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Smoking Winemakers

Dedicated Cigar Smokers Puff Away in California's Vineyards
Anthony Dias Blue
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

A typical morning in the Oakcross Vineyard. It's still early and the Napa Valley is just beginning to awaken. A hawk circles high in the sky above, riding thermals along the valley's edge. Grapes hang in bunches from their trellised vines as Cabernet and Chardonnay slowly mature. Mist lingers over the neatly planted rows.

But look closer: this mist is more of a haze, rising in a lazy plume. Look down to its source, and there is a lone smoker enjoying the solitude. "My favorite place to smoke is walking in my vineyards," says Dennis Groth, former vice president of Atari and owner of Groth Vineyards.

Groth is typical of the small but devoted cadre of wine-country cigar smokers. Most have been smoking for years. Many prefer to smoke alone, enjoying cigars in reflective, relaxing moments. Each person has his own favorite place in this not-always cigar-friendly setting. There doesn't seem to be a common denominator. Some are well-known ultrapremium producers; some make sparkling wine. Some produce simple, low-cost wines for the mass market. What ties them together is their love of the leaf.

Steve Girard of Girard Winery prefers to smoke his Partagas Coronas in a hammock slung between two oak trees outside his office. He smokes five a week, the perfect way to relax for this vintner on the move. Girard has been busy developing a property in southern Oregon to produce Pinot Noir. The experience has not been without its rewards. "After spending 10 hours planting the very first grape vines, my ranch manager showed up with a case of ice-cold beer. I passed out Montecristo No. 1 "cubes" [shorthand for Cuban cigars] and I sat overlooking my new vineyard and watched the sun go down," he recalls. Nor is he limited to celebrations of a hard day's work. Girard recalls a recent New Year's fireworks display in Napa Valley that he ended "with a Romeo y Julieta Cube at 2 in the morning."

Steve Girard's partner in the Oregon venture, Carl Doumani, is also a cigar enthusiast. Doumani owns the historic Stags' Leap Winery, where he has restored the stone winery building and replanted many of the old vineyards. In addition to Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay, Stags' Leap produces an intensely flavored Petite Sirah from one of the oldest sites in Napa. It is this wine, with its smooth, soft tannins, that he often drinks with cigars. Smoothness and smoke go together.

Doumani also makes a Port--a sweet, silky, unctuous wine--from his vineyards, although it is not available commercially.

Doumani began smoking cigars in the 1940s around high-school poker tables and at one time consumed several a day; he now sees it as more of an occasional treat. "A few years ago, we were sitting on the Stags' Leap porch, drinking Cognac and Port and smoking aged Romeo y Julieta. It was a special, nice moment," he says. Romeo y Julieta Churchills are his favorite Cuban cigar and Partagas No. 10 is his smoke of choice from the Dominican Republic.

Groth, who produces only estate-grown wines from vines in the Oakcross Vineyard and Hillview Vineyard south of Yountville, is also partial to Partagas, but he prefers 8-9-8. He averages one cigar a day, enjoying H. Upmann 2000s along with the Partagas. But his tastes were not always so discerning. "I smoked my first cigar when I was a weekend surf bum in my high-school years. We smoked rum-soaked crooks because they were cheap and plentiful."

One of Napa's most celebrated and consistently excellent wines is the Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot from the Three Palms vineyard in Calistoga. Although often in the shadow of the coveted Merlot, Duckhorn's Cabernet Sauvignon and premium red blend are always rich and long-lived.

Both Dan Duckhorn (former banker) and his wife Margaret are cigar smokers, as is winemaker Tom Rinaldi. Rinaldi's first smoke was back in 1967 at the Alfred Dunhill shop off Union Square in San Francisco. "It was a real pleasure to sit amongst the humidors of the famous and infamous under the guidance of a knowledgeable tobacconist," he recalls.

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