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Tropical Cellars (October 22, 2009)

I spend a good deal of my life visiting the wine regions of the world, so when it comes to vacations my wife, Deborah, tries to steer me to destinations where there are no wineries, no vineyards, no wine tastings. Yet somehow I manage to ferret out some wine activity in the least likely of places.

Did you know that there are two wineries in Hawaii – Tedeschi on Maui and Volcano Winery on The Big Island? The tasting room at Tedeschi was originally built by the owners of the 20,000-acre Ulupalakua Ranch as a summer cottage for King Kalakaua, the last reigning King of Hawaii, who died in 1891. He used it for his poker and champagne soirees when visiting the property. Today the winery produces two sparkling wines and four still wines, as well as a pineapple wine; and such is the micro-climate that they get two grape harvests a year – one in September-October and another in December.

When we went for a driving holiday to Ireland Deborah was willing to bet that it would be a winery-free vacation. I had read somewhere that the only vineyard in Ireland is in Mallow near Cork, just north of Blarney (we did not stop at the castle to kiss the stone). Deborah rolled her eyes when I told her that we had the unique opportunity to visit the only vineyard in Ireland.

The vineyard is on the 500-acre property of Longueville House, a Relais & Chateaux hotel in a splendid Georgian heritage house. Unfortunately, the owner and chef, William O'Callaghan, had left, so I couldn't buy a bottle of his father Michael's wine or find out about his vineyard, which is in a walled garden to the left of the house. Deborah and I did manage to walk through it, about an acre of vines, set well apart on a good slope. Mallow is a few degrees above 52° Latitude (Toronto is at 44° and Schloss Johannisberg in the Rheingau at 50°), and I wondered what varieties could ripen here.

When it came to the Bahamas, Deborah had scoured the net to ensure that there were no wineries or vineyards on the islands. But what she didn't find out was that Graycliff, the hotel in Nassau where we stayed the first night, has the largest collection of wine in the Caribbean.

The property, built around 1740, was the home of a successful pirate named John Howard Graysmith whose schooner Graywolf preyed on merchant ships in the Caribbean. The British Colonial-style residence, set in its own gardens opposite Government House, became Nassau's first inn in 1844. In 1974, an enterprising Italian hotelier named Enrico Garzaroli purchased the estate and began converting it into a five-star hotel with a kitchen to match.

The California room in Graycliff's cellar

Garzaroli's passion is wine and his collection of some 175,000 bottles is housed in a series of climate-controlled rooms in the basement of the property. Touring the cellar is like entering an Aladdin's cave for wine lovers. An endless series of rooms stacked high with bottles ends at the cellar dining room with its polished oak table set with sixteen chairs.

The cellar dining room at Graycliff

Enrico Garzaroli, wine collector extraordinaire

Enrico Garzaroli told me that some of his clients order classic clarets from the early 1900s. Flipping through the wine list, I made a mental note not to order the following wines: 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). There are, of course, a goodly selection of more modestly priced bottles, but obviously there are those individuals who can afford these rare wines. Garzaroli tells the story of a Costa Rican and two Hawaiian real estate executives who could have ordered a 1931 Quinta Noval vintage port for $2,600 but opted instead for the Quinta Noval Nacional 1931 ‘because they appreciated the difference and were willing to pay the price. I asked him what the value of his total wine cellar is. He wasn't sure but he put the figure at $12 to $14 million US.

With an import duty of 57 per cent plus freight charges, wine is more costly in the Bahamas than on the mainland, but if vacationers drink piña coladas during the day they want wine with their dinner at night. So the hotels have interesting cellars.

Harbour Island houses

Harbour Island transport, poinciana tree behind

Toby Tyler's wine cave

Harbour Island is a fifteen-minute flight from Nassau to North Eleuthera and then a five-minute water taxi to the island. Imagine a Cape Cod village in a Caribbean setting and that is Harbour Island, with its pastel-painted wood houses and three-mile pink sand beach. The mode of transportation here is by golf cart. The Rock House hotel, overlooking the harbour, is co-owned by Don Purdy from Kingston, Ontario. His wine list features two vintages of Screaming Eagle, California's most sought-after Cabernet Sauvignon – 2006 (selling for $2,500 a bottle) and 2005 ($3,000). Wine collectors around the world would do anything to have these wines in their cellars. Purdy and his partner, Wallace Tutt (who designed houses for Versace and Cher), have a wine buyer in Napa who finds "out of the way" wines for them. The restaurant here was voted one of the Top Ten in the Caribbean by Departures Magazine.

Next door to The Rock House is The Landing, right at the dock on Bay Street (there seems to 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 Tyler 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. He showed me 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. Tyler 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. Tyler 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 old Armagnac.

There may be no vineyards in the Bahamas but I have to tell you there is more fine wine there than you can shake a corkscrew at. Next year's vacation is undecided. Perhaps Deborah will accept the inevitable and we'll go to Tuscany.




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