Off to the Dominican Fields
Posted: Feb 20, 2009 4:12pm ET
My shoes were dusted with a thin layer of reddish brown dirt. My bare arms were being baked by the tropical sun and the smell of curing tobacco was in my nostrils. I was back on a tobacco farm.
I took the long drive from Santiago out to Mao today with a group of about 30 other people here for the final day of the ProCigar Festival. Some went to see a rum distillery, others to see where chocolate is made and others still to a Davidoff tobacco field (which I saw last year). We were headed to Copata, the farm company in Mao where General Cigar Co. grows most of its Dominican tobacco. I was last here some four years ago when the project was in its infancy. Today it’s a mega-complex and one of the most impressive tobacco farms in the world. It’s partially self sufficient—in addition to growing filler, binder and even wrapper tobacco, the 1,200 acre area grows vegetables, trees, produces a natural pesticide, has a fish farm, all kinds of livestock, a three million gallon reservoir and too many other things to mention here.
What stands out immediately, even to the unseasoned visitor, is the quality of the casas de tabacos, or curing barns. The Dominican Republic historically has some of the most meager curing barns in the cigar world — creaky looking things known as quisqueyas. The simplest offer some protection from the elements, but not enough, allowing in the weather and resulting in poor yields. Some of the ones General has here are incredible.
The biggest are a group of wooden monsters that General actually took apart in Honduras and rebuilt here, piece by piece. (I’ll have more on that in another blog, along with a video.) The barns are part of $8 million in equipment that General brought in from Honduras, Connecticut and elsewhere in the Dominican Republic.
This is the brainchild of Angel Daniel Núñez, the president and chief operating officer of General who is retiring soon. He’ll remain as a consultant, which is good for the company, as he knows this place like the back of his hand. Every cigar rolled at the massive General Cigar Dominicana factory in Santiago contains some tobacco grown in Mao.
Copata has 700 employees who work on the farm in one way or another, and 600 involved in processing all the leaf that is grown here. Núñez is proud of what General has done here, and views it as much more than a tobacco farm.
“It’s the biggest step we have ever made—taking tobacco production to the next level,” he says. “It’s not all mine. A lot of people are involved in this. And this is not only for General Cigar—this is for the Dominican Republic. It’s a lot to share. This is a heritage for the country.”
I puffed two cigars during the tour, a Macanudo 1968 and a La Gloria Cubana. The ProCigar folks really went all out with the cigars on this trip—the smokes are everywhere, and no one could possibly ever run out of things to puff. To being, they gave each attendee a sampler box emblazoned with the cool festival logo done by Peter Vrijdag containing a dozen cigars from the member companies in the organization. Then at each stop along the way, there were smokes.
Yesterday at Matasa, there was an open humidor brimming with samples of just about everything the company makes—plus they gave everyone a little sampler pack with a few smokes. Today in Mao, we got off the bus and walked into a room with coffee, water and maybe 200 cigars. Everyone helped themselves to meaty handfuls. Later, during a picturesque lunch atop the highest point of the farm, under a lush gazebo, there were baskets with even more smokes. And each night at dinner, there are lovely ladies in cocktail dresses holding trays of great cigars, like the cigarette girls you see in old movies. There is no cigar shortage here in the Dominican Republic.
Everyone is puffing away happily, at all times of the day and night. When I walked out of the elevator, several tour members were sitting in the lobby of the Gran Almirante, smoking breakfast cigars. Someone lit up on the bus (despite the prominent ‘no smoking’ signs) about 10 minutes after we pulled away. I don’t think I’ve been more than 10 feet from a cigar the entire time I’ve been here!
Tonight is the final dinner, and an auction to benefit the Children’s Hospital Arturo Grullón and the Hospicio San Vicente de Paúl de Santiago, a senior retirement home. Tomorrow I’m flying home to rejoin my family. I’ll have more reports next week when I’m back in the office.
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