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David Savona

Davidoff’s Dominican Wrapper

Posted: Apr 30, 2010 11:35am ET
I went to the launch of Davidoff’s newest cigar, the Davidoff Puro d’Oro, this week in New York City. It’s the first new Davidoff cigar brand (not counting limited editions) in a decade, and it’s a big deal because it has a wrapper grown in a new area of the Dominican Republic.

The launch, a quiet affair with a small crowd at Davidoff’s Madison Avenue store, featured a posh Davidoff humidor full of the new cigars, and an explanation of the line by Davidoff maker Hendrik “Henke” Kelner.

The cigars are much darker and stronger than traditional Davidoffs. They also don’t have Davidoff bands. Puro d’Oros are adorned only with slim, golden footbands, each bearing the name of the frontmark, but not the word Davidoff, giving the cigars a bit of a European look.

I spent most of the night chatting with Henke, a veritable scientist who can talk about tobacco for hours. Back in the early days of Cigar Aficionado, Henke thought you couldn’t grow high-quality wrappers in the Dominican Republic (and to be fair, he certainly wasn't alone in his opinion.) Now, several companies, most notably Fuente, as well as La Flor Dominicana and La Aurora, have proven how great a Dominican wrapper can be, and Henke's opinion has clearly changed.

Growing this wrapper and working with this tobacco certainly wasn’t easy. The project began when Kelner purchased a farm in an area where tobacco normally isn’t grown in the Dominican Republic, Yamasá, located a few hours from Santiago. There the soil is reddish and the weather, he said, is “perfect.” Idyllic weather aside, the soil in Yamasá proved tricky. “The sand was small,” Henke told me, squinting as he pinched his fingers together in front of my face. That caused the nutrients he added to the soil to leach out quickly. “It was too different,” he said. “Lots of iron, and aluminum.” Yamasá proved tough to master, one reason why the Puro d’Oro is one year delayed coming to market. 
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Smoking New Cigars with Tim Ozgener

Posted: Apr 26, 2010 10:00am ET
Tim Ozgener came by the Cigar Aficionado offices the other day with a few new C.A.O. La Traviata cigars in tow. Tim is the president of C.A.O. International Inc., headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, and La Traviata is his company’s latest brand.

C.A.O. released La Traviata late last year, with a trio of sizes. The brand came on the cigar scene with a bang when the robusto size (called the Divino) scored 93 points in a blind taste test in a November Cigar Insider. That was one of the higher scores of 2009, but the cigar came out too late to be considered for last year’s Top 25 ranking. (It will be a candidate for the 2010 list.) The Divino is a great smoke, meaty and spicy, with notes of nuts and dark chocolate. And the suggested retail price is only $4.95. What’s not to like?

Tim and the C.A.O. team have added two sizes to brand. The first, which just came to market, is a corona gorda (or Cuban corona) called the Animado, which measures 5 5/8 inches long by 46 ring gauge, and has a suggested retail price of $4.95. The second is a petit belicoso called the Favorito, measuring 5 1/2 by 52, which will be out in May with a $5.65 pricetag. Here’s Tim on video explaining the new sizes and the philosophy behind the La Traviata brand.

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Cigar Taxes Kill A Family Business

Posted: Apr 13, 2010 9:44am ET
When I heard the news I thought first as a reporter: Higher cigar taxes in Utah? Time for a story. I wasn’t  happy, but certainly wasn’t shocked. At the end, as I’m writing this blog, I’m simply sad.

The details as they unfolded were a little more troubling. Taxes in Utah were going from 35 percent to 86 percent, not only a real steep increase, but increasing to a level that’s extraordinarily high. Then I started making some phone calls.

I clicked on the Cigar Aficionado retailer database and began talking to the people who work at Utah smoke shops. There aren’t many, first of all. Utah is a huge state, but it’s sparsely populated for its size, with fewer than 3 million people, 37th in the United States. It’s hardly the epicenter of cigar sales. I started asking about the impact of the taxes.

“You need to call Jeanie’s,” said one cigar store worker.

I placed a call to Jeanie’s, a shop in Salt Lake City. Soon I was talking to the owner, a guy named Gary Klc, pronounced “kelch.” If you have any desire to buy a cigar from Gary, do it now, because this new tax is going to drive him out of business.

You see, the Utah cigar tax increase isn’t just about a higher tax. This tax hike comes with a very nasty thing known as a floor tax, which is a tax on the inventory of a cigar shop. The new tax doesn’t go into effect until July 1, so lawmakers fear that cigar shop owners will stock up on cigars before the tax change. To prevent that, they have added a floor tax to the legislation, which means that cigar shop owners like Gary will have to pay the difference in tax on all their inventory in the shop on June 30. That’s 51 percent of the manufacturer’s selling price, and that can be a lot of money, especially in the middle of a recession.
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Innovative Cigar From La Gloria Cubana

Posted: Mar 24, 2010 10:54am ET

I spent quite a bit of time the other day with Michael Giannini, director of marketing for General Cigar Co. and La Gloria Cubana. Mike came by the Cigar Aficionado office with Victoria McKee from General to give us an exclusive look at a new La Gloria Cubana that’s been in the works for a year and a half. 

The cigar is called the La Gloria Cubana Artesanos de Tabaqueros, and there are a couple of things that make it new for the company. The cigar is made with two tobaccos that are a first for a La Gloria: Connecticut-shade wrapper and Honduran filler. And then there’s the little fact that the cigar has more than one wrapper.

The first time you look at a La Gloria Cubana Artesanos de Tabaqueros, you might think you have the cigar upside down. That’s because the band is located about one third of the way from the foot of the cigar, rather than near the head. The band is placed so low because that spot is the place on the cigar where the light-hued Connecticut-shade wrapper meets the darker Ecuadoran Sumatra leaf. Mike, who was a chef before joining the cigar business 27 years ago, makes a food analogy when explaining the reasons behind the two wrappers.

“This is the appetizer,” he said, pointing to the shade part of the cigar, “and this is the big entrée. This is the Porterhouse,” he said, pointing to the upper two thirds. “It’s two wrappers, with two countries and two distinct flavors.”

The cigar was very cool to look at, a pleasure to smoke, and truly something different. Here’s a video Mike describing it, and a good view of the cigar and the box. 

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Smoking Green for St. Patrick’s Day

Posted: Mar 17, 2010 2:00pm ET
I had some leftover candela, or green, cigars from the video shoot I did with Jack Bettridge on Irish Whiskey and cigars. We didn’t smoke the candelas on screen, but used them at the end as a little joke. In the video, I passed on Jack’s offer of a candela.

Today being St. Patrick’s Day, I found myself staring at the candelas in my humidor as I thought about what I would smoke first today. I haven’t smoked a candela in years. So I dove in.

The green cigar is an Arturo Fuente 858 Candela, a 6 1/4 inch long, 47 ring gauge cigar with a considerably green wrapper. If you read my Cigar Aficionado story about candelas, you’ll find that green cigars were once quite popular in the United States. Normal curing turns a leaf from green to brown, but for candela the farmer seals the barn, cranks the heat very high and locks in the cholraphyl of the plant, keeping the color green.

But how would it taste? I lit up the cigar and took a puff. First impression? Not bad at all. Fairly mild, innocent, with just a bit of a freshly cut grass note on the palate. I kept smoking.

After an inch or so, the cigar became more toasty, with a bit of a graham cracker flavor. That grassy taste was a little less pronounced, but still there. I wouldn’t call the flavor great, but it was far from bad. The cigar burned beautifully, held a nice ash and the draw was exceptional.

A green cigar. Did it taste better than I thought it would? Yes. Will it become part of my regular rotation? No. But it's a flavor and a type of cigar that some people love. And on a day where green is king, it’s a fitting thing to puff.
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Of Storms and Saws

Posted: Mar 15, 2010 11:51am ET
The weekend forecast called for heavy rains and damaging winds. When the storm that has no name had finished pummeling southern Connecticut, more than 80,000 people in my state were without power, and an untold number of trees had fallen, the victim of wind gusts that peaked at near-hurricane speed, 70 miles per hour. One of those trees was on my street.

The tree was a very large and considerably old oak with a double trunk. In the height of the storm, the root system, weakened by the rains had given way, and the 50-foot-tall tree fell across my road. On its long way down, it fractured a telephone pole holding a transformer, pulling down the power, telephone and cable wires with it, along with two, considerably smaller trees. Like many people in the region, we were now in the dark.

It has been a trying winter in the northeast, with heavy snows and drenching rains. Up to this point, however, southern Connecticut had been relatively lucky: we had been spared the truly heavy drifts that had hit neighboring Westchester County, New York, and faced nothing like the disastrous pileups that had hit New Jersey and even the nation’s capital, where it only takes a few inches to paralyze normal life. This storm was nasty. On Saturday night, when the tree fell, power went out, taking our heat with it. By Sunday morning, the old water main on our street had given up the ghost as well, so we were without water to boot. My wife and I walked out into the aftermath with our hound dog (our young son had spent the night at his nonna’s house, far inland) and accessed the damage.

We, of course, were lucky. My wife and I took a drive around the area and saw no fewer than a dozen downed trees, a few even larger than the one on our road, and three that had toppled onto houses. One had crushed someone’s car. No one in our town was killed, but the storm is being blamed on at least six deaths in the region. In that light, the loss of some creature comforts such as water, heat and electric power seemed like no great crosses to bear. We certainly couldn’t complain about losing something as mundane as a little cable television in the wake of something so powerful.
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A Double Standard for Women?

Posted: Feb 28, 2010 10:36am ET
I was rooting for the American women’s hockey team on Thursday as it faced Canada, but I have to admit I was very impressed with the way the Canadian women celebrated their victory. About an hour after having gold medals placed around their necks, the team spilled back out onto the ice, smoking cigars, drinking cold beers and popping open Champagne.

I was in the minority. The celebration caused quite the stink. Many were upset at the sight, and the International Olympic Committee promised an investigation.

Why the fuss? Athletes the world over celebrate big wins by smoking cigars and basking in the spray of Champagne. Nothing is bigger than hockey in Canada, and winning gold (on the home country ice, no less) certainly qualifies as a big victory.

I think there’s something more at work here. Had this been a game won by the men’s hockey team, had it been guys instead of ladies puffing on Cohibas at center ice, men having a cold, celebratory beer instead of women, I think this isn’t even a story. Dog bites man versus man bites dog.

Maybe some people just aren’t used to seeing, or don’t wish to see, a woman smoking a cigar. I think it’s sad, and a bit silly. Women enjoy cigars just as men do.  I see plenty of women smoking cigars at our Big Smokes, and plenty of women read our magazine. My own wife, bless her, enjoys smoking cigars. She has smoked them longer than she has known me!

It’s somewhat ironic that right before this controversy, the Cuban cigar industry debuted a cigar made specifically for women at the Habanos Festival. (Read James Suckling’s account of it here.) This presents a different problem entirely: the U.S. cigar industry tried, and failed, in the mid 1990s to make cigars for women. I think Carlos Fuente Jr. said it best: “All our cigars are for women. Women have the same taste buds as men.”

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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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