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.”
Posted: Jan 7, 2008 12:27pm ETThis is the time of year my cigar travels get into full swing. Winter in New York means tobacco season in the Caribbean and Central America, and a week from today I’ll be stomping my boots in Santiago, Dominican Republic, looking at tobacco in the fields and watching cigars being rolled in the city’s myriad cigar factories.
The Dominican Republic is the world’s leading producer of premium cigars. More cigars are rolled by hand in the Dominican Republic than in any other country. Honduras, Nicaragua and even Cuba pale in comparison. It’s an amazing statistic, especially when you consider that as recently as 1980 few cigars were rolled there.
I’ll spend the week in the Dominican, meeting up with cigarmakers, filling my notebooks and shooting videos for this web site. I’m going to be joined by Michael Moretti, who manages www.cigaraficionado.com, who will be getting his feet wet on his first trip into the cigar factories. You’ll be able to follow our travels as I file daily blogs.
Before I headed out, I wanted to give you a chance to have some input on the trip. Do you have a question about Dominican cigars, either for me or for one of your favorite cigarmakers? Ask it here.
Posted: Dec 31, 2007 1:42pm ETThere’s only a few hours left of 2007, so I’m taking a moment to reflect on the year gone by.
First, this was as fast a year as any I remember. I’m sure part of the reason is the four-year-old who is playing in front of me as I type this (now I know what dad was talking about when I was younger), and the other reason is the full year I had at work.
I did a fair amount of travel for business this year, touching down in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Miami (a couple of times), Charleston, Houston and Las Vegas. The web site had a banner year, with the launch of two great new sections, our Editor’s Blogs and Cigar Cinema, a.k.a. our video gallery. From your responses, you enjoy reading and watching them as much as we love making them for you. We have a number of great new videos coming in January, including ones of Gordon Mott, James Suckling and myself puffing away on the best cigars of the year. Stay tuned.
This year’s cigars were amazing. I’ve been working for Cigar Aficionado for more than 12 years, and I can’t remember a better year in terms of cigar quality. There are so many wonderful smokes out there, Cuban and non-Cuban, that it’s often hard to choose what you want to smoke. I puffed one great cigar after another this year. Some of the cigars simply blew me away with their flavor.
I hope you all enjoyed 2007 as much as I did, and I wish you happiness, health and success for 2008. Light up something great tonight to celebrate. I’m going to fire up something with a little age on it, a Padrón Millennium Series.
What’s your special smoke for New Year’s Eve?
Posted: Dec 22, 2007 11:26am ETI’m flying out of Miami early this afternoon, but I had time to fit one last meeting into my schedule before I left. This morning I had breakfast with Litto Gomez, maker of La Flor Dominicana, LG Diez and Coronado by La Flor cigars.
I’ve known Litto for more than 12 years now, and he’s making his best cigars ever. His Coronado by La Flor Double Corona was named our No. 2 Cigar of 2006. As Litto asked the waiter for “an emergency espresso,” he took a pressed corona from his Ziplok bag. It was a La Flor 2000 Series No. 3, his first cigar of this and every day.
Did I mention how much I love Miami? When we walked up to the maitre d' station at the Biltmore, we asked for a table where we could smoke cigars. We were seated in the midst of several other tables full of diners, and when the aroma of cigar smoke began to waft from our group no one blinked or said a word. A large cigar ashtray appeared promptly, and all was right with the world.
Litto flew in from Santiago last night, and he showed me photos of his new tobacco field. He recently acquired 45 acres adjacent to his existing farm in La Canela. Unlike the first property, which he shares with Jochi Blanco, this one is all his own.
The Dominican Republic was recently slammed by a freak December tropical storm. “To have a storm like we had the other day is just crazy,” said Litto. “It’s just not supposed to happen.”
His farm weathered the rains just fine, and he showed me photos of vibrant, green plans in various stages of planting. Since the 2004/05 crop, when the weather was absolutely dismal for growing tobacco, Litto has staggered his plantings to minimize the threat of damage from one weather event. “The weather has become unpredictable in the last four years, so we don’t plant the farm all at once [anymore]. We plant in three stages.” In 2004/05, he lost 70 percent of his crop, and the remainder wasn’t anything to brag about. “The 30 percent we picked, I know I’ll never use it,” he said.
Posted: Dec 22, 2007 12:27am ETI’m back in my hotel room after a long, full day in Miami. I started in Hialeah, at a cigar factory/shop I had never visited before called Flor de Gonzalez. If you want to try a smoke made in the United States, you don’t have to limit your search to 8th Street. Flor de Gonzalez makes very good smokes in a small space about one mile from the Miami International Airport. The Gonzalez family has about five rollers—three were working today—making cigars, and they’ve done fairly well in Cigar Aficionado tastings.
My second stop was with Puros Indios, now known as Reyes Family Cigars. I sat down with the newly named president, Carlos Diez, and I found out something new about him--He’s a New York Giants fan. (Go Big Blue.) I was originally supposed to meet with him and his grandfather, Rolando Reyes Sr., but the elder Reyes was under the weather.
Carlos has some new plans for his grandfather’s company’s brands. He showed me the new logo for the company, and explained how they are working on a new brand called Premier. As far as Puros Indios and Cuba Aliados, the names may change. Stay tuned.
Carlos and I spoke for a few hours, and toward the end he took me to his storage area, where he has all kinds of old cigars. A lot of cigarmakers aren’t big believers in cigar aging, but not Carlos. He handed me a gorgeous Cuba Aliados Piramide No. 1 from 1988. You’ll be reading about that 20-year-old beauty in an upcoming Connoisseur’s Corner in Cigar Aficionado.
I spent the rest of the day with Ernesto Padilla, who I was interviewing for Cigar Aficionado. Ernesto has a number of great cigars, including one of my all-time favorite small cigars, the Padilla 1932 La Perla. This 4 1/2 by 40 cigar comes in boxes of 50, and it’s rolled by Pepin Garcia in Nicaragua. They’re little flavor bombs, just packed with taste.
Posted: Dec 21, 2007 1:12am ETThere’s clearly something wrong with me. I spent the other night standing in my driveway, swinging a 10-pound sledgehammer into the ground to break the inch-thick coating of ice that was just about everywhere. Now I’m walking around in short sleeves and sunglasses in Miami, where the weather is absolutely perfect.
Remind me why I live in the New York area again?
I’m in south Florida on business for a couple of days. Miami, after all, is where many of the world’s premium cigarmakers make their headquarters. I don’t have time to see them all, sadly, but I’m going to do as much as I can while I’m here.
I started the day with Guillermo and George Rico, the father-and-son team behind Gran Habano cigars. Gran Habano is a small brand made in Honduras that comes in colorful boxes, and always seems to do pretty well in our tastings. I first met George out in Las Vegas at our Big Smoke in November, and I told him I’d drop in on his office the next time I came to town.
The Ricos have an interesting story. They’re from Colombia, and Guillermo’s mother used to work with the local cigar tobacco, known as Cubita. During its heyday most of the production went to Europe, particularly Germany, and locals got in the habit of flattening the leaves into thin sheets that could be easily fed into machines that make mass-market cigars. The Ricos, like some other cigarmakers, use some Cubita in their filler blends, and it still comes pretty flat. I looked over a few leaves, and gave them a test sniff—it’s dusky, earthy stuff that you wouldn’t use to make a puro, but the Ricos say it works great as a small addition to a blend.
The Ricos had to leave Colombia for New York, then they came to Miami. Times were tough. A job making furniture led to orders for cigar boxes during the cigar boom, and that’s when Guillermo figured that what people really wanted was cigars. He opened a tiny factory, and later expanded to create a larger place in Danlí, Honduras.
Posted: Dec 17, 2007 1:21pm ETI’ve always admired Sir Winston Churchill. Half American, half British, a man of words and a man of action, he stood up to the Nazi threat, all while puffing more cigars than 20 men would normally smoke. How can you not admire him?
I recently picked up the tidy (192 page) biography on him by John Keegan, which came out this year in paperback, published by Penguin. It’s as much a surprise to see such a short book by Keegan, he of the epic tomes on both World Wars, as it is to imagine a sub-200 pager giving anyone a complete view of as complex a man as Winston Churchill. But it’s a fine read, with just enough insight on Churchill's amazing life.
Here’s a great little nugget: In 1901, as a freshman in England’s House of Commons, Churchill criticized a proposed army buildup, while uttering what turned out to be a most prescient warning. “A European war cannot be anything but a cruel, heartrending struggle, which, if we are ever to enjoy the fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentration to one end of every vital energy of the community.”
Even if you dismiss the history, it’s nearly impossible for cigar lovers not to adore Churchill. The man had a passion for cigars rivaling almost anyone in history. While the Keegan book won’t reveal much about Churchill as a cigar smoker, this story from the Cigar Aficionado archives tells virtually all. He acquired his taste for Cubans in 1895 on a trip to Havana, where he virtually lived on oranges in cigars. He was constantly burning his clothes with his cigars. He had 3,000 to 4,000 stocked in his study at any given time. And, of course, his name has been given to a widely popular cigar size, the 7 inch long, 47 ring gauge Churchill.
Winston Churchill has graced our cover twice, most recently on the 10th Anniversary issue, where he was named Man of the Century. Count me as a fan.