Seeds of Hope
The Fuente Family Bets On High-Quality Cigar Wrapper Grown in The Dominican Republic
From the Print Edition:
Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94
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By the early 1980s, nearly every U.S. cigar manufacterer had a stake in the Dominican Republic. And General (makers of Partagas, Macanudo, Temple Hall and Canaria D 'Oro), Consolidated (makers of H. Upmann, Dunhill and Don Diego) and Tabaccos Dominicanos (Avo, Davidoff, Troya, Griffin's) were all buying and paying for the proprietary use of tobaccos from certain Dominican farms. By last December, Dominican cigar exports were expected to top 60 million cigars, an 18 percent increase over 1992; making the Dominican Republic No. 1 in the world for handmade premium cigar production. And though it was only a blip on the Dominican radar screen in the early '80s, Arturo Fuente now makes more handmade cigars than any other company in the country--more than 20 million in 1993.
But not even private farmers have sucessfully grown wrapper on the island of Hispaniola. "The primary condition for growing wrapper is stability. Nobody will pay good money and gamble," argues Kelner, listing in rapid-fire succession the number of wrapper operations that failed in one nation or another, lumping in efforts in the Dominican Republic by such well-known heavies as Consolidated Cigar Co. Kelner notes that there are always ongoing experiments (mentioning his own sun-grown piloto Cubano (Cuban seed) crop used mostly for binder), and he and the others will most likely continue to test different seeds. However, few, if any, growers will take the Fuente leap, setting aside 50 acres of land, building roads, planting tobacco, employing scores of men and women--spending in excess of $250,000 to grow something that may never sell.
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Any cigar manufacterer will tell you that the most beautiful, flavorful wrapper in the world won't sell if it's grown in China or some other country not known for wrapper leaves. It's not that the average cigar smoker would recognize the difference--or care. But cigar men know the difference. They rely on their knowledge of what each seed type grown in each country will--or should--taste like. When the deck is suddenly changed to include five aces, even the dealer will get scared.
And when it comes to the outside of a cigar, most makers believe that wrapper sells or inhibits cigar sales by appearance alone. Seeing a wrapper often influences what the smoker thinks he will taste, which makes a cigar manufacturer reluctant to wrap a cigar in anything but what he knows his customers have smoked for years.
Al Remp, vice president of Lignum II (makers of Troya), like most makers, is skeptical of the Fuente effort. Remp characterizes what he expects would be a common reaction from any cigar maker who must sell a wrapper that has not been tested on the market. "You've been selling me this [leaf] and that leaf, and now...what did you do to me?" Remp mocks, showing the reaction he would expect if somebody tried to change the blend in his cigars.
And Kelner notes that all other wrapper leaf grown in the Dominican Republic is Connecticut shade, grown by General Cigar Co. for candela cigars. Every leaf grown by General is used by the company in its own cigars. This is unusual, even for a giant like General. Surplus (lower quality) leaf from General's other wrapper farms--grown in Connecticut--is sold to other cigar makers. For General to maintain its profit margin and quality standards, the company has no choice but to sell much of its leaf to other makers, particularly those in Europe who will pay top dollar. Kelner points out that the Fuentes cannot afford to keep all of their wrapper--they will have to sell some of their remaining tobacco (whatever doesn't meet their standards) to other cigar manufacturers. But the problem doesn't end there. If the Fuentes do manage to sell other makers on their tobacco, they will have to continue to meet demand. "If you have a bad crop, because of the weather, or a lack of money, science, technology or even the pride of the farmer, how will you convince people?"
Kelner's question is the same one every cigar maker will be asking himself when the Fuentes come calling.
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Sitting in his Santiago office, Fuente sips fresh, midnight-purple beet juice ("it's the best thing for you") and smokes a cigar. Fuente, talking with his hands, is feeling passionate, enthusiastic and trying to get his point across. He wants to explain how the El Caribe farm fits into his life's work; how it is, as he puts it, "my destiny."
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