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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

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Nonetheless, Nunez thought that more top-quality, darker-colored Connecticut-grown wrapper tobacco would be available in the coming years. "You can't change things from one day to the next," he says. "It takes a long time; it is a very expensive business growing tobacco, and especially in premium cigars. I foresee that in 1995 and 1996 there should be enough Connecticut shade for all premium handmade cigars."

So why haven't other cigar manufacturers followed General's example and carried large stocks of tobacco to buffer shortage periods? "Building an inventory in tobacco is a tremendous investment," says Meerapfel. "So the shortage will be most difficult for people with small inventories. It could even cause a fluctuation in the quality of cigars next year from smaller producers. At the present pace, there will be a very tight situation in everything, whether it is long filler, binder or wrapper."

Moreover, tobacco growers are extremely slow to adapt to changes in the marketplace. This is primarily due to the nature of growing and handling tobacco. It may take as long as three years for new wrapper tobacco to find its way to a cigar: one year of growing, six months of processing and an additional 18 months of aging. Also, new plantings require massive investment--even though only a percentage of the total can be sold as wrapper or premium tobacco. Wrapper can represent only about one-tenth to two-thirds of the entire crop, depending on its provenance. So the risk of harvesting only small quantities of top-quality, saleable tobacco is too high for most farmers.

Another factor sometimes forgotten but still significant is Mother Nature. She can be very tough on tobacco growers. Last year's crops in both Cuba and Cameroon were severely damaged by poor weather during the growing season. In fact, Cuba has not had a good wrapper crop since 1986, although many in the tobacco business there claim this year could break records--if the weather is good. "We have everything we need this year," says Padron, who, after receiving millions of dollars in aid from his worldwide agents, purchased and distributed fertilizer, petrol and other goods to growers in prime tobacco regions after last year's small harvest.

"It is the first time in four or five years, maybe longer. We have the tapado [tent cloth], the wood, the fertilizer, everything. If we have a big harvest this year, then there will be a big increase in big cigars. That means more Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona, more Punch Double Corona. We must pray to have a big crop this year. We must pray." Padron says the export factories in Havana could easily handle the extra work, although factory owners in other countries were less convinced they could carry the extra workload if the raw materials were available. "The industry has grown by leaps and bounds, but we want the growth to be a gradual thing," says Fuente. "To increase your production of large cigars, you have to order more molds and train your rollers. It is a question of priorities: we sell other cigars also, don't forget."

In addition, none of the cigar producers we interviewed want to risk reducing their quality to meet the demand. "The demand is fantastic, but we can't just think that we can make a killing in sales, not worry about the quality and then retire," says Quesada. "We can't supply the demand without the quality. So until things get better, we'll just have to suffer."

Quesada and other cigar-trade members aren't the only ones suffering. Frustration runs all the way down to the consumer in knowing that fewer and fewer Churchills, double coronas and other large cigars are available. Still, it could be worse. "It is not as bad as it seems," admits London cigar merchant Emery. "People will usually take a Punch Punch or Robusto if they can't get a Churchill or a double corona. They don't want to leave empty-handed."

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