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A Conversation With Philip Wynne

The creator of Felipe Gregorio has been making cigars since 1990.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

Philip Wynne, the owner of Felipe Gregorio Cigars, entered the industry long before premium cigars were in vogue. From a humble start contracting high—priced, full—bodied cigars with a small Honduran factory, Wynne expanded the number and taste range of his cigars in facilities in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua during the cigar boom, only to encounter growing pains after orders diminished in the late 1990s. He survived by making inexpensive cigars for the catalog market. Now as Wynne, at 48 years old, prepares to belatedly celebrate 15 years in the cigar business, his premium cigar production is once again becoming a priority.

In February, senior editor David Savona sat down with Wynne in Coral Gables, Florida, not far from where he is creating a new factory/headquarters, to talk about how he entered the business and weathered some tough times.

David Savona: Tell us a bit about your background, and how you got into the cigar business.
Philip Wynne: I started smoking cigars at 16. I grew up in Europe, and was used to smoking full—bodied cigars. My dad was a U.S. diplomat, and when I was 18 he told me I needed to come back to the United States. I went to American University in Georgetown and I studied international relations, and when I graduated, I opened up a security company with a retired Air Force general, and we did counterterrorism training in 1982. One of my partners was the son of a helicopter manufacturer, and I started working for him, selling military helicopters in the Middle East, from '82 to '88.

Q: Which countries?
A: Oman. There was a war going on. They needed a lot of things. [Later,] business was dying down and I visited these friends of mine in Honduras, and since I was a cigar smoker I went to see a cigar factory, and I was totally fascinated. In 1989, the most expensive cigar on the market was the Zino Veritas, and it sold at $6. And the bulk of cigars sold for under $1. I said, maybe there is a market for a cigar at around $2.50—a nice, decent cigar, well packaged. So I asked these friends of mine to introduce me to the people who made the Zino, led by Jorge Bueso, from La Flor de Copan, and in 1990 I started making cigars with them. My first brand was Petrus, and I sold mainly to Europe.

Q: Did you have to license the name with the winery?
A: No, because Petrus means Peter in Latin.

Q: Now, Petrus wasn't a typical cigar for the time, was it?
A: No, it was full bodied. I failed. I fell on my face in the States. I had a veiny Havana wrapper, with a full—bodied taste.

Q: So the cigar was strong, the wrapper was ugly…
A: But it was good.

Q: And what cigars were most popular then?
A: They were mild cigars. I failed completely, and I came back and I put Ecuadoran Connecticut on the cigar. Completely changed the blend. And then I made a maduro cigar, also in the Petrus line, and that's how I basically started here. I realized, that by '92 or '93, people wanted a face behind the brand. So I created Felipe Gregorio, which are my first two names in Spanish. I Latinized myself, because I didn't think "Philip Gregory" would sell any cigars. And I wanted to make a more Cuban—like, tasty cigar, from what I remembered smoking. I designed the Don Melo Centenario as a full—bodied cigar. I had enough tobacco for 250,000 cigars and sold them all. That really catapulted me. It really was an exceptional product. By '93, '94, I saw that full [bodied] was working.

Q: You started going to Honduras in the late 1980s. What were the conditions like?
A: There was one hotel in Santa Rosa. It had cold—water showers. I remember one of my first nights there I was being infested by mosquitoes. There were no windows. I couldn't take it anymore. I found a guy and said, "I have a mosquito problem." He came back to my room with one of those, remember from the cartoons, those DDT sprayers? He fumigated my room so bad, I had powder all over my clothes for the next five days.

Q: So it's not all romance being a cigarmaker. Tell us about the creation of the Felipe Gregorio brand.
A: I was on the perennial quest for a dark, silky wrapper. Bueso's son was growing wrapper in the south of Honduras, which we were using on the Don Melo cigar, but it had burning problems, it was very coarse, and not very refined to the eye. I wanted something for Felipe that would be different. So I went down to see Julio Eiroa [the maker of Camacho cigars], and he was growing some nice wrapper in Jamastran [Honduras]. Julio started making the first Felipe Gregorios, and I learned a lot from Julio.

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