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Taking the Time for a Good Smoke

Non-Cuban cigarmakers improve blends and cigars following boom years
From the Print Edition:
Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01

It is the height of the tobacco-growing season as I stand in the heart of Dominican cigar country. The sun-grown tobacco is gorgeous as it grows in the fields at a farm run by General Cigar Co., the makers of such brands as Macanudo and Partagas. The five-foot-high plants look fresh and healthy in the bright morning sun, and their oval leaves are about 20 inches long. I can almost imagine them becoming luscious, satisfying cigars.

Yet, looking past the 20 or so acres of tobacco towards the mountains, there is virtually nothing other than barren land with an occasional house, palm tree and scrub brush. I see a half dozen tobacco-curing barns, but they stand empty. Many no longer have roofs. They are quickly decaying in the hot, humid weather like rotting animal carcasses under a blistering desert sun.

Tobacco growing in the Dominican Republic seems to be at a standstill. For the second straight year, tobacco planting was minimal. Tobacco growers predicted that fewer than 2,000 acres were planted in 2000/2001, meaning that when the traditional time to pick the tobacco in March and April came around, very little was left to do. Three years ago, 52,000 acres of tobacco were planted. It was a record year. Tobacco plants were rooted in just about every imaginable area in the Cibao Valley. Everyone grew tobacco. Some people even changed their vegetable gardens into tiny tobacco plantations.

My, how times have changed. It has gone from boom to bust for many in the Dominican Republic. And the key cigar manufacturers couldn't be happier.

More important, however, this reversal of fortune should mean better-quality cigars from the Dominican Republic. Tobacco is back in the hands of serious growers, both in the plantations and in the factories. The days of shady characters buying tobacco, setting up a factory or dealing in cigars are over. People now have time to make good cigars and to reflect on their cigar blends. They are making much more interesting and higher-quality smokes.

"It was a bad time a few years ago," admits Daniel Nuñez, the executive vice president for tobacco and manufacturing for General. A mellow, philosophical man, he is one of a handful of tobacco experts in the world who really know their stuff. Moreover, he has a passion for cigars. He didn't like what he saw a few years ago and seems almost embarrassed about it.

"We just didn't have time to develop blends, and the tobacco didn't like it," he says as he drives his white Peugeot sedan over a dusty road near one of his tobacco fields in the Dominican Republic. "You can feel everything with the tobacco. We always say a blind man can feel and make a selection of great tobacco. You can follow it with a touch."

Unfortunately, just a few years ago, most of Nuñez's Dominican colleagues in the cigar industry in the Dominican Republic were following the scent of money instead of tobacco, and consumers suffered for it. I have been lambasting the Cubans for producing less than stellar-quality cigars for the last three or four years, but many manufacturers in the Dominican Republic also made their share of absolutely unsmokable rubbish. Talk to any of the serious manufacturers in the country and they will all quietly admit that corners were cut and blends were not maintained. But that's water under the bridge now. Today, it's a different story.

The improvement in cigars from the Dominican Republic is impressive. I used to be one of the biggest Cuban cigar snobs on earth. If my cigar didn't come from a shop in La Habana or some other Habanos outpost in the world, I wouldn't touch my lips to it. However, the more I smoked top cigars from the Dominican Republic (and, of course, Nicaragua), the more impressed I became with their quality. Granted, they are not the same as some of the great Cuban Habanos I have in my humidor (I am not ready to trade my 15-year-old Montecristo No. 1 cabinets or even my five-year-old Partagas Serie Ds for an Arturo Fuente Don Carlos or Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series). But more and more, I find myself enjoying the pleasures of non-Cuban cigars. It's like drinking one of Italy's great reds, a Brunello or Barolo, and then following it with a bottle of Bordeaux. They are all great wines, but they are different in style. That's why when I hear people say that non-Cuban cigars are crap, I bite my tongue, and try not to lash out at them for their ignorance or snobbery.

In the last year, I have had the chance to smoke such fine cigars as Padrón's Anniversary Series Principe and Millennium as well as Ashton's VSG Torpedo and Onyx Reserve Robusto, just to name a few. They are all excellent cigars.

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