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July 27, 2015 | 12:16 PM

The first California Wine Symposium in Havana, Cuba, taking place January 31 - February 3, 2016, is being organized in partnership with California Wine Institute, The Napa Valley Vintners, and Sonoma Valley Vintners.

Vintners will learn about doing business in Cuba while sharing their wines with sommeliers, restaurateurs, chefs and hotel managers throughout the island.

The event is being coordinated by Sonoma-based US Cava Exports, founded by Darius Anderson in 2014 to assist U.S. companies in negotiating contracts to sell agricultural and food products to Cuba. Over the last ten months, they've been working with local Cuban distributors, wine experts, and restaurant and resort managers assessing the market potential for California wines.

Relations with Cuba are warming. Amid the President’s recent modifications to the travel and trade embargo, Americans, Canadians and Europeans are visiting in record numbers. Some three million visited Cuba last year and tourism was up 20 percent during the first quarter of 2015.

Although wine is part of the hospitality culture of Cuba, access to wine there has been limited - though that is changing. Demand is increasing along with increased private sector investment and international tourism. California sent its first agricultural trade mission to Cuba in 2008 while the California Wine Institute sent a delegation to Cuba in 2009.

Last July, Anderson’s non-profit Californians Building Bridges, in partnership with Wine Institute, Napa Valley Vintners and Sonoma County Vintners, co-hosted the first delegation of 18 sommeliers from Cuba, who received travel visas to participate in a professional research, cultural exchange, and wine-buying trip. The week-long tour exposed them to wineries and associations throughout Napa and Sonoma.

U.S. food sales to Cuba have been allowed since 2000 under an exception to a trade embargo Washington has maintained since 1962. As an agricultural product, wine qualifies for this exemption.

US Cava Exports recently gained approval from the Department of Commerce to begin negotiating direct sales and shipping of wines from California to Cuba, in an effort to meet growing demand.

Space for the 2016 trip is limited with priority going to vintners who traveled to Cuba in January 2009 with the Wine Institute and those who participated in the Cuban Sommelier Summit in 2014.

Click here for more information on the symposium and costs and here for the schedule.

Steve Burns of O'Donnell Lane LLC, a strategic planning, marketing and communications firm assisting U.S. Cava in organizing the trip, said he expects at least fifty wineries to be represented, if not more.

Burns said there’s been a lot of interest with early sign-ups from such names as Schrader Cellars, Silver Oak, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Schramsberg Vineyards, Silver Oak, and Francis Ford Coppola.

“Everybody else has already been doing business there, you see French wine and Spanish wine,” Burns said. “Everything is changing by the day, but the U.S. embassy is open. Two years ago there was nothing. In the last six months it’s evolved and there are about ten wine importers.”
 

 

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