Posted: Mar 10, 2008 12:45pm ETEvery night of the ProCigar Festival ended with a party. And they were pretty darn good ones, too.
I’ve been to the Dominican Republic dozens of times since joining Cigar Aficionado magazine in 1995, but I rarely see any more of the city than tobacco fields, cigar factories or restaurants. Thursday night was my first visit to the Monument to The Heroes of the Restoration in the town’s center, a 220 foot tall landmark created in the 1940s. The cocktail party began there, with locals dressed in the type of festive garb worn in parades and plenty of rum and great music.
Some of the kids were wielding whips that sounded like they were outfitted with firecrackers, so I spent my first 15 minutes or so holding a Brugal and Coke in one hand while trying to stay far enough away to avoid getting the old Indiana Jones treatment. Take a look.
This was one of the times at the Festival were there weren’t any cigars being passed around, which I found pretty strange. (Maybe it was for safety—no need to make an easier target for the kid with the whip.) That small criticism aside, after an hour or so we headed to Centro de Recreo, a private club dating back to the 1800s, for the party proper.
It was time for another Cuba Libre (rum and Coke), in this case one made with well-aged, amber colored Brugal, which makes a Cuba Libre with gusto and flavor, unlike those made with white rum, which I don’t like at all. And now there were cigars aplenty, passed out by elegant women with cigar trays, like the cigarette girls of Las Vegas.
I spoke for awhile with Daniel Núñez, president of General Cigar, chatted with Jose Seijas of Altadis U.S.A. Inc., caught up with Manuel Quesada, maker of Fonsecas, then had a short conversation with Benjie Menendez from General Cigar and Avo Uvezian, creator of the Avo brand. When it was time to sit down and watch the next show, I sat with Guillermo León, who was in good spirits.
Posted: Mar 7, 2008 5:18pm ETYesterday I headed out with the tour group to embark on ProCigar’s version of Cigar 101—trips to cigar factories and tobacco fields where the tour guides are some of the leading men in the cigar world. It was a gorgeous, sunny day and people were in a fine mood.
About 120 people signed up for this first festival, a little less than the organizers had hoped for but a good-sized crowd. To keep things manageable, the group had been broken up into three, each doing a different part of the agenda. One group went to Mao with General Cigar Co. and Angel Daniel Núñez, another to see the La Aurora factory with Guillermo León, then the Matasa factory with Manuel Quesada. The group I had been assigned to was slated to head to Jicomé, an agricultural town outside Santiago where Hendrik Kelner’s Tabacom group grows tobacco that’s used on Avo and Davidoff cigars.
The bus ride to Jicomé is about 50 minutes in morning traffic, so to make the ride go by quicker our tour guide Carla gave us a quick merengue lesson in the aisle. Here’s what I learned—as you move your hips to one side, you lift the heel of your opposite foot slightly off the ground, then repeat on the opposite side. Sounds easy, right? I’ll stick to writing—dancing to that type of beat just isn’t in my skill set.
We arrived in Jicomé at the tobacco farm, and were greeted by Kelner, who was holding a Davidoff Millennium. Standing next to him was a worker with a Davidoff humidor full of assorted cigars. The group—there were about 30 of us or so—dug into the humidor, lit up, and headed down the road to hear about growing tobacco. I’ve heard these lessons before, but to many in the group is was their first time in a tobacco field. Usually at this time of year, most of the tobacco in the Dominican Republic has been harvested, but many farmers planted late this year, or had to replant fields due to the pair of storms that hit the country in the fall. We were looking at a nice crop grown from a hybrid the Kelners developed from San Vicente seed (which is also a hybrid.) It’s a carefully maintained field, with a drip irrigation system and some encallado shading (shading around the perimeter) to fend off the wind, which can be strong this time of year.The tobacco looked very nice. Take a look:
Posted: Mar 6, 2008 2:33pm ETI walked into the lobby at the Gran Almirante last night and ran smack into Avo Uvezian, creator of the Avo brand. He was holding court, surrounded by six cigar fans that were tapping his brain about making cigars. I said hello to Avo and smiled.
This is why people had come to Santiago this week, for the first annual ProCigar festival: to get close to a big name in cigars. It’s hard to find a bigger one than Avo.
We were in the lobby preparing for the evening’s festivities, a big party at featuring local cuisine, a gala show with merengue dancing and Dominican cigars. The dinner and show were held at Centro León, the cultural center in Santiago donated by the parent company of Aurora S.A., the nation’s oldest cigar company. After a tour of the museum’s baseball exhibit, we walked across the courtyard to the replica of the old Aurora factory that was opened in 1903. Although Aurora moved from Santiago to Guazumal recently, it maintained this showcase mini factory, where all of its Preferidos are rolled. Aurora had the factory open for the event, and a few rollers were making the bomb-shaped perfectos. I chatted for a while with Jose Blanco, the Aurora sales manager, and had my first cold Presidente of the night.
Soon it was time to sit. The men (and one woman) behind ProCigar—Hendrik Kelner, Angel Daniel Núñez, Jose Seijas, Manuel Quesada, Guillermo León, Benjamin Menendez, Modesta Fondeur and Juan Clemente stood on the stage.
Quesada spoke a bit about the history of the Dominican and the cigars produced there, and spoke about the origins of ProCigar 16 years prior, which began with squabbles and competition between the nation’s cigarmakers during the cigar boom. “It is a gentleman’s agreement—a handshake,” he said, saying the association stood for “quality and cigars.”
Kelner, the president of ProCigar, said “Welcome to the Dominican Republic, welcome to Cigar Country and Welcome to the ProCigar Festival.”
Posted: Mar 5, 2008 4:13pm ETI’ve just arrived in Santiago for the first annual ProCigar Festival. This has been a long time coming, and I’m happy to be here. Cuba has had its cigar festival for more than a decade now, so why not a similar one in the Dominican Republic?
ProCigar is an association of leading Dominican cigarmakers. The member companies include General Cigar Co. (Macanudo, Partagas), Altadis U.S.A. Inc. (Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo), Davidoff (Davidoff and Avo), La Aurora (Aurora, León Jimenes) and Manufactura de Tabacos S.A. (Fonseca, Cubita). The idea is to have consumers tour the member companies’ factories, some tobacco fields, and spend a little time with the men who make the cigars.
Tonight things get into gear with a big dinner and a tribute to the nation’s favorite sport -- baseball. I’m here at the Gran Almirante, Santiago’s finest hotel, working out the kinks with the Internet service. (I wasn’t reduced to calling this blog in word-by-word, but it was close.) I’m looking forward to talking to the consumers attending the show. I figure most of these guys are going to smoke more cigars this week then they do in a typical month -- and they’re going to love every minute.
So far so good -- the weather is beautiful, sunny and warm, a nice change from the rain and wind I left behind this morning in New York, and I’m raring to go. For those of you who aren’t here, I’ll be your guide to what’s going on. Maybe you’ll take part next year.
Posted: Feb 21, 2008 11:27am ETBaseball is king in the Dominican Republic, so when the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation created a school for the impoverished children around the Chateau de la Fuente tobacco plantation it was only natural to include a baseball field. But baseball fields cost money, and there was only so much to go around, and other, more pressing projects meant the field and the children’s fun had to wait.
I visited the Foundation two years ago, along with other members of the magazine, including editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken. When he heard the plan for the field, he offered to help. Thanks to a generous donation by Marvin, the field is now complete.
I get to the Dominican Republic more often than Marvin does, so on my last trip there a few weeks ago I shot a little video of the field, known as Cigar Aficionado Stadium. Carlos Fuente Jr. was there to add a little play-by-play. Take a look.
I visit the Foundation about every year, and I’m always impressed with the charity from the Fuentes, the Newmans and cigar lovers from around the world, including Marvin, who have contributed to its success. The children are well fed, happy, smiling. They have hope, something that we in the United States take for granted, but that children in the third world often have to go without. Before the school was created, children in Caribe and the surrounding towns in the Bonao region often had little chance of getting an education. Clean drinking water was a luxury, not a commodity. And the notion of playing baseball on a beautiful, well-kept field, with bleachers and a real scoreboard and dugouts that look like something from a pro baseball team was mere fantasy.
As a father, I can’t help but get a little choked up when I see these children sitting in class, learning about the world. On this recent visit, while driving near the school, I saw two barefoot boys playing in the dirt alongside the bumpy road with a small car. That may have been their only toy in the world. I thought of my own son, who has too many toys, and I felt a little bit guilty, but extremely, extremely grateful for what I have, and what I’m able to give to him.
Posted: Jan 31, 2008 1:06pm ETI’m the commissioner of a fantasy football league in my town. One thing has remained constant since it began four years ago—I haven’t won.
Not since that first, smoky draft where Mr. Priest Holmes was my No. 1 pick and led me to the No. 2 spot in the league have I even threatened to win the damn thing. This year I finished in seventh place out of 12 guys. That’s bad enough, but it comes with an extra dose of insult—tonight, dinner is on me.
We have a tradition in our football league that the bottom six managers buy dinner for the top six at season’s end. Finishing seventh is bad enough, but now it comes with the added expense of a steak dinner for all my buddies who finished ahead of me. Most of the years I’ve been on the winners’ side, but this year my luck has run out.
Dinner is actually a great time. While I see most of the guys in my league on a regular basis, I only get together with some of the guys twice a year, on draft night (where we smoke a few dozen cigars and drink a few beers as we make our picks, insulting every one) and the year-end dinner.
Tonight, as with last year, we’re dining at Blackstones Steakhouse in Norwalk, Connecticut, which is centrally located for those of us in the league. Blackstones is a great place, with fantastic appetizers (I distinctly remember a shrimp on an appetizer plate last year large enough to be scary), serious steaks and top-notch service. They give us a back room so we can make plenty of noise and not bother the rest of the house.
I’m getting a bit worried about the bill, however—a little while ago I received an email from my friend Tim, one of the guys who is eating for free. “FYI,” he wrote. “Just ate lunch at 11 a.m. and have only liquids planned between now and dinner. Timmy will be very hungry!”
Last year, I ate for free and Tim was one of the buyers. He has payback in mind. Not good.
Our post-dinner cigars will probably be puffed back at my house. First, I have a box of Winston Churchill Marakesh. They’re made by Hendrik Kelner in the Davidoff factory in the Dominican Republic, and they rated 87 points in the latest Cigar Insider. They’re medium bodied, so they shouldn’t hurt the guys who don’t smoke as many cigars as I do. For the boys who want something with a bit more oomph, I’m bringing some one-year old Padilla Miami 8&11 Churchills. The cigar rated 88 points in Cigar Insider back in 2005, but I’m betting that this box, dated February 2007, is going to be smoking in the 90s. I’m a big fan of Padilla’s and Pepin’s cigars.
Posted: Jan 18, 2008 1:15am ETToday we headed out to the Bonao region of the Dominican Republic, an agricultural area about halfway between Santiago and Santo Domingo. We were heading to Chateau de la Fuente, the tobacco farm that gave birth to the Fuente Fuente OpusX brand.
I wasn’t sure what we would see. The two storms that slammed the Dominican Republic this year hit the farm hard. In October, Carlos couldn’t even get to the property until the road was cleared of debris.
We took the turn off the main road and headed down toward the farm. In about ten minutes, we saw pristine rows of young tobacco underneath vast stretches of shade. The tobacco looked great, in neat, even rows of equal height, with no sign of mortality or disease. Several areas were fallow. “All this was a lake,” said Carlos. “The water came up to the office.” He drove his car past a field to a ridge, where we saw a few bulldozers moving earth below. The ridge wasn’t there on my last visit—the flooding cascaded down the mountains, pushing soil with it, and the field that had been half planted had to be smoothed by the earth movers.
The flooding had some benefits, bringing in new soil that refreshed the land, but it required heavy labor to carve the land back into flat plots in many areas of the farm. That’s expensive work, and it’s still underway. The crop Carlos planted, some 90 acres worth of tobacco, is only about 60 percent as large as a typical planting.
“I really needed to grow this year,” he said. Last season’s crop was of normal size, but there was no crop here in 2005-06, as he let the land rest. Still, he’s happy to even have tobacco this year. When the storms hit, he feared the worst.
I’ve been coming to Chateau de la Fuente since 1996. I’ve seen the farm grow and smoked the cigars that come from here for 12 years now. Every now and then I hear someone say that the farm doesn’t exist, or that the Fuentes are using some other type of tobacco instead of Dominican wrapper, which is simply ridiculous. There are dozens of massive tobacco curing barns, acres of crops (even in this down year) and an attention to detail that I haven’t seen on any tobacco plantation anywhere in the world, and I’ve been to a lot of tobacco farms. It’s a special place that yields great cigar tobacco.
Posted: Jan 17, 2008 12:15am ETToday I saw a brilliant tobacco field, watched my co-worker learn how to roll a cigar, ate more than my fill and saw the biggest collection of cigar ashes I have ever witnessed.
We started at La Aurora, the oldest cigarmaker in the Dominican Republic. The company recently moved from Santiago to Guazumal, a part of Tamboril, where La Auroras were first rolled in 1903. Jose Blanco, the company’s director of sales, met us at the Gran Almirante early in the morning.
Our first stop was in Santiago, where La Aurora makes all of its Preferido cigars. Preferidos are those bulbous perfectos that look like little bombs. They’re great smokes, and La Aurora makes them in a special little factory that’s also a tourist destination, located on the grounds of the Santiago Cultural Center. We stepped inside and watched the small group of rollers make the difficult shape. Michael Moretti, manager of Cigar Aficionado Online, took some great video of the operation, which you’ll see soon in our Cigar Cinema section.
Next it was off to Guazumal to see the new Aurora facility. First stop was Jose’s office, which has a three-gallon cigar ashtray that is entirely full of cigar ashes. Take a look.
When Jose got this ashtray (made, appropriately, by a guy named Stinky) he took it as a challenge to fill it in less than a year. This pile took him ten months, and he swears it contains only cigar ashes—no butts, no garbage. Jose has a lot of great ideas about cigars, but this one doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I think he's working too hard! We had a good laugh over Jose’s pet ash project before moving into the factory proper.
It was my turn to take the camera, and Michael got a lesson in how to make a cigar for another video you’ll see online soon. (It isn’t nearly as easy as it looks.) He bunched, he rolled, and the end product was good enough for him to light it up.
Posted: Jan 15, 2008 6:25pm ETI spent the day looking at tobacco fields and cigar factories here in Santiago. It was a bright, warm and sunny day, as this is the heart of tobacco growing season in the Dominican Republic.
Before I left on this trip, I asked you for questions that you would like answered in my blogs, which will appear all week here on www.cigaraficionado.com. Some of you inquired about the state of the crop, due to the heavy rains that fell in the fall and winter—tropical storms hit the country in October and December, doing damage to the fields.
I saw the results of the damage firsthand on my first stop, a tobacco field in Jacagua owned by cigarmaker Jochi Blanco of Tabacalera La Palma S.A. This time of year tobacco should be about four feet tall, but this field had plants that were only a few inches high. “We had too much rain in December,” said Blanco. “Some of the tobacco was destroyed.”
Jochi replanted the field about three weeks ago. Take a look in this video clip.
Jochi thinks the tobacco will end up just fine—the weather has been great lately, and Jochi says the current sunny weather is better for growing wrapper tobacco. It’s not just his field that was hurt—many fields throughout the country were impacted. Some people think the entire crop will be down 20 to 40 percent compared to what was harvested last year.
Jochi’s tobacco is going to supply the future demand of Mike Chiusano, owner of Cusano cigars. Mike has big plans for the Dominican Republic.
“I’ve changed,” says Mike. “My tastes have grown.” He gave me an early version of a Cameroon-wrapped cigar. It was balanced and delicious, with just a smattering of spice. This is going to be Cusano Cameroon, which replaces Killer Cameroon, which went off the market about three years ago. “Killer attracted guys who wanted their heads blown off,” says Mike. “And the balanced guys who would have liked it were afraid of it.”
Posted: Jan 14, 2008 11:39pm ETThere’s something about that first glimpse of a palm tree, that first smell of the air, the initial shock of feeling warmth in the middle of the winter that tells you you’re back in the tropics. It hit me today as I walked off the plane at the Santiago airport. I’m back in the Dominican Republic, back in cigar country.
I’ll be spending the week here in and around Santiago, where most premium Dominican cigars are made. This is the busiest cigar capital in the world.
I'm traveling with Michael Moretti, the manager of Cigar Aficionado Online, and we were met at the airport by Gene Arganese, owner of the Arganese cigar brand. We were off to a late start—a huge snowstorm had been forecast to hit the New York City area, and with flashbacks of the Chicago Big Smoke and many trips back from Miami that were spoiled by snowstorms, I switched us from the 6 am flight out of JFK to the later flight. Perfect planning, careful foresight...so what happened? The apocalyptic snow every weatherman promised we would have turned out to be about an inch of slush, so it was a wasted effort. We missed our time in the Arganese fields, but we made up for it with dinner. (And we’ll adjust our schedule later.)
We headed to Gene's house here in Santiago, not far from the city center. We sat down to a hearty meal of soup, rare steak and rice, which I washed down with a frosty Presidente beer. Gene is a friendly guy who is new to the cigar business. He’s been smoking cigars since college (he recently turned 40) and after doing well in real estate he decided he wanted to give cigars a try. His hobby has turned serious—he bought a house in the Dominican Republic, he has a new factory, tobacco fields, tobacco warehousing—and he’s interested in making a great cigar. “That’s what motivates me,” he said. “Anybody in the world can make a standard cigar, but you gotta do something different. I didn’t come into this business just to build an average cigar.”