Owner, MATASA, makers of Fonseca, Licenciados, Romeo y Julieta, Jose Benito, Cubita, Royal Dominicana, Credo and Casa Blanca cigars.
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CA: These price increases are obviously going to be passed on and have been passed on in terms of what the cigar lover is going to pay. Any projections?
Quesada: I feel that 1998 will still see some increase in prices for the cigars coming into the United States. It's the only way we can remain solvent. We have to make choices. Actually, three choices: not make cigars at all; lower the quality; raise the prices. For the last 500 years, [the handmade cigar industry has] been raising prices.
CA: In 1997, what percentage increase in price did you have for your cigars on the shelf?
Quesada: About 15 percent.
CA: What do you expect in 1998?
Quesada: A little less than that, but somewhere between 8 and 10 percent.
CA: Do you buy the hypothesis that the cigars made today by the traditional families that have been in the business are of higher quality than five years ago?
Quesada: No, I don't buy that they're higher quality. They may be different in a number of ways, but the quality has always been there. We may, if we compare it to a car, may be polishing a little more the doors, we may be tightening a little more the screws, but the quality [was always] there.
CA: So the tobacco quality has not changed.
Quesada: The tobacco quality has not changed, no, and that's why we haven't been able to supply the market, because we haven't had tobacco that's up to our standards.
CA: I'm not talking about quantity, I'm only talking about quality.
Quesada: If we had had enough tobacco of the quality that we're looking for, we would have been supplying the market in the numbers that the market needed. We didn't; therefore, a huge shortage occurred. But we didn't play with the quality, so we didn't have the cigars.
CA: Do you think that what you just said applies to the other manufacturers as well?
Quesada: There are a number of manufacturers that I respect enormously and have committed themselves to that principle, and I can probably name a whole bunch of them, but...
CA: Given the influx of so many new factories--I've heard that there's some 30 new factories. Is that approximately right?
Quesada: It sounds right, but the exact numbers are very hard to judge.
CA: OK. But then, where are these new factories getting the tobacco from, and what kind of tobacco is it?
Quesada: There are two areas where the new factories are finding tobacco. One is from nontraditional areas of growing, even in Dominican Republic, for example. And in countries from which we have never used tobaccos. European markets have used these tobaccos always, but we, in this part of the world, have never used those tobaccos. I am talking about Italy, Germany, Indonesia, Philippines, Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia. These are countries that have produced tobacco always, but mostly for short-filler cigars in Europe, and cigarettes.
CA: Can you smoke those cigars and tell the difference?
Quesada: You can probably tell that they have tobaccos from those countries of origin because they have distinctive tastes. However, if you blend in very minute quantities with more Dominican and more Nicaraguan, more Honduran, you could probably hide some of those tobaccos in a blend. But you need to have the other tobaccos to hide those in.
CA: Has there ever been controversy over a Dominican cigar not having all of its raw material grown in the Dominican Republic, which also really applies to many other countries with the exception of Cuba?
Quesada: No. There never has been controversy because the concept of Dominican Republic has always been a blend, and a blend necessitates different origins to make a product. We have been always blending, so we know that the Dominican element is present, but the quantity will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. However, the basis, and this perhaps is where your question is coming from, the basis of the blend in the filler, in the binder has been Dominican and without quoting numbers among manufacturers, 60 percent to 80 percent of the filler and binder blends were from Dominican Republic always.
CA: What percent of handmade Dominican cigars are Connecticut wrapper?
Quesada: Well, the traditional brands are definitely using Connecticut tobacco. The nontraditional are not using Connecticut, because it is not available to them.
CA: What's your take on the potential for Dominican-grown wrapper tobacco, and do you have any sense or plan to grow it or buy it or in putting your cigars in it in the near term?
Quesada: Well, Dominican Republic has been toying with the idea of a wrapper for decades now, and a number or projects have been done in Dominican Republic since the late 60s, early '70's. None were anywhere close to successful until three or four years ago, when the Fuentes took over the now Oliva farm and started growing wrapper. And that has proven that wrapper can be grown in Dominican Republic.
CA: Do you and other manufacturers have plans to get into that market?
Quesada: Yes. There are some experiments in some of the farms that are controlled by different manufacturers. But they are still experimenting with different seeds and different variations of growing conditions with an eye towards the future.
CA: Do you have a specific plan to have someday a 100-percent Dominican brand?
Quesada: Our goal is to accomplish that; whether we are successful or not, we don't know yet. We are toying with it and we are experimenting with it.
CA: How were the Fuentes able to do something that nobody before them was able to do to the point that nobody believed it possible?
Quesada: I would say, to their credit, that they were intent on doing it. I would say that they dedicated resources, both human and economic, to it and they were successful.
CA: But there had to be something else, too--the microclimate, the farmer planting the crops, something. What was it?
Quesada: The area where the wrapper is being grown by the Fuentes has been successfully grown by General for years for their candela wrapper. León Jimenes also grew some wrapper there, probably in the late '60s. In general, the leaves were spotted because of the humidity in the area. The Olivas were running that farm for years, but from the United States. The Fuentes, being in Dominican Republic, were closer to managing the farm. That helped make it successful.
CA: So, it was the hands-on approach?
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