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A Leaf of Their Own

Dominican Republic cigarmakers are following the example of Fuente Fuente OpusX and growing their own wrapper tobacco
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02

Sitting under the soft hum of fans that pump moist air into the wood-lined humidor, the dark, oily cigar doesn't look much different from all the others in the cigar shop. The wrapper is rich and dark, fairly oily, with a scant trace of bumpy tooth. Most of the leaf is covered by a thin wrapping of cedar. The cap is slightly rounded. The band reads "Ramon Allones, 1837," but the cigar it is wrapped around first went on sale in late 2001.

The modest exterior and half-hidden cloak belie the cigar's pedigree—it's a truly historic creation, a rare beast in the cigar world. For this Ramon Allones is made with a premium wrapper leaf grown in the Dominican Republic, which for much of its history was a cigar country that common wisdom said could not grow fine wrapper tobacco.

Last year, the Ramon Allones joined the Fuente Fuente OpusX in the exclusive club of major brands made with true Dominican wrapper. (During the cigar boom, other cigars were wrapped with Dominican leaf of substandard quality that couldn't be classified wrapper grade, and the Breton Corojo was introduced in 1999 with Dominican shade, but was, and remains, far too small to be called a major brand.) The group won't be so restricted much longer. That rarest of cigar endeavors—growing wrapper tobacco in the Dominican Republic—is becoming a popular pursuit.

"Growing wrapper is the major leagues of tobacco growing," says Litto Gomez, the maker of La Flor Dominicana cigars. For several years the dapper-dressing Gomez has grown filler, the rough, hidden leaves that flavor a premium cigar. Getting to that stage was a giant leap, one that necessitated his learning a new business from scratch. But his ultimate goal is far more challenging—this season, for the first time, he is growing wrapper tobacco, the outside leaf that envelops a cigar. The wrapper is the most expensive component in a cigar, and the most difficult to grow.

Gomez is growing 15 acres of wrapper, half of it shade, on his tobacco farm in La Canella, a windy area of the Dominican Republic. "If you're a cigarmaker and you grow tobacco, you want to have your own wrapper, too," he says. "That's the final goal."

Gomez is following in the very big footsteps of Carlos Fuente Jr., the man who planted the Cuban seeds that grew into Fuente Fuente OpusX wrappers. The brand is the hottest cigar in the history of cigar sales and is frequently marked up by a factor of two, three and even six times its suggested retail price. Its distinction is its reddish-brown wrapper, grown under cheesecloth shade in El Caribe, a town on the road between Santo Domingo and Santiago distinguished by its reddish, claylike soil.

Today, Fuente's venture is a tremendous success. Ten years ago, many thought it would ruin his company.

"In 1992, there was a strong opinion. They said you could not grow wrapper on this island," Fuente Jr. now says. "There were so many ridiculous theories." Even after he had cigars on the market, some questioned whether the Fuente Fuente OpusX wrapper was truly Dominican. "They said, 'It's not true. It doesn't exist,'" adds Fuente.

Much of the skepticism came from tobacco men who were thinking in economic terms. How could you sell a wrapper leaf grown in a country with no reputation for growing great wrappers? Fuente sidestepped this, keeping the tobacco for himself, vowing never to sell it to another cigarmaker.

Fuente's success has brought him company. Along with La Flor Dominicana, La Aurora S.A., the Dominican Republic's oldest cigar company, Hendrik Kelner, the maker of Davidoffs, and General Cigar Co., the maker of Macanudo cigars, are also growing wrapper in the Dominican Republic. Gomez, Kelner and La Aurora have yet to put a Dominican wrapper on the market.

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