Posted: Sep 11, 2009 3:43pm ET
I cleaned out some filing cabinets right after Labor Day, an ongoing personal effort to get up to speed on an organization system called Getting Things Done, or to those in the know: GTD. Sure enough, one of the things that can happen when you start cleaning up what in my case amounted to a geological kind of storage system…the further down you dig, the further you go back in time…you find good stuff. And, there it was, in a file I hadn’t checked in probably 10 years—How to Judge a Good Cigar. I knew immediately who the author was: Richard DiMeola, the former executive vice-president and chief operating officer of what was then called Consolidated Cigar Corp., today’s Altadis U.S.A. Inc.
The first line reminded me how important this article had been to my own initiation into the world of not just smoking cigars, but testing and rating them: “There are two general elements involved in the making up of a fine, handmade cigar: QUALITY TOBACCO AND QUALITY CONSTRUCTION.” The capital letters were in the original. In the heart of the document, there was a primer about the various errors that can be made in the construction of a cigar: overfill and underfill. I recalled that DiMeola had led an effort to suction test every cigar that came out of the Tabacalera de Garcia factory in La Romana, Dominican Republic; at the time, it was still a pretty secretive device and he nearly had a conniption when my boss, Marvin R. Shanken, tried to photograph the machine on one of our first trips to the Dominican factory. There was a discussion of proper smoking characteristics with a firm ash, an even burn, and the presence of good mouth feel as well as an attractive appearance.
The article goes on to talk about the quality of tobacco, and the vital importance of a large inventory of tobacco to ensure consistency in the blend of each cigar year to year. It talked at length the role fermentation and processing has in the creation of great tobacco that’s ready to be rolled into a cigar. There was a pointed criticism of manufacturers who rush that process, and use not only inferior tobacco, but tobacco that because of poor preparation can be harsh or that keeps going out. And, DiMeola argued forcefully and correctly that once a cigar is rolled, the fermentation process is over.
As fortune would have it, I saw Mr. DiMeola at the recent International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association convention in New Orleans, and so I called him up to say I’d found this document. He reminded me that, in fact, we had talked about the document over lunch. I said, “That document?” DiMeola, it turns out, had created the document as a kind of pre-emptive strike on Cigar Aficionado’s decision to score and rate cigars on the 100-point scale, something that he feared would forever alter the landscape of cigar retailing. I reread the document, and in it there was a spirited argument made that not only is it impossible to judge a cigar based on a single cigar but ideally, you would smoke 100 before passing that judgment. In the interest of cost and time, DiMeola figured smoking at least a box would be sufficient—25 cigars.
Mr. DiMeola and I had several spirited debates early in Cigar Aficionado’s life over just that point. I argued that a consumer product doesn’t have the luxury of asking someone to spend $150 for a box as a test. I made the same argument with manufacturers who used to tell me that you had to smoke more than half of their cigars before it got good. In either case, the simple truth is if someone doesn’t like something almost immediately, they are going to put it down and never buy it again. By the way, Mr. DiMeola and I still disagree on this point. We also probably differ on the proper humidity levels for long-term storage; the article said a 70 degrees/70 percent humidity combination is one that dries cigars out over a long time. I’ve come to believe there is a broader range of acceptable humidity levels based on personal preference, although I’d still argue the more you exceed 70 degrees, the greater the likelihood of a bug infestation.
But despite our disagreements, the document still outlined some important points that I try to incorporate in my own tasting system every time I smoke. He noted that a cigar can taste differently at different times of the day, and I, for years, have only smoked cigars for our tests in the afternoon. And, I always pay attention to the look and feel of a cigar.
And, we can always spend the next 20 years trying to work out our differences. It will still be fun.
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