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Surprise in Connecticut

Some of the world's best cigars use Connecticut wrapper leaves.
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
bundle of cigars, Winter 92/93

Mention cigar and tobacco growing regions the next time you're on the golf course or after lunch at your club and see what associations come up: Cuba, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico and maybe Cameroon. Mention them to your favorite cigar dealer though, and you're just as likely to get an unexpected reply: Connecticut .... Connecticut?

That tobacco is grown in Connecticut is certainly a surprise to the uninitiated. That tobacco leaf grown in the Constitution State has become the cigar industry's most sought-after outer wrapper leaf for premium, hand-rolled cigars, however, can come as something of a shock, even to those natives who for generations have seen the weedlike plant grown profusely in the wide, level fields of the Connecticut River Valley.

In fact, production of Connecticut "shade" tobacco, so called because it is grown under large, tentlike awnings that protect the tender leaves from the sun, has declined steadily in recent years, to a fraction of its former levels. But no matter. The handful of farmers and two major companies still involved in its cultivation and processing enjoy a rather unique situation: as production has declined, demand has increased, making shade-grown Connecticut wrapper leaf one of the world's most expensive agricultural commodities.

Yet as any true cigar aficionado knows, a sexy wrapper alone does not a premium cigar make. The best cigars are made from the best tobaccos, and those at the top of the line, your Macanudos and Davidoffs, are filled with the finest Piloto (a Cuban seed plant), Jamaican and Mexican tobaccos available. But it is the wrapper, like a mink coat on Sophia Loren, that adds that touch of class and extra flavor.

As Daniel Nuñez points out, the best wrappers are those that contribute most to the overall experience of smoking a cigar. "The three basic elements that concern us," says Nuñez, director of Culbro Tobacco's Connecticut and Dominican Republic operations, "are flavor, aroma and burn. With flavor we don't want anything disagreeable, no metallic or foreign tastes; we want the aroma to be sweet, not bitter; and the burn should he consistent, a long ash as white as possible that doesn't fall. That is what we strive for with our Connecticut shade tobacco and that is why Connecticut shade is the best wrapper leaf on the market today."

Few dispute Nuñez's claims. Many of the top producers of cigars, especially from the Dominican Republic, fight to get the best quality Connecticut wrappers for their products. Listen to Robert Levin, owner of Holt's Cigar Company in Philadelphia and the maker of the premium Ashton cigar: Connecticut wrapper is "definitely one of the best wrapper leaves you can buy. I like it because it holds up and it enhances the blend of tobacco. It also looks great on a cigar."

Or hear the maker of the Dominican Republic's H. Upmann and Dom Diego, Richard DiMeola, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Consolidated Cigar Corporation: "Connecticut shade is one of the best looking tobaccos in the world. It tastes good too, but taste is subjective. It's the wrapper that people see, and people smoke with their eyes, just like they eat and drink with their eyes."

Davidoff cigars, once made in Cuba, now also use the best available Connecticut wrapper on its Dominican-produced cigars. Christoph Kull, president of Davidoff of Geneva's U.S. operations, takes his praise for Connecticut shade one step further. "A nice Connecticut wrapper," insists Kull, "is like the skin on a baby's bottom, very silky, very fine. From a marketing point of view, it is considered at the moment to be one of the best tasting and looking wrappers available."

Edgar Cullman Jr., president of Culbro Corporation, has been around the company's tobacco fields all his life. His grandfather started the shade operation, an endeavor that was always close to his heart despite his "other job": holding a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and running a cigar factory. For the younger Cullman, there's been a special attraction to the tobacco. "We've always prided ourselves on producing the best tobacco in the valley," says Cullman Jr. "We've always taken extra steps to do it. There are so many steps that have always been time-honored, from when you fumigate the land in the fall, preparing it for the following spring, to finally putting it into a bale of tobacco. There is no `right' step, but you do it when it feels right for the tobacco."

Connecticut wrapper averages $24 a pound, with the premium quality selling for as much as $40. The high price is partly a reflection of the high labor, land and other costs of running a U.S.-based operation, and partly due to the growing demand for premium wrapper in the U.S., Canadian, European and Japanese markets. Production costs in Connecticut can run as much as $20,000 an acre, or roughly $13 per pound. This high cost of production translates directly into higher prices at the consumer end of the scale.

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