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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 4)

The contributors to this section represent the veterans who’ve been with us through the entire saga. Some are manufacturers. Some are growers. Some are retailers. There are many, many others who have come and gone. And, there are a few, mostly outside the United States, who aren’t represented here. But we chose these people with great care and thought, as well as a real appreciation for their support over the years.

Ricardo Alarcón

As president of Cuba’s National Assembly for the last 19 years, Ricardo Alarcón has seen the shift in attitudes in smoking cigars inside his own country. But cigars are his constant companions. It’s been that way for 60 years. “The first cigar I smoked was a Bauza,” he says. The 75-year-old government official says he laments the widespread restrictions on smoking and recalls that there were days when diplomatic receptions included cigar smoking, but not anymore. One of his favorite stories occurred in Canada, when a Cuban friend of his commented that he couldn’t believe the number of streetwalkers lurking outside buildings. He had to tell him that they were not prostitutes, but smokers who had been banished to the sidewalks to smoke. To this day, he is a lover of a great cigar, as he smoked throughout a recent interview. He says he loves to have friends who smoke over to his house to share cigars and a good Scotch. Alarcón also is virtually the last high-ranking Cuban government official who attends every Festival de Habanos, the big annual cigar event in Havana. “I always find those events very interesting to talk with people about cigars.” —Gordon D. Mott

David Berkebile

David Berkebile has worked around cigars for 48 years, but he wasn’t always an expert. “It was mostly a pipe business when I started. When I opened up I had very few cigars, didn’t know much about them,” says the owner of Washington, D.C.’s, Georgetown Tobacco. At the time that he opened, pipes made up half of  his business, but now that’s dipped to 10 percent. Cigar sales have dominated. Berkebile has seen a dramatic change in the role of the cigar shop owner in the past 20 years. “The real growth is in cigar lounges. People that get in the cigar industry today better be a restaurateur.” Instead of simply purchasing a cigar and leaving, people tend to buy and linger, as there are fewer places to smoke. And as antismoking legislation has grown in recent years, Berkebile has seen the cigar industry gather together on the political front, quite unlike in the past. “In the old days, we couldn’t find a handful of people to go to Washington,” he says. —David Savona

Curt Diebel

“If you take my best 12 months, from July 1995 through June 1996, I literally doubled my business every month,” says Curt Diebel, the owner of Diebel’s Sportsman’s Gallery in Kansas City, Missouri, adding that he resorted to hiding his inventory so he could save cigars for regulars. The irony is he had previously closed two stores in the four-store family operation he joined in 1975, diversifying into gifts and dropping the word “tobacconist” to entice customers who wouldn’t normally venture into a cigar store. “All of a sudden, ’92, ’94 comes around, and I say I’m the dumbest guy in the world—I don’t have ‘cigars’ in my name,” says Diebel with a laugh. No matter—customers came in droves. Sales are far more relaxed now, and while they aren’t booming, they are steady. “The base that grew out of the boom never really eroded,” he says. —D.S.

José Abel Expósito Díaz

José Abel Expósito Díaz has seen a steady stream of celebrities visit the cozy, low-ceilinged, wood-paneled VIP lounge since he started in 1993 at the Partagás Factory store, a shop that he’s managed since 1995. He remembers Jack Nicholson coming in to smoke four days in a row during one trip to Havana. Gerard Depardieu spent a New Year’s Eve day in the lounge and kept buying cigars to win the prize for the biggest purchase of the day. He remembers his biggest single sale on January 16th, 1998—$132,000 worth of cigars. But he says his most memorable moment in the cigar business came in 1999 when he was given the Habanos Man of the Year award for Commerce. Cuban President Fidel Castro was present for the gala dinner at the Festival de Habanos. “It was very emotional for me,” says Abel, as he is known. “I’m not famous though. Cigars are what are famous.” —G.D.M

Carlos Fuente Sr. and Carlos Fuente Jr.

Carlos Fuente Sr. and Carlos Fuente Jr. are the father-son team behind Arturo Fuente and Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars. They are arguably the most famous cigarmakers in the world, the principals behind a cigar company that is celebrating its 100th year in 2012, and one that makes more than 30 million cigars a year, all of them by hand. The first 80 years were extremely lean, with a temporary closing and several fires. The company thrived over the past 20 years, thanks to the work of the two men. “I’ve been working since I was eight years old,” says the 77-year-old Fuente Sr., who willed himself to do every job imaginable in a factory and once went three weeks straight without leaving his office. His determined son strived to do things that most thought impossible, such as growing great wrapper tobacco in the Dominican Republic. Fuente Jr. believes the 1990s boom only improved the cigar world. “The boom was the best thing that ever happened to the industry,” says Fuente Jr. “There were only five or six people making cigars before the boom.” —D.S.

Julio Eiroa

For Julio Eiroa, the cigar boom meant changes in sales and market niche and eventually the character of the cigars he made. His company, Caribe Imported Cigars, formed in Miami in 1989, began as a big-volume-low-profit business, especially in south Florida. Eiroa had a cheap cigar known as Don Felo, which he sold in Miami cafeterias for 33 cents apiece. Before the 1990s, Eiroa was happy making two to three million cigars a year, then came the cigar boom. Production soared to 18 million cigars by 1997, the company’s best year ever, with $17 million in revenues, compared with $120,000 in 1989. Eiroa worked for more than a decade alongside his son Christian, who wanted to make strong cigars while Julio wanted them smooth. “I don’t like full-bodied cigars. They’re too strong for me. I always go for the cigar that you can smoke five or 10 cigars a day,” he says. Nevertheless, they each developed their own profiles of their best-known brand, Camacho. While the Eiroas sold their brands and cigar factory to the Davidoff group in 2008, Julio still grows tobacco in Honduras in his beloved Jamastran Valley, which borders Nicaragua. —D.S.

Mike Giannini

Mike Giannini felt like a fish out of water when he took a job as a cigar clerk 30 years ago in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. He was only 21, and his love of cigars seemed alien to his friends. “I was the only young guy smoking cigars. My friends said, ‘Who are you—George Burns?’ ” The early start has led Giannini up the ladder of the cigar industry rung by rung, moving him from shop clerk to store owner, then salesman and national sales manager of La Gloria Cubana cigars. Early this year Giannini moved into his current role as head of new product development for General Cigar Co., trying to stretch the bounds of cigar tradition with such innovation as the La Gloria Cubana Artesanos de Obelisco, a cigar modeled after a Santiago, Dominican Republic, monument. Even if 20 years ago friends questioned his foray into the cigar business, today he entertains the crowds at the Big Smoke, teaching the delicate art of making cigars to cigar aficionados. —D.S.

Antonio Hevea

In 1994, Antonio Hevea was sent to Paris to open the Casa del Habano on the Boulevard St. Germain. In the shop on opening day, he was approached by Cigar Aficionado’s editor and publisher, Marvin R. Shanken. He remembers chatting with him, and then being asked, “Are you coming to the Dinner of the Century tomorrow night.” Hevea responded, “Only if you buy me a ticket.” With that, he was invited, and he spent the next 24 hours finding a tuxedo before attending one of the greatest cigar dinners of all time. For the 76-year-old Hevea, the dinner was a high point in a lifetime in cigars. He had began by working in the Por Larrañaga factory in 1958 as a coffee boy before becoming an accountant at various cigar factories and at Cubatabaco, the country’s tobacco monopoly. He opened the first cigar shop attached to a cigar factory (at Partagás in downtown  Havana) in 1991. And, in 1999 he opened the Casa del Habano in the Hotel Conde de Villanueva in Old Havana, where he still holds court from time to time. —G.D.M.

Hendrik Kelner

Hendrik “Henke” Kelner looks back on the business in two primary phases—before Cigar Aficionado and afterward. When he was the president of Tabadom in 1992, the company was exporting 7 million premium cigars a year, most of which were under the Davidoff brand name. ProCigar (the Dominican Republic’s consortium of premium cigar manufacturers) had just been formed, but Kelner recalls: “Cigar exports to the U.S. were stagnant. For many years it was considered to be a business with no future. It was not an attractive business, had little innovation and the consumers were poorly informed. Cigar Aficionado created a culture around the pleasure and art of smoking. This lead to what was called the cigar boom in the United States. It later spread to the rest of the world.” Kelner, now master blender for Davidoff of Geneva, has developed new kinds of tobacco and blends as a result of the boom that include such varieties as Dominican Corojo, and cross-seed Ecuadoran hybrids. —Gregory Mottola

Chuck Levi

While Chuck Levi, owner of  Chicago’s Iwan Ries & Co., the second-oldest cigar shop in America, has, of course, not been there for the entire 155-year history of the store founded in 1857, he nominates the epoch begun 20 years ago as its period of greatest change. Levi saw cigar sales pick up steam and his pipe-heavy business transform. “We expanded the cigar department,” he says. “We added a lot of space to cigars.” He also admits to being confounded by the steady stream of new products, which have spawned a new kind of customer who clamors for innovation and is far less brand-loyal. “Every third customer asks, ‘What’s new since I was here last.’ It keeps us on our toes.” As the changes continue, Levi has added a large smoking lounge to the store, which he says is “the only place you can smoke cigars after five o’clock in downtown Chicago.”  —D.S.

Guillermo León

It was two years before Guillermo León would start running his family’s La Aurora S.A. cigar factory, but León remembers 1992 very well. At the time, his father Fernando was heading up the operation while Guillermo was focused on logistics. Cigars were a secondary commodity for the León family. “The industry was flat,” says León. “We had a strong and steady local business here in the Dominican Republic, but things were quiet. Especially at the RTDA [now called the IPCPR] trade show. Then, with Cigar Aficionado, cigars were shown in the magazine along with very expensive luxury items, so there became great interest.” Then La Aurora was producing primarily two premium cigars for the U.S. market—León Jimenes and La Aurora. The boom followed shortly after and León says: “The demand was unbelievable, but there were a lot of problems too. It didn’t happen right away. The magazine came out, and shortly after, everything was crazy.” —G.M.

Robert Levin

Robert Levin has seen his business transform over the past 20 years from a focus on retail to becoming a nationwide brand. The Ashton brand, which he launched in 1985, was growing but still small in 1992, while most of his revenues came from Holt’s, his retail shop in Philadelphia. Today, that has reversed, and wholesaling Ashton and the other brands his company owns is by far his biggest segment. “The magazine really changed the way people buy cigars,” he explains. “Before Cigar Aficionado, people would be brand loyal, come in once a week for cigars. Now, they come in with the ratings and they want to try a bunch of different brands.” All Ashtons are made by the Fuentes, and the Levin and Fuente families are close. Levin’s son, Sathya spent a month with the Fuentes as a youngster to learn the art of cigarmaking from the ground up. Now, at 31, Sathya is increasingly involved in Ashton. “Sathya’s really running [the business] now,” says Levin. “He’s coming up with all the new stuff, all the new brands, all the new sizes.” —D.S.

Benjamin Menendez

Twenty years ago, Benjamin Menendez’s hands were full overseeing the General Cigar Co. factories in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. General was owned by the Cullman family and Menendez’s focus was not on creating new cigars but on maintaining such well-established brands as Macanudo and Partagás. He worked with Alfons Mayer ensuring the requisite tobaccos were properly conditioned. “And then things changed,” Mendendez, now General Cigar’s senior vice president, recalls. “Cigar Aficionado came and changed the premium cigar category forever. Without question, the magazine started the boom and the market developed around it.” Premium cigars, he says, were demystified and this led to the creation of many new brands. “I’m proud to say that Partagás and Macanudo and have stood the test of time.”
—G.M.

Ana López Garcia

Ana López, the current director of marketing operations for Habanos, S.A., remembers 1992 very well; she was in charge of the 500th anniversary celebrations of the discovery of Cuba, which included the launch of the Linea 1492 and the Cohiba Siglo line. She also remembers hearing about Cigar Aficionado during a meeting with Marvin R. Shanken: “We were excited by a magazine dedicated to cigars.” Surveying her 37 years experience, López notes a marketing shift in the last 20 years: “The events, the tastings …the way celebrities got in involved, was fundamental in changing the way people see cigars, as part of a legend, as an art.” Some favorite memories involve Alejandro Robaina, the renowned tobacco grower. “I remember him in the fields, I remember introducing to him the brand with his name on it. And, I remember when he came to Havana to talk with us about the brand, and his thoughts about what we were doing. This image of a humble man to be involved with one of our products was a beautiful thing.” —G.D.M.

Enrique Mons

Enrique Mons claims he is personally responsible for more than $23 million in retail cigars sales, from his time as the first director of the Quinta Avenida and 16th Street La Casa del Habano, which he opened in Havana in 1989, to his own Casa del Habano at Club Habana, which he started in 1999. That averages out to  more than $1 million a year in cigar sales during that period. “Cigars have brought me everything, from the people I’ve met, the countries I’ve visited, the hotels I’ve stayed in. What is a Habanos cigar to me? I couldn’t have done those things any other way.” He says he’s spent 40 years in the cigar business because of the love he has for it. He came from a tobacco family, worked as tobacco selection man in a factory in Pinar del Río and then moved to Havana in 1959, where he trained as a roller for two years before working at the Heroes del Moncada and José Piedra factories. In 1971, he became a quality control director for Cubatabaco, where he spent 18 years. Then, in 1989, he launched the first Casa del Habano. —G.D.M.

Eric and Bobby Newman

Eric Newman was president of Tampa-based J. C. Newman in 1992, a company started by his grandfather in 1895. His younger brother, Bobby, was vice president. Eric recalls striving to grow in a declining market: “Smoke shops, cigar manufacturers and tobacco growers were all struggling, experiencing falling sales and shrinking margins, especially for premium cigars. The cigar business wasn’t a lot of fun back then.” Bobby recalls the instant buzz in the business once Cigar Aficionado released its first issue. “Cigars became the hottest commodity around. It seemed that just about every movie star and famous athlete wanted their own cigar named after them. Overnight, 100 factories opened up in the Dominican Republic and Honduras by people wanting to get rich quick. The price of tobacco was being insanely bid up, doubling every six months. A mediocre cigar maker in an established factory one day could be hired away by a new factory to be their factory manager the next day. It was a crazy time to be in the cigar industry.” —G.M.

José Orland and Jorge Padrón

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.


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