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Trial by Fire

Fires, hurricanes and legal battles haven't dampened the Fuente family's passion for making cigars
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

(continued from page 2)

The car is two decades old, well past its prime and no longer fit for the road. This one is broken down, but scores of its identical twins--Datsun 120 Wides--still sputter along the crowded, cracked streets of Santiago, Dominican Republic. These modest cars are commonly used as taxis in this Checker-free cigar town. They're easy to spot--cramped, overly fragrant, looking more like clown cars than anything else, laboring up the hills surrounding the town of Santiago, a stream of dark smoke punctuating their labors as they ascend the steepest grades.

This 1980 Datsun's owner isn't a cab driver, but one of the world's most successful cigarmakers--Carlos Fuente Sr., the 65-year-old patriarch of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. He keeps the broken-down car as a reminder of 1980, the year he mortgaged his home, cashed in his retirement savings and headed to the Dominican Republic for one last shot at salvaging his father's cigar business.  

"I got a loan," says Fuente Sr. "I didn't even know when I'd be able to pay it."  

Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. had all of seven workers when it opened its doors in 1980 in a free trade zone in Santiago. Today, it employs more than 2,500 workers in four cigar factories in the Dominican Republic, making approximately 40 million cigars a year, all of them crafted by hand.  

Fuente Sr. bought that Datsun for one reason--it was the cheapest new car on the market. "I will never sell it," he says.   Fuente's son Carlos Jr. recalls washing the car, inside and out, with a garden hose as part of his chores working in the family business. "Everybody squeezed into that Datsun, and it was extremely tough," says Fuente Jr., who was 26 when he moved with his father to the Dominican. "We lived in a very, very small home--no air conditioning, no electricity, no telephone for a long time. For seven years no running water. I remember my mom had to go to a little local grocery store, and the eggs were dirty, covered with dirt. You never knew if the chicken was good. The bread was hard." He pauses as he speaks. "I guess we were a lot younger; both my father and I were passionate and we were just like raging bulls."  

The Fuentes went to the Dominican Republic to try to rebuild their family business after a series of devastating fires and economic realities forced them to pull up their stakes, a process that, for the family, was becoming an all-too-familiar endeavor. Fire is the albatross roped around the family throat.  

Fuente Sr.'s father, Arturo, had formed A. Fuente & Co. in 1912 with a group of partners. Ten years later, the Ybor City (now part of Tampa) factory burned to the ground while Arturo was on a tobacco-buying trip in Cuba. The fire sent him back to working for other cigarmakers, and it wasn't until the 1940s that he was able to start a cigar factory again, this time as a family business.  

Fuente Sr., one of only four living men who are members of the Cigar Aficionado Hall of Fame, remembers those days working for his father. When he came home from school, he was not allowed to play until he rolled 50 cigars. Later, he became a baker, but continued to work part-time in the family business.  

Fuente Sr. acquired A. Fuente from his father, and realized that the days of rolling cigars by hand in America were drawing to a close. He went overseas, first to Nicaragua, then to Honduras. Both ventures ended in flames. The Sandinistas burned the Fuentes out of Nicaragua, and an accidental fire ended their Honduran venture. Running out of options, Fuente Sr. found himself back in Ybor City.  

He tried to sustain a premium cigar-making business in a land where machines were pushing out the artisans that rolled tobacco into premium cigars. Fuente was also having difficulties with an aging workforce, which tended to move on to other jobs after learning English in his cigar factory. He was faced with a choice: stay in America and manufacture machine-made cigars, which he was loath to do, or move his operation to a place where he could afford to create handmade cigars.  

"I told my son, 'If we're going to continue in this business it's either automation completely or move overseas.'"  

This time the Fuentes moved to Santiago, which in the early 1980s wasn't the calm place that it is today. In April 1984, the tense atmosphere exploded into a war zone. "I opened the [factory] door and I stepped out, and around the corner I saw a whole mob of people coming towards our factory," Fuente Sr. recalls. "I ran inside, locked the door. Sure enough, [there was a] gunshot right through the back room. The first thing that came to mind was: I'm back in Nicaragua." 

The Dominican Republic didn't turn into another Nicaragua, and Fuente Sr. survived that scare.

"If anybody had a reason to throw the towel in, it would have been Carlos Fuente Sr.," says Wayne Suarez, a Fuente executive and the son-in-law of Fuente Sr. "But he didn't. He's unbelievable. He works harder today than he did 10 years ago."  

The Fuentes have built an empire on a modest foundation. The company's core Arturo Fuente brand, named after Fuente Sr.'s late father, is one of the best-selling premium cigar brands in America, with annual sales of around 20 million cigars, second only to General Cigar Co.'s Macanudo. In August, Cigar Insider, the monthly cigar newsletter published by Cigar Aficionado, named Arturo Fuente the most sought-after brand in America for the fifth year in a row.  

The bulk of the Arturo Fuente­ brand cigars are inexpensive, starting around $3, but Fuente also has many premium-priced cigars, such as its Don Carlos line and its Hemingway line of perfectos. In addition to the brands the company owns, Fuente also makes cigars under contract, including Cuesta-Rey and Diamond Crown cigars for the Newman family, which distributes Fuente's products through a 10-year-old joint venture; Diana Silvius cigars; Savinelli ELRs; Sosas; Bauzás; and all the varieties of Ashton cigars, including the VSG, possibly the hottest cigar on the market today.  

But the cigar that pushed Fuente over the top was the Fuente Fuente OpusX, the brainchild of Fuente Jr. The brand's signature is its wrapper: dark, reddish Cuban-seed tobacco leaf that the Fuentes grow on their farm in the Dominican Republic. The cigar faced challenges even before it hit the market. Some of Fuente's fellow cigarmakers told the world that good wrapper couldn't be grown in the Dominican Republic. Packaging delays kept the cigars from making their launch date.

But publicity about the uniqueness of the wrapper built interest in the brand, and when it was finally rolled out in November 1995, supplies were so limited that Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars were all but impossible to find.  

Those who did find them quickly realized that the quality of the cigar lived up to its billing: the Fuente Fuente OpusX routinely outscored Cuban cigars in both Cigar Aficionado and in Cigar Insider. In the October 2000 tasting in Cigar Aficionado, the brand's Reserva d'Chateau was the second-highest rated Churchill in the issue.  

The new cigar brought a host of new worries to the Fuentes. In November 1996, the makers of Opus One wine sued the Fuentes, alleging that the Fuente Fuente OpusX brand name was a takeoff on its Opus One brand. The winemakers wanted the cigars taken off the market. The Fuentes won the case, but ran up more than $2 million in legal fees during the two-year battle.  

"It's been very painful," Fuente Jr. said at the time. "I never thought my family would have to defend our name like that."  

After the legal battle, Hurricane Georges stormed across the Fuente wrapper farm in 1998, destroying or severely damaging 14 of its 16 barns--massive, expensive structures that store the wrapper tobacco for a month while it cures from green to brown. The storm cost the family one crop year, prompting them to temporarily cease making Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars and make Arturo Fuente Añejos instead. Fuente has since resumed making Fuente Fuente OpusX.  

The Fuente company is synonymous with family: Fuente Sr. is chairman of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., Carlos Jr. is president, daughter Cynthia is president of Fuente USA. Her husband, Wayne, is a top executive with Fuente, traveling to tobacconists around the United States when he's not in Tampa troubleshooting, making sure the Fuente name is properly represented.  

"The biggest problem I face in my travels," says Suarez, "is hearing 'I need more.'" Suarez knew the Fuente name long before marrying into the family. His first cigar, smoked at age 13, was a Fuente Curly Head, an inexpensive smoke rolled by novice cigar rollers. He joined the company in 1992, learning about the cigar business at the side of his in-laws.  

"To have Carlos Sr. and Carlos Jr. be your mentors--that's not bad," says Suarez. "And Cynthia is incredible. She's the driving force behind me. This is not a business to the Fuentes--it's a way of life."  

A 20-year-old sits at the front of the Fuente Fuente OpusX room, deep inside the oldest Fuente factory. He's wearing a white muscle T-shirt; his sideburns are slim and long. A huge cigar is crammed in his jaws, a thin snake of smoke rising to the ceiling as he slowly rolls pyramid No. 2s while facing the gallery. He pauses when his boss walks over and asks him a quick question.  

"Who smokes your cigars?" asks Fuente Jr.  

The kid smiles, clamping his teeth on the big cigar to keep it in his mouth. "Sylvester Stallone, Jeff Bagwell..." the words are slow and long, heavy with a Spanish accent. He knows where some of his cigars are turned into ash.  

"He's an artist," says Fuente Jr., watching his star roll cigars. Nearby, a young, beautiful girl slowly rolls leaves of dark Dominican filler tobacco in her slim hands. Each leaf is made into a loosely rolled tube, then held in her palm until it joins several others. When she is finished, the bunch resembles a star-shaped flower, which she then rolls inside a binder leaf.  

This slow method of rolling cigars is known as entubar, and it's how Fuente now makes all of its best cigars--Fuente Fuente OpusX, the Arturo Fuente Don Carlos line, Montesino, Ashton Virgin Sun Grown. It's unusual to see youngsters with mastery of such an old-fashioned cigar-making skill. But during the heat of the cigar boom, Fuente Jr. went on a mission that he could have dubbed Operation Blank Slate--his goal was to find bright youngsters with no experience with tobacco whom he could train his way.

He brought them into his factory, put them in the Fuente cigar school under the tutelage of Juan Sosa, a fourth-generation cigarmaker from Cuba and the man behind Sosa cigars. Fuente Jr. forbade the trainees from coming into contact with experienced cigar rollers, fearing that they would pick up bad habits from the older workers. Sosa trained the kids to make cigars his way, and Fuente Jr. paid them a higher wage. Today the Fuentes entrust the youngsters with their most precious brands. The result is that the best cigar rollers at Tabacalera A. Fuente are some of the youngest.  

"Every year [is] a little bit better," says Fuente Sr. "Right now we've got to a point where we want to make the cigars better. We don't want to grow anymore."  

Fuente Jr. looks upon the gallery of young faces, and remarks that the scene is much like the one that first caught his grandfather's eye as a tabaquero in Cuba. His grandfather is immortalized in the company's most popular size, the Arturo Fuente Flor Fina 8-5-8; the numbers recall that Arturo died at the age of 85.  

Fuente Jr. is happy here in his rolling gallery, watching his dark, aged tobacco slowly being shaped into the cigars he loves. He brings out a handful of cigars shaped like chili peppers, others like baseball bats, still others like crazed perfectos. "I remember my grandfather making all the perfecto shapes," says Fuente Jr. "I remember the molds and I always wanted to do that." Odds are the crazy shapes will never see a cigar shop, but that doesn't stop him from trying them out, stretching the boundaries. "It's very likely that 60 years ago this was the same way in Cuba," says Fuente Jr. "I'm proud of this."

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