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The Roll Your Own Cigar seminar always stands apart during the Big Smoke Las Vegas weekend. While other panels invite you to listen to masters and sample their products, occasionally asking questions, La Gloria Cubana and Michael Giannini get your hands dirty from the moment you walk in the hall. From that moment on, the audience of some 500 cigar lovers realize right away that making a cigar by hand is difficult indeed, and a few uniquely talented individuals rise to the top.
As each attendee entered the seminar hall this year they were handed a freshly moistened wrapper leaf of Ecuadoran Sumatra by one of the La Glora team members. At their seats they found a sharp razor blade, a small cup of vegetable glue, and a cigar bunch (the collection of filler and binder leaves) already created for them to wrap. They were also handed a La Gloria Cubana Wavell to smoke as they worked.
As Giannini took the stage and introduced his team, the demonstration began, giving each person in the audience a tutorial on how to make their cigars look professional.
Participants were asked to stretch their wrappers taught in preparation for the first steps of the rolling process, and so it began. First, Giannini had them make a small cut along the outer edge of the smoothed wrapper leaf to shape the edge that would define the wrapper's seams later on. "Start at the small point of the wrapper, and just trim around," he said. He wandered the crowd, as did many of the team members, checking on progress and offering advice where they could. "Okay you guys look like you're doing really good here so far," said Giannini. "All you want to do is take an eighth of an inch off of it."
A few minutes later it seemed that it might be time to go to the second cut. "Okay," shouted Giannini, "everybody there?" A resounding, desperate "No!" erupted, slowing Giannini from pushing forward on the process.
The crowd was silent for much of the seminar, moving (or fumbling) very deliberately with the tasks at hand. Their second cut was much more specific, taking out a large section of leaf to form a half moon that would eventually wrap the cigar perfectly—if done well.
After that step was completed, Leo "The Pope" Peraza, working onstage at a rolling table, demonstrated over and over again how to stretch and roll the wrapper leaf around the bunch dozens of times, rolling, unrolling, and rerolling so that everyone could see the pattern.
The final step was to twist the excess wrapper into a pigtail and trim the excess. The pigtail cap is easier to teach than a proper cap. "We don't have four hours," joked Giannini.
After that it was time to judge a wide variety of results, from well-made to terrible, and from precise to "creative."
Awards were made in a variety of categories for silly cigars, and rather than take all the fun himself, Giannini put the winners to a vote: "I'm going to let you guys be the judges today."
The miscellaneous categories included nightmarishly butchered rolling jobs, left-field lobs at attention, and bags full of mangled tobacco. One entrant offered up an unwrapped cigar tied ornately with a wrapper-leaf serving as a bow. Another haphazardly tossed his bunch in a bag with wrapper tobacco so mishandled it resembled a pouch of beef jerky.
Throughout the day Giannini gave out La Gloria Cubana Serie R, Serie N, Serie R Esteli, Reserva Figurados, and Artesanos Tabaqueros. Those prizes went to the oddballs as judged by cheers from the crowd.
But the cigar of the day was selected by the masters. As Giannini raised the winner to the camera, a well-wrapped smoke appeared on the screens behind him. It would have been difficult to separate it from the thousands produced daily by professional rollers in the Dominican Republic.
"I'd buy that in a store," said Giannini, before calling the name of the lucky winner.
Keith Strassburger took the stage proudly, cheered on by a gaggle of friends (a few of whom were later needed onstage to help carry back his winnings). Giannini sent him off with a stack of boxes, the crowning jewel being a 2005 limited-edition humidor filled with La Gloria Cubanas.
"I watched what he did. I paid attention," said Strassburger, when Giannini asked him what the secret was to his perfect cigar.
Even after the awards were given out, the La Gloria team wasn't done educating. One patron approached one of Giannini's assistants, a bit disappointed, inquiring what about his cigar had fallen short.
"It's good work," he was told. "You have five seams here along the length of the cigar," he explained, touching the five loops that the wrapper leaf made with his finger tip. "The ideal is three. That's what we do in the factory. But it's good work. Next year, you could be the winner."
Of course, that's everyone's hope.