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Virginia wines meet Cuban cigars

By Thomas Heath
Monday, April 19, 2010; 2

Former Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, who lost that state's 2009 Democratic nomination to Creigh Deeds , launched his own trade mission to Cuba last week with several Virginia businessmen. McAuliffe journeyed to Cuba from April 12 through 15, where he persuaded the Cubans to accept more Virginia poultry, apples and soybeans -- and, for the first time, Virginia wine.

"There is a tremendous opportunity to create jobs in the U.S. by doing business in Cuba," said McAuliffe, who chaired Hilary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign and is a close friend of former President Bill Clinton. "Most importantly, we got them to agree to open up the market for Virginia wines. We are going to export Virginia wines to Cuba for the first time ever. " The group met at the Havana offices of Alimport, the Cuban entity that signs all contracts with U.S. food and agriculture companies which sell to Cuba.

McAuliffe, 53, said the Cubans agreed to hold a Virginia wine exposition at a date to be decided, where Cuban government officials will host Old Dominion winemakers.

Accompanying McAuliffe were Jon Bowerbank, president of EMATS Inc., a utility infrastructure company from Southwest Virginia (Bowerbank unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat last year for Virginia lieutenant governor); James Reyes of Reyes Beverage Group of Northern Virginia, who discussed sales of U.S. beer to Cuba; Hani Masri, president of McLean-based Capital Corporation, who talked with the Cubans about selling them telecommunications equipment; and Blaze Wharton, a partner of Vigilant Worldwide Communications, who went to Cuba as a representative of Immune Tree, a Utah company which produces dairy products.

McAuliffe's group spent all four days in Havana, staying at the legendary Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

The trip came one day after he returned from visiting five Middle East countries, promoting his investments in green technology.

So are these kinds of trade missions, designed to create jobs for Virginians, a prelude to another run for the governor's mansion?

"I always keep my options open," said McAuliffe.

Is this business big enough for Case and Leonsis?

"Isn't it rich? Are we a pair?"

The first lines from Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" perfectly describe the competition between best buddies Ted Leonsis and Steve Case.

The former AOL moguls and online mavens, who together made a nine-figure profit on the recent sale of Revolution Money to American Express, are on opposite sides of a war between two up-and-coming startups, D.C.-based LivingSocial and Pittsburgh-based Groupon.

The two companies sell discounted group coupons for its users in a "deal of the day" in each city where they operate. A $15 coupon, for example, might get the purchaser a $30 restaurant meal. Restaurants, spas, bars, theaters and other businesses have joined.

In Groupon's corner is Leonsis, who sits on its board with his close friend, Peter Barris of New Enterprise Associates, the D.C. area venture capital giant that is helping bankroll the Groupon.

In the opposite corner is Case, a big investor in LivingSocial through his investment vehicle, Revolution LLC. LivingSocial is run by Tim O'Shaughnessy, son-in-law of Washington Post Company Chairman Donald E. Graham.

At least one wag called to say it was the talk of the local business community.

Not according to Leonsis and Case.

"There is no there there," said the Caps' owner.

"Steve invested in LivingSocial; I wasn't approached to do so. I then met Groupon folks and went on their board via NEA people. Peter Barris and I are close friends. NEA is a big investor in Groupon. I am also on the board of Mediabank; same folks that started Groupon."

Case did not disagree.

"It's not a big deal," said Case. He and Leonsis "have worked together on a bunch of different things. The group coupon space is a huge market. There's room for several companies."

You may be smarter than you think

Don Rainey of Grotech Ventures, the Tysons Corner-based venture capital firm, said the company's investments over the last six months or so have veered toward tools and technology that "enable you to be smarter than you are."

Grotech is one of the investors in LivingSocial, which we talk about above. "It's a beautiful thing," said Rainey. "We love both the jockey [management] and the horse [the business]."

Grotech also has money in Invincea, a Fairfax company that took defense-related technology and developed it into software that protects individual and corporate computers from outside attacks.

And finally, said Rainey, he likes OpenQ, a Charlottesville, Va., firm that helps pharmaceutical companies organize compliance with rules governing contacts with doctors an other "thought leaders" that pharma wants to influence.

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