One Hundred Years of Fuente

Carlos Fuente Sr. and Carlos Fuente Jr., the cigarmaking team behind the brand.
Photo/Jeffrey Salter
Carlos Fuente Sr. and Carlos Fuente Jr., the cigarmaking team behind the brand.

As the Arturo Fuente brand turns 100 this year, the family dynasty commemorates its many triumphs, always remembering that the road to success presented challenge after challenge

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The cigar was created after an offhand remark made by a visiting tobacconist in 1988. “You don’t produce a cigar,” he said to the Fuentes, “you assemble a cigar.” He was referring to the factory’s use of imported tobaccos rather than relying on all local leaf. The observation made Fuente Jr. want to grow wrapper tobacco in the Dominican Republic, something that had cost other cigar companies millions in failed attempts.
“I thought he was crazy at first,” says Fuente Sr. The project got off to a slow start, and the first harvest was unsuccessful.
“When it rained, we couldn’t get in or out,” says Fuente Jr. “My dad had a four-wheel drive—it got stuck. Before you know it the frame of the car was touching the ground. We had to get a John Deere to pull it out. My father had mud up to his knees, and I did too. My father said, ‘Unless you build a road here I’m not coming back again. I’m a cigarmaker, I’m not a farmer.’ ”
They built roads. And curing barns. And gazebos. And more. Today Chateau de la Fuente is as gorgeous a tobacco farm as you will ever see, with painted rocks, flowers and royal palm trees poking up through the cheesecloth shade that covers acre after acre. The dark, Cuban-seed tobacco grown on this land covers Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars, the company’s most acclaimed brand. When launched in November 1995, the cigars sold out immediately and had to be limited to only a couple per customer even while it sold only in the eastern part of the United States. A January 1996 vertical brand tasting in Cigar Insider awarded the brand four scores in the 90s, including a 94-point score for the PerfecXion No. 2, a pyramid. The high scores continue to this day. In 2005 the Fuente Fuente OpusX Double Corona was named Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the Year, and in 2010 the XXX Belicoso was the No. 3 Cigar of the Year.
The Fuente Fuente OpusX reflected Fuente Jr.’s taste for powerhouse cigars and almost single-handedly ushered in a move to stronger smokes among cigar connoisseurs in the United States. Fuente continued that trend with the creation of the high-octane Ashton Virgin Sun Grown (or VSG) in 1999, which became the next big thing in powerful smokes.
Most people in the cigar industry believe that Fuente Sr. blended his company’s renowned Arturo Fuente Don Carlos line, but he gives all the credit for Fuente’s blends over the past 30 years to his son. “Carlito did all the blends,” he says. Fuente Jr. has uncanny skills as a blender. He is able to make a complex, balanced and subtle smoke (such as Don Carlos), vibrant, aggressive and spicy cigars (the Fuente Fuente OpusX) as well as many things in between (the new A. Fuente Rosado Sungrown line).
Fuente makes many, many blends and brands, including some for J. C. Newman Cigar Co., based in Tampa. In 1986 Fuente joined with the Newman family: Fuente Sr. asked J. C. Newman’s Stanford Newman to take over production of the company’s machine-made cigars. Newman asked Fuente to make him handmades in return. Newman died in 2006, but the relationship is strong to this day as the Newmans and Fuentes share distribution and still make cigars for one another, including the highly rated Diamond Crown series of cigars.
“We make so many different blends. Different brands. Different styles. Different tastes. But over decades, they’re consistent,” says Fuente Jr. “That’s one of the things I’m most proud of.” Robert Levin concurs: “The Fuentes can come up with 50 different blends and they’re all going to be good, and they’re all going to be different.”
All this innovation and success came with a price. The Fuentes became a target. The mid-1990s were crazy days in the cigar industry. Cigar companies that had struggled for decades to sell cigars suddenly found themselves with more orders than they could fill. The cigar business is quite unlike most others in that the process of expanding production is limited by tobacco inventories and how many trained hands can be marshaled to shape those leaves into cigars.
In the heady days of the cigar boom, opportunists flocked to the Dominican Republic seeking tobacco and cigars. They bought raw leaf from fields and hired away cigar rollers, making established companies suffer. Those rollers at Fuente who were able to craft Hemingways were recruited particularly hard. Fuente lost roller after roller. “We lost 500 cigarmakers one year,” says Fuente Jr. Training workers only to have them stolen away is an expensive proposition, so Fuente Jr. created a unique program, dubbed Operation Blank Slate, that offered a measure of protection.
The Fuentes sought out workers who hadn’t made cigars before. They were trained to make cigars slowly, carefully, in a style known as entubado, in which the roller creates a tube with each leaf. It’s slower than the standard Dominican methods of cigar production, where tobacco leaves are made into S-shapes giving the bunch a look similar to an accordion. Fuente wanted the rollers to make beautiful cigars but to make them slowly—if someone was to steal them away, they wouldn’t be able to work in typical piecemeal style.
The Fuentes most popular cigar also went into the crosshairs. In 1996, the Opus One winery (which was a venture between Robert Mondavi Corp. and Baron Philippe de Rothschild S.A.) sued the Fuentes over the name OpusX. It was a two-year legal battle that cost each side millions in lawyers’ fees. The Fuentes won the suit in July 1998.
An even greater challenge to Fuente Fuente OpusX came in 1998 when Hurricane Georges raced across Hispañiola, killing nearly 400 people in the Dominican Republic and tearing down 17 massive curing barns on Chateau de la Fuente. Only two were left unscathed. The Fuentes rebuilt, holding on to Fuente Fuente OpusX shipments for a time and creating the Arturo Fuente Añejo, which has a similar blend but a Connecticut broadleaf wrapper.
Despite all the crises that could have derailed the company at many steps along the way, Fuente has emerged ever stronger.
It sits in a most unusual position in the cigar industry, having a combination of considerable size and critical acclaim, the production of a huge company but the soul of a boutique producer. It has a store in Las Vegas—Casa Fuente, owned by Fuente, Levin and Michael Frey—dedicated solely to cigars made by the company. There, devotees can find special Fuentes not sold elsewhere.
And all this success has inspired the family to give back. The community around Chateau de la Fuente is very poor, and for many years locals had to walk far to get drinking water, which was often contaminated. In 2001, Fuente joined with the Newmans to create the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation to help the poor of the Dominican Republic, particularly those who live around their farm. Putting in stations for clean water was an early project. Then came a school, first at the elementary level, then at the high school level. Watching the children whose lives have been improved by the school is inspiring for any visitor.
“My cigars, my life, my family, my love,” said Fuente Jr., lighting his OpusX on stage before a sold-out crowd at the Big Smoke Las Vegas, calling his sister Cynthia, daughter Liana and Fuente executive Wayne Suarez to sit by his side. “My family has gone through a lot, and that’s what I think is the strength that holds our family together.”
Every night, when his work is finally done, Fuente Sr. sits down with a glass of Chivas and smokes three cigars before he goes to bed. He once slept only a few hours a night—there was so much to do in the day—but today he sleeps a bit better.
“After all these years I never dreamed I would be living when the company was 100 years old,” he says with a nod of his head. “If you want to be successful, you can’t look back. You have to do something you love. And the cigar business is something I love.”
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