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David Savona

A Lot of Tobacco

Posted: Feb 19, 2010 11:49am ET
Some people collect stamps, others collect fine wines, but the cigarmakers in the Dominican Republic collect cigar tobacco. The big companies that roll cigars here tend to have amazing stocks of tobacco—bale upon bale upon bale.

Catching up from my last update, I spent Wednesday at General Cigar Dominicana, one of the biggest cigar factories in the Dominican Republic. I sat down with Benji Menendez, a tobacco man with knowledge stretching back to the days of pre-Castro Cuba, and did a Q&A with him for an upcoming feature in Cigar Aficionado magazine. I don’t want to give away any details, but it was a wide-ranging conversation that covered a lot of ground and taught me quite a bit that I didn’t already know about Benji. He and his team are riding high after the success of their Benji Menendez Partagas Master Series Majestuoso (our No. 15 cigar of 2009).

As for Wednesday’s dinner, I was spared returning to the stage to do the merengue, but Gordon Mott wasn’t so lucky. The ProCigar guys have a sick sense of humor when it comes to getting their guests on stage, and Gordon was in the line of fire this year. I’ll say no more.
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In the Fields of La Canela

Posted: Feb 17, 2010 7:36am ET
Tuesday in the Dominican Republic. The ProCigar Festival doesn’t officially begin here in Santiago until Wednesday, so I planned to spend this day meeting people who aren’t part of the organization. The idea was to spend the morning with Mike Chiusano of Cusano Cigars, but he had to cancel at the 11th hour, so that left my morning free.

I sat down to breakfast here at the Gran Almirante Hotel, the biggest hotel in the city. I quickly bumped into Wayne Suarez from Tabacalera A. Fuente (read all about him on page 130 of the February issue of Cigar Aficionado), who was here on a last-minute trip, but was on his way out. We talked for a bit, and after he left I sat down to eat. Soon I was chatting with Jonathan Drew and Steve Saka of Drew Estate—they make cigars in Nicaragua, but they’re here to check out things in Santiago, buy some tobacco and smoke a bunch of cigars. We were joined by Phil Zanghi, formerly of Indian Tabac, who makes cigars here by machine, and spoke for a while about the machine-made cigar business, which is growing like gangbusters. Steve handed me a Liga Privada Dirty Rat, a thin, dark smoke with a pigtail. I thanked him and headed on my way.

I met up with Barry Abrams from Cigar Aficionado (we’re sending a big team here this year, and Gordon Mott and Greg Mottola land on Wednesday) and we headed off to Tamboril to meet with Litto Gomez, the maker of La Flor Dominicana cigars. Soon we were in his office puffing on Air Benders, pretty hearty smokes made with his tobacco on the inside and a dark, strong leaf of Habano seed grown in Ecuador. My second cigar of the day is something new Litto is working on, and I was lucky enough to smoke one of the first ones ever made along with him (you’ll read more about that in Cigar Insider.) After a quick tour of the factory, we got into Litto’s pickup truck, cigars in our jaws, and were off to see his tobacco farm. Litto said this year’s harvest was superb, so I wanted to see for myself.

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Visiting a Cigar Master in the Dominican Republic

Posted: Feb 15, 2010 10:40pm ET

 I spent Monday afternoon in Santiago, Dominican Republic, with one of the true masters of the cigar business, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo. You know him from his years at La Gloria Cubana, first in Miami, later in the Dominican Republic. La Gloria was the first real star of the American cigar boom of the mid-1990s, and that was due to the hard work of Ernesto, who made a damn fine cigar and sold it at an honest price

He’s no longer with La Gloria, and now he’s making a new cigar brand in a new cigar factory called Tabacalera La Alianza. The name harkens to the alliance he’s created with his son Ernesto Perez-Carrillo III and his daughter Lissette.

The factory, which the Carrillo’s are renting, has only been open since September. When they found it, it was vacant, having last served as a textile factory. With many textile jobs leaving the country in search of lower wages, this is a good time to rent or buy a factory in a Dominican free trade zone.

It’s a big factory with a small operation—for now. “We started with four people,” Perez-Carrillo told me as we walked around. “Little by little, we’ve been adding on.” Now there are 18 cigarmakers, half bunchers, half rollers, making this a very small operation, despite the 40,000 square feet of space around them. So far this factory has only shipped 65,000 Encores. The hopes were to reach 150,000 cigars, but they might fall short. In May or June they will start rolling the less expensive, larger production core E.P. Carrillo brand. The final blend remains to be chosen.

The workers are making cigars slowly and methodically. They are focusing on one brand right now, which consists solely of one size: the E.P. Carrillo Edición Inaugural 2009 Encore. The $13 cigars measure 5 3/8 inches long by 52 ring gauge. (Click here to see the Cigar Insider rating, which is quite good.)

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Back in the Dominican Republic

Posted: Feb 15, 2010 12:30pm ET
I just landed in Santiago, Dominican Republic, where more premium cigars are made than any other place on earth. I’m here for the annual ProCigar Festival, a gathering of some of the country’s biggest names in cigars, for a week of immersion in cigar country.

What a difference from New York. I left the icy cold and was greeted by tropical warmth. This is the heart of tobacco-growing season, and it’s warm and perfect for growing fine tobacco.

The festival actually started yesterday, Valentine’s Day (not quite sure who planned that—bad enough I'm working on President's Day!) and it began in La Romana, out to the east and south of Santiago. I’m skipping the tour out there, as well as the golf tournament—as much as I’d like to have fun I’m here to work, and Santiago is full of cigar companies I need to see.

My first meeting is in two hours, with Ernesto Perez-Carrillo and his son, Ernie III. You know Ernesto—he used to make La Gloria Cubanas in Miami, and then here in the Dominican Republic. Now he’s doing a new thing, working with his son and daughter, making a cigar bearing his own name. Later today I’ll see his factory for the first time.

I have a lot of cigars in my immediate future, and plenty of meetings. I’ll keep you all informed with these blogs. Follow along, and smoke a Dominican cigar as you read.

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Cigars and Football

Posted: Jan 25, 2010 9:55am ET
Yesterday I invited over my brother and a few good friends, slow cooked a big pot of spicy chili, headed down to the smoking room and turned on the television for two great football games. This is the time of year every game matters, every yard on the gridiron is fought for with passion, and you either win or you go home. And the only way to really watch these big games is with fine cigars.

Football and cigars go hand-in-hand, and I was reminded of that yesterday morning when I read the lead story in the New York Times sports section about Rex Ryan, the bombastic and bold head coach of the New York Jets. It’s a fine piece, by Greg Bishop, and it talks about how Ryan and his duo of defensive coaches have come together over cigars, typically Cubans. The trio talks defense, defense, defense, and they’ve debated the finer points of how to stop 300 pound men from moving the pigskin into their team’s territory for seven years now, most of the time while puffing on cigars.

I was happy to hear that coach Ryan and his crew enjoy cigars, but I was hardly surprised. The list of football luminaries who enjoy a fine smoke is a long one indeed. We’ve written about many of them in the pages of our magazine. Mean Joe Greene, one of the greatest defensive players to ever take the gridiron, learned to smoke cigars as a Pittsburgh Steeler, and was given his first smoke by then-owner Art Rooney. Terry Bradshaw, the blonde bomber himself and Mean Joe’s teammate, also learned about great cigars from Rooney. "He once offered me a cigar; I can't remember what kind. I just liked it," Bradshaw told Cigar Aficionado. "After awhile I knew where he kept his stash in his office and the secretary would let me in to get a handful out of his humidor. My daddy always smoked cigars, but dad's King Edward brand wasn't as good as Mr. Rooney's."
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Smoking Cigars in Nicaragua

Posted: Dec 6, 2009 2:19pm ET

Eight a.m., Estelí, Nicaragua. I haven’t had breakfast but I’ve already lit my first cigar.

This is how I live when I’m in Nicaragua, home to some of the finest premium cigars on the planet. I’ve been here this week meeting with cigarmakers and tobacco growers who have come together for the first Nicaraguan cigar festival.

If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of this festival, it’s because it was put together quickly—for this first festival the organizers decided to go with a list of invited guests rather than getting the word out to the public to see how things went. (Estelí is a tobacco and cigar town—not a big metropolis like Santiago, Dominican Republic or a tourist mecca like Havana. Hotels and restaurants are limited.) Many of the local cigar companies were here and even some tobacco executives from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.

“This is my dream,” said Alejandro Martinez-Cuenca, owner of the Joya de Nicaragua brand and one of the festival organizers, as he stood by a selection of cigars made by the member Nicaraguan companies at the opening cocktail reception in Managua on Wednesday night. “We have come to Nicaragua together in an unprecedented manner. To put the face on what Nicaraguan tobacco really means for the international market.”

The festival featured speeches by local government officials, Martinez-Cuenca and Nestor Plasencia Jr., as well as a speech by Cigar Aficionado executive editor Gordon Mott. (Gordon will blog about being in Nicaragua soon.) It also brought visitors into the country’s amazing cigar factories and some tobacco fields, although it’s very early in the planting season here and most tobacco is still in seedbeds or very short, not even as tall as your knee.

I’ve spent the time alternating between the festival and meeting with cigarmakers on my own. I visited the sprawling and huge Drew Estate factory, decorated with a mural some 50 feet high, where Acids and Liga Privadas are made; walked with Pepin Garcia and his family through the polished and new My Father Cigars factory, where he makes all kinds of great cigars; toured the boutique factory where Rocky Patel’s new 1961 cigar is being made and the bigger factory where he is making Patel Brothers; and I’ve spent time with Jorge and Jose Orlando Padrón, listening to amazing stories of the company’s 45 year history. I’ll blog much more about my findings in the near future.

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Meeting Jose Oliva In Miami

Posted: Dec 1, 2009 10:26pm ET
I got up early this morning and left frosty New York for sunny Miami, and spent the day with Jose Oliva, vice president of Oliva Cigar Co. in Miami Lakes. The family-run company is one of the true success stories in the cigar industry: the Olivas make great cigars for a good price, using copious amounts of Nicaraguan tobacco that they grow themselves.

Jose is a smart guy who thinks about the future quite a bit. The company he helps run was created by his father, Gilberto. Now that Jose has a son of his own, he’s thinking about what he needs to do to prepare the company for the day in the future when his child is working there.

“I think we have to be the fastest growing company in the business over the last three years,” Jose said while smoking an Oliva Serie O cigar on the waterside patio of Smith & Wollensky steak house. The company’s growth is a combination of traditional cigars, such as its award winning Oliva Serie V Liga Especiale (a onetime No. 4 cigar of the year from Cigar Aficionado magazine) and hip, new cigars, such as its popular NUB series of short smokes.

I’ve spent time in the Oliva warehouses in Nicaragua, which were brimming with stocks of Cuban-seed Nicaraguan tobacco. It’s what you need to make great cigars over and over again, key to success in this business. Oliva is able to put out a fine cigar at a good price for two reasons: growing its own tobacco helps keep costs down (Jose says the only leaf it buys from outside vendors now is from Ecuador) and the fact that it struggled for a toehold in the post-boom cigar market meant it had to come out with bargain-priced cigars. It’s top line smoke, the Oliva Serie V, has a suggested retail price of less than $10 a cigar.

“Every year, my father continued to grow tobacco and put it away. It allowed us to win people over through the consistency of the cigars we were producing,” he said between puffs. “Cigarmaking and craftsmanship is important, but there is no substitition for tobacco inventory.”
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Big Day at the Big Smoke

Posted: Nov 14, 2009 8:25pm ET
Today was jam packed with activity here in Las Vegas at the Big Smoke. At nine a.m. the doors opened to our cigar seminars (they sold out around one month ago) and the room was filled with cigar lovers from around the United States and abroad who were eager to hear from their favorite cigarmakers and get Cigar Aficionado’s version of cigar school.

You’ll read all about it next week with our extensive coverage, but here’s a quick sample: a tasting of the top three cigars of the year (Casa Magna, Padrón 80 Years and Litto Gomez Diez Chisel), a seminar on how cigars are made from seed to shelf, a seminar on Cuba, one on boutique cigars and another on how organizations such as the CRA, Cigar Association of America and IPCPR are fighting for your right to smoke. And we also had a special video prepared showcasing the best of Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar Cinema, our video section.

It was a wonderful day, and I was busy, leading two of the seminars and puffing away on those great cigars. The crowd had a blast. After the seminars concluded, we went to lunch, hosted by the Fuente family. They handed out two cigars, including a 12 year old (!) Fuente Fuente OpusX.

I’d write more, but it’s almost time for tonight’s Big Smoke evening session. No rest in Las Vegas!

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Back in Vegas

Posted: Nov 13, 2009 12:43pm ET
It’s Big Smoke time, so I’m in Las Vegas with much of the premium cigar industry, puffing away and enjoying the city. We started in style yesterday with a little Cigar Aficionado welcome party at Rhumbar at the Mirage Hotel. Rhumbar is a great spot—stark white on the inside, very hip, with caged metallic statues of fighting roosters suspended above the bar. And yes—it’s entirely cigar friendly. My favorite part of the bar is outside—a huge patio overlooking the Las Vegas strip. You can smoke out there as well.

I walked in with Gordon Mott and Jack Bettridge. The first people we saw were Manuel Quesada and Brad Weinfeld. We said hello, and Brad handed me a Casa Magna Extraordinario (Salamone size, very nice cigar), which I clipped and lit. We started talking while sipping some aged rum and nibbling on Kobe burgers.

The cigar guys were in great spirits: the party was our way of thanking them for coming out to the Big Smoke, and a way to reconnect with old friends before things get crazy tonight. We get thousands here in Vegas, so the time for quiet conversation is now.

I spent some time with Robert Levin and his crew from Ashton, Wayne Suarez from Fuente, Rocky Patel, Mike Giannini and the folks from General Cigar and La Gloria Cubana, Gary Hyams and Jon Huber from CAO, Pete Johnson, the Garcia family, Paul Palmer and Arsenio Ramos from Tabacalera Tropical, Dion Giolioto from Illusione, Sam Leccia and several guys from Oliva, Jose Blanco from La Aurora, Matt Arcella from the Davidoff shop, Les Mann from Colibri, Micahel Frey, who owns Rhumbar—the list goes on and on. There’s no way I can remember them all.

After the Casa Magna, I lit up a Tatuaje given to me by Pete Johnson, which was spicy and flavorful (as always) and started chatting with James Suckling.

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The Sad Plight of Cigar Smokers

Posted: Nov 6, 2009 4:30pm ET
Today I watched a bit of the Yankees celebratory parade at lunch with some friends here in New York. We decided to enjoy a short cigar before heading back to the office.

Outside, of course—New York has a pretty strict smoking ban.

It was a bit cool, but not too cold, and we lit our smokes and puffed away. After a minute or two we were joined by another man from the same eatery. He had his own cigar, a machine-made smoke without a band. It looked like it could be a White Owl. He lit up and smiled, happy to have some smoking company.

“What are you smoking?” I asked.

“Ah, it’s nothing special,” he said. He explained how he used to smoke better cigars, but traded down because he has no where to smoke them, and typically only gets in a handful of puffs before tossing his cigar.

Sad state of affairs.

It was just a bit ironic that Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the one handing out the keys to the city to the New York Yankees. Mayor Bloomberg, just elected to a third term after changing the term limits that would prohibit such a thing, was the one to usher in New York’s smoking ban.

Have smoking bans forced you to change what you smoke—or where you smoke?

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