Editorial: A wine bridge to Cuba

When you stand on the shore of South Beach, on the edge of Key West, and look across the Straits of Florida, it’s not hard to imagine you can see over the intervening 110 miles of open water to the looming Castle of the Three Kings at the mouth of Havana harbor. It’s 50 miles closer than Miami, but viewed through a temporal lens it is more accurately 54 years away.

Because that’s how long Cuba and the United States have been legally, politically and – perhaps most importantly – economically estranged. That term may be too benign to describe the embargo first imposed by the U.S. in 1960, and redefined more restrictively several times since. The Cubans call it “el bloqueo,” the blockade, and for half a century it has severely limited their access to American goods, American markets, American car parts, American money and, maybe most sadly, Americans themselves. And this week, the embargo came home to Sonoma, as we’ll see in a moment.

There are legitimate historical reasons for the embargo – Castro nationalized all industries within a year of taking power, including the assets of U.S. companies worth, in today’s value, somewhere between $6 billion and $20 billion. He never even offered compensation.

On the other hand, beyond his blind and dictatorial devotion to a strict, state-controlled, communist economy, it can be readily argued that Castro had ample reason to punish the U.S. for backing the tyrannical and corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista. Batista negotiated the Cuban economy with American corporations that paid him bribes, and with the American Mafia, which was virtually his partner, controlling drugs, gambling and prostitution, along with strategic banks. The Cuban economy, in short, was largely controlled by Americans, many with close ties to Palermo.

So U.S. assets were seized by Castro, the U.S. imposed a retaliatory embargo, and 50-plus years later the feud persists, but to what purpose – other than internal politics in both countries – is unclear.

President Bill Clinton confessed to a historian that the embargo was a “foolish, pandering failure,” allowing Castro to demonize the United States for decades.

And in 2004, then-Senator Barack Obama insisted, “The Cuban embargo has … utterly failed to overthrow Castro … It is now time to acknowledge that that particular policy has failed.”

And yet it persists.

So what’s all this got to do with Sonoma? Just this.

All week, Sonoma has been graced by the presence of some 20 top Cuban sommeliers, here to listen, learn, taste and share their interest in wine. In their eagerness to see the heart of American wine country, they hold a key to the future of a beneficial relationship that can enrich both parties. For most of them, California wine is a rare, if not unique, experience. Cuban wine is awful, but the country imports much of its good wine from Chile, Argentina and Spain. In the future, we can hope, some of that wine will come from our Valley.

It is intriguing to consider that Sonoma can contribute to the construction of a wine bridge to Cuba. At some point the embargo will end, we will all discover the multitude of interests and qualities we have in common and the distance in decades between Key West and Havana will shrink into memory.

We toast our Cuban visitors and hope they can return as partners.

– David Bolling