A Leaf of Their Own
Dominican Republic cigarmakers are following the example of Fuente Fuente OpusX and growing their own wrapper tobacco
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Spy Scandal, May/Jun 02
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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."
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