Las Vegas Big Smoke

Roll Your Own

There were plenty of bloodshot eyes and pasty complexions as people straggled into the "Real Man's" breakfast with Charlie Palmer, but after a hearty meal washed down with a few Bloody Marys and Bull Shots, the color had returned and the hands were steady as the Roll Your Own cigar seminar began.

Hosted by Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, the owner of El Credito Cigars and the maker of La Gloria Cubana, and Michael Giannini, the company's national sales manager, the Roll Your Own seminar gives cigar lovers the chance to test their skills at rolling a cigar. This year's grand-prize winner would win a trip to El Credito's Miami factory to compete in the La Gloria Cubana Super Roll against winners from other Big Smokes around the country.

Giannini welcomed the audience. "I hope you're not hung over," he said with a laugh, "but it may help some of you." He then introduced Carrillo, who received a generous hand. "Every year this gets bigger," said Carrillo, "and it's exciting to be here again."

Ernesto Perez-Carrillo scolds a participant with a hand slap.
This was the seventh year that Carrillo and El Credito have hosted the Roll Your Own contest at the Las Vegas Big Smoke. Three years ago, El Credito introduced the La Gloria Cubana Super Roll, where would-be rollers competed at all Cigar Aficionado Big Smokes. The winners were then flown to Miami for a VIP weekend that included a special training session with Carrillo and a roll-off for the grand prize: a special humidor loaded with cigars and a place in the La Gloria Cubana Super Roll Hall of Fame.

At this year's seminar, approximately 400 people joined the contest. To give them encouragement, Giannini introduced the winner of last year's Super Roll, Steve Lawson, who gave advice to this year's contestants while describing his own experience last year.

"All I can tell you is, keep that weekend open," Lawson told the crowd. "I don't care if you have a wedding or a funeral. Keep it open. It will be an experience you'll never forget."

Once the contestants were settled in. Carrillo, Giannini and La Gloria Cubana's master roller -- referred to as Papa Leo—began handing out wrapper leaves. "The wrapper tobacco you are receiving is Ecuador Sumatra," Carrillo informed the crowd. "It is the same wrapper we've been using since 1968, when my father started the company."

Rookie rollers try their skills on the boards.
At each station was a rolling board, a razor blade that would act as a chavetta, and filler and binder tobacco that had already been bunched and molded into a cigar shape. The goal would be to cut the wrapper properly and roll it around the bunch. It seemed like an easy task, but soon contestants realized just how difficult it was and just how talented you needed to be to roll a quality cigar.

The first step was to stretch the wrapper to iron out wrinkles and to check its elasticity, which would be critical when the actually rolling began. Step two was to trim the tobacco along the top edge of the leaf with the razor blade, and step three was to cut a half-moon shape along the bottom edge of the leaf. At this point the wrapper was ready to be rolled around the bunch, and Papa Leo demonstrated the proper technique on a large screen at the front of the room. As people began to roll there was an utter concentration on many faces, frustration on others, but it was obvious that everyone was enjoying the challenge.

Throughout the contest, Carrillo offered encouragement, his expertise and plenty of rolling tips as he wandered from station to station. He was also candidly critical of some of the cigars produced, laughing and joking with some contestants who were obviously struggling, and complimentary to those who were in the running for best cigar. Good or bad, Carrillo told the rollers, "This contest gives you a better appreciation for what goes on in the factories."

Not everyone can roll professionally and must yield to a good sense of humor.
Then came the moment everyone was waiting for: the judging. Gordon Mott and David Savona of Cigar Aficionado and General Cigar executive Sherwin Seltzer were brought in to bring worthy cigars up front and inspect them along with Carrillo, Giannini and Lawson.

Some 20 cigars were picked as finalists, and soon the judges, led by Carrillo, began whittling them down until three remained. Before the winners were announced, Carrillo presented Joe Forlenza of Hillcrest, New York, and Steve Begley of Vacavillie, California, with the dubious honor of "Worst Cigar Rolled." We use the term cigar loosely. Begley's effort looked more like a palm tree and Forlenza's might be described as indescribable. However, both walked away from the contest with golf apparel from Cigar Aficionado.

The third place winner was Ray Hurtado from Las Vegas, and the second place winner was Michael Higgins from Valencia, Cafliornia. Each rolled cigars worthy of the tag "premium," and for their work they both received a box of La Gloria Cubana cigars signed by Carrillo and a return trip to the Las Vegas Big Smoke.

Then came the moment of truth as Carrillo readied to announce the grand-prize winner, who would receive a commemorative Italian-made La Gloria Cubana Serie R No. 7 humidor loaded with cigars, plus the trip to Miami. The winner was Jerry Smith from Fredericksburg, Virginia. According to Carrillo he was the winner because "his wrapper was nicely stretched" and because the cigar "looked nice and has a face."

Smith looked stunned as he came to the front to be recognized. "I'm used to handling something this size," he responded when asked why he was able to roll such a fine cigar. The crowd erupted in laughter. "I'm talking about cigars," he returned with a smile.

A few moments later, Smith was still unable to let the victory sink in. "I'm still shaking," he said. "I need a drink." Fortunately for Smith, the Bourbon tasting seminar was up next.

Click here to go to the next Sunday seminar, Bourbon and Cigars.

Photos by Camilla Sjodin and Jeff Scheid

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