The Cask of Amontillado

I remember the first time I really thought about wine: I was 19 or 20 years old, and I’d just read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” It’s the story of a man who seeks revenge on his enemy, and he does this by appealing to this person’s discerning taste for fine wines. He claims to have acquired a large barrel of Amontillado, a medium dry sherry. His enemy, Fortunato, insists on tasting this for himself, so the narrator takes him through the extensive underground cellars of his family vault until finally, at the end, they come to an open niche in the granite walls. As Fortunato is somewhat drunk, the narrator takes advantage of his condition and pushes the unfortunate Fortunato into the niche, chains him to the wall, and then proceeds to brick him in. Nice plan.

What caught me in this story is the idea that the mere chance of tasting a great wine could be the lure which draws someone into the dark and remote lair of their sworn enemy. And so, when I walked into a wine store and noticed a bottle of Amontillado, I had to have it. I will pass over the mundane details of an under-aged wine purchase, but having acquired this, I tried it and really didn’t think this slightly bitter, oxidized wine could ever lead me to abandon the comforts of the surface for the dark cold of an underground cellar. And yet, I kept buying bottles of Amontillado—nursing each one over the space of several weeks—until I finally considered myself a sherry drinker. I was a college English major, so I probably should have acquired a tweed jacket, maybe a bowtie, and then I’d really be reeling in the girls: “Would you care for a glass of sherry, my dear. It’s an Amontillado.” Actually, I was so lame at the time that I pronounced the ending “till-a-doe.”   

Fast forward to my graduation (still no bowtie) and as a present, my grandma bought me a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, so I must have advertised myself as a sherry drinker at some point . . . and yes, I knew absolutely nothing about how to attract women. This was something new—I had never tried a cream sherry, and it was WAY better than that bitter crud I’d been drinking. In fact, since then I have never to my recollection bought another bottle of Amontillado (nor has anyone tried to lure me into a cellar to try some fine wine). I have tried other sherries—Manzanillas, Finos, Olorosos—but none of them hit that sweet spot like a dark cream sherry. 

Although a Spanish wine, the whole sherry industry was heavily influenced by British tastes going back at least as far as the “sack” that Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff extols: “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and to addict themselves to sack.” Sherries all come from a wine region in southwest Spain centered around the city of Jerez de la Frontera, so if you’re drinking a bottle of something from California calling itself sherry, you should pause for a moment, go to your kitchen counter, and pour it down the drain. Spanish sherry’s not that much more expensive (you cheap bastard).

Another interesting feature of your better sherries is the solera system. This is a pyramid of wine barrels with the oldest at the bottom and the youngest at the top. Whenever the winemaker bottles a batch of sherry, it’s taken from the bottom, but never more than about a third of the original—and then the bottom is refilled with wine from the next level, and the same process with those barrels all the way up to the newest wine at the top in what is known as fractional blending: a waterfall of wine. The idea is that once you put a slightly newer wine in with a larger quantity of older wine, it takes on the character of that older wine by the time of the next bottling—and this is theoretically the case with every level of a solera.

The oldest solera I’ve ever tried was a bottle of a 1926 sherry. Of course, only a microscopic fraction of the wine in that bottle was the original 1926 wine, considering how many dozens of bottlings had to have occurred over the years; but contained in this bottle were elements of every wine added to this pyramid since it was first laid down in 1926. I brought this sherry to a family Thanksgiving meal and shared it with my grandma, who is four years older than the oldest wine in that bottle (and who is probably still really impressed that I’m a sherry drinker . . . grandmas are like that).

So, if you’ve never tried a sherry before, I’d recommend you start with a bottle of cream sherry—my favorite producer is Emilio Lustau, and I think I might have a bottle somewhere down in my basement if you’d care to come along for a look.