In Cuba, California Winemakers Make History

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By Carson Demmond Posted February 01, 2016

A California wine trade mission in Havana is in full swing.

California winemakers make history today as they gather in Havana for Cuba’s first trade show of American wine. The aptly titled California Wine Symposium unites the California Wine Institute and the Napa Valley Vintners and Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers associations in an effort coordinated by U.S. Cava Exports founder and CEO Darius Anderson, who’s been working since 2014 to assist California growers in negotiating contracts to sell to Cuba.

A loophole in the 55-year trade embargo allows for the export of agricultural products, of which wine is one, but regulatory hurdles like the lack of shipping infrastructure and the inability of the U.S. to extend any credit to Cuban entities have long slowed the progress. Anderson previously helped organize a weeklong research and wine-buying trip for 19 Cuban sommeliers in Napa and Sonoma. And in July of last year, thanks to the evolving political climate between the U.S. and Cuba, his company received approval from the Department of Commerce to begin negotiating sales from California wineries to Cuba. Around 15 importers have lined up to taste their wares this week. 

The purpose of the Symposium is two-fold: vintners will learn about the current state of Cuba’s wine and hospitality industry, while Cuban sommeliers, distributors, and owners of paladares (the local private restaurants) and resorts will learn firsthand about California’s winegrowing regions and appellations. In addition to a briefing by the Cuban Chamber of Commerce and seminars on California’s regions and grape varieties, the three-day event will round off Tuesday in a grand tasting at Havana’s Hotel Palco.

Steve Burns of O’Donnell Lane, self-proclaimed "wine lead" on the mission, is thrilled with the turnout from California. “We had hoped for 50 participating wineries, and we’re leaving Miami with 65 represented and almost 100 vintners,” he reported to Food & Wine late Friday afternoon. The list of secured travel visas includes famed winemaker Joel Peterson of Ravenswood and Tuck Beckstoffer of Beckstoffer Wines.

Relations with Cuba are picking up at a fast clip, and despite a few beverage industry bumps in the road—like the trademark litigation between Bacardi and Pernod Ricard over the rights to Havana Club in the U.S.—the island nation is a new frontier for exports. Up until now, wines from Argentina, Chile and Spain have dominated its wine market, and sales have been largely limited to the country’s tourism venues.

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