentage of those oldest blends--about a fifth of what's in each of those bottom barrels--is removed from the system, put into bottles, and sent to market as Brandy de Jerez. Those partially empty barrels are then replenished from the next oldest blend, which is aging directly above them. That blend is then topped up from the barrels above it, and so on. At the top, fortified grape juice from a recent harvest is poured into the barrels.

Why bother with such complicated maneuverings? Because the solera system is the essence of Brandy de Jerez. It imparts to young brandy the qualities of the oldest brandy in each barrel, which in the case of Gran Reserva brandies can date back a hundred years or more. It helps create the integrated smoothness that is a hallmark of the Spanish product, a smoothness that makes the brandy an ideal complement to a cigar's nuanced flavors. French Cognac, to which Brandy de Jerez is compared, is made in a different manner: double-distilled and aged in French barrels. Some connoisseurs prefer one and some the other, but only a fool or a Frenchman would deny that the finest Spanish brandy is the equal of any distilled spirit in the world.

For decades, brandies ranging from the young, robust Fundador and Veterano to the majestic, decades-old Gran Reservas that look like burnished wood, have had their place in the strict hierarchical order of Spanish life. Unlike sherry, which was originally made for the English marketplace, Spanish brandy was rarely exported. It has survived through the years almost wholly on domestic consumption.

"The tradition for the Spanish laborer is to have a shot of brandy before going to work in the morning," Osborne says. "And then, after the big meal in the afternoon, glasses of brandy are traditionally drunk." But these traditions are dying in Spain, where, like almost everywhere else, the vast majority of alcohol is now drunk in the evenings. "Our studies show 75 percent of fortified spirits is consumed between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. in Spain today," Osborne says. "Unfortunately, that is not traditionally the time for brandy."

I first encountered Spanish brandy in 1987 in Seville on a sweltering afternoon at one of the storefront bars invariably positioned near Spanish bullrings. The Spanish say that heat inside relieves the heat outside, so I try to drink a Magno or a Fundador on hot afternoons whenever I'm in Spain. The few men drinking brandy around me always look to be about 80 years old. Everyone younger is drinking beer.

The consumption of Spanish brandy has been falling for years. It is the result of increased communication and transportation; of the old, closed world of Spain under Franco getting thrown open to the light. It is a by-product, fortunate or unfortunate, of a united Europe. Increasingly, the continent is keeping the same hours and eating the same food, which will soon be purchased with the same money. Spain is unquestionably a more affluent country now, but a less Spanish one.

No longer does all of Spain shut its doors for the three-hour lunch and siesta at two in the afternoon, the hottest part of the day, then open again at five when the heat has slackened. Such a schedule made sense before air conditioning, but offices are cool and comfortable now. And an important fax or e-mail is more likely to arrive from elsewhere in Europe in mid-afternoon than at seven in the evening, when everyone else has headed home.

As a result, lunch is now typically a quick, hourlong affair, often consisting of a sandwich or even a fast-food hamburger, and if drinking is done at all it likely will be beer. Some stores and offices still close for the midday meal, mostly in rural areas, but far fewer than before. And when today's Spaniard goes out at night to a club or a bar, he or she is more likely to drink a cocktail or a glass of beer than a Spanish brandy. "They say, 'Yes I remember my grandfather drinking brandy,'" Osborne says. "'It's old, it's strong, it's harsh.' All the characteristics we found in the research were negative."

No Osborne CEO had ever found it necessary to tour the U.S. market. It didn't make sense, when so much of Osborne's product line--the crisp sherries, the Rioja wine of Montecillo, the intensely flavored Jabugo ham--was consumed at home. But Ignacio Osborne is a different kind of CEO, which is fortunate because he's living in a different time. Trained as an engineer, he started his career in 1979 designing oil rigs in Norway. His only contact with the family business was the Conde de Osborne brandy he'd sip on a late Nordic summer night.

He'd been away for seven years when he realized he was raising Norwegian children, not Spaniards. So he found a job in Madrid helping run a firm that made agricultural and mining equipment. He worked there another seven years, until his father called in 1993 and told him the company needed someone from the next generation. By 1996, he was running the House of Osborne.

Before planning this two-city visit to the United States, where he hopes to make selling brandy a priority, Ignacio Osborne took steps to resurrect his domestic market. His method was a new brandy designed to appeal to younger drinkers. Called Toro--after the black bull that is the Osborne logo--it is light and eminently drinkable, made to be drunk on ice with Coca-Cola, just like most Spaniards drink gin or whiskey today. Its matte-silver bottle doesn't bear the Brandy de Jerez designation that has for years told Spaniards that they are getting a genuine product from the Jerez region, because in Osborne's estimation his consumers don't care. That in itself is a tiny revolution.

Toro is not available in stores, but only in a few hundred of the hippest, trendiest discos and clubs around Spain; places with the look and the clientele of The Court hotel. It has helped revive the image of brandy among a certain class of young Spanish people, those who would rather watch a soccer game than a bullfight. Whether they'll ultimately graduate to more serious brandies is an unanswered question.

In America, where other hard liquors dominate, only about 132,000 bottles of Gran Reserva Brandy de Jerez were sold in 1999. That's all brands, across the entire country of some 275 million people. "That's the real opportunity," Osborne says. And so he is in New York.

In a clamorous room quite unlike the Icon restaurant and an ocean away, Marcelino Piquero sits at the head of a dinner table, a platter of crayfish and lobster in front of him. We are in Venta Antonio, a popular seafood restaurant just outside Jerez de la Frontera on the highway to Seville. On this weekend night, its many rooms are filled to capacity as usual. Clouds of smoke from cigars and cigarettes float above tables of customers who are casually dressed in open-collared shirts or pants suits and who laugh and talk and pick from plates of ham and Manchego cheese. They murmur contentedly as waiters appear with platters of various crustaceans, and they drink: beer, wine, and orange and lemon soda.

Just now, however, someone has ordered brandy, and the excitable Piquero, the export director of Sanchez Romate, twists his head, eager to discern the brand. He has been telling me all night about the proper setting for brandy, yet he has not seen a glass served since we arrived.

The five major Spanish brandy producers each export a Gran Reserva brandy to the United States. Osborne has its Conde de Osborne; Piquero's Sanchez Romate has Cardenal Mendoza; Gonzalez Byass has Lepanto; Pedro Domecq has Carlos I, and Williams & Humbert has Gran Duque de Alba. All sell for $35 to $50, and together they accounted for more than 95 percent of those 132,000 bottles of Gran Reserva sold in America last year.

Each of the five is distinct. They might not seem to be if you drink them individually, over the course of months, because the uniform grape variety and the solera system impart more similarities than differences. But line them up in a tasting and you'll discover the singular character of each. I find Cardinal Mendoza the sweetest, perhaps because of the small amount of the molasses-like Pedro Ximenez sherry that is illicitly added to the brandy while it is aging in the casks. Cardinal Mendoza tastes like toffee on the palate, like deep, smooth, alcoholic Butter Rum Life Savers, and that appeals to a Hispanic market accustomed to the alcoholic sweetness of sugarcane rum. Sanchez Romate sells two-thirds of the Cardinal Mendoza it exports to the United States in New York or New Jersey, and another 16 percent in Florida.

Spaniards like it, too, of course. "That's ours!" Piqero confirms, spotting the distinctive yellow label from several tables away. As he resumes his conversation, his ebullience quickly fades. "After lunch, about 4:30 p.m., with coffee and a cigar," he says. "That's the ambience of brandy. Isn't that right?" he asks waiter Paco Garcia, the restaurant owner's brother, who stops by to replenish a wine glass. Garcia confirms that it is. "Cafe, copa y puro," he says. Your coffee, your glass of brandy, your cigar.

With the wheels of the new European economy turning, who has time for a glass of brandy at 4:30 in the afternoon these days? Piquero draws a diagram that explains the evolution of the spirit. Circles represent the size of the marketplace as of 30 years ago for the three categories of brandy; Solera, Solera Reserva and Solera Gran Reserva. Solera, the lowest quality, is the largest circle, about the size of a quarter. Reserva is the size of a dime. Gran Reserva is tiny, a pinprick. Below he draws three more circles showing that today they are all more or less equal. "Although the total consumption of Brandy de Jerez has diminished, the consumption of Gran Reservas hasn't," he says, excited again. "It has grown!"

To exploit this trend, Sanchez Romate has released two brandies even higher in quality and price than the Gran Reservas. One is Carta Real, from a small batch removed from the solera in 1982 and left to mellow in casks ever since. It costs about $100. The other is Non Plus Ultra, even older and rarer, which was created to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Sanchez Romate and costs $220. There are 600,000 bottles of Cardenal Mendoza released every year, but only 2,571 bottles of Carta Real and 1,428 bottles of Non Plus Ultra have been produced.

Inside the Sanchez Romate barrel room the following morning, Piquero opens one of those 1,428 bottles for me. Non Plus Ultra is deeper and darker than any Spanish brandy I've seen. Its layers of flavors unfold in the mouth, carried along by an alcoholic content so smooth as to be almost imperceptible. Piquero is almost beside himself with glee. "This kind of product is our future," he says. "It projects the elite image."

I visit two more producers and find they have a similar plan. Tasting a Carlos I Imperial surrounded by the timeless beauty of the Domecq cellars, I learn that it has been aged for 15 years in American oak casks seasoned with sherry. At Williams & Humbert's charmless, poured concrete bodega, director Roger Tamayo unveils his company's upscale release, the $130 Gran Duque de Alba Oro. "By definition, you have a consumer target that's a minority," he says. "So you have the opportunity to produce something special. This is it."

It is. Rich, subtle and gorgeous, with a taste of orange peel and chocolate, the Gran Duque de Alba Oro ranks just a shade less elegant than the Non Plus Ultra. For a moment, I am optimistic. I'm certain Americans will love these brandies. But then I wonder what good any of the premium brandies can do. There are only a few thousand bottles of them in all, and the solera system does not allow for sudden increases in production. Even if a product such as Gran Duque de Alba Oro catches on in America and becomes the splurge of choice for dot-com millionaires and investment bankers, how can the company capitalize? Earmarking more grapes for it now will pay off only decades down the road.

Not every brandy producer is looking across the Atlantic to grow its brand. Gonzalez Byass's Lepanto is the lightest-colored and driest of the Gran Reservas, the closest to a Cognac. That's why many Spaniards order it, although I've always felt that if you want to drink a spirit that tastes like a Cognac, actual Cognac is usually available. Lepanto is aged in barrels previously used for Oloroso sherry, which has a nutty flavor and is not nearly as sweet as Pedro Ximenez. The United States accounts for only 5 percent of its total sales.

To promote a high-end tie with Lepanto, Gonzalez Byass is introducing a line of mild Cuban cigars with the same name. For obvious reasons, the cigar will be unavailable in the United States, although that would seem to be the main target for such a campaign. International marketing manager Paul Kerstens shrugs. "Lepanto is 36 percent alcohol," he says. "It's a strong drink, let's face it, and strong drink is suffering from the whole bad image in the United States." With the market for Lepanto at 5 percent of his sales, he can be cavalier.

Ignacio Osborne understands that he needs America. His Conde de Osborne is a fine product, but it doesn't have a market niche like some of the others. Not dry, not sweet, not the oldest or the most popular or the most expensive, it's simply a fine, drinkable brandy, with a chestnut color and a smooth, long finish.

In the United States, the brand has for some time been available in an odd-shaped ceramic collector's bottle designed by Salvador Dalí, but sales for such an obscure high-end item have never been brisk. Still, the stakes in America are high for Osborne, which is too large to be a small company, yet too small to easily compete with huge, multinational consortiums such as Allied Domecq.

Nevertheless, Osborne is sanguine about the future. A month after his New York visit, I find him sitting on the patio of his home in El Puerto de Santa María, looking over the rooftops to the sea. He's holding a glass of Osborne sherry, but he wants to talk about brandy. He believes the U.S. market is ready to embrace Brandy de Jerez, and not necessarily by spending $150 on a bottle.

As his wife, Flavia, prepares a classic gazpacho in the kitchen, Osborne talks about the changes in Spain since he left for Norway in 1979, only a few years after the end of Franco's rule. At that time, there were few jobs, and the country's isolation seemed permanent. Now tapas bars are the rage from New York to Tokyo, and Spain lures more tourists each year than anywhere but France. Socialists have come to power and departed, each time peacefully, and the remnants of the Franco era have all but vanished. Catalans and Basques speak their once-outlawed languages in the streets, and the standard of living is equal to or better than most of Europe's.

Spain has matured in the eyes of the world, yet the romantic image remains. As Osborne talks, I realize that this nontraditional Spaniard is selling not just wine and sherry and brandy to Americans, but Spain.

After dinner, he opens a bottle of Conde de Osborne. He pours some over a single ice cube, which is heretical to purists but the way I like it, and within a moment Spain is a palpable presence. I put my nose to the glass, and smell the hour before a bullfight. I sip, and remember how the Andalusian sun feels on my neck when I step into the street on a hot afternoon. At once I understand that the secret to selling Spanish brandy is not hidden somewhere in a marketing plan, but there in Osborne's bottle. "Olé," I tell him softly.

Bruce Schoenfeld, a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado, writesfrequently on Spain.

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