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The Vegas Robaina Conundrum

The silky leaves grown by a Cuban master bear little resemblance to the cigars named after him
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

(continued from page 1)

The annual production of the brand is about 3 million cigars, with most made at the H. Upmann factory in Havana -- which is a respectable amount of cigars for a Cuban brand. However, most cigar merchants I speak to say every cigar in the line is a tough sell. My trips to cigar shops throughout Europe as well as Cuba confirm this. There's never a problem finding boxes of Vegas Robaina, even hard-to-get sizes such as double coronas or torpedos. The brand's lackluster performance could be attributed to its lack of a distinctive size. In other words, consumers would rather buy established brands such as a Punch Double Corona or Montecristo No. 2 torpedo. Or perhaps -- what I think is the case -- consumers just don't like the smoke. Not only does it look rough, it smokes rough, too.

I finally get an opportunity to speak to Robaina a few days after my doomed trip to his plantation. I meet him in Havana. It feels just like old times. We sit on the porch of a house in the Miramar section of the city, drink strong coffee, smoke great cigars and talk about tobacco. Robaina may be in his 80s, but he has the energy and enthusiasm of a 30-year-old. He believes that he has never grown better tobacco than he is growing today and he attributes that not only to the soil and climate of his plantation, but also to the dozens of people who work for him.

"I pay them well and I make sure that they do everything the right way," he says, puffing on a cigar made with 100 percent of his own tobacco. "If they don't do their work correctly, they don't have a job for long."

Robaina's farm, like most plantations in the area, is privately owned, but he pays his workers better than other owners in the region. In addition, few people have his experience. "I learned from my grandfather and my father about tobacco and my son has done the same, just like my grandson is now doing," he says.

He doesn't seem very upset when I tell him that I don't think much about the Vegas Robaina cigar brand. He doesn't really seem to know why the wrappers on the brand have been of such poor quality. "All I can say is the cigar you are smoking is from my plantation," he says, holding out a duplicate of the one he gave me a few minutes earlier. "The wrapper, the binder and the filler, all come from my plantation. And it's a great cigar."

I sit back and smoke the No. 1 -- the same size as the Cohiba Lanceros -- it is smooth, rich and satisfying. There isn't a trace of harshness. Moreover, it looks as if it was wrapped in a brown piece of silk.

As I smoke the cigar and speak to Robaina, I think back to my visit to his plantation. I think back to the crowd of people in the Vuelta Abajo clutching their boxes of Vegas Robaina cigars in hopes of getting a signature from the tobacco grower and the traffic jam of cars and buses on the dirt road of the plantation. It all seems so absurd, almost obscene, and it all, thankfully, seems a long time ago.

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