When I travel, I try my best not to get caught up in tourist traps. So, I never had the intention of visiting Bodegas González Byass – or what most refer to as Tio Pepe. However, this was a research trip, and I had a friend encourage me to be a tourist for at least one day. I wanted to be able to give an honest recommendation for anyone who may ask about it. I am so glad I decided to go, because I soon discovered González Byass is exactly where you should go if you know nothing about sherry!
First, they have guided tours available on Sunday afternoons when so many others are closed. I was even able to go online the night before to book my tour. It’s a very simple process. I could select to view the page in English, pick which tour I’d like to go on, including the time, date, language, and if I’d be trying two or four sherries with or without tapas. Once purchased online, I didn’t have to print anything. I just showed up at the recommended time on the confirmation email, gave the lady my name and she handed me my ticket. You only really need it at the end to verify which tasting you selected.
I was a little turned around trying to find the main entrance, but there are plenty of signs and arrows pointing guests in the right direction. Even though I understand Spanish, I chose the English tour. It actually had less people attend, making it easier to hear. I mostly saw couples and adults on the tour. However, my group had a small family. Their three-year-old son LOVED the “train” we took around the grounds.
The tour is fast paced, so there was not a lot of time to take all the pictures I would have liked. The bodega feels like a step back in time – cobblestone streets once accessible to the general public are now preserved inside the grounds. Some of the vines inside are over 100 years old.
The first part of the tour was in the large arena-like event area called La Concha for the style of the glass roof. It was built for the Queen’s visit in 1862 where the royal dinner was served. It continues to be a great event space to showcase not only the wines of Jerez, but flamenco and the prized horses all under one roof. It has over 100 barrels marked with the flags of all the countries where they export. The train took us to where they used to distill brandy. The walls are completely blackened from the many years of angel’s share evaporation. On average, 5% of alcohol evaporates each year from the barrels. Just outside in the courtyard is a huge, iconic Tio Pepe bottle as well as the acquired Croft bodega on one side, and the area where they restore the casks on the other side. New barrels are never used, so it is an art to keep these old barrels maintained. They try to maintain barrels for 80 years – after that, they’re shipped to Ireland and Scotland for whiskey.
We were ushered into a large room that houses the casks of Jesus and the twelve Apostles. The backstory is in 1862, Queen Isabel II came for the pressing of the grapes, but the vendimia was already over. Traditionally, the townspeople would buy grapes in September to preserve until New Year’s Eve to eat one grape at each stroke of midnight. So, Sr. González went to each house to collect these grapes to make a press for the queen. It created 16,500 liters of wine. Since it was standard to only fill each 600 liter barrel with 500 liters of wine, this came to out to 33 barrels. Christ was crucified when he was 33 years old. The large cask created for the wine was named the Christ barrel – of course it’s currently filled with Palo Cortado. They didn’t want it to be lonely, so the twelve Apostles are positioned on each side according to the famous painting of the Last Supper. However, there is not a Judas Iscariot barrel for superstitious fear that the wine would turn to vinegar. That barrel was replaced with Mathias.
The next several rooms housed barrels signed by the rich and famous. Of course the Royal Family have their own barrels beautifully displayed. Picasso’s barrel was sent to him in France to sign while he was in exile. What made me chuckle was their excitement that Chelsea Clinton has a signed barrel. Personally, I was more impressed by Steven Spielberg’s barrel.
Before coming, I had a friend say to me to tell the mice hello. I had no idea what she meant until nearly the end of my tour. Long ago, José Gálvez would train the mice of the bodega to climb up and drink Cream sherry out of a copa. To this day, they still keep a filled glass on the floor with a little ladder to the top as an offering.
At some point on the tour, we watched a video subtitled in English telling the history of the bodega and the making of sherry. Despite the made-for-TV acting, it was really informative for someone who may not know anything about sherry.
At the end of the tour, we were led into a giant modern tasting room filled with the other tour groups. The general tasting is a glass of Tio Pepe Fino and a glass of Croft Pale Cream. I requested four glasses on my ticket. I was poured a glass of Alfonso Oloroso and the Solera 1847 Cream (the wine the mice drink) in addition to the Fino and Pale Cream. Had I known how generous the pours would be, I would have ordered the tapas. Not because the wines upset my stomach, but because I became, shall we say, quite happy.
The only way to exit out of the facility is through the store. This was a strategic move on their part! Get the guests to drink two to four sherries, and then don’t let them leave Tio Pepeland without going shopping first! I had enough wits not to buy large bottles I couldn’t take home. But the mini bottles and all the cute Tio Pepe memorabilia were irresistible! I managed to leave without buyer’s remorse. I sighed with relief as I exited the store, only to realize the final challenge was the rotating metal-bar gate leading to the street – a buzzed girl’s worst nightmare.
I am glad I took my friend’s advice to at least gain an honest opinion, and my honest opinion is everyone should visit Gonzalez Byass at least once. You’ll soon discover that I went twice!