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For Cuban visitors, wine tastings span California

  • Juan Manuel Betancor Tejera, left, president of Balcon del Habano Varadero takes in the aroma of a Gloria Ferrer pinot noir while Sommelier Joel Francisco Chacon Valdes of Casa Del Habano writes down notes of the wines during a tasting at Gloria Ferrer Winery with the Cuban Sommelier Summit in Sonoma on July 22, 2014. (Alvin Jornada / For The Press Democrat)

While “cigar-box” is a common characteristic used to describe certain robust red wines, it’s generally rare to smell the actual aroma of cigar smoke at a wine tasting. Then came a group of 22, mostly sommeliers, from Cuba, visiting Sonoma and Napa for a weeklong Cuban Sommelier Summit.

“Napa and Sonoma are the most important wines of the world,” declared Fernando Fernandez, a sommelier professor from Havana who helped organize and was leading the summit. “Not America, the world.”

He added that almost all of the summit participants have earned the highest level of sommelier training in Cuba, and understand how to pair wine with cigars, single malt scotches, rum, coffee, chocolate and tea.

Cuban Sommeliers

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After enjoying an hourlong overview Monday by the Wine Institute’s Lindsay Gallagher, who conducted the session in proficient Spanish at Ramekins Culinary Center in Sonoma, the sommeliers stepped outside to taste through three sets of wines from three burgeoning areas of California with which they might not have been as familiar.

They included Paso Robles, Santa Barbara and Lodi, each of which had representatives on hand to go through the wines. The wines served from Lodi were a 2013 Bokisch Albarino, 2011 Upstream Malbec and 2012 Old Ghost Zinfandel. The zinfandel in particular piqued the interest of Leticia Cabrera Alonso, a sommelier who presides over a cigar shop.

Though she thought the young zinfandel needed “to oxygenate,” she liked its smoky, oaky character.

“We have a culture of trying things and of good-tasting things,” she said in English. “We try wines to pair with cigars, with tobacco. The zinfandel would pair well with a cigar; it’s smoky.”

Cabrera Alonso explained that she and many of her peers in Cuba get the occasional chance to try California wines when friends visit and through classes sometimes held via the French embassy.

The albarino also drew much interest. Many of the sommeliers favorably compared the wine to versions from Spain, with which they were more familiar.

“In Cuba, the weather is very hot. Many customers prefer white wine,” said Fernandez, after tasting the Bokisch Albarino. “Not only sauvignon blanc and chardonnay but viognier, roussanne, marsanne and many Rhone whites.”

From Paso Robles, the three wines were a 2013 Cotes de Tablas Blanc from Tablas Creek, a 2012 Justification Bordeaux-style red blend from Justin Vineyards and Winery and a 2012 Peachy Canyon Westside Zinfandel, also a hit with the group.

From Santa Barbara, wines poured included a 2010 Qupé Roussanne, 2012 Presque’ile Winery Pinot Noir and 2012 Melville Estate Pinot Noir, all interesting to the tasters if not quite as robust as some of the other red wines being poured that day.


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