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Big-Wrapper Crisis

The Lack of Large-Sized Wrapper Leaves is Creating a Shortage of Big Cigars
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95

(continued from page 1)

Unfortunately, production of the "Hoyo DC" continues to decline each year. A series of short crops has made it more and more difficult for Havana's La Corona factory to source the top-quality tobacco needed for the production of double corona, or prominente, cigars, as they are called in the factory. Last year's production was well under 30,000 cigars. Just a year before, almost 60,000 were made. "It's very simple," says Philip Jimenez Pares, manager of La Corona, who believes his factory may slightly increase the production of double coronas this year. "We just don't have the raw materials."

Benito Molina, the manager of the H. Upmann factory in Havana, has similar problems with his gran corona or Montecristo "A," Cuba's most expensive and largest cigar. "In 1994 we made only about 10,000 [of the] Montecristo 'A', " he says. "But we have the ability to make 20,000 to 25,000 a year. We just didn't have the quality wrapper leaf available." In addition, his factory usually produces up to 80,000 Upmann Churchill or Julieta cigars. Last year, he thought they would be lucky to make more than 50,000.

The problem is this: wrapper leaves for such large cigars should be at least 15 inches in length and about four inches wide, besides having a specific, uniform color, texture and elasticity, as well as aroma and flavor. This usually represents a tiny percentage of a good harvest in Cuba's key wrapper-tobacco growing areas, the Vuelta Abajo and Partidos. In a good year, only 10 percent to 15 percent of a plantation's harvest may be of sufficient quality to be classified as wrapper. Only the half dozen or so leaves located in the center of a plant are usually used for wrappers. Of those, leaves that are the right size and quality for large cigars represent a much smaller percentage. When harvests are short--as they were in 1992, 1993 and 1994--finding top-quality wrapper tobacco is even more difficult. It's like taking a pint of whole milk and pouring away half its contents. Most of the cream, the equivalent of top-quality wrapper leaf in a harvest, is the first to go.

The situation is similar in the Central African nations of Cameroon and the Central African Republic, which are jointly responsible for growing wrapper tobacco known as Cameroon in the cigar trade. In the past two to three years, the darker-brown, richer-flavored tobacco has become increasingly popular with top producers in the Dominican Republic as American and European consumers have sought more distinctive cigars. Unfortunately, upheavals in the political and managerial structure of the tobacco industry in Cameroon, not to mention poor weather, have drastically reduced recent tobacco harvests. New tobacco plantings in the Central African Republic have helped, but Cameroon still accounts for more than two-thirds of all tobacco sold under its name, and last year's killer drought reduced the crop in both countries by 95 percent.

"The orders for big cigars around the world are going up faster than we can grow leaf tobacco in a year," says Meerapfel, whose family firm now oversees a large part of the Cameroon crop. "That has really put a squeeze on clients. I hope the situation with the 1995 crop, weather providing, will be better in Cameroon and the Central African Republic. We are doing everything we can to assure that this happens."

With the exception of such Dominican cigars as Partagas and Fuente, all other brands currently using Cameroon wrappers will be in short supply. Some producers have even switched to tobacco from other countries for their wrappers. "Cameroon is a lost cause," says Manuel Quesada of the Dominican Republic's Manufactures de Tabacos S.A. (matasa), producers of Fonseca, Romeo and Julieta, Licenciados, Sosa, José Benito and Cubita. "There are no sizes available. Nearly everybody is out of it."

One alternative source for cigar makers is Connecticut. Although the plantations located a short distance from Hartford report having plenty of wrapper leaf, some key cigar producers say it is increasingly difficult to get the color and quality of Connecticut shade wrapper that they want. "In Connecticut, you can find large enough leaves to do what you need, but as far as the quality that we need for the cigars--it is very scarce," says Quesada. "It's not a problem if you need a light-brown [almost yellow] wrapper, but the trend is for darker colors. Those can be hard to get."

Not everyone who uses Connecticut shade has problems. General Cigar Company, producers of Macanudo and Partagas (Dominican), has all the top-quality wrapper leaf it needs, according to Daniel Nunez, director of Culbro Tobacco's operations in the Dominican Republic and Connecticut. General Cigar and Culbro Tobacco, which is a key grower of Connecticut shade tobacco, are both subsidiaries of Culbro Corporation. "We have no problem as far as General Cigar," he says. "Macanudo works on a two-and-a-half-year inventory, and we have a very comfortable situation. We have never been better protected for wrappers in the past 10 years, especially for Macanudo. Any wrapper on a Macanudo is guaranteed to have two-and-a-half years of aging."

Nunez admits, however, that his company is in a less secure--but still stable--position with its Cameroon wrapper cigars, such as the Partagas. "We are very comfortable [with Cameroon tobacco] now. For our 1995 production of Partagas, for example, we have all the Cameroon wrapper we need in our inventory," he says. "If there is a good harvest in Cameroon this year, then there shouldn't be a problem."

Nunez says that building a solid inventory of the best-quality wrapper tobacco is one of the main reasons General has been investing millions of dollars into its Connecticut shade operation. "Let's remember that Culbro Tobacco is primarily for General Cigar and to protect its brand, Macanudo," he says, adding that they have significantly increased the production of darker-colored wrapper leaf in recent years. He estimated that 50 percent of his company's wrapper-leaf harvest will now be considered dark-colored, compared with only 15 percent to 20 percent five years ago. "Whatever surplus wrapper we have is for sale. But this [surplus] is not usually up to the standards of Macanudo."

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