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Photo by: B.A. Nilsson

To Bask in Amontillado
The popularity of sherry continues to wane, but the adventurous oenophile can find plenty of palate- and pocket-pleasing variety in this overlooked libation

By B.A. Nilsson

So there I was in London, a high-school junior on a theater tour, in a pub with some classmates. One of them, Rebecca, had been my co-star in a just-finished Blithe Spirit, playing Ruth, my wife, whom I was supposed to kiss during the first scene.

When I learned that she would be playing the role, my knees weakened because I found her one of the most gorgeous and desirable young women in the school. I enjoyed elaborate fantasies that consisted of nothing but working into an oscular frenzy with me. Now it was demanded of me, and there she stood with dewy, pouting lips, waiting.

I trembled. I froze. I looked at her oh-so-beautiful face and I became an inert mass of outsized protoplasm. “For God’s sake!” the director shouted. “Just kiss her!” And everybody in the rehearsal hall dissolved into laughter.

It was eventually decided that I should kiss her on the back of the neck, which was a less painful (and far less pleasurable) compromise. Yet I felt that she silently understood my dilemma and realized my passion.

And there I was in a foreign land, sitting beside her, freed from the legal confines of the States, watching my classmates order drinks of sickly sweetness and an occasional vodka martini. And she asked me to order her something.

“Two sherries,” I told the barmaid. “Amontillado.” The amber fluid was served in a small wine glass, unlike anything else our table was drinking. We raised our glasses and toasted one another. Rebecca sipped and made a face. “Ewww!” she cried. “This is awful! What is it?”

It’s probably your finest wine bargain, yet it’s tragically unhip. During the past year, I’ve been conducting an informal, unscientific poll, asking for it at many of the restaurants I’ve recently visited. Too often, the bartender or server looks at me as if I’d just asked for Moxie or mare’s sweat.

A glass of good sherry is an unbelievably wonderful way to begin a meal, to post-prandially relax, to savor the complex flavors of some of the world’s oldest wine grapes. Yet it has turned into some kind of secret. If people think of it at all, they probably associate it with effete English detectives sipping it at the outset of some Masterpiece Theatre murder mystery.

Sherry is a fortified wine from Spain’s Jerez region, on the country’s southern coast, which dates its viticulture back to the Phoenecian occupation of 1100 B.C. thanks to the writings of first-century Greek geographer Strabo. And sherry still flourished when the Moors occupied Spain for several centuries.

The British craze for the wine took off during the reign of Henry I, who traded English wool for his favorite drink. According to legend, Shakespeare and his pal Ben Jonson used to put away a few bottles of the stuff whenever they visited the Boar’s Head Tavern together.

Sherry is based on the Palomino grape, which makes a lousy wine but excellent sherry. The product appears in three major varieties.

Fino, the driest, forms a thick yeast layer in the barrel that keeps the wine away from oxygen. Like all sherry, it’s mixed with brandy, then goes through the Solera system, in which wine from different vintages are blended to give the result a consistent flavor. This year’s bottling, in other words, will be just as good as what you sampled five or 20 years ago. Fino is always served chilled and has a fairly short life. As Craig Camp, wine and spirits editor of puts it, “When you see an open bottle of unchilled Fino on the back of the bar, run away as fast as you can.” Amontillado, a cask of which figured in a famous Poe story, is an aged Fino with some late-in-its-processing oxidization.

Oloroso gets the oxygen Fino doesn’t, and develops a darker color even as it maintains an impressive dryness and a lot (comparatively) of alcohol. A fine Oloroso is worth whatever you spend on it; happily, you don’t have to spend much.

Cream sherry, the most familiar variety, is an Oloroso blended with a sweet wine like Pedro Ximénez, a grape that’s ripened into sugar-rich raisins before being picked and processed. Although it works best as a dessert wine, many people think this is all there is to sherry, and thus miss out on the complex range of flavor available at a relatively low cost.

“We have regulars who buy sherry,” says Todd Yutzler, manager of Delaware Plaza Wine and Liquor. “They keep it going. The old-timers still like Harvey’s Bristol Cream, but I’ve found that people who like Bordeaux and big California cabs like dry sherry.” Yutzler keeps a sherry selection on hand, but finds it hard to maintain a variety what with the ever-shrinking demand.

“Younger people aren’t willing to check out the unknown,” he says. “I remember when Harvey’s went on a big push to make their product appear hip and to try to attract a younger generation, but after a year they canned it.”

The versatility of a good Fino is such that it’s an ideal companion to a variety of foods, from spicy meats to vinegary sushi. And it’s at its most classic as an aperitif, served fresh and well chilled.

I don’t recall the condition of the Amontillado served to Rebecca and me in that London pub. Her reaction took me so much by surprise. “I thought it was going to be some kind of a cherry drink!” And so it was that she went out dancing with a vodka-martini type, leaving me to console myself with this undervalued wine. I even drank hers.

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What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore


Elaine Snowdon

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky

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