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Seeds of Hope

The Fuente Family Bets On High-Quality Cigar Wrapper Grown in The Dominican Republic
Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94

In the soft calm of the Fuente tobacco-curing barn the only sounds are the quietly spoken commands of teenage boys. They shimmy up and across roughly cut two-by-fours, passing 18-foot rods of wood straight up in the air, straining as they press the heavy poles as high as possible to reach the next pair of hands. At the top of the barn, the rods--strung with freshly harvested, Cuban-seed tobacco leaves --are handed to the last two boys, who stand barefoot and relaxed on two-inch-wide beams, 45 feet above the dirt floor of the barn.

Carlos Fuente Jr., 38, president of Tabacalera A. Fuente Co., stands expressionless at the entrance to the barn, soaking up the tranquility of a sunny December afternoon in the heart of the Dominican Republic, about a half mile from the tiny village ofEl Caribe, a two-hour drive southeast of Santiago. Though he's not letting the workers know it, in his heart, Fuente is more excited than a five-year-old on Christmas Eve. He can barely contain his pride and the absolute, pure joy he receives from this very unique, premium-cigar-wrapper farm in the Dominican Republic.

Why all this emotion over a bunch of leaves? Quite simply, the tobacco above Fuente's head will be wrapped around cigars. If you miss the significance of this, stop and think a moment and you'll realize that--besides Connecticut seed tobacco grown by General Cigar Co. for candela (green) cigars--nobody grows wrapper in the Dominican Republic. But the leaves grown in El Caribe will be used as corojo-variety Cuban seed wrapper, which, when fermented long enough, turns into a beautiful rosado, or rose-colored wrapper. And the taste? Fuente goes into rhapsodies about the taste: "It's like putting chocolate fudge on vanilla ice cream. It's strong, but it has such finesse." Don't get him started; Fuente won't ever stop trying to tell you how great it tastes.

But that's OK. If the tobacco gods are good to him, you'll be smoking cigars wrapped with Dominican tobacco, too. Then again, if you listen to some of Fuente's detractors, you'll never smoke any cigar with Dominican wrapper.

Many sleepless nights after he first dreamed of owning a farm and growing premium Dominican wrapper (to date, the Fuentes, like most manufacterers, bought tobacco rather than farmed it themselves), Fuente is crossing his fingers and praying every night. "One storm, and it's all gone," Fuente notes, with a pained expression. But the skies have been clear lately, and in December, one batch of leaves hung in the curing barn, still more sat in fermentation bulks (from the first harvest last spring) and plenty more leaves were still awaiting a January harvest. If this crop comes in well, the Fuentes will have wrapper leaf for the next six years.

So it might seem strange to hear that many in the industry are still betting against the hard-won labor and considerable outlay of the family Fuente. But once you get into the heads of tobacco men like Hendrik Kelner, president of Tabacos Dominicanos (manufacturers of Avo, Davidoff, Griffin's and Troyas) you begin to understand that their skepticism is based on a Dominican tobacco history dogged by failure and a profound bias toward the tried and true. Cigar manufacturers hate to gamble.

Sticking with what works, according to Kelner, results from years of high-risk gambles that didn't pay, especially in the Dominican Republic. Here it is common to hear of national self-deprecation and doubt when it comes to growing world-class tobacco. "In the 19th century, there were about 90 factories here, but German monopolies divided the Dominican Republic and Cuba," says Kelner, and, according to him, those companies always believed that the best quality tobaccos came from Cuba. Eventually reality caught up with perception, and with less money invested in production and farming, "the quality of the tobacco sank to meet the price people were willing to pay for it."

According to Ariosto Mendez, head of the Fuente farm and the former director of the Dominican Tobacco Institute, a government-sponsored research agency, Dominican tobacco was of such poor quality by the '40s and '50s that it was chopped up and sold for cigarettes.

With less money invested in growing Dominican tobacco, there was little chance that wrapper would ever be developed, let alone compete with Cuban leaf. But Castro's rise and the subsequent U.S.-imposed embargo, combined with the 1961 assassination of Gen. Rafael Trujillo (the despotic head of the Dominican Republic), changed the cigar world forever.

In 1962 an interim Dominican government formed the Tobacco Institute, which was founded to educate and study the production of tobacco on the island. Three years later, the institute was experimenting with Havana seed filler tobaccos, and the Federation of Tobacco Growers (FETAB) was formed to consolidate and educate Dominican farmers. By 1968 the effort failed, due to a series of unstable Dominican governments and the departure of a powerful force in the Dominican tobacco world, Carlos Torrano, who left to head the Cooperation de Pan American Tobacos (COPAN) in Panama. Still, seeds of hope had been planted, and a decade later, after the Sandinistas turned Nicaragua (and parts of Honduras) into a war zone, men like Angel and John Oliva, father and son owners of Oliva Tobacco, saw hope in the relative peace of the Dominican Republic. In 1984 the Olivas planted tobacco seeds in the Dominican soil near the town of El Caribe.

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