A Cigar Icon
The Fuente Fuente OpusX's unique origins make it a truly sublime smoke
From the Print Edition:
Morgan Freeman, Mar/Apr 2005
The huge logo of Fuente Fuente OpusX was set in the small knoll just above the tobacco drying barns of Chateau de la Fuente, the esteemed wrapper plantation of the well-known cigar dynasty, the Fuente family. It was made of tiles and looked like a small platform for a sports event. It was a warm, humid January day last year as I looked across at close to 100 acres of tobacco planted in the rich soil of the La Vega Real valley, about an hour's drive south of Santiago, Dominican Republic, near a village called Bonao.
Carlos Fuente Jr. was in a good mood as he described how his family started the plantation in 1992 and how the dream was to have the island's first real quality wrapper production, and how this was essential for the development of what has been an icon for the cigar industry—Fuente Fuente OpusX. I had heard the story many times about his legendary cigar and plantation, and I had been to the property two or three times before. But I still enjoyed hearing it all again, especially with the enthusiasm and passion of Fuente.
"Some people still believe that this doesn't exist," he said with a huge smile as he proudly pointed to the handful of massive tobacco drying barns and fields of green tobacco plants under cheesecloth. The rich, red land reminded me of the unique soil of the Vuelta Abajo, the best tobacco-growing region in Cuba, and the Holy Grail for great cigars. "Look at it! They say this shit doesn't exist. Here's the proof. It really is the most beautiful tobacco farm in the world," he added.
It sounds like a cliché, but the view below us looked like a postcard, or even a promotional photograph. It was almost surreal. Everything was pristinely maintained. The big tobacco barns with their red corrugated metal walls and thatched palm leaf roofs were perfectly kept. The thousands of yards of cheesecloth tents looked as if they had just been put up for our visit. Every leaf of tobacco seemed to be in impeccable condition and positioned just right. "It is like a Caribbean resort here," joked Fuente. "But instead of the great beaches and hotels, we have great tobacco."
Similar tobacco plantations are few and far between, even in Cuba. I have been traveling to Cuba for more than a decade and have visited most of the key tobacco growing regions, and you don't see pristine tobacco plantations like Fuente's. This, of course, is primarily due to the economic difficulties in Cuba stemming from the U.S. trade embargo, but I think it's also because few tobacco growers take as much pride in their work as the Fuentes. Pride is the middle name of all the Fuentes, and Carlos Jr. spells his middle name with capital letters.
I have spoken many times to old Cuban tobacco growers, and when they describe the great tobacco plantations of the Vuelta Abajo before the embargo, they could be describing the Fuente plantation down to the last tobacco leaf. I told Fuente this, and he didn't seem surprised. In fact, I was almost reading his mind.
"It was built out of a dream I had of Cuba," said Fuente, who admitted that he couldn't have done it without the support of the Olivia family, which is one of the most important tobacco growers and traders in the world, especially in Ecuador. The Olivas experimented with growing wrapper in the same place for more than a decade before passing the reins to the Fuentes. "The plantation is what I learned from my grandfather," Carlos said. "He told me stories of the great farms of Cuba. Every detail is right...it doesn't have to do with tobacco. It has to do with pride."
With that, I heard the thunder of a helicopter in the distance. It became louder and louder as the thudding of the rotors of the white Bell 206 Jet Ranger bounced off the nearby green hills and echoed through the valleys. I could see the whirlybird coming straight for us. In just under 30 seconds, it whizzed by us about 50 feet above our heads and banked in back of us before circling the knoll where we were standing. It was traveling at well over 200 miles per hour. A slim man with dark pilot's sunglasses was controlling the aircraft. If he had been in the United States, he would have probably already broken a dozen or so FAA regulations. But this was Latin America, and all rules, including aviation, have always been different—or let's say, interpreted differently.
Fuente forgot to tell me that what I thought was a work of homage to his great cigar brand was actually a helicopter landing pad. The 50-year-old cigarmaker explained to me that every month or so, one of the Dominican Republic's top generals sends his crack helicopter jockey to pick up some fresh boxes of Fuente Fuente OpusX. After the heli landed, the pilot stepped out of the cockpit with a passenger and shook hands with Carlos, who introduced me. Fuente had an unmarked bag with the cigars, and after a friendly conversation, he handed it to the pilot. If the Drug Enforcement Administration had spies in the hills in back of us, I am sure that they would have thought they were witnessing a serious drug deal, but it was only cigars. (I promise, officer!)
But it may as well have been drugs because we were doing a deal on Fuente Fuente OpusX, and for many, it is one of the hardest-to-find, most sought-after smokes on earth. It set the standard for non-Cuban cigars in the mid-1990s and has stood as a model for superpremium cigars ever since. I still remember, in 1996, giving an Opus torpedo to a snobby German friend who said any smoke other than Cuban was crap, and he thought the torpedo was one of the best he had ever puffed. (I had replaced the OpusX band with one from a Cuban Montecristo.) He wasn't happy to learn that his prejudices did not stand the test.
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