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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

(continued from page 2)

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.

"If you want to have something unique, you need to grow it yourself," says Edgar M. Cullman Jr., president of General. "Once you work with the dealers, whatever is developed can be developed for other manufacturers as well." General has grown wrapper for decades, primarily the Connecticut-shade leaves used on Macanudos. Since 1974, the company has also grown wrapper in the Dominican Republic, but it has been mostly candela, the green leaves used on cheap cigars.

The wrapper unveiled last year for Ramon Allones, like Fuente's, is dark, hearty and oily. General grows it in Jíma, about a 10- to 15-mile drive from El Caribe. Fuente grows a Cuban seed, while General's is a hybrid, containing parts of Connecticut shade, Dominican piloto Cubano and Cuban corojo. The Fuentes grow their wrappers under shade, while General grows in the open sunlight, with a perimeter of cheesecloth meant to blunt the impact of wind. The latter method of growing is known as encallado.

"We tried it different ways: shade, sun and encallado," says Angel Daniel Núñez, the executive vice president of tobacco and manufacturing for General and the company's main tobacco man. "Our best results were with encallado."

General gets more from the Dominican Republic than wrappers: the Dominican Republic is, in essence, its winter tobacco home, a place to continue research begun in the tobacco fields up north.

 

"It's a very time-consuming process to develop [tobacco] seeds," says Cullman. First a grower finds a desirable plant, then bags the large flower that grows at its top. The flower contains seeds, which are the size of grains of sand. The bag keeps birds away, and keeps the plant from pollinating with another plant. The grower might pollinate under controlled conditions, then grow that seed in the following season. Having only Connecticut to work with would mean waiting an entire year between crops. Having Dominican farms adds a cycle to the year. The growing season ends in Connecticut in the summer, right before a new season is set to begin in the Dominican Republic.

"When we develop seeds in Connecticut," explains Cullman, "we are able to have a second crop, quite frankly, in the Dominican Republic."

General had an easier time breaking into the wrapper-growing field in the Dominican Republic, given its Connecticut and candela experience. Its workforce was trained in the fields of Bloomfield, Connecticut, some of the best wrapper tobacco land on earth. "We developed a team of people that work and grow wrapper tobacco—which is different from growing filler tobacco. It requires a great deal more attention to the practices, to the farming practices, to make sure that your yields are good enough to make it worthwhile," says Cullman.

Cullman is big on the Ramon Allones launch, a limited- production brand that he says is doing well. "The market continues to be very accepting of new products—as long as, of course, they're legitimate new things. I think there has to be a story behind it," he says. "We will always come out with new products. That is our mantra."

Oddly, General doesn't use the Dominican image as a selling point in its Ramon Allones ads, opting rather to promote its impressive value. The cigars come in four sizes, and retail for no more than $4 apiece.

Like all Connecticut tobacco farmers, Cullman has an intimate knowledge of blue mold, an airborne fungus that destroys tobacco. Cool, damp weather feeds the disease, which peppers tobacco leaves with dark spots that can turn into holes during curing. Left unchecked, outbreaks can completely destroy a tobacco field, or push a farmer to plow it under in hopes of keeping it from spreading.

At Christmas 2001, for the first time in years, blue mold roared across the Dominican Republic with a vengeance, ruining much of the nation's small tobacco crop.

"A lot of the crops were lost," says Gomez, who lost 40 percent of his shade crop to blue mold. "It's sad to look at the shade."

Gomez harvested many of the spotted plants, which he knows will wither, then be riddled with holes as they dry in his curing barns. Those damaged leaves will never be made into cigars, but he'll use them to gauge the texture of this first shade wrapper crop.

"I was very worried," says Gomez. "At one point I thought I was going to lose the crop completely. I'm definitely going to have less to work with, but it's not going to affect our results."

When a cigarmaker invests his time and money in a crop of tobacco, particularly wrapper, he stands one bad storm away from heartbreak. In 1998, Hurricane Georges slammed into Chateau de la Fuente like a bullet train, destroying 14 of the farm's 16 huge curing barns and damaging other structures as well, nearly $1 million worth of damage. Fuente was devastated.

"I was shocked," he says. "I never thought I'd be hit so hard by nature. That scared the hell out of me."

Fuente stopped his rollers from making OpusXs and had them use Connecticut broadleaf instead, creating a new brand called Arturo Fuente Añejo. He stockpiled his Dominican-shade wrappers, fearing further devastation in the future. Fuente rebuilt and expanded the farm, a process that continues today. (He recently planted another 35 acres.) Still fearful of another storm, infestation or other problem that could impact his stocks of precious wrapper, he has kept production on OpusX small, only about 750,000 cigars a year.

Growing cigar tobacco is difficult. Growing wrapper can be an exercise in frustration. If a field hand brushes against a filler leaf, it doesn't present a problem. If he does the same thing to a wrapper, the leaf could be lost. A careless stroll through a row of wrapper tobacco might ruin scores of leaves. Another factor that exacerbates the problem is the lack of a culture for growing wrapper in the Dominican Republic.

"You have to train the people to handle wrapper leaves in the field, how to walk in a tobacco field," says Gomez, who used his filler crop to train his workers for the coming wrapper harvest. "We assumed that people who were used to handling tobacco in the fields could handle the wrapper—it doesn't work that way. They couldn't understand why they had to do all these new things."

Exasperated, Gomez called a meeting in his fields. He brought tobacco from his factory: the rough, broken and grizzled filler leaves, rough and veiny binders, and perfect, supple and elegant wrappers. Seeing the difference in the end product got the message through.

Gomez is building better tobacco barns, teaching workers how to hang wrapper leaves on cujes, long poles that help leaves cure more evenly. Just like Fuente.

Fuente says he appreciates the imitation. "I'm very proud that they follow me," he says. "This country has to produce all the elements of a cigar. I think it's something that's absolutely necessary for the survival of the Dominican cigar industry. It is my ultimate dream for this country to stand on its own." Chateau de la Fuente, he says, "doesn't belong to the Fuentes. I can't take it home in a suitcase. The day I pass on, I want to know that it's going to pass on to other generations. It's the dream."

In La Canella, Gomez keeps working at his crop, and he already has plans to double his plantings to 30 acres in the fall. He recently purchased software to record temperature, rainfall, humidity and sunlight, and he's learning as he goes. Now, he has to wait.

"The curiosity is killing me," he says. "You gotta wait to see it and you gotta wait to smoke it. You've got to wait."

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