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Recollections

These friends of Cigar Aficionado were there at the beginning in 1992, and they are still working with cigars today.
From the Print Edition:
Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012

(continued from page 1)

Padrón cigars have been made since 1964, when Cuban émigré José Orlando Padrón opened a cigar shop in Little Havana, Miami. His cigars—dark and gutsy fumas that were rolled quicky and sold very cheap—soon found a following in the local market, and were rolled in the millions. The elder Padrón endured bombings, an embargo on Nicaraguan products, hurricanes and more throughout his years, while his son Jorge saw the promise in opening up new markets. In 1994 the duo created a masterpiece, the premium-priced and elegant Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series. With their distinctive box-pressing (rare at the time) and well-aged Cuban-seed tobaccos, the cigars soon established the Padróns as a force in the market. “We’re lucky,” says Jorge Padrón. “My generation hasn’t had to face the same problems—the fires, the bombing, the starting of a company from scratch. My challenges are all different. Improving on what has been done. It’s trying to understand and appreciate what my father did, and all the sacrifices are worth it. Growing the company. Having the restraint to ensure that it doesn’t get compromised.” —D.S.

John Oliva Sr.

John Oliva Sr. played both offense and defense for the University of Florida, but he never had a harder day than the one in 1962 when his father, Angel Oliva Sr., decided that 144 cartons of wrapper tobacco needed to be repacked—by the two of them alone. “We started at 8 o’clock in the morning,” he says. “We finished at 3 o’clock in the morning. Hardest I ever worked in my life.” Hard work goes hand in hand with the Olivas, Cubans who settled in Tampa and are known for growing some of the world’s finest tobacco, including Ecuador Sumatra and Habano, leaves that go around such well-known cigars as Ashton VSG and My Father. The past 20 years have brought great demand, but Oliva has remained circumspect. “We believe [growth] has to be controlled regardless of outside or market pressure if quality and, therefore, longevity are to be maintained,” says Oliva. “We focused on the long-term effects to the smokers and our company, and easily chose to increase only what we could handle without sacrificing quality.” —D.S.

David Perez

David Perez comes from a long line of tobacco men, but when he was about to join the family business in 1992, his father and grandfather advised against it. “The business was slow. The sales volume was declining, from the ’80s to the ’90s. It was on a downward trend. People were skeptical. My dad and my grandfather said, ‘Go become a lawyer.’ ” Today Perez is in charge of A.S.P. Enterprises Inc., his family’s tobacco business. “Now, the challenges are weather conditions,” says Perez. “From November of ’96, it rained nonstop until March/April of ’98,” he says. “We struggled to harvest 40 or 50 percent of what we would normally harvest in Ecuador. There was one, two feet of water on the roads in Guayaquil. Mother Nature didn’t comply with us.” Today A.S.P.,  known for its Connecticut-seed tobacco from Ecuador and spicy Nicaraguan filler tobacco grown in Estelí, is among the world’s leaders and the business is more than 80 percent larger than when Perez started. —D.S.

Ernesto Perez-Carrillo

One afternoon in 1991, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo was checking his inventory of tobacco in his small rolling gallery in Miami where he produced the La Gloria Cubana brand. Marvin R. Shanken, the publisher of Wine Spectator magazine, came in unexpectedly and asked him what he thought about the possibility of a new cigar publication. “I wished him luck but considering the state of the cigar business at the time, I didn’t think he’d succeed,” says Perez-Carrillo, now the owner of EPC Cigar Co., which he runs with his son and daughter. “It was the big companies making most of the premium cigars. The rest was bundle business.” When Cigar Aficionado had its unveiling, Perez-Carrillo found himself writing more orders than he ever had before. Then in the Spring issue of 1993, the magazine featured the cigars of the then-little-known manufacturer, and he was flooded with requests. “People saw the rating for the Wavell. It got a 90. I didn’t even see the score.” When asked whether he thought Cigar Aficionado was in any way responsible for the boom, Perez-Carrillo responds: “I don’t think. I know.” —G.M.

Gary Pesh

Gary Pesh, the owner of Old Virginia Tobacco Co., a group of cigar stores around Washington, D.C., began working in his father’s store when he was in school, and went full-time upon his college graduation in 1980. “The cigar business was a bundle business then,” he remembers. He was stunned when Davidoff—which at the time didn’t have a non-Cuban version—partnered with Baroness Philippine de Rothschild in the 1980s to introduce Zino Mouton Cadet cigars at a price that seemed unthinkable. “It was going to retail for the astonishing price of $3.60. And we were looking at each other like she was nuts.” Then the advent of black-tie cigar dinners at Ritz-Carlton hotels later in the decade elevated the stature of cigars.  “Culturally, we had just gone through this fad where everything that was fun was bad to do. Red meat was bad, you couldn’t drink, you couldn’t smoke, but then there was this idea: you were going to celebrate these things, damn it.” —D.S.

Manuel Quesada

“The cigar industry was very conservative before 1992,” recalls Manuel “Manolo” Quesada of S.A.G. Imports. “Smokers were married to one size of one brand and it was quite difficult to introduce new cigars into the market.” From Quesada’s perspective, Dominican premium volume was low, blending was simple and cigar makers had scant contact with retailers or consumers. “Then in early 1992 Marvin Shanken and Gordon Mott visited the Dominican Republic to announce the coming of a cigar magazine. We had no idea of what was to come. Cigar Aficionado came out and it was the most fabulous ride our industry ever took. The after-effects are still being felt today—closer contact with consumers, new tobaccos from new seed varietals, and more diverse blending giving the smoker the biggest range of tastes and sensations our industry has ever provided.” —G.M.

Nestor Plasencia

If you’ve smoked a cigar over the past 20 years, you’ve probably smoked tobacco grown by Nestor Plasencia, Central America’s largest cigar tobacco grower. The cigar boom that began two decades ago kick-started the Plasencia business. “For 20 years the market didn’t change—until 1992,” says Plasencia. Then demand soared, both for tobacco leaf and cigars made in his factories in Nicaragua and Honduras. Since the cigar renaissance, Plasencia, working alongside his son, Nestor Andrés Plasencia, has expanded his tobacco plantings from 500 acres to 2,500, employees have increased from 500 to 5,000, and cigar production quadrupled from 25,000 cigars a day to 100,000, including Rocky Patel Decade and Casa Magna. As good as the last 20 years have been, Nestor Andrés says: “I think we are living at one of the best moments in this industry in terms of quality.” —D.S.

José Seijas

“The industry in 1992, or at least an important part of it, was confused about what a premium cigar was,” says José Seijas, who served as vice president and general manager of Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd. in La Romana, Dominican Republic, until he retired earlier this year. “In many people’s minds, a cigar should be sold at cost, plus a fixed rate like a commodity, not like the luxurious product it is.” The factory where Seijas worked for almost 40 years is the largest factory in the country and the home to Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta and many other handmade and machine-made cigars. He adds that in that year for the industry “there was nothing more relevant than the first issue of Cigar Aficionado. The magazine had a remarkable, almost impossible, alignment with the market. Cigar Aficionado came out like a baby that is desired for long time. The rest is history.” —G.M.

Sherwin Seltzer

Sherwin Seltzer entered the cigar industry in 1957, when virtually every cigar smoked in America was green. “When I got in the business, everything was candela,” says the longtime marketing man for Villazon & Co., the makers of Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey cigars in Honduras, a company that’s now part of Swedish Match AB. “In New York, there used to be a store on every corner, these luncheon stores that sold sandwiches, sodas and egg creams, and had big humidors in the back.” Seltzer, who retired late last year, worked through the days of the Cuban embargo, when manufacturers had to change their blends, but nothing in his experience compared with the way cigar sales soared in the early 1990s. “In the boom, we went crazy. There wasn’t enough tobacco, so we ran out of cigars,” he says. “We couldn’t keep up, we just couldn’t keep up.” —D.S.

Joel Sherman

“The market [two decades ago] was dominated by the major players. There was little in terms of brand differentiation and only a few smaller players existed,” says Joel Sherman, president of New York City’s landmark Nat Sherman Tobacconist, who started working at his father’s shop in 1956 and joined full time in 1962. “But I remember when Marvin [Shanken] came to me with the idea of Cigar Aficionado. Over the years, we have not always seen eye-to-eye but in terms of this one, the timing and idea was brilliant. People wanted to learn more about premium cigars, they wanted to be educated about the history, and wanted to learn about the people who cultivated this passion. Cigar Aficionado quickly became the credible resource for consumers as well as those employed in the industry to keep their fingers on the pulse of its development.” —G.M.

Diana Silvius Gits

Twenty years ago, there were few female cigar retailers. Even now the tobacconist industry is predominantly male, but shop owner Diana Silvius Gits had been in cigars for decades by 1992. She recalls the sorry state of the market before then and the dire prospects for her own Up Down Cigars in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. “It was difficult at that time,” she says. “We didn’t know if we’d be around for much longer. The cigar market wasn’t very built up and things weren’t stable or secure.” Over the years, her store developed a following, but there were no major sources of cigar information for Silvius Gits’s customers. “We finally got a magazine source full of accurate cigar information and actual facts. You could use it as a reference, and personally, Cigar Aficionado justified everything I was doing. The industry wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is without it.” —G.M.

Alberto Turrent

The patriarch of Mexico’s largest tobacco grower, Nueva Matacapan de Tabacos S.A. de C.V. recalls the simplicity of the market in 1992. By that time Alberto Turrent was growing quality dark Mexican tobacco for the premium industry, but the company also had its own Te-Amo brand—a wallet-friendly cigar with most of its following in the New York City area. “It was a very stable time and smokers were loyal to their brands,” explains Turrent. “Taxes weren’t high and there wasn’t much consolidation. There were big companies and small companies.” The 113-year-old concern is vertically integrated, controlling both the fields and the factory. Before 1992, sales were steady without any dramatic increases or decreases in demand. After the spark of the boom, Nueva Matacapan de Tabacos soon doubled its growing operation, going from 2,000 acres of binder, wrapper and filler tobacco to 4,000 acres in the San Andrés Valley of Mexico. —G.M.

Avo Uvezian

Pianist and brand owner Avo Uvezian points to an emphasis on cigar education as one of the great changes in the past two decades. He remains, even at age 86, a tireless promoter of his namesake brand, touring the world in a signature cream-colored suit and hat, all the while playing jazz standards. His brand, made at the Tabadom factory by Hendrik Kelner in the Dominican Republic, debuted in 1987 and was sold to Davidoff in 1995. “As maker and owner of my brand, I was traveling quite a bit, promoting cigar smoking and being an ambassador for the industry,” says Uvezian. “In 1992 my business was solid and growing. But Cigar Aficionado pioneered the mainstream education process. The more knowledge consumers possessed about the products, the more likely they would become cigar advocates. It was the beginning of the boom years for the cigar business and I knew I was in the right industry.” —G.M.

Stephen Willett

Stephen Willett remembers a far different cigar business before 1992, with most of the sales coming from smokes made on machines, packed in cardboard boxes and shrink-wrapped in cellophane. In 1973, when as a graduate student he began working at  L.J. Peretti, the 142-year-old Boston tobacco shop that he now owns, little emphasis was put on the premium brands. “There were eight or 10 large, established brands,” says Willett. “People were buying King Edwards, El Productos and Macanudos. Royal Jamaica was here. Punch. Montecruz—it was a very limited selection of handmade cigars.” Back then, you could buy a handmade Punch for under $1. Today the shop only stocks premium cigars, along with pipes and pipe tobacco.
Willett points to two cigar brands over the past 20 years as the most unforgettable: Partagás 150 and Fuente Fuente OpusX. “I bought $38,000 of [Partagás 150], wholesale,” says Willett. “Mr. Peretti [then the shop’s owner] thought I was out of my mind.” He sold his entire stock in six weeks. “That was a lot of money in those days. And the buzz for Opus still goes on. Those cigar brands pushed the business ahead.” —D.S.

Philip Wynne

“I think we age tobacco better than we age ourselves,” says Philip Wynne with a smile. The 55-year-old entered the cigar business in 1991, at a time when pipes were more popular than cigars, cigar factories around the world worked at a leisurely pace, reflecting the slow demand, and prices were much lower than they are today. “Six dollars was the most expensive cigar at the time, so I said to myself, let’s see if I can make a cigar and sell it for $2 or $3,” he says, puffiing a Felipe Gregorio Refusion, one of his newest creations. The factory in Honduras that originally made his cigars received one container of tobacco a year, enough to keep it rolling for 12 months, something impossible to imagine in today’s world of constant shipments. Wynne survived the ups and downs of the cigar boom and the slow years that followed. “The consumer is getting a much better cigar now than they ever got before. I’ve learned so much from the cigar business—I have no regrets.” —D.S.


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