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James Suckling

Tobacco Road Trip

Posted: Feb 3, 2009 2:52pm ET

I drove out to Pinar del Río yesterday with a couple of Cuban friends, including the great ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. We drove an old and battered Kia four-wheel drive down the main autopista from Havana to the town of Pinar del Río and then to near the village of San Luis. The latter is the Holy Grail, as you know, for wrapper tobacco, or la capa.
I was surprised there weren’t more cars, trucks, or people on the road, not to mention horse drawn carriages, dogs and cows. The latter are particularly nasty on Cuban highways when you are driving about 60 or 70 miles per hour. They can do major damage to your auto as well as your body if you hit one. Luckily, we didn’t encounter many, although I was admittedly freaked out driving back in the night when we could barely see road out the windshield.
The few people on the road were holding pesos in their hands, waving them in the air, and hoping to buy a ride. I felt sort of guilty not picking up a few. And they always gave this surprised look as if we should have given them a ride or that we knew them or something. I hate that!

Anyway, after about 2 1/2 hours of driving, we arrived in time for a quick lunch with Alejandro Robania and his grandson Hiroshi. The latter is running the tobacco plantation for his family. And he is doing a hell of a good job. Tobacco traditions are alive and well in Cuba, as Hiroshi has well illustrated.


Hiroshi Robaina with a healthy tobacco plant in San Luis, Cuba.

I was blown away by the quality of both the filler and wrapper tobacco being grown this year. The plants are tall and healthy, and much of the crop has already been picked. It seemed a little early to me. Just everywhere I looked in the countryside of Pinar, people seemed to be working and picking in the tobacco fields.

I surprisingly didn’t see many remnants of the devastation from the hurricanes last September. I honestly thought that there would be very little tobacco harvested this year in Cuba. But I was completely wrong. I even wrote in the current issue of Cigar Aficionado that you might want to consider stocking up on cigars because I thought there was a shortage. It doesn’t look that way now. But stocking up is never a bad idea for the keen cigar smoker.

Hand sewing tobacco to hang it in a curing barn.

Hiroshi said that the tobacco hybrid Corojo 99 has grown the best this year, even better than the usual Criollo 98. The latter is a little late this year. Apparently, some growers have also been working with Havana 2000 with good results, because the spread of blue mold has been very limited. Capero No. 1, the Frankenstein tobacco hybrid used extensively last year for the harvest in Pinar, has been almost completely forgotten. It produced lots of large leaves, but the tobacco did not process well. It was literally destroyed by the fermentations.

I have heard this before, but the soon-to-be 90 Alejandro was totally elated when he was talking about the quality of this year’s harvest. “Thanks to God that the crop is so large and such high quality,” he said. ‘We could not ask for more.”

I couldn’t agree more after thinking back to how bad it all seemed just a couple months ago following the hurricanes on the island. More great tobacco means more great cigars from Cuba – at least in theory.

Comments   1 comment(s)

David Nagle February 4, 2009 10:04am ET

That is wonderful that this spring's crop quality is above par. Regarding the hurricane damage, they had the worst hurricane the island ever sustained, and back to back Category 4's. There is no way that there was no damage. The curing barns that were destroyed were numerous. That is where the already harvested crops were kept (not the ones you see now in the fields). So did they ever to what extent the losses were from those hurricanes from already harvested criops?



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