Avo Uvezian: The Man in the White Suit
The cigar showman in his mimbre hat and Brioni suit, Avo Uvezian is as recognizable as the cigar that bears his name.
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97
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Uvezian is right in many ways. He is one of the masters of public relations in the cigar trade. However, his efforts often go to waste since consumers have always had a difficult time finding his cigars in the marketplace. It's still a problem, even with the distribution clout of Davidoff. Supplies of Avo cigars, especially in the United States, have been variable at best since an August 1996 fire destroyed Davidoff's cigar factory in Santiago; a few hundred thousand Avo cigars were lost in the blaze. Some of Avo's supply problems could be attributed to a subsequent change in venue: Davidoff shifted production to Kelner's cigar factory in Villa González while a new factory was built to replace the old one. However, the main problem is that there just aren't enough Avos to keep up with the consumer demand, despite an eightfold increase in production since 1990.
The spectacular rise in output may have a downside, however. Avo cigars have been less consistent in quality than before, although they seem to be improving. In the past year or so, some Avo cigars have not had the richness or the flavor they once did. Some cigar merchants have even received complaints from customers about Avo cigars. "We have had some problems with the cigars," says one well-known Davidoff merchant in a major U.S. city who wished to remain anonymous. "They just don't seem to be as good as they once were. Moreover, their construction is less good."
Kelner and Uvezian admit that there have been problems this past year with producing Avo cigars, contending that the main difficulty has been the variable quality of olor tobacco used in the blend. They argue that the lapse in quality had nothing to do with the rapid growth or the change in ownership of the brand, and they emphasize that any problems--if they existed at all--have been rectified. Nonetheless, the annual sales growth of Avo cigars has been nothing short of extraordinary, begging the question of how the brand can maintain its quality. Look at the figures: Avo sold about one quarter of a million cigars in 1990 and skyrocketed to almost six times that size in five years. Avo hit the 2 million mark last year and the brand should continue to grow, although not in such geometric proportions.
Avo cigars have generally scored in the high 80s in Cigar Aficionado tastings, indicative of very good to excellent, though not outstanding, quality. Of the range, the figurados or torpedos are usually rated among the best, cigars such as the Avo Belicoso and the Avo XO Pyramid. In a recent blind tasting of the Avo line in Marvin Shanken's Cigar Insider, the monthly newsletter from the publisher of Cigar Aficionado, nine of 15 sizes tested scored an 87 or above, with four receiving 89s.
In general, Avo cigars are divided into two sub-brands: original and XO. The latter is the richer of the two, with slightly spicier character. Uvezian says that more ligero (the strongest tobacco in blends) is used for XO and that the filler is aged a bit differently than his traditional cigars, although he would not elaborate on the process. The traditional cigars have the light orange-gold band and come in 12 sizes, while XO cigars, which have a darker orange band, the same gold-leaf lettering and "XO" printed on the side of the band, comprise three sizes. They range in price from $5.30 to $7.60 for the traditional cigars to $7.60 to $9.55 for the XO smokes. Uvezian had hoped to introduce other sizes as well as some special blends (including one for women), but his plans were postponed due to the fire. He also hopes to have a limited-edition cigar for the brand's 10th anniversary in 1998.
Uvezian always seems to be cooking up new ideas for cigars, whether he's buying additional acreage for growing tobacco or opening a new factory. In conversation with him it almost seems that he spent his entire life in cigar factories and on tobacco plantations. Yet cigars are relatively new for Uvezian. For years, he was an aspiring musician. Born in 1926 and raised in a Christian family in Beirut, Lebanon, Uvezian had always dreamed of making it big in music, particularly at the keys of a piano.
His big break came in 1945, just after the Second World War had ended, when Uvezian left Beirut with two other musicians and formed a group called the Liban Boys. They had a contract to play in a hotel in Baghdad, where they lasted a year before moving on to a hotel in Teheran. "Baghdad was a hellhole," he recalls. "We had seen a month before going there the movie Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It was nothing like that--no golden covers [tablecloths] or beautiful minarets. It was like going back in time."
Luckily, the situation was very different in Iran. At the Park Hotel in Teheran, Uvezian, only 21 at the time, was already fine-tuning his public relations skills. Not only did the young man quickly become known in the city for his talent on the keyboards, but his social graces were also greatly appreciated. He soon re-ceived an invitation from then Shah Reza Pahlevi to play at his palace, where Uvezian and his crew were warmly welcomed. "I spoke Farsi, so it sort of broke the ice with the Shah," he says. "I remember they were trying to dance the jitterbug and I said, 'You don't know how to dance that right. Let me show you.' We were invited back for two or three more events and finally I became the Shah's pianist. The hotel didn't care since the Shah owned it."
Uvezian lasted about a year in Teheran before becoming homesick. He yearned for the beautiful beaches, chic restaurants, smart casinos and fast nightlife of Beirut, not to mention his family. However, the Shah warned Uvezian that the atmosphere in Beirut had become dangerous because of the unrest in Palestine. The royal recommended that Uvezian visit America instead--and offered to get him there, complete with visa.
Uvezian arrived in New York City in 1947. He had relatives there and had earlier thought about settling in America. How-ever, what he really hoped for was the opportunity to study at the famous Juilliard School of Music. "When I lived at home in Beirut, I practiced the piano three or four hours a day, but I hadn't practiced at all after I left," he recalls. "I was very rusty. Nonetheless, I went to Juilliard and asked for an audition. They granted it and I was terrible. They wouldn't accept me. But I asked them for another two weeks to try again, and they gave me a month. I practiced 10 hours a day for a month and then I went back to audition. The teacher could not believe the difference. I was accepted on the spot."
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Robert Martin — Flushing, New York, Queens, — September 30, 2011 6:50pm ET
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