Havana’s ‘Casa del Vino’ winery turns neighbors into viticulturists

HAVANA,Feb. 19th  – At Havana’s Canal del Cerro, Orestes Estevez Abreau taught some of his neighbors how to plant and grow grapes on their rooftops. He later turned into the homegrown viticulturists’ best customer.Estevez runs the Casa del Vino winery in a city that is mostly known for its rum.

The self-taught winemaker learned the basics from his grandparents, who were born in Spain. After washing the best grapes, he removes the stems and he carefully crushes the grapes. If he breaks the seeds, they could sour the wine. He mixes about eight pounds of the macerated fruit with some 12 pounds of sugar and about two tablespoons of yeast.

After checking the quality, his concoction ferments in a 20-liter glass containers. In a sign of Cuban ingenuity, Estevez uses a syringe to poke holes on condoms that he then places over the tops of the glass containers. The position of latex condoms serve as a sign.

“As long as the condom is up right, the fermentation process is still going on,” Estevez, a former government employee, said in Spanish.

The house wine is know as “Vermut.” But Estevez is not a purist. He has other mouth-watering products that he makes with tropical fruits.  Sometimes he also adds guava, pineapple or papaya to the mix of boiling water and sugar.  Some of the exotic flavors he produces include banana, passion fruit, remolacha, and tamarindo.

Estevez said President Raul Castro’s “cuentapropista” laws allowed him to start selling the wine in 2011. The ability to make and sell his own wine, he said, changed his family’s life. During busy days, he said he can sell 25 to 30 bottles.  The price of his wine bottles range from $10 to $25 Cuban pesos  — about $1.

Abreau recycles used glass bottles. The family business guards the process from grape to bottle and even places the bottles’ labels by hand. He said he is planning to open a restaurant soon. It will likely be an ode to the only winemaking grape that is resistant to tropical weather and is making the Cuban winemaking culture possible.