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"He could have bought a small house for the same price, but he obviously prefers cigars," says Sahakian, puffing away on a Cuban Davidoff Ambassadrice in his London shop this summer. "He's done a very wise thing. One day those cigars will be worth several times' than he paid for them."
Davidoff cigars from Cuba have quickly become the most sought after smoke among serious cigar aficionados. They are attractive for their good quality, but they are now coveted for their rarity and considered a "must have" for anyone interested in the best handmade Havanas. Demand can only increase as the Dominican Republic-produced Davidoffs replace those from Cuba. That is happening quite rapidly. The first of the "new generation of Davidoffs"--as the brand owners, Group Oettinger of Basel, Switzerland, call the Dominican cigars--began entering the world market in early 1990.
For many cigar smokers, however, nothing compares to the white oval band bearing the script type "Davidoff' and "Cuba" printed on its side. The Dominican version simply replaces Cuba with "Geneve." And there's no denying that the Dominican Davidoffs are very good in their own right. Many are the same size. Some even have the same names. There are some cosmetic differences; for instance, the Dominican wrappers are slightly lighter.
In tastings for CIGAR AFICIONADO over the past year, the Dominican Davidoffs have not risen to the same heights attained by the Cuban versions tested for this article. All 13 sizes of Cubans were reviewed, from the monumental 80 Aniversario--made especially for Zino Davidoff's eightieth birthday--to the small panetela-sized Ambassadrice. All rate from very good to outstanding. The Aniversario, for instance, scored 99 points, and the Davidoff 4000 came in with a 94. (See sidebar for notes and scores.) The depth and flavor of the Cuban Davidoffs are pronounced, but they still retain a smooth and refined character. To be fair, most of the cigars we tasted had about four to seven years of box age and were perfectly kept in temperature-controlled, humidified conditions. For that reason, we did not conduct a direct tasting comparison with the younger Dominican Davidoffs.
The ability to age well is one of the bench marks of Davidoff s Cuban cigars. Although many cigars do not improve with age, the Davidoffs are like vintage-dated red wine. In fact, Zino Davidoff, one of the brand's creators, always compared his Cuban products to great red wines, especially the Davidoff chateaux series, which bears the names of the five first growths of Bordeaux. Therefore, the extra aging contributed to the overall quality of the cigars in the test.
There has been a well-established black market for Davidoff Cubans in the United States for years, where only the Dominican version can be sold legally. As a result of disappearing stock worldwide, however, prices in America are up to three times the current retail price in Europe--and that's if you can find them. For instance, one connoisseur tried to find some 80 Aniversario recently and was told that the price per cigar was more than $100 and could go as high as $120. "I can find you a couple of boxes from a collector, but it's going to cost you," the connoisseur was told. Moreover, the collector was unwilling to break the boxes. It was all or nothing.
European merchants, particularly in London, France, and Switzerland, still have limited stocks of Cuban Davidoffs, although they are quickly running out. "I have already run out of [several sizes of] Davidoffs," says Sahakian with a sigh. "People often come into the shop and pick up a box, and they don't even realize what they are getting. I really shouldn't let them buy, but we can't be restrictive."
There are rumors of large stocks of Cuban Davidoffs still in Cuba and in such duty-free areas as Monte Carlo and Andorra. Some people even say that there are stockpiles at the warehouses of Davidoff's headquarters in Basel, but officials there deny this claim. The company, as well as most of its distributors, stopped selling Havana Davidoffs last December when Davidoff and Cuba's cigar distribution agency, Cubatabaco, came to an agreement. The accord, as stated in a press release in December 1991, said, "There will not be any more Davidoff cigars manufactured in Cuba or using Cuban tobacco, and the Davidoff Havanas will only be available until exhaustion of existing stocks, and in any event, not later than the end of 1992." (In practice, some Cuban Davidoffs still remain on the market, but not many.)
When the news hit the streets, cigar merchants such as Sahakian noticed an immediate increase in orders for Davidoff's Cuban cigars, although the demand appeared mostly in the form of large purchases from a limited number of customers. In London, most cigar merchants held their prices for Davidoff at normal levels. For instance, the Davidoff No. 1, 7 1/2 inches long by 38 ring gauge, is still available at about £280 (about $425) for a box of 25 in London while the slightly shorter No. 2 goes for £220 (about $334). A Davidoff 4000, 6 inches long by 42 ring gauge, still sells for £240 (about $364). "There's been a temptation to raise prices," admits Sahakian, who has stocks of various sizes. "But I don't believe in taking advantage of the situation. It would be an immediate gain but not a long-term one as far as customer relations."
Just what to say to customers has always been a difficult situation for cigar merchants who sell Davidoff. In most instances, the Davidoff cigars produced in Santiago, Dominican Republic, are not comparable to their Cuban cousins, and consumer acceptance of the new generation of Davidoff cigars in such Havana-bound markets as Great Britain and France has not gone as well as expected, according to various cigar merchants interviewed for this story. A 15-minute television program on Davidoff, aired on France's Channel 4 in early June, highlighted the difficulty in changing the habits of Havana smokers. After spending much of the program glorifying Zino Davidoff and his many successes, including moving his cigar operations to Santiago, the last two minutes of the show were spent interviewing famous French cigar aficionados on how they found the Dominican Republic Davidoffs inferior to the Cuban versions.
The program's ending may have been slightly unfair since many cigars from the Dominican Republic and other countries are as good if not better than some Cuban cigars. Nonetheless, the 88-year-old Davidoff is an old hand at dealing with such criticism. "Everyone has his own preferences and tastes," said Davidoff late last year when asked how a Dominican cigar compares with a Havana. "I love Bordeaux wines but I also like Burgundy. It's the same thing with cigars. They [cigars from Cuba and the Dominican Republic] are not the same thing."
Curiously, the Davidoff Company claims it never set out to replace its Cuban cigars with those from the Dominican Republic. "We know that Havana tobacco is the best for cigars, but not under the current conditions there," said Raymond Scheurer, joint managing director of Davidoff International, during an October 1991 interview in Basel, Switzerland. "We are not afraid to say that our new generation of cigars is not a replacement for the others. It is a new line for a new generation of smokers. We are not out to thwart Havana cigars. On the contrary, we shall go back there only when it is possible to work under normal and proper conditions, whereby we can ensure the quality of our cigars."
Whether Davidoff will ever be welcomed in Cuba after so many bad words and feelings remains to be seen. For the moment, it is like a difficult divorce. All the parties involved, both in Cuba and Switzerland, will no longer discuss the breakup. "I must not talk about Davidoff anymore, and he must not talk about us anymore," said Francisco Padron, the head of Cubatabaco, during an interview last November in Havana. "We signed an agreement, so we must not talk about it."
But a lot has been said over the years by both sides before the agreement was signed. It's been nearly a decade since problems began to develop between Cuba and Davidoff. According to Ernest Schneider, chairman of Oettinger, which took control of Davidoff in 1970 and developed it into a more than 500-million Swiss-franc branded business selling everything from cologne to neckties, they were obliged to examine every box of cigars sent to them from Cuba beginning in 1983. "We couldn't associate ourselves with their problems," he says, pointing out how shortages in fertilizers and qualified workers reduce the quality of cigars. "They have the soil and climate but this alone isn't enough if they don't take care of the land. Sadly, there is one thing they care about, that is making quick money. Quality is sacrificed for profit."
Zino Davidoff picks up the theme: "Imagine all the work for Havana, and then suddenly it all changes. We received cigars from there that were as hard as this table and quite unsmokable. The good workers are no more and they were replaced by just anyone. They were taught hurriedly and badly. This does not make a good cigar. All this played a part. For example, in one box of 25 cigars, there were two or three good cigars with all the lesser ones and even other brands."
European representatives for Cubatabaco are still shaking their heads in disbelief over the quality issue, which came to a head in 1987 when Zino Davidoff went on French television and condemned the Cubans for their shoddy workmanship. Davidoff even burned 130,000 cigars in a huge bonfire, after claiming the cigars were unsalable. "If there ever was a problem, Cubatabaco would have taken the cigars back and replaced them," said one Cubatabaco representative based in France. "Why did they burn 130,000 cigars? They would have been replaced. In the end, it was Cubatabaco that decided to stop delivering cigars to Davidoff, and not the other way around."
Davidoff strongly disagrees with that kind of analysis. "It was untrue that the Cubans canceled the contracts," says Scheurer. "They used the excuse that our cigars were selling for too high a price [more than other Cuban brands]. We paid 30 to 40 percent more for our cigars from them. We have never said to the Cubans that we will only pay so much for a certain quality. If you have smoked Davidoffs for a while, maybe you will remember the cigars from 1980 to 1985. They all had an elegance and a particular hue in color. You couldn't find that anymore."
In interviews from 1990 to 1992 Cubatabaco officials argued that the conflict with Davidoff has never been a question of quality, although they do admit that quality was diminished for all Cuban cigars during part of the 1980s. They said that bad blood between Davidoff and Cuba has always been over ownership of the brand name. "Davidoff has committed a grave mistake saying bad things about the product which has given his name so much recognition," said Robert Yaech Estrada, deputy general manager of Cubatabaco in a September 1990 interview in Havana. "He contradicts all the things that he has said all of his life....All the problems that have come with Davidoff have a commercial basis."
The breakup was well on its way by the mid-1980s when Cubatabaco embarked on a plan to control its distribution and marketing by assuring the ownership of all its key brands and worldwide distributors. Cubatabaco always assumed it had the right to the Davidoff name, according to contracts signed in the 1970s, as well as the hundreds of thousands of dollars it paid each year in royalties and legal fees to defend the brand worldwide, officials in Havana said.
Besides brand ownership, Cubatabaco admitted that Davidoff was also upset over the continued sales of its Cuban cigars in Switzerland and other markets by unauthorized merchants, a fact of the market that the Cubans said they could not control. "It's something you can't control in the international market," said Yaech Estrada. "There is constant movement of luxury products from different markets."
Apparently many of the Davidoff cigars coming into Europe at the time were entering through the Eastern bloc, as the Cubans used cigars as cash for buying oil and other goods. "We couldn't control our prices in our key markets," recalled Scheurer. "It was totally out of the question. Even in Switzerland, there was someone importing Davidoff cigars. When I asked Cubatabaco to stop, they told me it was a free market [under various European treaties]. I laughed. After awhile, we decided enough was enough."
The Cubans were never completely in the dark about the growing problems with Davidoff. They began to suspect there were problems with their agreement after a dispute erupted over one of the cigars in Davidoff's chateaux series. In 1984, Château d'Yquem, the famous French sweet wine estate in Sauternes, asked Davidoff to remove its name from the series and publicly ridiculed the cigar makers, calling them "high-class thieves," among other things. The name of another highly touted Bordeaux estate, first-growth Mouton-Rothschild, replaced Yquem, but Cubatabaco was worried that another disagreement could arise, so it asked Davidoff for the contracts it had with the château owners to use their estates' names.
"We asked for a copy of the contract to be sure there was a legal agreement, and Davidoff said it couldn't do it because it was done by Zino, and there was no written agreement," said Yaech Estrada.
Zino Davidoff finally admitted he didn't have a written agreement. "I didn't need any approval," he said last year when asked about Davidoff's chateaux series. "I simply sent a box of cigars to each owner explaining that this was what we intended to do. The fact that the goods were already in the market was besides the point."
Davidoff claims it finally received an agreement from the five first-growth owners to produce cigars under their names by 1986, but about a year or two later the production of the chateaux series was discontinued. Davidoff claims it was done since the quality of the cigars, which were made at the La Corona factory in Havana, could not be guaranteed, although Cubatabaco asserts that Davidoff could never supply documents from the various chateaux so production was stopped.
There's always been some mystery around the chateaux series of Davidoff anyway. Both the Cubans and Davidoff agree that the line began just after the war. The Cubans were finding it difficult to sell their cigars, and they decided to ask the Swiss to help Zino come up with a new marketing concept. Cubatabaco claims that the cigar producer first asked the Zurich-based cigar merchant, Dürr, who came up with the idea and later gave it to Davidoff. The cigars were then sold as Hoyo de Monterrey, Specially Selected by Zino Davidoff. However, Zino Davidoff strongly disagrees with the Cubans' story. He takes all the credit for what remains the most prestigious line of Cuban cigars ever produced.
"I created the chateaux [series] in 1946--an extraordinary innovation," Davidoff says. "It was me. They came to see me in Geneva as they knew me [from] when I had been over in Havana at the time. I had opened the shop in Geneva, and they told me that the war had ruined them as they hadn't been able to export their goods. They wanted to make a new start and wondered how they should go about it. We were in a French restaurant and the idea struck me as I was looking at the wine list. France had its grand crus. Why shouldn't Havana?"
According to Rudolf Wey, a Zurich-based business consultant who worked for Dürr for many years, the Cubans' version of the creation of the chateaux series is closer to the truth. In a telephone interview this summer, Wey said that the English agent for Hoyo de Monterrey, Tobacco Torceido Trade Limited in London (now defunct), Dürr and Davidoff met just after the war and decided to start the chateaux series together. "I recently watched Zino Davidoff on French television take full credit for the chateaux series but it wasn't like that," Wey said. "All three companies were present at the meeting. A Mr. Hart from England, Mr. Vogel from Dürr, and Zino Davidoff." At the outset, Dürr imported the cigars from Hoyo de Monterrey, keeping the chateaux series for itself in Zurich while selling them to Davidoff in Geneva. Later, Dürr decided to give Davidoff exclusivity for the range, said Wey.
Regardless of who actually started the chateaux series, it did enormous good for both the Cubans and the Swiss tobacconists. After the Revolution, sales of cigars were again in the doldrums and the Cubans once more looked to Davidoff for help in the late 1960s. This time, they offered him his own brand. "Davidoff came here in 1969," recalls Avelino Lara, head of Havana's El Laguito factory, where most Cohiba cigars are produced. "We decided together what the mix of the cigars would be and the sizes. We tasted various cigars for size and blend. At the time, Cohiba was already developed, since we had developed it earlier."
The duo first decided on the No. 1, No. 2, and Ambassadrice, exactly the same sizes as Cohiba's Lancero, Coronas Especial, and Panetela. Handled exactly the same way as Cohiba but with a different final blend, the three cigars were produced at El Laguito until 1991. The various other sizes, however, were made at different factories around Havana, primarily La Corona and Partagas, despite Davidoff s claim that they were produced at his own factory, El Laguito. Lara says that the cigars produced at his factory, where total production peaked at about 1 million Davidoffs, were always the best quality and that he never allowed any demise. The total annual production of Davidoff, according to Cubatabaco, reached about 3 million cigars annually.
No one directly connected with the dispute will disclose the final details of their agreement, although until that pact was reached, they were well on their way to having various European courts decide who owned the brand. The Cubans have always contended that the success of Davidoff cigars is due to the quality of their tobacco and workmanship while the Swiss believe otherwise. "They always said that our success was due to them and not vice versa," says Schneider, adding, "they were always jealous."
It's been almost two years since the last Davidoffs were rolled on the workbenches of the El Laguito factory, and neither the Cubans nor the Swiss appear any closer to reconciling their differences--which is a shame for cigar lovers. At least one connoisseur, however, won't be bothered about the situation. The Hong Kong resident who bought 7,000 cigars last year from Davidoff of London visited the shop earlier this year and ordered an additional 2,500 Ambassadrice-sized Cuban Davidoffs. "He came into the shop and asked me what I was smoking," says Sahakian, taking a puff on a Cuban panetela and then looking at it in his right hand. "When I told him Ambassadrice, he said to give him five boxes now and he put another 100 on reserve." More for him but less for anyone else who might still have designs on acquiring a stash of Cuban Davidoffs.
Cuban Davidoff Test Results
1000: A punchy little cigar with a lot of flavor, the 1000 shows medium-bodied, rich tobacco and coffee character, yet remains subtle and elegant. -91
Ambassadrice: This is always a lovely panetela to smoke with medium-bodied, rich coffee and milk-chocolate aromas and flavors, and a long fresh aftertaste. Their only drawback is that they sometimes are a little rough to draw. -88