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A Wine Lover's Diary, part 243 (June 15, 2009)

Monday, June 8: Up at 6 am to prepare to leave for the airport at 7:30 am. Deborah and I are flying to Nassau. I'm researching a story on wine in the Bahamas – not winegrowing but how the resorts handle wine in the heat. Especially Graycliff Hotel, which has reputedly the best wine cellar in the Caribbean. After a three-hour flight we arrive at Nassau Airport in sunshine, which bodes well since the weather forecasts I've been following on the internet predict thunderstorms.

Our taxi driver from the airport to Graycliff gives us a running commentary on the hotels, condos and time-shares along the route, proudly pointing out the hotel where Sean Connery shot the Bond movie Thunderball. "He was the best Bond," the driver remarked, sadly. After checking in to our room, "the pool cottage" in the gardens next to the pool – a huge room, painted pink with marble floors – we lunch in the dining room. We both order conch chowder, a specialty of the hotel, with a glass of Montes Sauvignon Blanc 2008 (for me) and a glass of Montes Chardonnay 2008 (for Deborah). Then buffalo mozzarella and tomato salad and beetroot salad, respectively.

The Straw Market in Nassau

After lunch we stroll into town to the shopping area. The Disney cruise ship is in port and the Straw Market is full of tourists buying fake handbags and carved wooden knick-knacks. We decide to take a boat ride over to Paradise Island to check out the Atlantis hotel. But we just miss one boat and the next is in half an hour. Then the heavens open with a tropical storm that floods the streets to ankle depth. We wait under the covered walkways but it isn't going to subside. So we buy an umbrella and make our way back to the hotel, thoroughly drenched.

The California room in Graycliff's cellar

  The wall of Armagnac

At 6 pm we have a rendezvous with Gary, the wine steward, to tour Graycliff's cellar. The hotel's owner, Enrico Garzaroli, is a wine collector so passionate about his hobby that the entire basement of the property is taken up with a rabbit warren of rooms filled with the wines of the world. There are some 175,000 bottles (another account reads 250,000) whose total value is estimated to be $12–14 million. Wandering through this maze is like being in an Aladdin's cave of wines. There are also walls of old Armagnac, Cognac and Vintage Port.

Deborah and I go to see Graycliff's cigar manufacturing plant within the hotel grounds and next to the Humidor Churrascaria that serves Brazilian Rodizio. The cigar operation employs 16 cigar rollers, called torcedores, mainly from Cuba, who make seven different blends. The original blend called "The Graycliff" was created by Fidel Castro's personal roller, Alvino Lara. We watch the rollers cut the leaves and glue them to the body of each cigar.

Hand-rolling cigars at Graycliff

Before dinner we sit in the lounge over cocktails. The hotel's signature drink is a mix of champagne, Chambord and Angostura Bitters. Deborah opts for a rum and coconut drink.

The cellar dining room at Graycliff

Chef Elijah Bowe III says he will prepare a tasting menu. I study the wine list and note the cost of the rare bottles: Château Lafite 1890 ($18,480), Lafite 1900 ($19,950), a magnum of Lafite 1947 ($20,240), Palmer 1953 ($2,660), Cheval Blanc 1945 ($12,800), Haut-Brion 1959 ($8,100), Romanée-Conti 1952 ($18,800) and Sassicaia 1968, the first ever vintage of this wine ($6,900). I opt for something more modest – a bottle of Cantine Leonardo da Vinci Morellino di Scansano 2006. An amuse-bouche arrives, four bite-sized morsels of egg and caviar, beetroot with goat's cheese and walnut, smoked duck with roasted grapefruit and tuna carpaccio. First course, foie gras in a reduced date and plum sauce. Gary brings over a bottle of Paul Blank Fürstentum Gewürztraminer Vendange Tardive 2000. Then Enrico Garzaroli joins us at the table and we talk of the winemakers we know in common. For the next course, two small rectangular bowls of conch chowder and lobster bisque separated by a small glass of peppered sherry, Enrico insists we have a bottle of Inama Soave 2003. This wine also accompanies the sea bass.

  Enrico Garzaroli, wine collector extraordinaire

A spoonful of raspberry sorbet sets us up for the next course – duck à l'orange. With this we have the Morellino di Scansano but Enrico has a bottle of Cascia Chicco Nebbiolo d'Alba Mompissa 2006, which he insists is a better match. Both wines accompany the pepper steak that follows. By this time we are ready to cry "Uncle" but the chef persuades us to have a little dessert. It turns out to be three egg-cup-sized pots of soufflés – Grand Marnier, Guava and Chocolate. But Enrico is not finished with us yet. He has been telling us about some amazing grappas that he enjoys. He disappears into the cellar and returns with two wood-aged grappas and a selection of chocolates that are made in the Graycliff chocolate factory: Magia Berta Grappa 1993 and Ron Zacapaxo Solera Gran Reserva Especial Grappa. They taste like fine Armagnacs. And so to bed at 11 pm while Enrico goes off to have his dinner.

Tuesday, June 9: After breakfast I order a taxi to take me to the Bristol Group of Companies to interview Juan Bacardi about the importation of wine into the Bahamas. The taxi driver is Dorothy Bethel, who has been driving for 23 years and points out every significant building along the route to Gladstone Road: the police training college, the Baptist Church dating back to 1790, the off-shore banks and the cemetery where Anna Nicole Smith is buried. When I tell her this is my first visit to the Bahamas, she says, "What took you so long?" She tells me about the poinciana trees with their vivid red blossoms that are a mess to clean up when the petals drop. And what did I think about yesterday's "liquid sunshine?" Dorothy takes me to the Bacardi estate rather than the Bristol Company offices, a journey of twenty minutes beyond my requested destination.

Juan Bacardi's retail wine shop

Juan Bacardi shows me around the Bristol Company's vast warehouse, packed with cases of wine from California, France and Italy. They even have a case of Inniskillin Vidal Icewine. Attached to the office is a retail store, one of 18 the company has around the islands. Juan tells me that the government imposes a 57% import tax on wines brought into the Bahamas. I ask him if there are any wine writers in the newspapers. He tells me that one of his employees, Rusty Scates, writes for Punch, a newspaper Dorothy has told me she reads for "the gossip."

The receptionist calls Dorothy to drive me back to Graycliff. She arrives in ten minutes and regales me with more stories of the Bahamas – how she met a woman from New York who founded Freedom, an AIDS organization, and who made her the organisation's contact in Nassau, reporting back on the progress of the local AIDS centre. Meanwhile, Deborah has taken the ferry over to Paradise Island to look at the Atlantis Hotel complex and to check out the underwater aquarium. I lunch alone at Café Skans on Bay Street, ordering a small bowl of Bahamian Bean Soup and a side dish of conch fritters, washed down with the local Kalik beer. The soup is a meal in itself, a hearty and delicious mix of beans, chunks of meat and dumplings in a thick, spicy broth. The waitress brings a plate with eight large conch fritters and a pink dipping sauce on the side.

I have booked Dorothy to take us to the airport for our flight to Eleuthera at 4 pm. Our next destination is The Landing on Harbour Island. She says we should leave at 2:30 pm because at 3 pm the traffic is bad with all the kids getting out of school. On the way to the airport she makes a detour to show us the large homes owned by Bahamians on the lake side of the island. Back on the coast road she points out the Fish Fry – a stretch of fish restaurants, recommending Twin Brothers, Big Ten and Seafood Haven.

  Harbour Island transport, poinciana tree behind
  Toby Tyler's wine cave

We take a twenty-minute flight to North Eleuthera. The water below us is a changing pattern of cobalt blue, aquamarine, turquoise and green. At the North Eleuthera International Airport we take a taxi to the ferry for the five-minute trip across the water to Harbour Island. Our hotel, The Landing, is right at the dock on Bay Street. There must be a Bay Street on every island in the Bahamas. The seven-bedroom inn is owned by Toby and Tracy Tyler (Tracy's mother was Miss Bahamas in 1952 and her photos are prominently displayed in the bar). Toby is a pony-tailed Sydney native who plays guitar and writes songs in his spare time. He also imports his own wine, custom-made for him in California by Mark West winemakers.

Toby shows us his cave, carved into the limestone cliff behind the inn. The entrance door is almost concealed by the roots of an enormous ancient fig tree. The room inside is stacked high with five palettes of his own wines bottled under the Afro Head label. Toby told the winemakers he wanted Australian/New Zealand flavour profile wines. At the bar we taste Afro Head Sauvignon Blanc 2005 (very Marlborough in style), Chardonnay 2006, Pinot Noir 2005, Merlot 2007 and Syrah 2005. The most successful of the wines are the Sauvignon Blanc and the Syrah, wines we will have with dinner on the verandah. Toby also imports his own rum blended by Toby Wong, who used to work for Bacardi in Trinidad. We sample his Signature rum. The oldest element of the blend is 40 years. It tastes like a fine Armagnac.

For dinner on the verandah of The Landing Deborah and I share four appetizers: spicy crab capellini, shrimp and goat's cheese ravioli, romaine lettuce, tomato and bacon salad with grated parmesan and shrimp tempura with asparagus. Toby brings over a plate of Thai beef salad in case we're hungry. For dessert, a chocolate mousse cake. Our room, named Frangipani (all the rooms are named after flowers), is all white with a large canopied four-poster bed.

Harbour Island sunset

Wednesday, June 10: Breakfast at The Deli on Princess Street, a short walk from our hotel. Muffins, coffee and tea. The look of Harbour Island reminds me of Cape Cod with its wooden houses painted in bright colours. Then a walk to the beach, a gorgeous three-mile strand of pink sand.

Harbour Island houses

Harbour Island's pink sand beach

Lunch at Rock House, the next hotel to The Landing. Don Purdy, the co-owner, was born in Kingston, Ontario. His partner, William Tutt III, a lawyer and hotelier, designed Gianni Versace's house in South Beach and a couple of houses for Cher. There are six Modigliani drawings in the Rock House lounge area, and two Picasso drawings in the communal washroom off the lounge.

The Rock House pool

  Rock House owner Don Purdy

We lunch with Don by the pool. On the wine list I notice he has two vintages of Screaming Eagle, 2006 (at $2,500) and 2005 ($3,000). We settle for Château d'Escalans Rosé 2006, a Côtes de Provence, which Don recommended. Lunch: gazpacho followed by grouper, corn and avocado wrapped in a soft taco shell. For dessert, vanilla bean ice cream and Southern-style red velvet cake with cream icing and strawberry coulis. Rock House's restaurant was voted one of the Top Ten restaurants in the Caribbean and the hotel itself Number 8 by Trip Advisor. Departures magazine placed it at Number 48 in the world in its best luxury hotel list.

Back to Nassau and a taxi to the Sheraton Hotel at Cable Beach. Interviewed Thomas Pratt, the Outlet Manager for the Dolphin and Edgewater Bars, about wine sales in the hotel. He says that most of the guests order tropical fruit drinks during the day – especially frozen Piña Colada – and wine at night, mainly the house wines, which are quite reasonable ($24 a bottle for Santa Alicia Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Chile and Zonin Terre Palladiane Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from Veneto). The 44-bottle wine list is 50% Italian, heavily represented by Antinori, including Pian delle Vigne Brunello di Montalcino, Tignanello and Peppoli. Thomas has invented several of the cocktails on the extensive drinks list, with names like Coconut Jimmy and After the Night (a twist on Bloody Mary using tequila instead of vodka). Dinner in the hotel's Amici a Trattoria. Deborah orders lobster tail pasta and I choose a shrimp and basil linguine with a bottle of Santa Alicia Sauvignon Blanc 2008.

The Sheraton at Cable Beach

Thursday, June 10: A morning swim before breakfast. It's already hot. While away the morning, then call Dorothy to take us to the airport for the flight back to Toronto.

"See you next week," she says.

Friday, June 12: Back to the hum-drum, the emails and phone messages. A morning tasting at Doug Towers with David Lawrason for Winerytohome. Then back to the mail and emails.




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