On January 31, 2016, vintners from the wine regions of Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles traveled to the island nation of Cuba to explore the possibility of exporting California wines to, according to Columbus, “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.”  The five-day trip, organized by Darius Anderson of U.S. Cava Exports, had a wonderful mix of informative meetings and exciting adventures in order to learn about Cuba.
For me, the trip had particular significance as the only Cuban that was part of the travel group, and one of the few Cubans living in Napa Valley.  It stirred emotions in me I hadn’t felt in a long time.  You see, growing up in Miami, you are immersed in all things Cuba: my abuela listened to Radio Mambí daily (and still does), a stop at the Cuban bakery for a cortadito and pastelito was a must, and learning to dance salsa is considered a rite of passage.

I first visited Cuba in the summer of 2000. As a wide-eyed college senior with my trusty mini tape recorder in hand (remember those?), I conducted thesis research on Cuba’s health care system. Fast-forward sixteen years later, I never thought that I would be able to combine two passions of mine: Cuba and Wine.
Throughout the duration of the trip, my emotions vacillated from hopeful, optimistic, and excited about Cuba’s future, to sad, frustrated, and at times angry. When thinking about the sum of my experiences, I thought the best way to describe them was through the senses:

We flew into Havana on a crisp Sunday morning. I peeked out the airplane window and saw the vast stretch of land before me – a collage of beaches, panoramic landscapes of hills dotted with palm trees, industrial buildings, and plots of seemingly, barren and underutilized land.  We were whisked away in buses to the Plaza de la Revolución, where gargantuan images stared down at us of two well known figures of the Cuban Revolution: Camilo Cienfuegos, a national hero whose plane mysteriously disappeared and which exiles believe to be the work of Fidel, and Che Guevara, another well known figure also considered a revolutionary hero but to the exile community, he is a ruthless assassin.

We then roamed the streets of Old Havana, several pockets of which have been beautifully restored back to their architectural splendor, but most of which is entirely dilapidated and destroyed from decades of neglect.  The center of the city (Centro Habana), just adjacent to the more touristy section, is crumbling as though an earthquake hit Havana, yet people continue to live in the deplorable conditions among the rubble and buildings collapse onto families almost daily.

One of the many images that remain etched in my mind came from the following morning, when we sat down with a group of government officials at the Palacio de las Convenciones, Cuba’s largest international conference center. As we discussed the framework under which California wines, considered an agricultural product, could be exported into Cuba, the Cuban flag and the American flag were flying side by side. The American flag had been sitting in the basement of the conference center collecting dust since the start of the revolution in 1959, when tensions began to rise between the two nations that ultimately led to severed ties in 1961. The conference organizers happened to stumble upon it in preparation for these meetings and had it professionally cleaned and restored for the occasion. Throughout the duration of the trip, I noticed the American flag hanging in the rear view mirror of several taxicabs, as lapel pins on hotel workers, and in many balconies. To the Cuban people (and to me), it seemed to be a symbol of hope for a new beginning.

The streets are bustling with a marvelous cacophony of street vendors shouting their products, the clanging of dominoes, and the unmistakable Cuban beats from impromptu music sessions. In the evenings, myriad options are available to hear live music, whether it’s dancing with the locals at Casa de la Musica, enjoying a mojito listening to the sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club, or indulging in a Cuban cabaret at the spectacular Tropicana.

What’s also heard, but in a more hushed tone, are the gripes about the inefficiencies of the Cuban government, the struggle to make ends meet on a salary of about twenty dollars a month, and the frustrations of families torn apart as a result of being imprisoned by an island and its system. Every taxi driver had a story: a nautical engineer whose job was eliminated when the Soviet bloc dissolved, a physician who drives at night for extra cash to feed his family, or a government truck driver who siphons gas from his state-owned vehicle to save on expenses.

This juxtaposition of beautiful and tragic sounds were discussed at length when we visited the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who is currently serving as the Chargé d’Affaires to Cuba. Ambassador De Laurentis discussed the excitement surrounding our visit, the progress being made in diplomatic relations, and the delicate subject of political prisoners.

The tactile experiences in Cuba were unlike any other. Formal, distanced handshakes typical in American business settings gave way for a kiss on the cheek and a hug, the standard Cuban greeting. A stranger pulling you onto the dance floor was commonplace.

I walked through what was my grandfather’s family farm in Pinar del Río, a massive expanse of hundreds of acres that was taken away from our family by the Cuban government. As I rubbed the leaves and dug my hands in the soil, Pancho, my grandfather’s former right hand/chauffeur, told me stories about the “unforgettable” Benito Besú. Pancho paraded me around the tiny town of Puerta de Golpe proudly exalting, “this is Benito Besu’s granddaughter, Antonio Besu’s great-granddaughter!”  All of the octogenarians had a story about my grandfather, and as we drove off in our 1953 red and white chevy, I squeezed my husband’s hand and had a lump in my throat the size of a guava.

We also had the opportunity to experience true artistry as we witnessed the art of humidor making at Humidores Habana. These hand-carved humidors coming out of this tiny suburb of Havana were a labor of love made with very basic tools and anything else available to these workers. Jose Ernesto Aguilera Reina, the artist, spoke passionately about his work, especially as he proudly exhibited his pièce de résistance, a massive humidor modeled after the original Bacardi building in Havana. In spite of limited internet and basic resources we take for granted, the entrepreneurial spirit keeps some people afloat.

The distinctive smell of brewing Cuban coffee was one of the first things that hit me in Old Havana – strong, invigorating, and eye-opening. Café el Escorial gave us the jolt we needed to make it through the day. To wind down, a whiff and a sip of Havana Club Selección Maestros Rum usually did the trick.
Cigar smoke made its way through the streets, in nightclubs, and even while tasting wine (gasp!).  At the welcome reception at Club Havana, Cuba’s elite (despite the government’s claim that Cuba is a classless society), got their first tastes of California wines. At times, the odor that could be considered Cuba’s national smell (if such a title existed) became a little too overpowering for us health-conscious tobacco free Californians.

Unbelievably fragrant gardenias in my mother’s old neighborhood of Miramar made me forget for a nanosecond about the broken sidewalks, and the broken dreams of so many.  In Central Havana, we hopped into a pedicab (my favorite mode of transport) and as we sped down certain streets, we could not escape the stench of sewage in certain parts of the city.  But, we’d turn the corner, and the smell of Royal Violets by Agustin Reyes (Cuban baby cologne) entered my nostrils as though I were splashing it on myself during my post shower ritual.  This perpetual dance of contradictions permeates the island in every facet of life.

Our meetings culminated in the grand tasting at the Hotel Palco, where hundreds of Cubans from the hospitality spectrum – sommeliers, restaurateurs, government officials, local celebrities – were invited to taste the bounty of California wines our group had shipped in advance under approval by both the U.S. and Cuban governments.
The Cuban experience of wine has been somewhat limited thus far but is changing rapidly as the exchange of information increases between Americans and Cubans. It reminded me of my visit to China, where they were also so eager to learn about and taste California wines – a thirst for information due to years of deprivation.
Currently, most wines are available in hotels, restaurants, and some wine shops and liquor stores, but even these wines are what we would consider “value” wines from Chile, Argentina, and Spain. The beverage of choice (as one would guess) is rum, of course, not to mention an ice cold cerveza named Cristal brewed by the government entity Cerveceria Bucanero, S.A.

Nonetheless, the culture of wine has made a dent on the island in certain pockets. Cuban sommeliers are extremely knowledgeable and eager to share their knowledge with their guests. When dining at Paladares, privately owned restaurants, I noticed a marked difference in the quality of the wines (and the food).  Over the last several years, the government has issued more licenses for these private establishments, which are similar to bed and breakfasts and serve incredibly authentic, innovative, and delicious meals.  These small businesses have thrived because they have (some) control over their quality, pricing, and service standards.
In very intimate settings, we feasted on Langostas Enchilados (Lobster Creole Stew) and Chilindron de Carnero (Lamb Stew), in addition to the typical accompaniments of black beans, white rice, and fried or sweet plantains. Desserts ranged from fresh homemade guava ice cream to traditional flan.

As I dined at these restaurants, I could not help but think that, sadly, like wine, these experiences are still out of reach for the average Cuban.  However, my interactions with the Cuban people on this trip reconfirmed my beliefs from my visit in 2000 that the more interactions we as Americans have with the Cuban people, the faster we will rebuild and make the island realize its full potential. It may take five or ten years, but perhaps one day the Cuban people will be toasting and saying “Salud!” with a glass of Napa valley wine in hand.

And, the Sixth Sense
In 1961, my grandparents packed their suitcases and walked away from their homes as is, fully furnished with beds made and cabinets filled with plates and other belongings. Their sixth sense, the “supposed intuitive faculty giving awareness not explicable in terms of normal perception,” told them to leave Cuba. My grandmother was strip-searched at the airport and her bags were searched for anything of value, which could not be taken from the island and subsequently confiscated to become property of the state.
I cannot begin to understand or ever take away the hurt, anger, and sadness, that my grandparents, and countless others in the exile community, feel about losing everything they worked so hard to build. I think about what a vintner would do if the government would come to Napa and seize his vineyard as property of the U.S. government. It is simply unfathomable.

But, after fifty-seven years, two to three generations have been born on the island into a situation they did not choose. Those generations are starved of information and opportunities by a failed system. They have no concept of freedom and most do not have the ability to travel. In essence, they are trapped.
We cannot blame them for their government’s actions. But we can rebuild and reinvigorate this generation from the darkness and oppression under which they have been living, and the best way to do that is to increase the exchanges we have with the Cuban people. The time has come to enable the Cuban individual to control his or her own destiny, and our freedom to trade with Cuba is the key to unlocking the freedom of the Cuban people. It is time.

When I flew back from Havana to Miami, I went straight to my 91 year old grandmother’s house and hugged her tight. I thanked her for packing her bags that day and having the courage to raise her children in a free country. Otherwise, I would not be here, and would not have the ability to do that with my own son.

by Suzanne Truchard