Posted: May 14, 2007 12:11pm ETIn 1986, I was living in France, trying to earn a living as a freelance writer. Through some old contacts, I wrote a number of pieces for the New York Times Travel section. On a whim, I proposed a story for a column that always ran on the last page of the section, usually a personal reminiscence about some experience in some far-flung place. I suggested a piece about dining in France, and how a cigar was an integral part of the three-star restaurant firmament: it ran in October 1986 and was headlined, “Where a Cigar Becomes More than A Smoke.”
If I recall, I received all of $250 for the piece, which didn’t cover the personal expenses of the dining, or the cigars. But I was thrilled to get it published, and, given my growing fondness for a great cigar, I figured I was ahead of the game. The assignment also provided a good excuse to make friends with Marc Meneau at L’Esperance in Vezelay, France, at the time one of France’s great three-star restaurants on the edge of northern Burgundy. In our interview, he actually taught me some things about cigars, including the role that a milder cigar can play at certain times of the day.
But like any journalist, the piece was written and pretty much forgotten, relegated to my clip book as an example of what kind of writing and reporting I could do.
Little did I know that the article would change my life.
Four years later, to put it kindly, I was floundering a bit, trying to combine my professional expertise with some personal passion too. I had dabbled again in the news biz (Newsweek), a fledgling on-line company and a trade publication. Nothing worked very well. In a series of serendipitous events, however, I ended up at lunch during December 1989 with a search firm representative who I had been using to hire young journalists. In recounting my career in that brisk once-over kind of way, she said, “Wow, I have a job YOU might be interested in.”
Posted: May 7, 2007 10:17am ETFinally, the Northeast had a golf weekend to remember, the first of 2007 (if you don’t count January 6th when it was 70 degrees). Since I started playing golf in 1995, we have never had a later start to the spring season. This weekend was warm and pleasant, although it did cool off a bit on Sunday. But hey, 55 and sunny is better than snow, even if the wind was whipping up to a two-club level sometimes.
I also had my first golf course cigar late on Friday afternoon, a well-aged La Aurora 100 Años. It smoked great, and had enough flavor to stand up to the outdoors. I gave my playing partner, a guy who I joined up with on the first tee, a robusto from Montecristo, a non-Cuban cigar that was specially made for a golf tournament a few years back—it has a Habanos2000 wrapper and has aged beautifully. We both enjoyed every puff as the late afternoon sun set over the Hudson River on our club’s course. It didn’t hurt that I had my best round in over a year.
Sunday was the nippy day, and again, I had a few cigar cases in my bag. There was not one “predictable” cigar in there. I do play golf with a lot of Wall Street guys, and men who have the wherewithal to buy whatever cigar they want, and many are on a first name basis with some of the world’s great retailers of Cuban cigars. But I hate to be predictable. I’m more likely to stock those cigar cases with some aged A. Fuentes, an old Padrón, a new brand like Tatuaje, or a La Flor Dominicana or some other premium non-Cuban cigar. My ploy is simple. I want to surprise them with the quality and taste of cigars that some of them are not prone to try.
What do you smoke on the golf course? Are you looking to impress your partners with some well-known illegal smoke, or are you willing to dig deep into your humidor and surprise someone with a nicely aged cigar that you’ve been waiting to savor and that you can buy down the street at your friendly neighborhood tobacconist?
Posted: May 3, 2007 10:32am ETDue to a computer malfunction, this blog did not go live until May 3.
Live Free or Die. That’s the motto on New Hampshire’s license plates. I was there last weekend for another round of soccer in another place far from home and spent another night in another non-descript motel within spitting distance of an Interstate highway. After years of transporting our soccer-playing daughter around the Northeast and Middle Atlantic, that part of our lives is drawing to a close as she heads off to college this fall.
But my wife and I had one last weekend to enjoy with her and her team. We have learned one thing over the years—skip the “continental” breakfast at the motel, and find a diner where the locals gather for a hearty, no-nonsense breakfast.
That’s easier said than done. Finding such a place has gotten harder and harder. Drive down any business strip in any town in America and the breakfast choices range between the drive-thru at McBurgerWendyKingDonalds to Dunkin’ Donuts, or these days if you’re really lucky, a Starbucks that has good coffee but usually no hot food. You can’t count on the Chili’s-Applebees-Whatever-Chain restaurant universe; they usually don’t open until 11 a.m. We drove by most of those chain outlets Saturday morning as we searched for our elusive diner. All in all, the fast food revolution has stripped the country of real roadside diners.
So, it wasn’t until our second pass on an early-morning-empty strip of highway that the Honey Bee Donuts sign jumped out at us. We had driven by on the first pass because the only word we’d seen was Donuts. But right below the donut sign, the word breakfast was clearly printed. We pulled off the highway to park in front of building that looked as if it hadn’t been
touched in 50 years. Well, since 1947 actually, when Honey Bee started serving breakfast. There was a row of three or four small booths, and opposite them, a serving rack for donuts. There were two loops of a counter space with stools at the back, about half them filled with grizzled men, some old and a few a little younger, and all of them apparently more comfortable leaning with their elbows up on the countertop. The walls were plastered with license plates from around the country and world, everything from Aruba to North Dakota. Of course, most were from New Hampshire.
Posted: Apr 24, 2007 10:28am ETOne of my first lessons in how cigars can be incredibly inconsistent came during the first few months after we had launched Cigar Aficionado. At the time, our ratings system was causing a bit of a storm in the cigar industry. The manufacturers had never been subjected to independent scrutiny about the quality of their cigars, and, of course, never had to face a 100-point rating scale. We were confident of our methodology, but, OK, I’ll admit it, a wee bit defensive about the process.
In our second issue, we rated double coronas, and gave the Cuban Hoyo de Monterrey, from the 1992 vintage, a classic rating of 99 points. It was, and is, one of the greatest Cuban cigars ever made. But we gave a Partagas Lusitania a mere 88 points, saying that while it was good, it had not lived up to its legendary reputation.
Within a month after the issue’s publication, one of my favorite gentlemen in the cigar business, Max Guttmann from Mexico, showed up in our offices in New York. Max is an international businessman, and he owns the Casa del Habano franchise in Mexico. He is sophisticated and urbane, and has one of the greatest collections of cigars that I’ve ever seen. But at the time, I didn’t know him that well. He walked into my office, and in so many words—kindly of course—said we didn’t know what we were doing. I went through the usual litany about the fact that tastings are subjective, and that in this case, we had all arrived at the same conclusion.
Max pulled out his leather cigar case, pulled apart the two sections, and drew out one of the darkest, oiliest, most luxurious looking cigars that I had ever laid eyes on. “This is a Lusitania,” he said, continuing to extol its virtues as his favorite cigar, saying it was much, much better than most Hoyos.
I agreed to smoke it on the spot with him. In my memory, I can remember it being so oily that it felt like I had to hold on tight to keep it from slipping out of my fingers. It was firm, but not hard, and had that indescribable aroma when held under your nose that seems to come from somewhere between a barnyard and an earthy, mushroom patch.
Posted: Apr 18, 2007 1:13pm ETI was excited. It was spring of 1992, and Marvin Shanken and I headed off the Dominican Republic to tour the nation’s cigar factories. I had been smoking cigars for nearly 15 years, but I had never actually set foot inside an honest to goodness factory. Cigar Aficionado magazine was still in its prototype phase, and I was going to report on all the major companies operating in the D.R. at the time for a feature in the first issue. The basic format and concept of the magazine had already taken shape, but now we had to fill the pages with content that our new readers would find interesting.
We arrived in La Romana, the home of the Tabacalera de Garcia factory and the Casa de Campo resort. At the time, Casa de Campo still served as the airport for the area, and American Airlines 727 pilots used to risk life and limb by landing on a runway that could not have measured more than a few feet beyond the minimum allowable length for such a plane. You literally zoomed past the windows of homes lining the golf course, and intersected two fairways while landing. (The golf cart paths were equipped with swinging gates and alarms that kept golfers out of the danger zone.)
We spent the day touring Tabacalera de Garcia with Richard DiMeola, then the top executive at Consolidated Cigar Corp.’s handrolled business, and José Seijas, who was (and to this day remains) the general manager of the factory, probably the largest handrolled cigar facility in the world. We saw rooms filled with hundreds of rollers and bunchers, storerooms piled with bales of tobacco and every stage of the cigar-rolling process taking place in dozens of rooms. We nearly gave Mr. DiMeola a heart attack when Marvin snapped a picture of a suction device that was used to test the draw on every cigar produced; at the time, it was a very secret piece of equipment.
But the highlight of the day came after lunch. We walked into a small conference room off of Mr. Seijas’ office, and lined up in front of each of the four chairs were a dozen cigars with numbered white bands. The two execs said they were trying out some new blends, and wanted to know if we would like to join in their tasting to judge the differences, and give them our impressions.
Posted: Apr 13, 2007 4:10pm ET"Cigars bridge all kinds of gaps, ideological, political…they promote harmony and a feeling of getting along.”
Those words from Rush Limbaugh drew huge applause from the cigars lovers gathered in New York last night for Cigar Aficionado’s Night to Remember dinner, the magazine’s annual fund-raiser for the Prostate Cancer Foundation. Talk about good feelings: The room was buzzing with camaraderie and fellowship. And, the talk wasn’t about politics. It was about the good that was being done to combat the scourge of the disease that affects so many men in America.
Rudy Giuliani, a prostate cancer survivor, talked only about how his life had been saved because the advances that had been made against the disease, in large part with the help and guidance of Michael Milken, who founded the Prostate Cancer Foundation and pays all its costs so 100 percent of every donation goes to research. Talk about bridges.
Giuliani and Milken share a history going back to the financial scandals of the mid-1980s, when Giuliani was a U.S. attorney. When he got sick, he called Milken. Today, they are best of friends, a friendship forged in the aura of the Night to Remember.
Limbaugh, often a lightening rod for controversy, exemplifies what this night is all about. He reaches out to everyone, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, and glorifies the camaraderie of the cigar, the symbolic unifier. As he said last night, “I hope this never ends.”
The crowd also was treated to the words of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who reminded everyone about how important it is to devote the time and energy to good causes, like the Prostate Cancer Foundation. That, he said, is the only way to achieve success.
Of course, the night also revolves around Marvin Shanken, my boss, and the true engine behind the incredible success of the Night to Remember. He is a staunch advocate for “giving back,” and over the years that the dinner has been held, the donations have exceeded $15 million. It is a tribute to Marvin, and to the legions of cigar makers, many who attended last night, of the support they given to this great cause. In fact, the list of cigar makers and important businessmen is so long, it doesn’t fit in a blog; it is certainly a who’s who.
Posted: Apr 9, 2007 10:05am ET“Beautiful is more difficult than different.” If you think about that for a second, it’s a pretty profound statement. And it came from an automobile designer. Not just any designer, but a man named Ian Callum, who is the chief design engineer at Jaguar. I was at dinner with him last week, partly because I still remember my first teenage car fantasies that focused on the original XKE series from the early 1960s. I thought it was the most beautiful car in the world. And I wanted to meet the man responsible for its resurrection.
Over the years, I had watched as the XK series morphed into an automobile that I knew I wouldn’t like. For the record, I’ve owned cars such as a 3 Series BMW, when I lived in France with my wife, to a long series of Audi A6s in recent years. The Audis have been great family cars, reliable and safe for those long, weekend trips to my daughter’s soccer tournaments all over the East Coast. And, as executive editor of this magazine, I get to test-drive all kinds of different cars. I usually focus on the various sports cars that make it into the press fleets. (Yes, auto manufacturers have cars designated for the media.) It’s been fun: a Lamborghini here, a Bentley there, and my favorite on the unaffordable list, the Aston Martin Vantage. All in all, they’ve kept my sports car addiction at bay.
But then there was a moment about a year ago when I saw the new Jaguar XK. At first, I thought, “Wow, that’s the closest they’ve come to matching the beauty of the old XKE.” I remembered quickly, however, that the previous XK model looked pretty good, but it was more a luxury coupe than a sports car. I couldn’t wait to try the new car out. Last summer and fall, I drove both the regular XK and the new XKR, a high-powered version of the XK.
Not only did both cars live up to my sports car desires, but they didn’t disappoint my teenage fantasies about the XK. They were fast. They were comfortable. And they had the requisite head-turning “wow” factor that any boy loves.
Posted: Apr 5, 2007 4:50pm ETWhen we launched the Cigar Cinema videos in March, there were a lot of comments on CigarAficionado.com about cigar lighting techniques. Both James Suckling and I were questioned about the methods that we used to get our Bolivar Royal Coronas fired up. We both used lighters; I had a S.T. Dupont Xtend that could double as blowtorch if necessary. In reviewing the video, I thought I had kept the flame far enough away from the foot of the cigar to avoid charring it too much, but there is always some tension between not wanting to actually burn or char the foot and wanting to get the thing lit. In the every-second-filled-to-the-max world that we leave in, too often, I don’t take all the care necessary to avoid over-lighting the tip.
But the comments reminded me of the first cigar-lighting lesson I ever received. Better yet, I remembered the cigar. It was my first Cohiba, and I’m pretty sure it was an Esplendido. My teacher that night was the top press official in the Mexico Foreign Ministry; at the time, Mexico maintained very close ties with Cuba. I didn’t ask, but let’s presume with good reason that the cigar was a diplomatic “gift.” If my memory serves me correctly, I’m pretty sure the dinner took place well in advance of Cohiba being commercialized on the world market, so early in my cigar-smoking life, I was lucky.
The man’s name was Augustin Gutierrez, one of the great gentlemen in the world of diplomacy, and one of those internationally educated people who it’s often hard to tell where they are from. My wife, (actually still my girlfriend at the time) and I had a wonderful meal with Sr. Gutierrez and his wife Marta, and like many Mexican dinners, it was getting well past 11 o’clock before we moved away from the table. He asked me if I would like a cigar, and I said, “Of course.” He went to his humidor, pulled out the Esplendidos and handed one to me along with three matches.
Posted: Apr 2, 2007 9:30am ETI’m not naturally disposed to feel sorry for cigarette smokers. But for the last three months in the midst of winter’s deep freeze in New York, you can’t help but share their pain. They are easy to spot. Small huddles of people grouped as close to a building’s door as they can get, puffing away quickly so they can get back inside. Sometimes it is just a solitary smoker, standing there all bundled up. Some hardy souls often wear just shirts, without their winter coats, on a short smoke break before heading back upstairs to their jobs.
Their plight is caused by New York City’s smoking law, which prohibits all smoking in the workplace. Using that law as justification, many buildings have gone entirely “smoke-free,” so you can’t even have a separate smoking room for your employees. It forces a leper-like status on all smokers, denying them the right to use what remains a legal product in all 50 states. At least its legality was true the last time I looked.
Cigar smokers don’t suffer quite the same indignities. You don’t light up a cigar for a quick five-minute fix, so there’s no advantage in sneaking down to the curb to fire up a $5 cigar. But cigar lovers have been denied the pleasures of smoking indoors for decades, even during the phase when restaurants offered up non-smoking and smoking sections. The only catch then was that smoking sections usually prohibited pipes and cigars. As a result, a cigar smoker had to be creative in choosing a place to light up.
How many times have you looked out the window in traffic, and seen a lit cigar in the mouth of the driver next to you? How many times have you been walking down the street, even in the dead of winter, and smelled the unmistakable aroma of a handrolled product? That’s why places like golf courses, fishing camps, hunting blinds and sidewalks all over this country serve as refuges for lovers of the leaf.
But is that fair? I’m tired of using examples to compare what’s being done to smokers by the nanny state to other products or activities. But if people took the time to investigate just how facts are being twisted to support what has become a radical worldview, they would not only be appalled but maybe a little scared.
Posted: Mar 29, 2007 3:05am ETThe cigar appears quickly. First, there’s the pulsing beat of “Woke Up This Morning,” the Alabama 3 song that will forever be known as the Sopranos’ theme song. It’s less than 25 seconds into the intro, as the car zooms past the slightly fuzzy images of New Jersey’s most infamous landscapes—the highway tunnels, the brick warehouses, and the smokestacks of the industrial zones that seem to line the northern end of the New Jersey Turnpike. As the car pulls into a tollbooth, a thick, stubby fingered hand reaches out for a ticket, and there in the unmistakable mouth of Tony Soprano, there is a lit cigar.
The small theater filled quickly last week, the seats taken by New York’s media elite, at least the ones with a shared fascination of HBO’s breakout hit, "The Sopranos." The distinctive bold red letters spelled out the show’s name against the black screen in the front of the sloping hall. Then, the hissing of HBO’s snowy logo, a quick fade to black, and the pulsing sound of Woke Up This Morning pounded out from the wall speakers.
Like every one of the six seasons, the final episodes of The Sopranos begin with the same theme song, and the same scenes of New Jersey. And, like we have come to expect, the first two episodes that I saw last week have cigars being smoked by more than one character, whether its Tony himself, or one of the other players in the long-running television mega-hit. I won’t ruin any of the story lines for you—suffice it to say that no one dies in the first two episodes that you care about, or at least that you should care about.
But hasn’t this show been a showcase for cigar lovers? Nearly every major character has had a cigar in his mouth at one time or another. James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano is almost never without one. Steve Schirippa as Bobby Bacala. Frank Vincent as Phil Leotardo. There have been a few characters who’ve come and gone, too: Joey Pantoliano as Ralph. Vincent Pastore as Big Pussy. All cigar smokers at one point or another in the past seasons.