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Getting a Taste of California’s Forbidden Fruit

Rare delegation of Cuban sommeliers explores Napa and Sonoma counties
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Aug 6, 2014 11:00am ET

California wine is all but impossible to get in Cuba, and even harder to get than a good Cuban cigar here in California. That's why it was such a milestone when a delegation of Cuban sommeliers toured Napa and Sonoma counties last month to get a rare taste of Golden State wine. It was their first wine-buying trip since the United States government opened the Cuban market to American wine just last year.

I spoke with a few of the 19 sommeliers as they gathered for dinner on the last night of their weeklong visit. The wines of Spain, Chile and Italy currently dominate the Cuban restaurant wine lists for now, but many of the somms are convinced that California wines will pair well with Cuba's full-flavored food.

Orlando Blanco, sommelier at Floridita Restaurant in Old Havana, tasted everything from Albariño to Zinfandel. "I didn't expect such a diversity," Blanco said through an interpreter. "The Pinot Noirs are amazing."

The visitors packed in a lot in six days. They sampled sparkling wine at Gloria Ferrer and Schramsberg, tasted Zin at Seghesio and Cabernet Sauvignon at Silver Oak and learned about pairing wine and chocolate at Sebastiani and biodynamic farming at Benziger. They had dinner with vintner Michael Mondavi and also dined at Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg.

"They bombarded me with great questions," Ram's Gate winemaker Jeff Gaffner said. Ironically, it was cigar sommelier Leticia Cabrera Alonso who Gaffner thought had the best wine palate. Her experience tasting cigars translated seamlessly to wine.

In addition to Blanco and Alonso, the visitors included Joel Francisco Chacon Valdes of Casa Del Habano in Havana, Yosvel Cardenas Diaz of La Barca Restaurant and wine educator Fernando Fernandez, who helped organize the trip. "It's really important for us to be here to see things first hand," Valdes said.

The trip was organized by Darius Anderson and his group Californians Building Bridges, a Sonoma-based non-profit focused on humanitarian programs and people-to-people exchanges with Cuba. "We want to break down the misinformation about Cuba from both ends," Anderson said. The sommeliers, he explained, were cautious about walking in American cities but were surprised how friendly people were. "Our governments have created this messaging that just isn't real," he said.

It may take a year or more before California wine arrives in Havana because the logistics of opening a new foreign market are complex. And not one of the sommeliers expects the typical Cuban to be drinking California wine any time soon.

"It would just be for tourists," Valdes said, particularly guests from Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain. "Most Cubans still can't afford to buy wine."

Osvaldo Gomez Almanza
Calgary, Alberta, Canada —  August 6, 2014 5:17pm ET
Hi Tim: I was surprised when I saw on twitter and Facebook that Cuban Sommeliers were visiting Californian Wineries and vineyards. Just on those days I was planning a trip to Cuba and taking with me some wines from Napa and Oregon to taste with a small group of my Cuban colleagues. unfortunately I had to cancel my flight for some reasons, but I was happy to know that a group of 20 Cuban Sommeliers were in Napa and Sonoma counties and other AVAs I believe. I'm a Cuban Sommelier that moved to Canada 4 years ago but with previous formation in Cuban Club of Sommeliers and Hospitality school. I can imagine how great this wine tour could be for all of them. I personally had a breathtaking experience when I moved here to Canada and realized how many wines from all around the world we can get here in wine markets and restaurants, that are not available in my Country and Cuban sommeliers have no idea that they exist. I think in Cuba there's a good human potential to develop and improve the Hospitality industry and be more recognized for the rest of the world. It's true that there's not commerce with U.S and most of the countries of E.U, we barely can taste wines from Spain, Chile and a few from Italy and most of the wines affordable for a tiny portion of the Cuban population and the international Tourists. I hope this Trip of Cuban Sommeliers will open more ways to get into the international Market and also offer more opportunities to other Cuban Sommeliers that didn't go to this Tour and I consider some of them deserve and should have been in the tour. I can tell from my own experience how important that can be for them, as you said such a milestone. A moth after I arrived to Canada, I applied to work in a high end Restaurant here in Calgary winner of Best of award of WS for many years and when I went to the job interview I was asked about some wines and wine makers that I never heard of them before and that made feel very frustrated for the reason of have been a Sommelier educated in a Country totally closed to the World, with no access to internet or other communication media. My response to this first was to subscribe to WS and take the online courses for member and moving forward on this beautiful wine world, decided to take courses available in WSET and Court of Master Sommeliers programs and wish my Cuban colleagues could have this opportunity too. I feel proud to be member of the Cuban community of Sommelier and hope one day we could be more recognized as international sommeliers and not only as Rum or "Habano-sommelier".
Thank you Tim for posting this article about us and Cheers! Salud!

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