Seeds of Hope
The Fuente Family Bets On High-Quality Cigar Wrapper Grown in The Dominican Republic
In the soft calm of the Fuente tobacco-curing barn the only sounds are the quietly spoken commands of teenage boys. They shimmy up and across roughly cut two-by-fours, passing 18-foot rods of wood straight up in the air, straining as they press the heavy poles as high as possible to reach the next pair of hands. At the top of the barn, the rods--strung with freshly harvested, Cuban-seed tobacco leaves --are handed to the last two boys, who stand barefoot and relaxed on two-inch-wide beams, 45 feet above the dirt floor of the barn.
Carlos Fuente Jr., 38, president of Tabacalera A. Fuente Co., stands expressionless at the entrance to the barn, soaking up the tranquility of a sunny December afternoon in the heart of the Dominican Republic, about a half mile from the tiny village ofEl Caribe, a two-hour drive southeast of Santiago. Though he's not letting the workers know it, in his heart, Fuente is more excited than a five-year-old on Christmas Eve. He can barely contain his pride and the absolute, pure joy he receives from this very unique, premium-cigar-wrapper farm in the Dominican Republic.
Why all this emotion over a bunch of leaves? Quite simply, the tobacco above Fuente's head will be wrapped around cigars. If you miss the significance of this, stop and think a moment and you'll realize that--besides Connecticut seed tobacco grown by General Cigar Co. for candela (green) cigars--nobody grows wrapper in the Dominican Republic. But the leaves grown in El Caribe will be used as corojo-variety Cuban seed wrapper, which, when fermented long enough, turns into a beautiful rosado, or rose-colored wrapper. And the taste? Fuente goes into rhapsodies about the taste: "It's like putting chocolate fudge on vanilla ice cream. It's strong, but it has such finesse." Don't get him started; Fuente won't ever stop trying to tell you how great it tastes.
But that's OK. If the tobacco gods are good to him, you'll be smoking cigars wrapped with Dominican tobacco, too. Then again, if you listen to some of Fuente's detractors, you'll never smoke any cigar with Dominican wrapper.
Many sleepless nights after he first dreamed of owning a farm and growing premium Dominican wrapper (to date, the Fuentes, like most manufacterers, bought tobacco rather than farmed it themselves), Fuente is crossing his fingers and praying every night. "One storm, and it's all gone," Fuente notes, with a pained expression. But the skies have been clear lately, and in December, one batch of leaves hung in the curing barn, still more sat in fermentation bulks (from the first harvest last spring) and plenty more leaves were still awaiting a January harvest. If this crop comes in well, the Fuentes will have wrapper leaf for the next six years.
So it might seem strange to hear that many in the industry are still betting against the hard-won labor and considerable outlay of the family Fuente. But once you get into the heads of tobacco men like Hendrik Kelner, president of Tabacos Dominicanos (manufacturers of Avo, Davidoff, Griffin's and Troyas) you begin to understand that their skepticism is based on a Dominican tobacco history dogged by failure and a profound bias toward the tried and true. Cigar manufacturers hate to gamble.
Sticking with what works, according to Kelner, results from years of high-risk gambles that didn't pay, especially in the Dominican Republic. Here it is common to hear of national self-deprecation and doubt when it comes to growing world-class tobacco. "In the 19th century, there were about 90 factories here, but German monopolies divided the Dominican Republic and Cuba," says Kelner, and, according to him, those companies always believed that the best quality tobaccos came from Cuba. Eventually reality caught up with perception, and with less money invested in production and farming, "the quality of the tobacco sank to meet the price people were willing to pay for it."
According to Ariosto Mendez, head of the Fuente farm and the former director of the Dominican Tobacco Institute, a government-sponsored research agency, Dominican tobacco was of such poor quality by the '40s and '50s that it was chopped up and sold for cigarettes.
With less money invested in growing Dominican tobacco, there was little chance that wrapper would ever be developed, let alone compete with Cuban leaf. But Castro's rise and the subsequent U.S.-imposed embargo, combined with the 1961 assassination of Gen. Rafael Trujillo (the despotic head of the Dominican Republic), changed the cigar world forever.
In 1962 an interim Dominican government formed the Tobacco Institute, which was founded to educate and study the production of tobacco on the island. Three years later, the institute was experimenting with Havana seed filler tobaccos, and the Federation of Tobacco Growers (FETAB) was formed to consolidate and educate Dominican farmers. By 1968 the effort failed, due to a series of unstable Dominican governments and the departure of a powerful force in the Dominican tobacco world, Carlos Torrano, who left to head the Cooperation de Pan American Tobacos (COPAN) in Panama. Still, seeds of hope had been planted, and a decade later, after the Sandinistas turned Nicaragua (and parts of Honduras) into a war zone, men like Angel and John Oliva, father and son owners of Oliva Tobacco, saw hope in the relative peace of the Dominican Republic. In 1984 the Olivas planted tobacco seeds in the Dominican soil near the town of El Caribe.
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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."
"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 texture...it 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."
Fuente leans forward and says that naysayers just make him work harder. "Once we had a group of retailers here from Europe who said wrapper could never be grown in the Dominican Republic. That broke my heart. If there's one thing that's inspired me, it's that comment."
Fuente takes a puff, letting the smoke fill the room with a lovely aroma--the fruit of a long, passionate dream.
Of course, the cigar in Fuente's hand is wrapped in leaf that's too young for general release. Also, it still has some of the nicotine bite often found in cigars rushed to market. The Fuentes refuse to hurry their leaf, so it is unlikely that you'll see rosado wrapper before early '95. That's because tobacco for premium cigars generally must be fermented in bulks for months on end, then allowed to "sleep" and then be refermented. It takes more than a year to get the "bite" out, and usually, the longer a tobacco is allowed to ferment (sometimes more than two years), the smoother and mellower the tobacco becomes.
But Fuente claims that the potential in color, texture, burn, ash and taste--the chief indicators of a tobacco's style--are all fantastic for the El Caribe leaf.
The color is a deep, rich red; so red that it makes other supposedly colorado wrappers look matte brown or green. And the texture is very silky and elastic. Fuente says that when he first gave some wrapper to one of his master rollers he was ecstatic, asking for more because the wrapper was far oilier and malleable than what he was used to rolling.