Next week, Grand Cayman will become the center of the wine world when The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman hosts the annual Cayman Cookout food and wine festival. Starting Thursday night with the Wine Fair and Auction, the Cookout will offer no less than 15 wine-focused events that feature some of the most well-known brands and wine personalities in the world,
Although residents probably take for granted the quality and variety of wines available here now, it wasn’t always that way. As recently as the early 1980s, finding a good bottle of wine on Grand Cayman wasn’t easy.
Much of it would be called “plonk” by today’s standards, served in gallon jugs from California, bottles wrapped in straw baskets from Tuscany and in tall black bottles from Germany that contained a sweet wine that would almost assuredly give you a headache the next day. There were some better wines available, mostly from France, but even the quality of these was suspect, mainly because of the conditions in which wines were shipped to, and then stored, in the Cayman Islands.
The availability of wine in bars back then was almost non-existent (unless you counted wine coolers) and while some of the better restaurants had decent wine lists, asking the question, “What kinds of wines do you have?” at most restaurants would have been met with the answer: “We have two kinds of wine. Red wine and white wine.”
Getting the good stuff
Cayman’s road to wine respectability and ultimately superiority started quite by accident, according to Jacques Scott Group Managing Director Peter Dutton. One of the major problems with having good wines in Cayman was that they needed to be stored and displayed in climate-controlled conditions. Back in the early 1980s, many Grand Cayman businesses didn’t even have air-conditioning.
One day in the mid-1980s, Dutton discovered that beneath what was then Jacques Scott’s main retail outlet on Shedden Road were two old cisterns, used at one time to store rainwater for future use. He reasoned that the underground, concrete structures would be easier to keep cool and would make good wine cellars. The company then built a staircase into the cisterns, built wine racks on the walls and started acquiring quality brands of wine, many of which they still carry.
Once Jacques Scott started selling better wines, the company immediately learned there was a willing market for them on Grand Cayman, one that continued to grow as the island attracted more tourists and more professionals working in the financial services industry. By the mid-1990s, Jacques Scott had such a wide selection of quality wines that it even impressed the publisher of Wine Spectator magazine, Marvin Shanken, who was so shocked to find a wine store of that caliber in the Caribbean that he published a two-page article about it.
Since then, the selections of fine wines available in the Cayman Islands has only grown as competition with Jacques Scott grew. BlackBeard’s, Big Daddy’s, Tortuga Wines & Spirits, Premier Wines & Spirits and Vino Veritas all sell fine wines retail and the number of different brands and types available – often referred to as SKUs – in Cayman is undoubtedly one of the highest per capita in the world. You can find wines from the U.S., France, Italy, Spain, Argentina and Australia just about anywhere in the Western world, but finding them, as well as from countries like South Africa and Germany, in the large numbers of SKUs available here, isn’t common outside of the world’s largest metropolitan cities.
Many people really don’t realize just how good we’ve got it in Cayman when it comes to wine.
But the wine goodness doesn’t stop there. There are free wine tastings weekly on Grand Cayman, paid tastings at minimal costs of hard-to-find brands with wine reps and winemakers quite often, regular wine dinners, and festivals like the Cayman Cookout and Taste of Cayman that prominently feature wine. There are also local chapters of global culinary groups like Slow Food, The International Food & Wine Society and the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs that all host events that include fine wines.
It’s not just the wealthy wine aficionados – the so-called wine snobs – who benefit. These days, even groups of young adults, barely old enough to drink legally, display their sophistication by drinking fine wine with friends at places like the West Indies Wine Company, where they can sample tastes of more than 70 different wines for just a few dollars each.
Wine consumption has definitely come of age in the Cayman Islands, and although house wines at some of the more basic local restaurants and bars might not inspire a glowing review, at least they no longer come in gallon jugs or in bottles wrapped at the bottom with a straw basket.