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David Savona

Sharing a Smoke with 'Smokin' Joe Frazier

Posted: Jan 29, 2009 3:48pm ET
I met one of my sports idols on Monday night—Joe Frazier, the former heavyweight champion of the world. Frazier was being honored by the Friars Club in Manhattan. I took the subway uptown, checked my coat and walked up the narrow, steep staircase to the Lucille Ball Bar. I grabbed a cocktail, and there he was, holding court in a corner table—Joe Frazier.

When I was a kid, I knew Frazier as the foil for Muhammad Ali, the man who battled him toe-to-toe in three epic boxing matches. They call Ali The Greatest, but he needed Joe Frazier to push him to the limit. Frazier was an undersized heavyweight—he stood only 5 feet 11 1/2 inches tall—but he was a determined and incredibly conditioned warrior who moved ever forward, often taking shots to the head to get in close and do his damage. He had a rhythm to his movements, bobbing and crouching, keeping that head moving away from his opponent’s punches, trying to get into range for his killer hook. Rooting for Ali, huge Muhammad Ali, the self-proclaimed best fighter ever, was like rooting for someone who was always supposed to win. Frazier had that underdog spirit—grit, determination, killer instinct and not a shred of quit inside him.

I loved watching him fight.

I had the chance to sit down with Frazier at a back table at the Friars Club for an interview before the dinner. I sat down and stared him straight in the eye. He had just turned 65 on January 12, but he still looked tough enough to go a few rounds.

Photo by Richard Lewin

He was wearing a black cowboy hat, and had a large gold chain around his neck, hanging to his chest, and huge rings on his hands, one of which was clutching an unlit Ghurka cigar. I was within jab distance of the man who went 32-4-1 back when championship fights were 15-round wars.
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A New Miami Smoking Spot

Posted: Jan 20, 2009 3:31pm ET
Last week I dropped in on Ernesto Padilla. I’ve always enjoyed Ernesto’s smokes (his Padilla 1932 La Perla is my go-to short cigar) and I needed to see his new base of operations. Like several Miami cigar guys, he is interested in rolling cigars in the United States.

Padillas have been around for a few years, but have always been made by someone else. Ernesto is taking the very big step of opening his own Miami cigar factory, complete with a comfortable smoking lounge and retail operation. The idea is to bring the concept of a cigar factory to U.S. shores and have the space for people to hang out and watch as cigars are made.

He has the space, a gorgeous spot right on Calle Ocho (8th Street) at the corner of 15th Avenue, across the street from Domino Park. He’s just waiting on the proper permits to begin rolling. In addition to Padillas, the factory will create a new version of Nub cigar called Nub Miami. In the meantime, it’s a pretty cool place to light up one of his cigars, which at this point are all made offshore.

I grabbed a smoke and took a little footage of Ernesto in his shop/lounge/fabrica. Check it out.

I love Little Havana, and it’s great to have Ernesto in the mix. Now you can visit a bunch of great cigar factories all within a few blocks: Padilla, El Credito Cigars, the home of La Gloria Cubana (down 8th Street a bit, near the corner of 12th Avenue), Pepin Garcia (right next store to El Credito), Casa Felipe, where some special Felipe Gregorios are rolled (a little farther down the street, between 9th and 10th avenue.) If you go slightly off Calle Ocho, you now have yet another option: Reyes Family Cigars, formerly Puros Indios, has about six rollers cranking out special Miami smokes at its smoking lounge, located at 114 NW 22nd Ave. (For a detailed smoking tour of Little Havana, including great places to indulge in a traditional Cuban sandwich or some hearty ropa vieja, click here.)
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Keeping a Secret From Pepin

Posted: Jan 17, 2009 12:51pm ET
Yesterday in Miami I stopped at El Rey de los Habanos Inc., the tiny Little Havana fabrica where Pepin Garcia, his family, and 11 cigar rollers make some of the best cigars on the U.S. market. Pepin splits his time now between Nicaragua (where he has a much, much larger operation) and the U.S., so I was happy to catch him stateside during my too-short visit to south Florida.

The Garcias keep knocking it out of the park with their cigars. They have considerable expansion plans and several new projects including growing their own wrapper, increasing production capacity and adding new sizes. Look for more on that in an upcoming Cigar insider.

We sat down in his small backroom office with John Gonzalez, his vice president of sales, and they offered me my choice of size in the My Father blend. I asked for a No. 3, also called the Crema. It’s six inches long by 49 ring, with a slightly tapered head that makes it look like a shorter version of Cuba’s Conde 109.

I lit up, and the cigar instantly delivered a nice kick of earthy flavor. It went perectly with the little cup of Cuban coffee I sipped. (I think it was No. 5 of the day for me at that point.) I love the Crema, and so did the rest of the tasting panel. (We gave it a score of 93 points in a November issue of Cigar Insider. Check out the ratings in our tasting database.) It has exceptional balance, with toasty qualities and a touch of cocoa. There’s just a touch of dry character on the finish, not so much that it’s a negative. Pepin talked about the dry flavor, saying that effect was an intention of the blend. However it was put together, it works great.

Pepin and Gonzalez told me a great story about the cigar. The blend was created by Pepin’s son, Jaime, and he didn’t want his dad to know what he was doing. So he swore the Nicaraguan factory to secrecy and started working on the blend in private.
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Sitting Down at Oliva Cigar Co.

Posted: Jan 15, 2009 4:21pm ET
I flew into Miami this morning, leaving New York’s LaGuardia at the crack of dawn, just as an Alberta clipper was moving into town with some snowfall and dropping temperatures. I’m in Miami for a very quick visit to meet with some of the town’s cigar executives.

I spent the morning and early afternoon in Miami Lakes, at the headquarters of Oliva Cigar Co. I met with Jose Oliva, vice president of the company, and Sam Leccia, the former Oliva sales representative who created the very popular Nub cigar.

I knew Sam came up with the concept for Nub, but I only found out today that he actually rolled the concept cigar himself. Sam knows how to make a cigar, and he made the first one at his home. “I rolled Nub in my garage,” Leccia said, puffing on one of his short, squat smokes, which is made in the Oliva Cigar Co. factory in Nicaragua. “Some people rock—I roll.”

Leccia is building on the Nub brand with in-store events, and at those events he rolls cigars himself. Later this year, he’s going to start a series of high-energy Nub events featuring live music. He’s also working with Ernesto Padilla (who I’m seeing tomorrow) on a Miami-made version of the cigar. Look for more details on the tour and the new cigar on this site.

We puffed away, and Jose started me off with a new cigar, one that he smokes each morning with a cup of Cuban-style coffee. It was an Oliva Connecticut Wrapper Reserve, which will go on sale next month.

“We do more than 500 events a year,” said Oliva. “At these events, people would say, ‘I’ve heard of Oliva cigars—do you guys have anything light?’”

The Connecticut Wrapper Reserve is light, very easygoing with a pleasant taste and a creamy undertone. The inside is all Nicaraguan, but it’s strictly viso and seco tobaccos, no ligeros like you find on Serie V cigars. Oliva hopes people will puff them as an entry smoke into their bolder cigars. It’s a good mild smoke, not bad for the first puff of the day.
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Happy Holidays

Posted: Dec 23, 2008 2:31pm ET
There’s snow on the ground, the New York Giants are in the playoffs, and the family is gathering for holiday meals. It’s hard to top this time of year.

I’m sitting in my office, puffing on an old El Rico Habano Double Corona (it has aged very well—you’ll read about it in an upcoming Connoisseur’s Corner) and wrapping up a few final tasks before heading home. The office is closed for the rest of the week, and I’m taking a few additional days of vacation to spend some time with my family. I’m looking forward to the break.

Tomorrow night my wife and I will host Christmas Eve dinner. I’m half Sicilian, so that means a big fish feast. Traditionally it's called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and while we don't always get all the way to seven, we will this year. For starters we’ll have a cold spread of shrimp cocktail and crab claws, which are two of my favorites, plus some marinated mushrooms and peppers. My dad is making stuffed clams, which should be great, and my brother, a chef, is making octopus. He also bought some scungilli, which he’ll probably cook up in a chowder. My wife is making branzino under a salt crust, which she does very well. It should all be delicious.

After dinner, I’ll head downstairs to my basement with my dad and my brother. The basement is my little getaway, with a few couches, a big TV set and plenty of cigars. Best of all, it’s smoker-friendly. We’re going to fire up some Padrón Serie 1926 40th Anniversary Maduros that look just about perfect for a Christmas Eve smoke. My dad enjoys a little Port now and then, so we’ll have some of that while we puff.

My wife and I will spend Christmas morning at home, and I’m looking forward to watching our little boy tear open his presents. (He’s as excited as a kid can be right now, which brings back great old memories of growing up.) That afternoon, we’ll head to my brother’s house to rejoin the family and have another great meal. I have an El Rey del Mundo El Vikingo, the Regional Edicion Cuban smoke made for the Baltic region. It’s an impressive looking cigar, one that I’ve never tried. A friend in the cigar business gave it to me over the summer; it looks like it will be just the thing to fire up after the big rib roast he’s cooking.
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The Holiday Football Game

Posted: Dec 9, 2008 11:35am ET
Every year around this time, I get together with a bunch of buddies from the neighborhood and we beat the tar out of one another.

It’s a Thanksgiving tradition, a flag football game (which, inevitably, always includes a fair share of tackling) organized by my good friend Mark. He typically recruits about 20 guys for the game, and we gather on an elementary school field on a cold day not long after Turkey Day, clad in all manner of odd outfits aimed at protecting us against both weather and injury. By the time the slugfest is over, everyone is bone-tired, but happy. The guys slake their thirst at a keg and then fire up cigars provided by yours truly.

This year included a slightly different angle, however, and its name was Andy.

I’m 40 years old, and the guys in this contest usually range from age 33 to around 43. Now Mark, who is a competitive sort, doesn’t really enjoy losing, so he stacked the deck a bit this year by bringing Andy, a coworker of his imported straight from Manhattan. I walked onto the field with my buddy Rick, and saw Andy doing a few stretches. First impressions: Andy weighs 200 pounds (OK, I can handle that, a lot of guys on the field are 200 pounders), 6 foot 3 (that’s kinda bad); and carrying, by my amateur estimates, absolutely no body fat and what can only be described as slabs of muscle on an athletic build. (Uh-oh).

And now for the truly distressing part: he’s 25 years old.

I wasn’t overly concerned at first. I warmed up as usual, stretching as much as I could to make sure I didn’t tear anything other than my pants. We traded good-natured insults. I made fun of Tim for wearing golf shoes instead of cleats. Tim, Jay and Mark dared me to try kicking off (I never will again, after what can only be described as the low-hook debacle of ‘06.) And we all expressed our thanks that Russ didn’t break out his lime-green tights.

I pulled on my hat, tried (unsuccessfully) to catch a few warm up passes from Tim, our team’s QB, then dug my cleats into the muddy gridiron to prepare for the kickoff. 
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The Tarantula Chronicles

Posted: Nov 21, 2008 3:13pm ET
I’ve been traveling to cigar country for 13 years. They’re wonderful places, but if you’re visiting a tobacco field or a cigar factory, odds are you won’t be sleeping in a Four Seasons Hotel. There’s even a chance you might have a close encounter with something exotic.

Like a tarantula.

My close encounter with the Arnold Schwarzenegger of spiders took place back in September 1999, long before we had blogs on this Web site. I was looking through some old photos today, which reminded me of the incident, so I thought I’d share it with you here.

It was my first visit to Central America. I started in Nicaragua, spending about one week in cigar factories and tobacco fields, then drove along the Pan American Highway from Estelí, Nicaragua, to Danlí, Honduras. I met with a few cigarmakers, visiting a few factories in the town, and then I drove with Christian and Julio Eiroa to their farmhouse in the Jamastrán Valley.

The house was beautiful, and the Eiroas are wonderful hosts. They made me feel right at home. As you can imagine, you don’t grow tobacco in big cities—these are farms, out in the middle of nowhere. It was a good drive to the farm, and we arrived after the sun had set. As we drove up a hill to the house, I saw some kind of deer running away from the headlights.

We had a great dinner, and soon it was time for bed. I went to my room, and felt like reading a bit before turning in. The lamp by the bed wasn’t plugged in. I saw the outline of an outlet behind a pillow, so I took the cord and moved the pillow to plug it in. And that’s when I saw the tarantula.

Don’t call it a spider. I know tarantulas are spiders, but calling this thing a spider is a gross understatement. It was bigger than a hockey puck and it was covered in hair. And it didn’t look happy.

This is the time in the story when I should mention that I’m afraid of spiders.

So what did I do? First of all I figured no one back home would believe my story, so I grabbed my camera and snapped a photo. Check it out.
The spider, clearly upset at having the cushy pillow removed, had backed up, putting four of his hairy legs against the wall. The other four are spread out on the bedspread. This guy was ready to do some damage.
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Rocking With C.A.O.

Posted: Nov 5, 2008 4:32pm ET
The other day I grabbed the uptown subway to make my way to Davidoff of Geneva on Madison Avenue. Jon Huber and Frank Kapp from C.A.O. International Inc. had flown into town, part of their C.A.O. Rock N Rolled Tour. I wanted to say hello—Jon and I go way back—and I think the Lx2 is the best blend C.A.O. makes.

The idea for the Rock N Rolled Tour came from Huber’s neck and Frank’s head. Huber almost has enough tattoos to get him an honorary membership in Mötley Crüe, and his latest (at least, I think it’s his latest) is this vibrant bird on his upper back and neck with the words “Rock N Rolled” above it. Frank thought it would make a good idea for an in-store promotion for the new Lx2.

Here’s Frank and Jon talking about the tour at Davidoff.

So the tour gave people a chance to meet Jon and Frank, listen to a little rock music and sip a bit of George Dickel Tennessee whiskey while puffing on a new C.A.O.

What’s not to like?
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Waiting Impatiently To Smoke

Posted: Oct 28, 2008 3:17pm ET
This is one of those classic good news/bad news situations. This morning a big box was delivered to my office. Inside were Fuente Fuente OpusX Lanceros.

Five hundred of them.

That was obviously the good news part of this blog. The bad news? They’re not for me. They’re one of the cigars the audience will be smoking on Saturday, November 8, at the Big Smoke Las Vegas seminar.

Take a look at this video to check out the stash.

The cigars are going to be part of the Father and Sons tasting, where three father and son teams will take to the stage to discuss what it’s like to work with family and create great cigars. The Padróns, Fuentes and Toraños are speaking.

I’m sure the cigars will be great…but I have to wait with everybody else until next Saturday before I can find out!
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Smoking With John Starks

Posted: Oct 15, 2008 3:25pm ET
Few people have dunked over Michael Jordan. One man who did—and did it emphatically, in a big game situation—is John Starks.

If you watched New York Knicks basketball in the 1990s, you know John Starks very well. He was the dynamic, damn the torpedoes, full-speed ahead shooting guard for the Pat Riley era Knickerbockers, and he played with fire, passion and guts. Playing alongside Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley, Starks and the Knicks came thisclose to an NBA crown.

I remember the dunk. It was the 1993 playoffs. With under a minute left in the game, Starks had the ball along the right side of the court and was being guarded by B.J. Armstrong. He saw an opening and took off along the baseline for the basket, dribbling with his right hand, and soared over Horace Grant as Jordan came in to help defend. Starks switched the ball to his left hand, soaring incredibly high for a guy listed at 6’5” tall, dunking over the Bulls with authority. It’s one of the most exciting plays I’ve ever watched.

I knew Starks had a great basketball game, but I only found out he enjoyed cigars the other day when I spoke to his business associate, Gary Basciano. Starks loves his smokes so much that he’s coming out with his own cigar brand called Dominican Legends. He came by the Cigar Aficionado offices the other day so I could try one of the new smokes. Here we are chatting about them:

The smoke was very pleasant: Cameroon wrapper around a Dominican binder and a mix of Dominican and Nicaraguan filler. The cigars are made by Eddy Zarzuela, who owns E. Zarzuela Cigars in the Pisano Free Zone in Santiago.

I enjoyed the smoke. It had a substantial amount of flavor without being overpowering, and was extremely pleasant. A nice cigar. It will be on the market next month.
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