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Manuel Quesada: The Gentleman of Cigars

Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 2)

"This is your damned fault," Quesada jokes, implying that Cigar Aficionado has made his cigars too popular. In recent issues, Sosa, distributed by Antillian in Miami, and Licenciados, distributed by Mike's Cigars (also in Miami), have scored in the high 80s and the Licenciados Toro pulled down a 93 in the Summer 1994 Coronas Gordas blind tasting.

But even before his cigars started to roar past the competition in blind tastings, Quesada's brand repositioning began the avalanche of praise and purchases of MATASA-produced cigars. "Three years ago we relaunched Fonseca into a national brand. We switched from Cameroon to Connecticut [wrapper] and even though it only got an 82 rating, it generated a huge amount of calls." Today Fonseca is on back order for 700,000 cigars.

The situation is similar for Licenciados. "I could sell 50,000 a month if I could supply them." Today MATASA is stretching to produce half that quantity. Still more stunning is the rise of Romeo and Julieta and the year-old Romeo Vintage line. "If I had one million Romeos, I could sell them. One million.

"I could have done that years ago. Just made 20 million cigars and retired. But that's not what we're here to do." Recently, however, the desire to make a quick buck has had a strong pull on Quesada and other manufacturers. (MATASA will produce about four million cigars this year, a 20 percent increase over 1993.) And for a man who is tremendously interested in the world outside of tobacco, the means to buy his way out of the world of ligeros and capas, bulks and rolling tables, has never been more readily at hand. Quesada could rush cigars to market, sell them before the tobacco is mature and fill all back orders in 40 days. But then he would have to retire. MATASA would be the bane of the Dominican cigar industry. Distributors would despise him and smokers would run from Licenciados Toros, instead of burning up the phone lines at Mike's Cigars.

And there is something else. Quesada--no matter how much he would prefer to sit in some cafe, idly smoking cigars, drinking espresso and reading Stendhal--could never let go of the leaf that is such an integral part of his character.

"Of course, the whole country could solve the back-order problem in 40 days; however, that would be a quick kill for a quick buck. We [members of a voluntary confederation of Dominican cigar makers] sit down and talk about this and we always come back to that."

For Quesada to continue to be successful, he must keep pace with demand--a process hampered by limited tobacco production and strict production standards. "Suppose you have tobacco and there are no cigar makers. It takes a year, at least, to train them. And a lot of the production of domestic leaf that we should take has been exported to other countries. There's no reason for it. We should be growing high-quality tobacco on land that once grew cigarette tobacco. For cigarettes, country of origin doesn't matter, but for cigars it does."

When asked why he doesn't staunch the short supply of Connecticut wrappers with other, readily available leaf, Quesada's mind jumps five steps ahead. "Well, there is no Cameroon. So you look at Sumatra, which is beautiful, but the taste is mouth-drying, and I personally do not like the taste and neither do Americans. So Connecticut becomes the only viable alternative. But if you grow it abroad the taste and texture change. So you look at Sumatra grown in Ecuador, which is darker in color. And there is Mexican maduro. But, for example, Fonseca is on such stringent standards that we don't allow the use of Mexican maduro. Only Connecticut broadleaf. You've seen it aging. I could wrap cigars with it now, but people would taste the difference." He throws up his hands, then quickly anticipates the next logical question.

"So why do we create new brands? Why come out with Cubita when you can't make enough Fonsecas?" Quesada explains that, with more tobacco purchased, more brands need to be created. "You need brands that sell for a little less. Every leaf isn't meant for a superpremium cigar. Licenciados is not meant to be a superpremium. It needs to be accessible to a large number of people."

For Cubita, or any of the brands on MATASA's rolling tables, a "large number" does not mean all of the smokers in the United States. "We haven't been in the tobacco business for 100 years by selling a million cigars at a time." Quesada's goals are modest for all of his cigars. "I think the Cubita blend will sell. I think that it will satisfy some people. I would like to see Cubita develop into a brand over the next 20 years. I've only discontinued one brand in 20 years and I don't want to do it again. You don't do this by cutting corners."

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