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A Conversation With Philip Wynne

The creator of Felipe Gregorio has been making cigars since 1990.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

(continued from page 1)

Then Altadis came in and bought a percentage of La Flor de Copan, with an option to buy it all. The moment they came in, they had full control of the tobacco, and I saw that the tobacco they wanted was not the tobacco I wanted. They were bringing a boutique factory to an industrial level, which was great for the factory, great for the town, but wasn't necessarily great for me. We used to buy tobacco from a cooperative of growers in Jalapa. The guy we were buying the tobacco from was Omar Ortez. I said, Let's do a factory in Nicaragua. He was from Condega, and he wanted to put the factory in Condega.

Q: Now, Condega is not known for making cigars, but for growing tobacco.
A: Right, I think we're the only factory there. It's a heavily Sandinista area. There's murals of Che Guevara, and there's Sandinista flags flying.

Q: Is that intimidating?
A: I've noticed in all my travels that everyone loves Americans and hates our government. There's a big separation. So we started there in 1994, '95.

Q: So you've figured out your time in Copan is ended, and it's time to move on to somewhere else?
A: Yes. Then the boom came. I remember the Cincinnati RTDA [Retail Tobacco Dealers of America trade show, in 1996]. I took $1 million in orders on the floor.

Q: Compare that with earlier RTDAs.
A: In 1991, I took $30,000.

Q: So this is beyond your wildest dreams.
A: And it was a dream, because I didn't have $1 million worth of cigars. I had all these orders, and no cigars. So like everyone else, I rushed to produce these cigars. I had a bit of popularity going, and when we made the cigars, the boom was over, and I had a slew of cigars and no one to buy them (laughs). But during the boom, Frank Sinatra approaches me via a gentleman named Eliot Weisman. Sinatra wants a superpremium cigar, top of the top. He told Eliot he wants to work with a Sicilian, and I'm half Sicilian. He wanted the most expensive wrapper, he wanted this, he wanted that. We sit down, agree on everything, I'm about to leave the room, and Sinatra says, "Kid, by the way, I want a Dominican cigar. This Central American stuff don't sell for shit. Everyone wants Dominican." I said, "I don't have a Dominican factory." He said, "Now you do." So I threw out a number, and he said, "Do you want a check, or do you want it wired?"

So now I have to make cigars in the Dominican Republic. I had bought tobacco there before. We started this crummy little factory with three benches and we start rolling cigars. Next to us, there's this farm that's for sale, 40 acres. I have this vision: we'll make a farm and a hotel. We buy it, $300,000. We build a building, $200,000. Now I'm in debt to the banks. End of the boom, Sinatra not reordering. Here I am, in debt. Trying to find a way to sell cigars. And we are paying usurers' rates, because nontraditional people are lending us the money and they're charging two percent interest a month. So I don't know what to do. Then by some miracle, Bob Franzblau [the owner of Thompson Cigars] calls and says, I want you to make me cigars.

Q: Up to this point, had you any relationship with a catalog retailer?
A: No, no one at all.

Q: So this is a big call for you.
A: Big call for me. I had a brand that I had created called Iguana, with candela wrapper. I said, Well, let me create something a bit different here. I couldn't sell it.

Q: No one was really making candela at this point. What made you want to do that?
A: It was different. Also, I read that in the 1960s the bulk of cigars sold in the United States were made with candela, and I believe there are cycles in life, so maybe a candela cigar might be something new smokers might like. So I told Bob, I have this brand called Iguana, I can give it to you exclusively. And he liked it. It became their No. 1—selling cigar. So we had this great relationship, because the first one out of the gate he's a winner with me with a cigar that was so out of left field. I'm basically making now about 2.5 million cigars a year for him out of the Dominican Republic.


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