― Paulo Coelho, Brida
The sweet smell of fermenting fruit fills the streets around the modest Havana home where Orestes Estevez and his family fill glass jugs with grapes, ginger and hibiscus, then slip a condom over each glass neck to start the unusual process of winemaking in a land famed for rum.
From origins as an illicit backyard still, Cuba’s “El Canal” winery has become a flourishing business that annually produces thousands of gallons of wine flavored with guava, watercress and beets.
Estevez, 65, has made wine for decades. After a career in the military and security services he legalised his business and opened a tiny winery in 2000 as communist Cuba took the first steps toward allowing private enterprise.
Today, Estevez, his wife, son and an assistant tend to 300 jugs containing five gallons (20 liters) of wine apiece. The main ingredient is Cuban grapes, but added flavors include tropical fruits and vegetables of virtually every variety.
The winery has become a neighborhood attraction, with residents of the El Cerro neighborhood sitting on the curb at all hours sipping Estevez’s wine from green glasses.
The most remarkable sight, however, are hundreds of bottles capped with condoms that slowly inflate as the fruity mix ferments and produces gases.
When the fermentation is over and there are no more gases, the condom stops inflating and falls, and the wine is ready for bottling.
“Putting a condom on a bottle is just like with a man,” Estevez said. “It stands up, the wine is ready, and then the process is completed.”
All told, it takes a month to 45 days to produce a jar of wine.
Estevez’s product is bottled and sold for consumption in homes and restaurants, with sales at an average of 50 bottles a day for 10 Cuban pesos (40 cents) apiece.
It’s an accessible pleasure for Cubans who earn an average of $25 a month and can’t afford imported wine that sells for at least half of that, and often many times more, in state-run liquor stores.
Thanks to a U.S. trade embargo and the inefficiencies of Cuba’s centrally-planned economy, thousands of products are near-impossible to find on the island.
That forces Cubans to make do with what they have, and condoms have been put to many new uses.
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Dozens of fishermen inflate them and use them off Havana’s seaside promenade, or Malecon, where the improvised floats carry bait far out to sea and increase its resistance against tugging fish.
In the case of Estevez’s business and dozens of smaller home wineries across Cuba, the condoms are pricked with a pin once or twice to allow the slow release of gas and replace the sophisticated valves used to trap and release pressure in more technologically advanced winemaking operations.
Angel Garcia, a 43-year-old state auditor, said he used to buy homemade wine of dubious quality from an acquaintance in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, but Estevez had won his business.
“I like coming here a lot,” Garcia said. “I earn $16 a month and I’m not going to spend it buying wine from the store.”