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."