Cuban delegation aims to build market for California wines

Meg McConahey  |  The Press Democrat

Sommeliers Alejandro David Herrera Sarduy, left, Orlando Gustavo Peñalver Travieso, and Sommelier and Maitre d’ Orlando Blanco Blanco taste a Klinker Brick 2012 Old Ghost old vine zinfandel from Lodi during the Cuban Sommelier Summit at Ramekins in Sonoma on July 21, 2014. (Alvin Jornada / For The Press Democrat)

Osiris Oramas lifted a glass of Gloria Ferrer sparkling blanc de noir to the sunlight, admired the “beautiful color,” took a sip, and declared it “spectacular.”

It was a particularly intense taste for the general manager of La Barca Restaurant in Havana, Cuba, because of how unattainable this experience might at one time have seemed. Oramas has tasted Old World wine in Spain and Italy, but could only dream of visiting the one world-class wine region virtually closed to him — California.

“I was dreaming of this moment and I got it,” said Oramas, admiring the views from the deck of Gloria Ferrer’s Carneros winery. He is one of a group of 22, mostly sommeliers, from some of the leading restaurants and hotels in Cuba who are being treated to a concentrated course in Napa and Sonoma viticulture and wine. Their six-day tour, which began Sunday with a welcoming toast of sparkling wine at the Ferry Building plaza in San Francisco with former state Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and a photo op at AT&T Park, is aimed at creating a market for California wines in a country where they are almost never seen.

Alvin Jornada / For The Press Democrat

“Very soon we want to get this wine in Cuba to offer to customers,” Oramas said. “But right now, it is impossible.”

It is the first time a delegation of sommeliers from the Caribbean island nation, long closed to American trade and travel, has visited California. Of the visitors, only two had ever been on American soil. The tour was put together by Californians Building Bridges, a 4-year-old nonprofit group dedicated to humanitarian programs and people-to-people exchanges, particularly with Cuba. Numerous wine organizations and wineries, including the Sonoma County Vintners and Napa Valley Vintners, lent support.

Despite a decadeslong trade embargo with Cuba, wine is considered an agricultural product and approved for export. The main problem is logistical, said Holly Fraumeni, executive director of Building Bridges, which was founded by Sonoma resident Darius Anderson. Anderson is the managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, the company that owns The Press Democrat.

“It is very challenging and difficult for agricultural producers,” she said. “Even if you can get permission granted, the logistics of getting it there is one of the most challenging pieces of the puzzle.”

Many of the sommeliers, who also are experts in Cuba’s prized hand-crafted Habanos cigars, are nonetheless hopeful that changes are afoot, and said they want to be ready for their patrons, mainly foreign travelers from Canada and Europe who expect a vibrant wine menu.

They listened intently and took notes on Tuesday as Honore Comfort, executive director of the Sonoma County Vintners Association, gave a detailed presentation at Gloria Ferrer on Sonoma’s climate, geography and distinct viticultural regions. They got a lesson in chocolate and wine pairing at Sebastiani Vineyards in Sonoma and learned about Biodynamic farming over lunch at Benziger Winery in Glen Ellen. They also were briefed on and tasted wines from other wine regions in the state, including Paso Robles, Monterey and Livermore, and tasted zinfandel at Seghesio Family Vineyards in Healdsburg. They dined at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma and Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Kitchen, among others, and took in more tasting at MacMurray Ranch on Wednesday before moving over to the Napa Valley for dinner with vintner Michael Mondavi and two more days of tasting.

At MacMurray Ranch in Healdsburg, they tasted Russian River pinot noir, snapped photos of two giant redwood trees outside a historic barn, posed before the old Ernest & Julio Gallo Chevy truck and toured the 1850s farmhouse and grounds with winery ambassador Kate MacMurray, whose father, actor Fred MacMurray, bought the land in 1941. Few knew of the famous actor, but when MacMurray mentioned that John Wayne introduced her dad to her mom, actress June Haver, their ears perked up.

In between stops, they showed they are a group that knows as much about having a good time as they do about wine. On the bus through Sonoma Valley, Cuban music was cranked up and many proceeded to sing and dance in the aisle. At MacMurray, they poured out of the bus at 9:30 a.m. singing salsa. Cuban cigars, perhaps more revered than wine in Cuba, were occasionally brandished and exchanged, but respectfully lit only outdoors.

“The Swiss have clocks. Cubans have time,” said Leticia Cabrera Alonso, a cigar sommelier, explaining the group’s relaxed and unhurried ways.

She said the most surprising thing to her is seeing Sonoma’s strong cultural ties to the land and its wine-growing traditions, something she relates to as the daughter of a tobacco farmer.

“This is really beyond our expectations. Everything is beautiful that we see. But behind it,” she said, “is a lot of work and a lot of passion.”

Only two in the group had ever been to the U.S., so even the commonplace in Wine Country became objects of wonder and photo ops, from the wine storage tanks and crush pads to the propane heaters in Benziger’s wine caves.

“We’re getting this knowledge up close, seeing the winery process and everything we’ve been told but never seen,” said Juan Machin Gonzalez, maitre d’ of the historic Presidente Hotel in Havana. “We can get for the first time the expression of Sonoma/Napa wine and their culture. We have read about it, but it’s not the same as to live the experience.”

Jeff McBride, vice president of winemaking at Benziger, which has hosted untold numbers of sommeliers for whom the Sonoma Wine Country is a routine stop, said this group has a rare enthusiasm. “Their eyes are wide open. They have a much higher level of curiosity to gain knowledge of something they’ve never experienced before.”

Touring Benziger’s insectiary garden filled with plants attractive to beneficial insects, Joel Begue, who owns the restaurant Chef Habana Paladar, said he had heard of Biodynamic farming but never understood it until he saw it in practice.

“It’s very simple,” he said, “and it goes to the very base of what life is.”

In the garden, a few for the first time snatched apples fresh from the tree; apples aren’t grown in Cuba. There also were special requests for blackberries and blueberries, fruits they had heard of from the classic Wine Aroma Wheel wine-tasting tool, but had never eaten.

While there are no legal prohibitions against exporting American wine to Cuba, “There is almost no presence of U.S. wine in Cuba and none recorded in our export report for 2013,” said Gladys Horiuchi, a spokeswoman for the Wine Institute, which co-sponsored the tour,

But that could change. Under recent policy changes, ALIMPORT, Cuba’s government-operated entity for purchasing U.S. agriculture products, eased its monopoly as sole buyer, creating an opening for other importers.

Wente Vineyards in Livermore, among the industry supporters for this week’s trip, began exporting a tiny amount to Cuba within the past year — 200 to 300 bottles compared to the 100,000 cases they export to 70 counties.

“We’ve made a relationship with an importer there that deals with all of the top restaurants and hotels. That’s why this group is of particular interest to us,” said Michael Parr, Wente’s vice president of international sales. “These are not just guys buying wine. They’re the line between people buying the wine in restaurants and the brands available.”

Anderson, the Californians Building Bridges founder, said he has developed a passion for the culture after numerous visits in which strong friendships were forged. Among his friends are Fernando Fernandez, a professor and the leader in Cuba’s community of sommeliers, who was a spark behind the trip.

While many Cubans can’t afford imported wine, Anderson said, there is growing interest in the island as a tourist destination by Canadians, Europeans, Americans and Chinese visitors who can.

“It’s truly one of the most interesting places in the world,” he said. “There’s an allure and sexiness to the island, and the interest will only get bigger and bigger.”

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