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Cigar Diary: The Heart and Soul of Cigars

From the Print Edition:
Air Sick, Jul/Aug 02

(continued from page 1)

Néstor Plasencia may not be as philosophical as Orlando Padrón, but he shows much of the same dedication, the same passion for tobacco. His immediate family grew tobacco in Cuba until the revolution, when they moved to Nicaragua to restart the family tradition. During the cigar boom in the 1990s, Plasencia made millions of dollars through an agreement to make cigars for the Spanish tobacco giant, Tabacalera S.A. By now, he could be on some Caribbean island in a hammock counting his money, but he's still in Nicaragua growing and selling tobacco and making cigars.

"What the hell would I do that for?" he said when asked why he hadn't retired after all the money he made. "I love tobacco. It's my life. It's my heritage."

Néstor and his son, Néstor Jr., are very proud of one of their newest projects, the Plasencia Reserva Organica, a range of handmade cigars from their own tobacco grown in fields near Estelí and in Honduras. All the tobacco is cultivated organically, meaning that inorganic chemicals for fertilizers, insecticides and other treatments are not used. Some of his competitors say it's a load of nonsense, but the Plasencias believe in it. It's that belief that makes the new cigars noteworthy.

"This is something special for us," said the older Plasencia, who hopes to increase production to about 200,000 of the cigars in three or four years. They are available in four sizes. "It's not easy. But it's a tribute to our soil, a tribute to our family."

Meanwhile, Eduardo Fernandez, a Cuban-Spanish entrepreneur, who made $20 million in the fast food business in Europe, is hoping to do "something very special" in the tobacco-growing region of Jalapa. He has planted tobacco on some of the plantations formerly owned by dictator Anastasio Somoza in the 1970s. Leasing the land from local farmer cooperatives, he has brought in some of the best tobacco minds in Cuba to grow and sell high-grade wrapper and eventually make a number of his own cigars.

"I really do have high hopes for this," said Fernandez, standing in a huge warehouse on the outskirts of Jalapa with dozens of piles of fermenting tobacco. I could barely keep my eyes open from the ammonia generated by the fermenting leaf. A handful of veteran Cuban tobacco technicians were checking the pace of the fermentations. They brought out a selection of the Criollo 98 and Corojo 99 tobacco they had been working. The wrapper tobacco seeds had come directly from Cuba and most of the displayed tobacco appeared to be of extremely good quality.

For a number of years, rumors circulated in the tobacco industry that Fernandez was growing the wrapper for the Cubans, and that the leaf would be shipped to the island to be used on export cigars. But top officials in Cuba have firmly denied it and so has Fernandez. "Rumors were spread about this," he said. "But it is completely untrue. Our tobacco is for Asia and Europe, or maybe the United States."

Fernandez seems to have found the right formula. According to one of the Cubans I spoke with at his farm, the tobacco "has great aromas and excellent elasticity." He said that he was really impressed with the crops -- "the soil is very similar to Cuba, although the humidity and heat is a bit different."

The Spanish entrepreneur seems extremely optimistic. "People are going to go crazy when they see the quality of this tobacco," he said, looking fondly at it. "I would like to see us go as far as we can go. The potential is there."

If Nicaragua today is any indication, then tobacco runs in the blood of Cubans. Even men like Fernandez, who spend time with them, get infected with the same passion for a great leaf or a great cigar.


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