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DR Cigar Festival—Opening Night

I 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.”

I had a great table, and sat next to Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, one of the world’s best cigarmakers. I’ve been following his project to create Artisinos de Miami, a new Miami-made cigar that’s going to come from his El Credito Cigars factory. He’s pretty sure it will be on the market by May or June. It’s going to come in five sizes, and be limited to about 150,000 to 200,000 cigars in 2008, at a suggested retail price of $7.50 to $13.

I asked what would become of the cigars he still makes in Miami now, the few “white box” La Gloria Cubanas. He said their fate was “uncertain.” So if you like your Miami-made La Gloria Cubanas, you might want to stock up. It’s not etched in stone, but they might be going bye-bye.

I ran into several friends in the cigar industry that were here for the festival, including David Perez of ASP Enterprises Inc., the largest grower of cigar tobacco in Ecuador and one of the industry’s biggest tobacco buyers and brokers. We chatted about my visit years ago to his tobacco fields, the current state of the crop (very good) and the political situation pitting Ecuador and Venezuela against Colombia.

The food at the party, served buffet style, was hearty and tasty. There was stewed chivo (goat), roast pork, rice, tomatoes and avocado. Waitresses walked around with cigar trays and just about everyone partook. The air filled with cigar smoke as dancers in elaborate headdresses and outfits took to the stage and put on a show that went long into the night. Not a bad start to the show.
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