Posted: Dec 7, 2009 11:53am ETI was in Nicaragua last week for the first time in years. For me, it was a nostalgic trip, as it is every time I visit, because of my time there as a young foreign correspondent for The Associated Press during the country’s 1979 revolution and then the Contra wars in the 1980s. The sights, sounds and smells bring back lots of memories. I’m always searching for old landmarks—General Anastasio Somoza’s bunker complex on the side of a hill, a battered Texaco station where a wild firefight between National Guard and Sandinista forces took place, a fork in the road where friends of mine came under direct machine-gun fire in Estelí.
For every vaguely familiar place, there were hundreds of new sights that frankly boggle the mind. Arrival in Nicaragua used to be the quintessential Third World experience—the stairs rolled up to the plane, a trudge through the steaming tropical heat to a slightly bedraggled building with mostly open-air corridors that all caused a sweat-stained shirt before you even got through customs. Today, the Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport is a gleaming, modern building with huge shiny steel arches, marble floors, air conditioning and a sense that you could be anywhere, if it weren’t for the Flor de Cana rum billboards and a smattering of folkloric artifact stands in the wide corridors. Or when you ask to be taken to the Hotel Intercontinental (the hotel of choice for the army of foreign reporters in country back in the day), you end up at a gleaming high-rise in the middle of a business district, not the old pyramid shaped edifice that it used to occupy and where Howard Hughes spent some of his last years—that’s a Crowne Plaza now.
Each change is a not so gentle reminder that the Nicaragua of the 1970s and 1980s, at the epicenter of the Cold War struggles between the United States and the Soviet Union, and locked in its own internal battles between Marxism and capitalism, is no more. While the scars of nearly 15 years of what amounted to a civil war are barely covered over, there is a sense of vibrancy and forward movement that can’t be ignored. The current economic crisis has caused some disruptions, but not nearly as much as some countries. The agricultural economy is thriving, and current account balances, dependent in part on Nicaraguans overseas, is quite strong.
Posted: Nov 17, 2009 9:55am ETBack at my desk today after a weekend in Las Vegas with the most enthusiastic, upbeat cigar smokers that you could find anywhere on the planet. The occasion was the 2009 Big Smoke, which is one of my favorite annual events. In the upcoming days, you’ll read and see our coverage of each Big Smoke night, and the two days of seminars. Here are a few of my ruminations.
Penance of a Red Sox Fan
The guys will be reporting on the details of the seminars, and the panelists who all did a great job. My thanks to Nestor Plascencia Jr. of the Plasencia tobacco growing family and Sam Leccia, the creator of the Nub brand for Oliva Cigar Co. They both showed great knowledge about tobacco, and gave great answers to the questions thrown their way. I’ve now been in the cigar world long enough (17 years to be exact) to have the next generation start to move into positions of responsibility and authority. Whether it is the young Quesada daughters, Sathya Levin from Ashton, Jorge Padrón at Padrón Cigars…the list actually is long. But the observation is the same: These guys are good. Apart from the knowledge they have, and the expertise they have developed over the years, they have brought with them something that can’t really be taught: The passion of their fathers. It’s a treat to see.
Posted: Sep 11, 2009 3:43pm ETI cleaned out some filing cabinets right after Labor Day, an ongoing personal effort to get up to speed on an organization system called Getting Things Done, or to those in the know: GTD. Sure enough, one of the things that can happen when you start cleaning up what in my case amounted to a geological kind of storage system…the further down you dig, the further you go back in time…you find good stuff. And, there it was, in a file I hadn’t checked in probably 10 years—How to Judge a Good Cigar. I knew immediately who the author was: Richard DiMeola, the former executive vice-president and chief operating officer of what was then called Consolidated Cigar Corp., today’s Altadis U.S.A. Inc.
The first line reminded me how important this article had been to my own initiation into the world of not just smoking cigars, but testing and rating them: “There are two general elements involved in the making up of a fine, handmade cigar: QUALITY TOBACCO AND QUALITY CONSTRUCTION.” The capital letters were in the original. In the heart of the document, there was a primer about the various errors that can be made in the construction of a cigar: overfill and underfill. I recalled that DiMeola had led an effort to suction test every cigar that came out of the Tabacalera de Garcia factory in La Romana, Dominican Republic; at the time, it was still a pretty secretive device and he nearly had a conniption when my boss, Marvin R. Shanken, tried to photograph the machine on one of our first trips to the Dominican factory. There was a discussion of proper smoking characteristics with a firm ash, an even burn, and the presence of good mouth feel as well as an attractive appearance.
The article goes on to talk about the quality of tobacco, and the vital importance of a large inventory of tobacco to ensure consistency in the blend of each cigar year to year. It talked at length the role fermentation and processing has in the creation of great tobacco that’s ready to be rolled into a cigar. There was a pointed criticism of manufacturers who rush that process, and use not only inferior tobacco, but tobacco that because of poor preparation can be harsh or that keeps going out. And, DiMeola argued forcefully and correctly that once a cigar is rolled, the fermentation process is over.
Posted: Aug 25, 2009 3:01pm ETIt’s always hard as summer winds down, and you’re left wondering how the last three months disappeared. The 2009 version, in the Northeast, will be remembered as one of the coolest, wettest summers on record, although the last couple of weeks have been making some headway on the temperature front. But I can’t complain. There were some fun excursions on my itinerary.
What a great city! My wife and I started our week’s vacation there with a couple of long-time friends. Our first target was dinner at Toqué, Normand Laprise’s restaurant in downtown. We had a multi-course tasting menu that was a riotous combination of local ingredients, and a deft touch with everything from wild strawberries to foie gras. Of course, it was too much food, but who cared; every bite was delicious. We talked with Chef Laprise, and there was a brief lament about the days when a good cigar could follow a great meal. But Canada is like everywhere else in the world today—no smoking.
The next night served up the real reason to be in Montreal: The International Fireworks Competition. The contest runs on eight consecutive Saturday nights starting in June, and culminating in late August. It is like an Olympics of fireworks, with one nation each night being represented by a fireworks display company. We saw the United States (the defending champion), which was represented this year by Melrose Pyrotechnics from the United States, which had won the Gold Jupiter Award (1st Place) in 2006. The theme was Reel Movies, and the soundtrack for the 30-minute show was taken from well-known Hollywood movies. It’s hard to describe a show built around more than a dozen theme songs, but suffice it to say it was like watching 30 minutes of grand finales from the greatest fireworks show you’ve ever attended. It’s worth the trip to Montreal just for this annual event. The United States, by the way, finished third this year; Canada was the winner.
Posted: Aug 19, 2009 11:16am ETI haven’t spent a lot of time in Vermont, but it’s always been my impression that Vermonters travel to the beat of their own drum. They still hold dear those values of our forefathers, especially those regarding self-reliance and the whole live and let live ethos. You won’t find a whole lot of tolerance there for anyone or anything intruding into their private lives.
My wife and I vacationed there in early August, setting up base on Lake Willoughby at a wonderful place called the WillowVale Inn, which sits on a small bluff at the northern end of the lake with sweeping views of the water and two mountains that frame its southern end like towering twin pillars: Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor. We arrived at the hotel late on a Sunday afternoon after traveling through rain much of the day down from Montreal. After checking in, I politely asked the woman at the front desk if there was anywhere I could get a bottle of wine but I prefaced my question with the observation that since it was Sunday there wouldn’t be any wine shops open. She looked at me quizzically and said, “Why wouldn’t we sell wine on Sunday? The grocery stores all sell wine today.” And, then she gave me directions to the nearest grocery store in a town about seven miles away.
Vermont hasn’t been immune to the no-smoking laws that have swept the country, so I guess you’d have to agree that there are some chinks in the traditional Vermont resistance to over-regulation. But the porch on the hotel was set-up to accommodate smokers with a couple of ashtrays and some benches and rocking chairs. But I figured it was still safer to ask the question whether or not cigars would be allowed there or not. I asked the same desk clerk, and again, got the same quizzical look: “There’s an ashtray out there, isn’t there?” Enough said.
I enjoyed a wonderful lancero cigar as the sun sank low in the sky, and the pastel colors of a summer sunset began to play across the surface of the lake, and the tree-covered slopes of the mountains. It was perfect ending to a long day of hiking and bike riding, and a perfectly fine meal in a small country restaurant.
Posted: Jul 22, 2009 4:47pm ETJack Bettridge and I were chatting last week after we both wrapped up the taste test for the September/October issue of Cigar Aficionado. By the way, you guys are gonna love the cover subject….I’ll say no more.
We recalled how our taste tests used to be a lot more difficult. There were some issues back in the mid to late 90s where we tasted 140 cigars or more for each issue. The tasting format was different too. We would rate one size each issue, and try to find every example of that size in the marketplace. If nothing else, the cigar boom brought a lot of brands to the marketplace that we had never seen before, and for that matter, have not heard of since the end of the boom in late 1997. But our humidors were packed to overflowing and it was a struggle almost every issue just to get through the cigars, and not suffer serious palate burnout.
Today, of course, we divide things up a bit differently by doing six sizes each issue, and having 13 to 15 cigars in each category. Our tasting coordinator keeps track of each size in each brand, so that over the course of a year, we hope we taste everything in a given size in the market. But it also means that we only have 80 or so cigars each issue to test.
The thing that struck both of us about our most recent test was just how few bad cigars there are in the market today. True, there are a lot of middle-of-the-road cigars that don’t offer a lot in way to complexity, but you can’t describe them as bad cigars. They simply are well-balanced with decent tobacco and good construction.
Back in the old days, (I won’t call them the good old days), we used to come across cigars that didn’t even really taste like cigars. We know today that tobacco was in such short supply back in that period that some less scrupulous cigar makers were buying tobacco from anyone and anywhere, including plain old burley tobacco used in cigarette manufacturing. The results were often mind-numbing and palate destroying. I remember smoking cigars that would end up being the last one of the day because they were just so bad, my mouth couldn’t recover that day.
Posted: Jul 10, 2009 10:57am ETIt’s being called the year with no summer in the Northeast. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about sitting out on a patio, or my back terrace to have a cigar and ended up watching another torrential downpour through the windows. I read it is not like the summer of 1816, when there was still ice on New England rivers in July, but this past June in New York was tied for the seventh coldest on record and the second wettest since 1869, according to the National Weather Service.
So, when I was up in Saratoga Springs for the July 4th weekend, and it was a pleasantly warm (not hot) Friday evening that promised to remain dry, I went out on my mother-in-law’s balcony. I had a glass of red Burgundy and a La Flor Dominicana Coronado Double Corona; my wife was keeping me company, and our Belgian Sheepdog, Chloe, was sorta at our feet, pacing around looking down at the carriages trundling up and down the street. We were sitting there enjoying the balmy temperature, chatting about some future travel plans and how nice it was to be outside. From the balcony of the apartment building across the street, I picked up a whiff of another cigar. I recognized the outline of a friend with whom I had been trading “call me when you’re in Saratoga” remarks for a couple of years, but we had never managed to actually connect on previous visits, even though his apartment is directly across the street.
It was late, so for an instant I thought about just keeping my mouth shut, but we had just been discussing stepping out to seize the moment, so I shouted out, “hey, Lee, keep it down over there, would ya?” The exchange that followed had the feel of some old New York neighborhood back at the turn of century with people trading friendly jabs from their fire escapes. Lee finally said, “come on over and have a cocktail, I’ve got cigars too. Bring the dog.” Turns out they had been watching the dog pace back and forth, but couldn’t see into the shadows who was sitting there.
Posted: Jun 29, 2009 11:48am ETI had one of "those" days on the golf course yesterday. I was in a tournament, technically not in contention to win anything in the second round, although with a great round I might have put myself up with the overnight leaders in the net stroke category. After starting quadruple bogey, triple bogey, my day had taken a turn for the worse and I never really recovered. I made a go of it for a few holes, but it just wasn’t to be. I won’t even tell you what I scored; it was my worst round in more than two years.
As any golfer knows, it is one of the most mystifying and humbling sports on the planet. I began my season in April thinking that a few swing changes I’d been working on were coming together and I was going to play better than I ever have. I have. For two or three or four holes in a row, and then, inexplicably, it all falls apart for two or three or four holes, and then the swing magically reappears again. Frustrating to say to the least.
The good news is that usually this season the swing has re-surfaced during the round. Yesterday, it never did. I finally gave up, hitting a few good shots, a few bad ones, but not having the focus or concentration to play well.
What did I do instead? I lit up a cigar. I had a wonderful La Flor Dominicana Coronado Lancero in my bag, and it seemed like the only way to salvage a few minutes of enjoyment and pleasure from the day. I lit up on the 14th tee, and by the time I reached the clubhouse, I had a smile on my face and some perspective that a bad round shouldn’t ruin a beautiful day.
I’m sure next time I head to the 1st tee, I’ll have the same expectation that the day’s round is going to go well. And, with any luck, and maybe another cigar, I won’t remember much about this past weekend’s round.
Posted: Jun 18, 2009 11:20am ETFor those of you in the New York area, you probably never thought you’d see the phrase fine dining and White Plains in the same headline. For years, the small business satellite center about 25 miles north of New York had been just that: a business and retail center without much going for it in the way of great restaurants. But that all changed about five years ago when a locally-based developer began revitalizing the downtown, and today, it is unrecognizable from the White Plains of yesteryear. There are a number of fine restaurants, and a vibrant downtown built around some movie theaters and malls.
I sampled one of the restaurant offerings for an early Father’s Day celebration, arranged by my 19-year-old daughter who was headed off to a summer camp job, and wasn’t going to be around on the official Dad’s day. She said she had heard of “42,” a restaurant that sits on top of the new Ritz-Carlton Westchester, officially the tallest building in Westchester County. We’ve always been fond of dining on top of the world; our favorite special holiday dinner was always booked at Windows on the World before 9/11. So the thought of being high above our home county was appealing.
There’s something reassuring about pulling up to a Ritz-Carlton. That’s how we started the evening. The ride up the elevator was swift, and the doors opened onto a hallway, not betraying for a second what was waiting at the end of the corridor. As we were shown to our table, we turned into a high-ceilinged room with glass walls, and the bright orb of sun sinking toward the horizon to the west. To the south, you could see the tops of every big skyscraper in New York, to the east, the Long Island Sound and the island itself, and to the north and east, the rolling hills of Eastern New York State, and Connecticut stretched out as far as the eye could see. In a word: spectacular.
The food was good, and the menu catered to one of my daughter’s culinary passions; sautéed foie gras. Everyone’s dishes were well-prepared. Did it reach the level of the best New York restaurants? Not quite, but it was honest, good food that was worth the trip and one that we will repeat. On top of the food, you get the view.
Posted: Jun 15, 2009 2:04pm ETOut here on the East Coast, we are living through a mini-Monsoon season—rain, rain, rain, all the time. Unfortunately, the unusual period of rainforest-like precipitation coincided this past weekend with my club’s annual member-guest tournament, known as the Half Moon Invitational, a two day tournament with about 100 people playing five nine-hole matches divided up into a dozen flights or so created by the total combined handicaps of the two players. For the most part, the rain held off during the day, but each night, downpours turned the fairways to Velcro, and the greens to a slower than normal speed.
I played with a good and dear friend from the West Coast who had last been in the tournament three years ago. He’s been inundated with too much work and hadn’t played much recently, so his handicap index was at an all-time high of 3.7 (Yes, we really hate people like that, don’t we?) We managed to stay competitive, tied for the lead after three matches the first day, but everyone in the flight was within 2 1/2 points of each other. Our second day started with a loss on hole one, and we never really recovered, losing the match 5-4, but we were still within a point of the lead and a point ahead of our morning opponents. But then our morning match opponents, (a four handicap and a zero) turned up the heat in their second match, winning 6 1/2 to 2 1/2 points, and edging us out by 1/2 point after our five and four win. Our afternoon opponents had two putts of approximately 10 feet on the 8th and 9th hole, and sank both of them to halve each hole; otherwise, we would have won our flight. So, it was close, but no cigar.
One of the best moments of the weekend was a Friday night dinner/dance on the club’s west terrace, which has an unobstructed view of the Hudson River. Amazingly, the clouds broke late in the day, and the cocktail hour took place during a spectacular sunset that lasted well into dinner. After the meal, I handed two Padrón Millenniums to a friend of mine at my table (He’d asked me to bring a cigar for he and his guest). I lit up a Tatuaje Taino with a bit of age on it, and we retired to the outside of the dining tent to talk about cigars, Tequila, the golf course and the state of the economy. Another friend joined us with one of his Romeo y Julietas and we chatted away until I realized it was time to go home and get a good night’s rest for the next day’s matches.