Meet Carla Rzeszewski, New York's Queen of Sherry
What comes to mind when you hear sherry, besides the Four Seasons song that maddeningly loops in your head like scratched vinyl? If the answer is a sweet brown drink that grandma likes, allow me to introduce you to New York City's "Queen of Sherry," Carla Rzeszewski.
Rzeszewski is a sherry fanatic looking to quietly revolutionize the way we approach this fortified white wine made from the Palomino grape in southwestern Spain. Her name is from Poland, but her youth was spent in the sunshine of Southern California and Hawaii before she found her way to New York City. Since 2009, she has been running the wine program at the Spotted Pig, Breslin, and John Dory, building sherry programs tailored to each restaurant.
I sipped manzanilla while she explained her title and how she fell in love with this criminally underpriced wine.
How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?
I worked my way up through the system the old-fashioned way--from the bottom. I started as a silverware polisher at Roy's Kahana Bar & Grill on Maui 13 years ago, progressed to bar back, busser, and then expediter. After Hawaii, I moved back to California to serve at Macaroni Grill and Wolfgang Puck's Café. Then I moved to New York to work at the Blue Water Grill as a server and bartender, followed by Freeman's as a bartender, Hearth as a bartender, and the Breslin as a bartender! Finally, one day before a shift, Ken Friedman pulled me aside and asked me if I'd like to take over the wine program. Yes!
You are called the Sherry Queen by industry folk around town. How did you get that title?
Well, if I am the queen, then Peter Liem is the Sherry King. I guess I am his female counterpart. I first met Peter in 2011 at a sherry dinner held at the Spotted Pig. He was such an advocate for the wines and had just finished his book on the topic. I became intrigued and started falling for them myself. Then I took a vacation down in Marco de Jerez in January of 2012. Holy shit, I was amazed. The region is truly stuck in time, a fossilized culture. The people had a raw honesty that was so touching. Sadly, the sherry industry is suffering. The wines are so insanely cheap. I am sure they would like to sell more, but they won't compromise their way of making it nor their priorities. I was unbelievably haunted by the place and have been a self-appointed spokeswoman for sherry ever since, stocking as many as logical at the Breslin, Dory, and Pig in order to share this treasure.
For a beginner, sherry may seem confusing. Some are aged biologically under flor (yeast), some are aged oxidatively, some are both, and all are made in a solera system. Is there an easy, fun way to explain it to customers without their eyes glazing over?
To explain the solera system, which is a form of fractional blending using wines from multiple barrels, I tell newbies to think of Plinko or Connect Four. The youngest wines start at the top, moving through the rows, until reaching the final, oldest row at the bottom. The wines bottled from that last row result in a collective product, a mass of information from each individual barrel in the system. That is how sherry is blended.
As far as styles, I am a very visual learner. I will set out bottles on the counter and say 'this bottle on the left represents biologically aged wines called fino or manzanilla. Flor is a layer of yeast that sits on the top of the wine and prevents it from having any contact with oxygen. Then, this bottle in the middle represents an amontillado. Once the flor or yeast either breaks down or is killed off intentionally by the winemaker, the wine is exposed to oxygen, and it finishes aging that way. Finally, the bottle on the right? That represents an oloroso, a wine that never aged under flor and has been deliberately oxidized from the beginning.' The wines oxidize similarly to a banana or avocado, once cut open. Frankly, everything oxidizes. Even the blond in my hair!
Sherry is the darling of beverage directors, sommeliers and bartenders, but relatively unappreciated in the consumer world. Why is that?
People don't know how to use it. The wines need food. For example, last year I had a wine tent at the Googa Mooga event in Prospect Park. I decided to dedicate mine to fino and manzanilla sherry. At first, I thought, "Oh, fuck. I am an idiot"--I can't just stand there trying to sell sherry to consumers by being excited about flor and then expect them to buy samples. Other wine vendors were selling easy, fun wines like rosé. Who doesn't want a glass of rosé on a spring day in the park? I was worried people weren't going to understand sherry on its own, so I had a light-bulb moment and scrambled to bring food at the last minute. I gathered olives and Marcona almonds. My food station was totally bush league and looked ridiculous, but it worked. When people tasted those wines with a bite of salty olive, they got it. Their faces lit up. I love that moment.
There is a profound understanding that happens when sherry is tasted with food, and that connection needs to be made for people. It happened with my staff as well. Our first sherry class was like swimming through the murk, trying to get them to follow me purely based on passion, and then I realized they needed food in order to understand it fully. So we did a class for each restaurant with dishes from each menu up against our sherries, and again, I watched it hit them! From there, they started drinking palo cortado and oloroso styles for shift drinks, and now they've moved to the manzanilla and fino. Slowly but surely, that umami kick seduces palates.
What styles of sherry do customers tend to like?
In the beginning, there was definitely a preference for the more oxidative styles, and at the Breslin, it is still so. But at the Dory, the fino/manzanilla sales far outnumber the oxidative ones. If someone is not familiar with sherry at all, I am very careful about bringing it to the table only once they have food. It would be quite difficult to convince them that it's one of the best wines ever, and to try and get their palate and wine-mind around its umami, without illustrating to them its use with food. I found that when we first started our sherry program over a year ago, people were leaning more towards oloroso and palo cortado since these wines have an illusion of sweetness. Sometimes it's the glycerine content of the oloroso, sometimes it's the age on the palo cortado that leads the drinker to taste dried fruits and nuts. Both are associated in our brains with sweet stuff. These days, however, for both the staff and the guests, they are asking for fino and manzanilla, which just tickles me to no end!
Have you noticed any uptick in customers asking for sherry?
Yes. I didn't expect sherry to catch on as it has. Thank you for writing about it. Exposure from journalists helps the collective mission. I believe a lot of it is the work of the press, pairing menus, and the pure delight of drinking a 375ml of fino at the beach or in the movie theater.