Tourists come by the millions to Northern California wine country but Orlando Blanco and his 18 traveling companions were on a unique holiday last week. For most of them, it was their first taste of what was once forbidden fruit: California wine. "I didn't expect such a diversity," Blanco said through an interpreter. "The Pinot Noirs are amazing."
The group was a delegation of wine and cigar sommeliers from Cuba, and they hope it will be the first of many wine-buying trips to the Golden State. The United States government opened the Cuban market to American wine just last year, so the trip was a milestone.
In addition to Blanco, who is the sommelier at El Floridita restaurant in Old Havana, there was Joel Francisco Chacon Valdes of one of the La Casas del Habano in Havana and wine educator Fernando Fernandez, who helped organize the trip. "It's really important for us to be here to see things firsthand," Valdes said.
It was a busy week of wine touring in Napa and Sonoma, with opportunities for the sommeliers to taste wines from throughout the state. They dined with vintner Michael Mondavi, tasted Zinfandel at Seghesio Winery and Cabernet Sauvignon at Silver Oak Cellars, learned about pairing wine and chocolate at Sebastiani Vineyards and biodynamic farming at Benziger Winery.
"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.
Alonso, who grew up on a tobacco farm, was seldom without a cigar during the trip. "My mother smoked cigars and my grandmother smoked cigars," she said with pride, "but my father and grandfather didn't."
Cigars, indeed, were prevalent throughout the visit and the sommeliers brought many to share as gifts to their new American friends. "They got [through customs] 700 cigars and 60 bottles of rum and nobody asked them a single question," trip organizer Darius Anderson said.
Anderson is the founder of Californians Building Bridges, a Sonoma based non-profit focused on humanitarian programs and people-to-people exchanges, with an emphasis on Cuba. "We want to break down the misinformation about Cuba from both ends," Anderson says. The sommeliers, he said for example, were fearful about walking in American cities but were happily surprised how open and friendly people were. "Our governments have created this messaging that just isn't real," he said.
The sommeliers aren't sure how long it will be before California wines will be in their Cuban restaurants. While the door is finally open, they admit that the logistics getting the wine into the Cuban market are still daunting.
None of them expect the typical Cuban to be drinking California wine any time soon. "Most people still can't afford to buy wine. It would just be for tourists," Valdes said. And a new tourism trade is thriving in Cuba, particularly with guests from Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain.
And the sommeliers agreed on one thing: the bold California wines will match well with full-flavored Cuban cuisine. Not to mention cigars.