Posted: Sep 12, 2008 10:59am ETI’ve been holding off writing this blog, partly because I don’t want to jinx myself. But Dave has been putting pressure on us to submit some blogs, so here it goes.
Last Friday, I rescheduled a golf match to beat the weekend’s rains from Hanna. The match was part of Sleepy Hollow Country’s Club season-long Governor’s Cup, which is a match play format with full handicap. It is distinct from the club championships, and not all the low handicappers sign up, so it gives opportunity for hackers like me to get some real tournament experience and hopefully, not embarrass ourselves.
Last week’s match was in the semifinals. Yeah, after three years in a row of washing out in the first round, I had several miraculous recoveries this summer, coming back once from three down with four to play and once losing a three up lead with four to play, and then winning both matches. In fact, each of my first three matches had gone to the 19th hole, which is played on our first hole. I was beginning to feel invincible on that hole, however. In two of the first three matches, I had birdied the hole and in the third match, a quarterfinal, I played it perfectly to par it.
But the semifinal loomed as an impossible challenge. I was playing a great gentleman who carries a 25.8 index, and a course handicap of 31. The math was pretty easy. I was giving up 20 strokes. That’s right; a stroke a hole plus two holes with two strokes. To a man among my friends, not one thought I could win the match. Count me among the skeptics. I haven’t had the greatest of golf seasons as I’m been working on a swing change since late last year; after several years with an index in the six to seven range, it had climbed as high as 10.5 in June before dropping back to 9.2 by September. So, without one round under 80 all summer, I knew that I was hanging by a thread against my opponent before I ever teed off.
Last Friday was a perfect day. Thanks to the near unanimous dismissal of my chances, I was relaxed and feeling good. We teed off at 7:45 a.m., just the two of us with a caddy. My strategy was simple: focus early and get him down in hopes that he would start to press a little bit. Now how many times have you had that thought going into a round of golf, and suddenly look up on the fourth tee to realize you’re already four or five over par for the round and down a bunch of holes to your opponents. That didn’t happen this time. I parred one, birdied two to beat a bogey from my opponent and parred three, winning that hole too after he had trouble getting out of a sand trap. I’m on the 4th tee, up by three already and thinking, wow, this never happens to me! He won 4 after I hit an errant second shot, and I couldn’t get up and down, carding my only double bogey of the day. But I parred five and six for wins and then almost sank a bunker shot on seven for birdie, but we finally halved that hole.
Posted: Sep 2, 2008 4:53pm ETI was reminded again this Labor Day weekend what makes a cigar special. When you smoke for a living, as we do here at Cigar Aficionado, it’s safe to say that sometimes you smoke because you are required to meet a deadline. Because we never know which cigars we are smoking, there’s never any real choice. Right now, there is a stack of cigars with numbered bands in my humidor on my desk. The extent of the decision process about which one I’m going to smoke consists of deciding what time of day I’ll be tasting, and then I reach in the humidor and pull one out…sometimes without even looking at it before I begin the task of examining the variables that we use to rate a cigar.
So, when my wife and I headed off to a friend’s house on Sunday for dinner with he and his wife, I relished the moment when I was finally showered and dressed, and I stopped in front of my humidor. I opened the doors, and the lovely aroma of aging cigars filled the small alcove where it is located. I pulled out the top drawer, where I keep most of my “special” cigars, and spent a good five minutes thinking about the evening, about the bottle of 1986 Dow’s Port that I was bringing with me, and which cigar would go best with it. I knew it wouldn’t be a super late night because I had a golf match in the morning so I didn’t want an overly big cigar. I settled on a Fuente Fuente OpusX PerfecXion X cigar, dampened the hydration slip in my Elie Bleu two-cigar humidified case, and put the cigars in it. With one last look at the tray, I closed up the humidor and walked out the door.
The cigar was sublime. The port matched the light sweetness of a nearly 10-year old Opus perfectly and my friend and I sat on his porch looking out over the dark shadows of the Hudson River and the Big Dipper up in the sky. It was a perfect late summer evening, made all the more special by a cigar that I wanted smoke. I savored every puff.
I went through the same process the following night as we headed off to another friend’s house for a casual supper. This time, I choose two Padrón 1964 Aniversarios, because I know this friend loves those cigars. In the end, it got late, and we didn’t light up, but I left both cigars with him. He showed off his cabinet humidor, which was filled with several trays of outstanding cigars. I know we’ll share some of them in the future.
Posted: Aug 4, 2008 9:24am ETMy family and I took our annual pilgrimage to the Canadian Rockies in July. Five days of hiking in backcountry is good for the soul, even if it includes one day of walking in a snowstorm that left between four to six inches of fresh powdery stuff on the ground above 6,500 feet. And, as usual, we kicked off our vacation with a stop at the Post Hotel, a Relais et Chateaux property in Lake Louise.
Andre and George Schwarz have run the small European-style hotel for 30 years, and have turned it into a luxurious outpost with a great restaurant that has received Wine Spectator’s Grand Award for its outstanding wine list. There’s also a wonderful pub-style restaurant with a lot of comfort food in a relaxed setting.
But after dinner, I was hankering after a good cigar. I figured I was going to have to go outside and sit on the patio because of Canada’s smoking laws. And, the last time I’d been at the Post, they had told me their smoking lounge had been shut down out of concerns over how to interpret the law. I won’t get into the details, but because Lake Louise is on federal park land, there are some exceptions to the law, and the smoking lounge was open for business. It has a glass door separating it from the main Post dining room.
I lit a 15-year-old Don Carlos No. 3, ordered a glass of 20-year-old Graham’s Tawney and sat contentedly puffing away in a big, plush leather chair. There are about 20 seats in the lounge, which has a low ceiling, a fireplace and a fully stocked humidor of fine Cubans: the inventory in July included Bolivars, Cohibas, Romeo y Julietas and Montecristos. The bar also had a full-range of American Bourbons and fine Single Malt Scotches. The Don Carlos supplied all its sweet, earthy leather notes, and I was in heaven.
Andre Schwarz came in the room and we sat chatting for nearly half an hour about the lodge, the winter ski season, the smoking laws, and whether or not the strength of the Canadian dollar had slowed the arrival of American tourists. (Not really, he said.) It was a great moment of sheer luxury before the trek into backcountry and five days of solid hiking. But my East Coast time clock finally caught up with me, and I had to say goodnight. I knew I’d be back next year.
Posted: Jul 24, 2008 2:31pm ETI was away from the office during the first part of July, and for much of the time, almost off the grid in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies near Lake Louise. But I had a couple of “cigar moments” that I’ll share with you over the next week.
On July 4th, my wife and I spent a lovely evening at the home of a friend of mine. He and his wife have a view that overlooks the spire of a local Presbyterian church, all the way across the Hudson River to the Palisades on the river’s west side. He opened a lovely bottle of 2001 Brunello, and we had a great summer meal with Middle Eastern accents, including grilled lamb chops.
My friend is an avid cigar smoker who, because of health concerns, has cut back on his smoking, but now when he smokes, he wants to savor every second. After the meal, we retired to his porch as the last wisps of sunset-lit clouds turned to pink and then dark orange above the Palisades. He poured two tumblers of an Isle of Jura scotch, and brought out two Opus X Belicosos. We lit up and began an hour of great conversation about American and Israeli politics, the allure of his wide-ranging business interests around the globe, and my impending departure the next morning for the Rockies.
As we talked, we began to see, and then hear, the fireworks celebrations of towns up and down the Hudson. There were are least three or four different shows that kept lighting up the sky, including one that was taking place in a town on the west side of the Palisades, which blocked our view of all but the highest, and biggest, exploding aerials at least five miles away. There were kaleidoscopes of colors in greens, blues, reds and whites, and from the furthest visible explosions, it would take a good 20 to 30 seconds for the sound to reach us.
Our cigars burned low, but we heard a call from our wives from the other side of the house in the driveway amid the sudden pounding of explosions. We went to investigate, and from there, we were looking almost straight up at the annual fireworks’ display at the Sleepy Hollow Country Club, which is less than half a mile from my friend’s house. We could almost see the entire part of the aerial fireworks, and the only thing the grand finale lacked was the heart-pounding depth of being right under the explosions.
Posted: Jul 18, 2008 11:25am ETI got back this week too from IPCPR, or what we now refer to as the cigar retailer trade show, in Las Vegas. James Suckling and Dave Savona have done a fantastic job of telling you about all the great things that went on there, and I can tell you, there’s still more to come.
Thanks to the magazine going into production this week, my trip was cut short, but I had a wonderful day and a half on the show floor and spent time with people from the industry that I’ve gotten to know well over the past 16 years. Once again, the upbeat mood reminded me how low the industry was in 1992 when we attended our first convention, and how far we’ve come since then. While some retailers, and manufacturers, are clearly worried about the economic crunch in the United States, the majority of people from both worlds are positive about the upcoming year.
But that’s not the true big news out of this year’s show. I smoked a number of cigars given to me by industry stalwarts. Across the board, they were the best cigars I have ever smoked in one place in such a short period of time. There were new products that you’re going to see on retailer’s shelves this fall, And there were several smokes that can best be described as special experiments by the cigarmakers with new blends and exotic combinations of tobaccos, a sign that no one is sitting on their laurels but continuing to push the envelope of taste and flavor.
Dave, James and I kept looking at each other and raising our eyebrows because so many of the cigars were excellent. And in a couple of cases, the reactions came from cigars that in the past have under-whelmed us.
For several years now, the editors of Cigar Aficionado have said that this is the golden age of cigars. It was true then, and it is even more true today. We always have been strong advocates for the exciting new cigars that become available in recent years, brands that were made by newcomers who brought a dream to fruition. But this year, I can tell you that you will have to re-visit some brands that you haven’t tried in awhile because they too are in the process of evolving. I won’t mention any names yet because it will be a few months before they hit the retail market. But get ready smokers. You are in for some exciting new cigars this fall.
Posted: Jun 26, 2008 2:59pm ETI attended a banquet this week of the Metropolitan Golf Writers Association. There were a number of honorees, including Judy Rankin and Gary Player, but the Gold Tee award, the group’s highest honor, went to Charlie Sifford, the 86-year-old former PGA Tour professional who broke golf’s color barrier at the professional level.
Sifford regaled the crowd with tales of his early days on the PGA Tour, and thanked everyone for putting him in the company of previous award winners, a distinguished group that includes Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Byron Nelson, and Sam Snead. Last year’s winner was Ernie Els.
Sifford won his PGA Tour card in 1961, forcing the rewriting of the Tour’s “Caucasians-only” rule. He went to win twice on the PGA Tour, and as one of the original members of the Senior Tour, captured its Open Championship in 1975. Sifford also noted that he had endured some “tough times” playing on the tour where he was the subject of threats and racial epitaphs. Player, who introduced Sifford at the banquet, spoke of how courageous his friend of more than 50 years had been during his playing days.
Sifford was also known for playing with a lit cigar. He said he was once asked about why he played with it, almost never removing it from his mouth. He said that on a full swing, he could tell if he was swaying off the ball because the cigar would move and point away from the ball. And, the same thing on his putts; if the ball moved off the end of the burning cigar, he knew he was moving his head and could stop it.
Now I know why I need to smoke more out on the course.
Posted: Jun 18, 2008 10:16am ETWhile Dave Savona was in danger of getting blown off the beach on Saturday night, I was sitting in my dry, warm den eating burgers and potato salad, chatting with four golfing buddies (the same crew who went to West Palm Beach with me in February, plus a mutual friend) and watching the U.S. Open from Torrey Pines. I had a La Flor Domincana Lancero going, and the rest of the guys were working their way through Padróns of various types. I was on my third or fourth glass of a 2004 Burgundy from Louis Jadot and savoring every sip.
How about that for a Plan B? The original plan was a big table on the back patio for all 13 of us (wives, girlfriends and a couple of offspring included), and a very relaxed backyard cookout under the stars that was destined to be finished off with cigars. The storms, which basically began about 2:30 p.m. and kept hitting well into the wee hours of the next morning, altered that plan. In retrospect, the original scenario did not include a TV screen, or viewing the U.S. Open non-stop for a couple of hours.
For better or worse, the dinner had quickly turned into a ladies’ room, the women all around our dining table, and a men’s room, where we were watching every swing, and listening to Johnny Miller create more controversy and getting away with it. As the food disappeared and wine bottles started emptying, I realized that the cigar part of the evening was in jeopardy. The den doubles as my wife’s office, and out of respect for her, I usually don’t smoke in there very often, and certainly not with four guys all lighting up at once.
But I asked her anyway, and she said, “Sure, go ahead. I don’t mind.” I walked back in the den and asked, “Anyone want a cigar?” The looks of amazement and the “in here?” bounced off the walls. I said, "yup." I didn’t need to repeat the offer. We lit up, and enjoyed the next 45 minutes of the tournament, including Tiger’s incredible eagle putt on 18.
Posted: Jun 12, 2008 9:15am ETI’ve said many times that one of my favorite cigars is the Don Carlos line from the A. Fuente family, especially the No. 3, a beautiful, little corona. Every time I see Carlos Fuente Sr., I tell him how I am still savoring a few of the No. 3s that he gave me nearly 15 years ago. They occupy the same hallowed status in my humidor along with some 1986 Cuban Davidoff Especiale No. 2s and some Fuente Fuente OpusX As from 1995. Those cigars are simply beyond description, like a 1961 Bordeaux First Growth or a great 1969 red Burgundy.
So I’ll be honest. I was a little skeptical when Dave Savona gave me a Double Robusto Don Carlos Edicion de Aniversario 2007, a 52 ring by 5 3/4 inch cigar that contains elements of the basic Don Carlos blend. It has a wrapper from the Chateau de la Fuente, the leaf that is used on the Fuente Fuente OpusX line. It’s not that I am becoming conservative in my middle age, but I was wondering why they are messing around with what is already a great cigar. It had been sitting in my office humidor for a couple of weeks, and I kept thinking, well, I’ll just wait awhile before I smoke it. Today, I had caught up with all the tasting cigars for the next issue, and after a couple of less-than-stellar smokes, I wanted something special. I figured now was the time.
Wow. From the first puff, I was overwhelmed with the complexity of the cigar. It had that subtle sweetness that I always find alluring in the Don Carlos line, but it had that overlay of pepper spice and leather that I frequently taste in the FFOX cigars. It doesn’t quite have the power of a regular FFOX cigar, but the balance is extraordinary, and there is an earthy, leathery note that lingers on the finish. I wasn’t tasting blind, but I can tell that it would be a cigar that would approach our Classic category, or 95 points.
Maybe there’s a lesson here. Cigarmakers today are always experimenting and trying out new combinations, looking for new taste sensations. And, they are even willing to experiment with some of their best cigars. When they work like this Don Carlos, it’s a home run.
Posted: May 27, 2008 9:31am ETEvery year, a friend of mine nominates the top ten days of the summer. The criteria are pretty loose, but basically it has to be warm, but not too warm, sunny but some clouds are allowed, and of course, no rain any time during the day. Last Sunday here in the Northeast wasn’t just a contender for a top ten day, it may have already won the title for the Best Day of the Summer: mid-70s, not a cloud in the sky and a light breeze to keep the bugs down and moderate whatever warmth there was from becoming too much.
My friend Chuck, the owner of the R8 that I wrote about a few blogs ago, and I and our wives had planned a picnic more than two weeks ago. We were going to drive our cars (yes, another road trip in tandem in the R8 and the S5) up to one of the best-kept secrets in the New York area: Storm King Arts Center in Mountainville, New York, about 10 miles from West Point on the west side of the Hudson River. It is a 500-acre preserve given over to an outdoor sculpture museum. Some of the greatest sculpture artists of the 20th century are represented, and you can lay eyes on everything from several Alexander Calders, 13 works by David Smith, a granite sculpture by Isamu Noguchi, a specially commissioned Richard Serra, a Henry Moore and a mysteriously mesmerizing piece by Andy Goldsworthy called Storm King Wall, a 2,278 foot long stone wall. The sculptures are scattered around the grounds, which include sloping hills, wide meadows and tall trees framing the long promenades. It is truly a spectacular place.
We spent an hour walking around the property, which isn’t nearly enough, but by that point, we had worked up an appetite. There is a designated picnic area near the front parking area, but even though there were probably 60 people dining al fresco, there was no sense of being crowded. We picked out a place under a tree with an unobstructed view of Calder’s Arch. There literally wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we picnicked away.
Posted: May 19, 2008 12:57pm ETThere’s always a collective relief here when we finish up a tasting for one of our upcoming issues. I know most of you don’t understand this, but when you have to smoke for a living, it detracts from the great pleasure one normally gets from a cigar. I usually have a little ritual that I follow after I’ve finished up a tasting to offset some of the obligation we all feel here when we are involved in a tasting.
First of all, there is a short period after the tasting is over when we examine the scores. If there are huge discrepancies between tasters, I'll assign a cigar to be resmoked, sometimes even by two people, just to get a more accurate take on the cigar. As I’ve said many times, tastings are subjective exercises, and some days you just wake up and everything tastes funny. That’s why we do try to be fair to cigars and re-taste them if there are any serious discrepancies. You can be pretty certain that the cigars at the bottom range of a tasting, and at the top end, have all been re-tasted to be sure that the results are in harmony.
But that takes time. We manage our tastings so that there is rarely a break of more than three or four days between the end of one tasting, and the beginning of the next one. We try to get the tastings done a week before production starts, so we have time to do the re-tastes, and then produce the notes and averaged scores for publication. That means it pretty much is a never-ending routine of smoking and evaluating.
I do give myself at least one full day to engage in my special ritual. I always have a cigar set aside that I really want to smoke. Sometimes, it’s a contribution for an upcoming Connoisseur’s Corner, or sometimes it’s just one of my favorites from my home humidor. I wait until after the lunch hour and then I light up the cigar. There are no tasting sheets around (unless it’s a Connoisseur’s Corner cigar), and I don’t worry about how many cigars remain in my humidor to be smoked. There’s no worry about wondering if I have to smoke three or four more cigars that day, and I’m not evaluating the cigar for every minute distinction it might have.