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While Americans remain a small presence in Cuba, visitors from other parts of the world are flocking these days to the largest island in the Caribbean.

Clear evidence of a marked bump up in tourism — as well as continued relaxation of government regulations — is the growth of privately owned restaurants in Havana.

Less than 18 months ago, there were maybe two dozen or so paladares, as they are known in the island nation. Today, they number more than 400.

That’s the information a group of Cuban sommeliers — from both hospitality and cigar industries — imparted during a visit to Napa and Sonoma wine country last week.

Invited to visit by Californians Building Bridges, the 20 Cubans spent a week in California, visiting farms, culinary operations and wineries in both Sonoma and Napa — Buena Vista, Benziger, Silver Oak, Beringer, Black Stallion, Ram’s Gate. Napa Valley Vintners provided both overview and tasting. Over the past two years, Californians Building Bridges has tapped into the federal government’s “people-to-people” program sponsoring humanitarian and cultural exchanges with residents of Cuba. The organization’s president is Darius Anderson, managing member of Sonoma Media Investments and founder/CEO of Kenwood Investments.

The Michael Mondavi family hosted CBB principals and the visitors from Cuba to dinner at Napa Valley Country Club, along with an extensive tasting of the current portfolio and library wines from 1974 and 1987 made by Michael and Tim Mondavi, respectively, when their family owned and operated the Oakville winery that still bears their father’s name.

During both reception and dinner the other evening, we had the opportunity to talk with both sommeliers and industry leaders from Cuba about the current state of wine and hospitality on the Caribbean island of 11 million, and what lies ahead.

Obviously, the most striking statistic revealed over dinner by sommelier professor Fernando Fernandez was the growth of the paladares. This is occurring as a steady stream of American visitors to Cuba swells, thanks to the Obama administration’s decision a couple of years ago to lift some restrictions on travel to Cuba. After a clampdown under President George W. Bush — which had even kept Cuban entertainers from performing in the states — Americans may now travel in “people-to-people” tour programs that encourage contact with Cubans. The Cuban government as well has relaxed restrictions once imposed on its citizens.

Inti Fernandez is the sommelier for El Aljibe Restaurant, which Wine Spectator maintains “is the best wine cellar in the Caribbean because of the quantity and variety (of wines). We have wines from Spain, Chile, Argentina, France, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Mexico, even China. Some time ago, we had Mondavi pinot noir and Opus One, but not today.”

He hopes the economic reforms initiated by Raul Castro and the relaxation of restrictions by the U.S. government will allow California wines to once again come in through the front door.

“Wine is expensive for Cubans,” advises Osiris Oramas, partner in La Barca Restaurant, so very few are consumed by locals. The wines he does have on his list come from France, Spain and Italy, as well as the New World — Australia and New Zealand.

Oramas — whose brother is chef of the Old Town Havana restaurant — pointed out that those wines have to be shipped long distances, adding to their cost. If economic sanctions are lifted on wines from the United States — whose border is less than 100 miles from Cuba — shipping costs will be reduced, leading to more affordable options for locals and visitors alike, he declared.

“We need a good cheap wine,” said the plain-talking leader of the delegation, Fernando Fernandez, the man who has trained a substantial number of the sommeliers in Havana’s best restaurants. “Some of them have trained in London, too,” he added modestly. “The Havana sommelier knows the wines of the world, the pairings with food, the styles of the kitchen. They know not only wine, but also cigars (a big part of Cuba’s economic picture), coffee, chocolate ... we are a small island but one of the most diverse cultures. We are an international culture.”

Fernandez pointed out the people, culture and customs of Cuba derive from diverse origins, including the aboriginal Taíno and Ciboney peoples, the long period of Spanish colonialism, the introduction of African slaves, a close relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and proximity to the United States.

Visitors to Cuba are able to enjoy international cooking, especially in Havana, but often seek out the fare on which locals thrive. A fusion of Spanish and Caribbean cuisines — with African accents — the typical meal could consist of plantains, black beans and rice, ropa vieja (shredded beef), Cuban bread, pork with onions, and tropical fruits. Black beans and rice, referred to as Moros y Cristianos, and plantains are staples of the Cuban diet. Many of the meat dishes are cooked slowly with light sauces. Garlic, cumin, oregano and bay leaves are the dominant spices.

And with all that sugar cane, a lot of rum is produced and consumed.

With prices out of reach of most Cubans, wines at present are the province of visiting tourists, ordered to accompany meals in the burgeoning paladares.

Napa and Sonoma producers are working with Anderson and Californians Building Bridges to effect a change. They’ve been making friends the past couple of years with restaurateurs more than willing to help. Last week’s visitors are optimistic that Napa and Sonoma wines will return to their lists sooner than later.

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