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Cuban delegation aims to build market for California wines

  • 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.

Cuban Sommeliers

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“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.


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