Commercial rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S. seems to be a slow and cautious process, full of hurdles on both sides. But there’s clearly early momentum in the travel sector, and the U.S. wine industry is among the actors looking for new opportunities as Cuba poises to receive record numbers of visitors.
Wine is a hard market in Cuba but there was abundant good feeling and interest at an unprecedented series of California wine tastings that HavanaInsider attended earlier this month in Havana.
The “California Wine Symposium” was organized around the visit of a delegation of 49 largely Napa- and Sonoma-based wineries. Planned by U.S. CAVA Exports, headed by Darius Anderson, and sponsored by the Wine Institute, Napa Valley Vintners & Growers and Sonoma County Vintners, the idea for the event reportedly originated among a group of Cuban sommeliers who visited several wineries in the Golden State in 2014. It seems wine forges bonds that, like vines, can grow and thrive even when the climate is challenging!
Over two days, more than 400 Cubans, including sommeliers, hoteliers, and restaurateurs from government and private establishments, importers, distributors and public figures from the arts, sports, and social scenes–and slightly over 100 Americans–shared knowledge, experiences, music, and dreams for future business together. Above all, they shared good wine–California wine, that many Cubans even in the trade have had little or no exposure to. (Apart from a Wente, apparently brought in from a secondary source, we haven’t seen any bottle of California wine at a restaurant in Havana in 15 years.)
The morning session on February 2 featured a California wine style tasting that included three whites and eight reds from Lodi and the Sierra Foot Hills, Napa Valley, Russian River, Dry Creek , and Alexander Valley. Producers included Obsession, John Anthony Vineyards, Textbook, Coppola, Ravenswood, Emblem, Peju, and Quady. The afternoon session featured six red wines from Barefoot, Hahn Family, Waterstone, St. Francis, Bogle, and Silver Oak.
The highlight, later in the day, was a Grand Tasting of over 100 California wines. The 50 tables arranged around a grand hall offered brochures, flyers, maps (many in Spanish), and wines from the first two sessions as well as from producers such as Michael Mondavi Family Estate, E & J Gallo Winery, Kautz Family Vineyards, and Spoto, just to mention a few.
What really struck us the most was the amazingly animated and positive buzz in the air as participants mingled, talked, laughed, tasted and discussed wines, impressions, and hopes.
Fernando Fernandez, the renowned Cuban cigar sommelier and expert on wine and spirits, and co-creator of Havana Club’s ultra-premium rum Union, was part of the Symposium’s organizing committee. He told HavanaInsider: ‘This event was unique, and very well organized.” He said he loves Californians for their openness and kindness–and was impressed by the good value represented by many featured wines, as well their wide stylistic spectrum. He said his tastes in wine are varied, but he has a soft spot for pinot noir, well represented at the tasting.
It was obvious that participants, on the Cuban and Californian sides, all hope to see more of a market for California wines on the island. The timeline for that is far from clear. But it was evident that many Cubans there, tasting California wine for the first time, shared Fernandez’ enthusiasm.