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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

(continued from page 2)

"Years ago, in the '70s, everyone was drinking light beer, and light cigars were popular. But the consumer, I believe, was misinformed by salesmen who thought that light color meant light taste." Fuente says that the bias toward light wrapper cigars led to an adjustment in the Fuente blend. "We became known for light wrapper cigars, but we always made the dark ones." And while most other companies were cashing in on light-tasting stogies, Fuente anticipated a major change in the market. "I knew that those baby boomers who had been smoking light cigars would change tastes. It's like people drinking light beer, and you give them a German import and they say, 'oh, this has flavor.' "

Arturo Fuente cigars also have flavor--lots of flavor. They often use a blend of several Dominican filler leaves, a Dominican binder and a wrapper from Connecticut or Cameroon. "Making cigars the way we believe they should taste, that's why Fuente started booming five years ago. And if we wrap this leaf [from El Caribe] around a cigar, it's suddenly powerful; it's sensual." And it's different.

In the tobacco business there is an endless search for a tastier blend, an extraordinary crop or an especially beautiful wrapper. In short, tobacco men look for excellence, and, just as importantly, for brand distinction. These days, cigars with stronger blends and darker, sweeter wrappers are considered to be excellent and distinctive.

Those who worry that the Fuentes will have trouble marketing any success they might have also admit that a great-tasting wrapper from the Dominican Republic would be favorable for all the brands there. "Now is the time. People are always looking for a new wrapper and a new taste," Kelner says, adding a measured prediction: "If the Fuentes are successful, the majority of manufacturers here will have some wrapper from the Dominican in the next 10 years."

The search for a new taste led Fuente to the tiny village of El Caribe in 1990. At that time, the tobacco farm now called Chateau de la Fuente, was owned by the Oliva family, who grow and sell tobacco worldwide. For eight years, the Olivas had been growing nothing but unshaded Connecticut leaf on the 50-acre farm, until Angel Oliva, the octogenarian chairman of Oliva tobacco, asked the farm director, Ariosto Mendez, to plant a small amount of piloto Cubano.

When Fuente saw the tobacco, he got excited. "I said to myself, 'my God, this is different than any piloto Cubano I've ever seen,' " Fuente says, acting out his moment of revelation by holding an imaginary leaf in his hands. "It was more elastic, oily, and the aroma and was like silk." At that moment Fuente knew wrapper could be grown on this farm. "Don Angel encouraged me. He said, 'Carlito, that soil is San Luis [referring to the town of San Luis in the Vuelto Abajo, the prime region for growing wrapper in Cuba] soil. But it takes heart, dedication, a lot of money and a factory man to find a home for it.' "

Oliva knew what he was talking about. He grew up in Cuba and had been farming tobacco in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Ecuador for his entire life, but the tobacco he was growing at El Caribe was not the variety most suited for the land. Instead, Oliva was doing what had always worked: "We grow what sells," says John Oliva, son of Angel and president of Oliva Tobacco. "Anything will grow on that land, but we won't grow it unless we have an order for it." In other words, nobody would order Dominican wrapper leaf because it didn't exist; and if nobody orders it, the Olivas won't grow it.

"It's like a chain that must be broken," says Hendrik Kelner, "somebody has to order the tobacco, but if nobody knows about it, nobody will order it."

* * *

Fuente is leaning back in his chair again, listening to questions his skeptics have asked. His rosado-wrapped cigar is still smoldering in his hand, but he's not smoking it. "First you have to try to achieve something, and then you can stop to reflect on what to do with that achievement. It's like going to college. It takes a lot of money and a lot of sacrifice, but it's the only way you're going to learn something."

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