Avo Uvezian: The Man in the White Suit
The cigar showman in his mimbre hat and Brioni suit, Avo Uvezian is as recognizable as the cigar that bears his name.
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97
The Dominair De Havilland Dash 8 bounces over the lush green of the Dominican Republic's Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. The twin propeller plane is making its way to the tiny airport on the outskirts of the town of Santiago. The ride has been bumpy the entire flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico, due to the tumultuous thunderclouds that have been drenching most of the Caribbean for the better part of a week. The pilot wrestles the plane like a seasoned cowboy on a bucking bronco as it rolls from side to side and then quickly jumps up and down. A few minutes of calm follow, and then the plane starts savagely kicking again. It's one of those moments when you start thinking about the fated flying experiences of Glenn Miller, Buddy Holly and Lynyrd Skynyrd. You're on the verge of defying the no smoking rules, since you figure it may be your last cigar.
Cigar supremo Avo Uvezian isn't looking nervous. His Mexican mimbre hat is in perfect order, seemingly glued to his friendly round head as the plane lurches from side to side. His freshly starched white Brioni suit is in impeccable order. The 71-year-old Armenian stares out the window at the rich countryside, almost in a trance as the plane makes a pass at the tiny runway. Uvezian makes this trip dozens of times each year and, apparently, rough rides are commonplace. He seems to be almost enjoying this particular flight, despite the handful of people in the back row with their heads in small white bags and the other two dozen passengers looking slightly queasy. Uvezian gazes down and smiles at the landscape as the small plane zooms by another set of hills and banks in its final approach to the runway. The plane first lands on one set of wheels and then ultimately the second set touches down before the nose's landing gear reaches the runway. Everyone--except Uvezian--nervously claps in elation to be on the ground.
Why should Uvezian applaud? He isn't a religious man despite exuding a powerful spiritual quality when you spend time with him. He openly admits to having just about everything he ever hoped for--perhaps even more. Most people who know him would say that Uvezian has lived the fullest of lives.
In just a few years, Uvezian has become a millionaire, thanks to his devotion to his Dominican cigar brand, Avo. In 1995, Davidoff, the well-known Swiss tobacco and luxury goods company, paid Uvezian an estimated $10 million for the distribution rights to his cigar brand, which last year sold more than 2 million cigars, mostly in the United States. With his success, it is difficult to believe that until fairly recently Uvezian was barely eking out a life playing the piano in the bar of a resort in Puerto Rico and selling cigars and real estate on the side. Today, he is one of the most visible men in the cigar world, one of the great ambassadors for premium smokes.
"I find it hard to take when someone says that I am 'Mr. Cigar,'" Uvezian says as he sits outside one of the luxurious bungalows of the opulent El San Juan Hotel & Casino in Puerto Rico, prior to his trip to the Dominican Republic. The resort is one of his favorite haunts when he's at home. He's more likely to be hanging out at the cigar bar in the ornate lobby holding court to a group of cigar smokers and a slew of gorgeous females than sitting at home or in his office. "Some people call me a cigar guru and other things like that. I am no guru. I am not a great cigar man, not like someone like Zino Davidoff. Now that was a great cigar man."
Uvezian--always playing the modest cigar lover--may not have the depth of knowledge of cigars that the late Davidoff had, but he is an equal showman in every sense of the word. Besides, Davidoff could never play the piano as well as Uvezian, who, as a young man, performed for the Shah of Iran, studied at New York City's Juilliard School and played with some of the best jazz pianists ever, including Teddy Wilson. Uvezian's impromptu piano gigs are almost as well known among U.S. cigar cognoscenti as his Avo pyramids and belicosos.
"There are a lot of similarities between Avo and Zino," says Hendrik Kelner, one of the most respected figures in the Dominican Republic's cigar business and the man who makes Uvezian's cigars in one of his factories near the town of Villa González. Kelner also runs and partially owns the Davidoff cigar factory in Santiago. "Just like Zino, Avo knows the good life. He is a bohemian, an agreeable personality who has a passion for cigars."
Adds David Kurland, the general manager of El San Juan Hotel & Casino and a good friend of Uvezian's: "The man is amazing. He not only loves cigars; he loves life to the fullest. He is twice my age but I can barely keep up with him. He is wonderful."
Standing about 5 foot 10 inches with a round and cuddly physique, Uvezian is a lovable father figure with a subtle wit and infectious warmth. His round, tanned face and kindly smile make even the iciest personality melt. Whether he's attending a cigar dinner or simply walking in an airport to catch a plane, Uvezian is someone people take notice of. He has the aura of an entertainer or a celebrity who should be recognized.
Strangely, it's Uvezian's extroverted character and personal marketing skills that finally led him to sell his brand to Davidoff. "My forte is that I like meeting people and I am good in PR," he admits. "I am not getting any younger and I am no good at paperwork and following up. It's the image of Avo that I am good at."
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Robert Martin — Flushing, New York, Queens, — September 30, 2011 6:50pm ET
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