From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93
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Besides brand ownership, Cubatabaco admitted that Davidoff was also upset over the continued sales of its Cuban cigars in Switzerland and other markets by unauthorized merchants, a fact of the market that the Cubans said they could not control. "It's something you can't control in the international market," said Yaech Estrada. "There is constant movement of luxury products from different markets."
Apparently many of the Davidoff cigars coming into Europe at the time were entering through the Eastern bloc, as the Cubans used cigars as cash for buying oil and other goods. "We couldn't control our prices in our key markets," recalled Scheurer. "It was totally out of the question. Even in Switzerland, there was someone importing Davidoff cigars. When I asked Cubatabaco to stop, they told me it was a free market [under various European treaties]. I laughed. After awhile, we decided enough was enough."
The Cubans were never completely in the dark about the growing problems with Davidoff. They began to suspect there were problems with their agreement after a dispute erupted over one of the cigars in Davidoff's chateaux series. In 1984, Château d'Yquem, the famous French sweet wine estate in Sauternes, asked Davidoff to remove its name from the series and publicly ridiculed the cigar makers, calling them "high-class thieves," among other things. The name of another highly touted Bordeaux estate, first-growth Mouton-Rothschild, replaced Yquem, but Cubatabaco was worried that another disagreement could arise, so it asked Davidoff for the contracts it had with the château owners to use their estates' names.
"We asked for a copy of the contract to be sure there was a legal agreement, and Davidoff said it couldn't do it because it was done by Zino, and there was no written agreement," said Yaech Estrada.
Zino Davidoff finally admitted he didn't have a written agreement. "I didn't need any approval," he said last year when asked about Davidoff's chateaux series. "I simply sent a box of cigars to each owner explaining that this was what we intended to do. The fact that the goods were already in the market was besides the point."
Davidoff claims it finally received an agreement from the five first-growth owners to produce cigars under their names by 1986, but about a year or two later the production of the chateaux series was discontinued. Davidoff claims it was done since the quality of the cigars, which were made at the La Corona factory in Havana, could not be guaranteed, although Cubatabaco asserts that Davidoff could never supply documents from the various chateaux so production was stopped.
There's always been some mystery around the chateaux series of Davidoff anyway. Both the Cubans and Davidoff agree that the line began just after the war. The Cubans were finding it difficult to sell their cigars, and they decided to ask the Swiss to help Zino come up with a new marketing concept. Cubatabaco claims that the cigar producer first asked the Zurich-based cigar merchant, Dürr, who came up with the idea and later gave it to Davidoff. The cigars were then sold as Hoyo de Monterrey, Specially Selected by Zino Davidoff. However, Zino Davidoff strongly disagrees with the Cubans' story. He takes all the credit for what remains the most prestigious line of Cuban cigars ever produced.
"I created the chateaux [series] in 1946--an extraordinary innovation," Davidoff says. "It was me. They came to see me in Geneva as they knew me [from] when I had been over in Havana at the time. I had opened the shop in Geneva, and they told me that the war had ruined them as they hadn't been able to export their goods. They wanted to make a new start and wondered how they should go about it. We were in a French restaurant and the idea struck me as I was looking at the wine list. France had its grand crus. Why shouldn't Havana?"
According to Rudolf Wey, a Zurich-based business consultant who worked for Dürr for many years, the Cubans' version of the creation of the chateaux series is closer to the truth. In a telephone interview this summer, Wey said that the English agent for Hoyo de Monterrey, Tobacco Torceido Trade Limited in London (now defunct), Dürr and Davidoff met just after the war and decided to start the chateaux series together. "I recently watched Zino Davidoff on French television take full credit for the chateaux series but it wasn't like that," Wey said. "All three companies were present at the meeting. A Mr. Hart from England, Mr. Vogel from Dürr, and Zino Davidoff." At the outset, Dürr imported the cigars from Hoyo de Monterrey, keeping the chateaux series for itself in Zurich while selling them to Davidoff in Geneva. Later, Dürr decided to give Davidoff exclusivity for the range, said Wey.
Regardless of who actually started the chateaux series, it did enormous good for both the Cubans and the Swiss tobacconists. After the Revolution, sales of cigars were again in the doldrums and the Cubans once more looked to Davidoff for help in the late 1960s. This time, they offered him his own brand. "Davidoff came here in 1969," recalls Avelino Lara, head of Havana's El Laguito factory, where most Cohiba cigars are produced. "We decided together what the mix of the cigars would be and the sizes. We tasted various cigars for size and blend. At the time, Cohiba was already developed, since we had developed it earlier."
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Guy Buscema — Calvisson, Gard, France, — October 7, 2013 3:01pm ET
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