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Cuba's Best Wrapper

James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

Published Summer 1995

The World's Best Wrapper El Corojo Remains Cuba's Greatest Farm for Shade-Grown Tobacco

by James Suckling

The tiny three-room concrete building is barely big enough to fit five or six people at one time. Paint is peeling off the walls. Wooden shutters in the glassless windows creak lazily in the breeze. Inside, it's dusty and hot as the midday sun beats down on the corrugated metal roof. A yellowing poster in the entrance proclaims the virtues of Cuban cigars, but no one pays attention to it.

In one tiny office, a 1950s Remington typewriter and a telephone rest on a rusty metal desk. Both have done more work than their manufacturers ever anticipated. Inside the next room, another battered metal desk occupies most of the space, along with a file cabinet and several leather chairs that are cracking from the tropical weather. The walls are bare except for standard-issue photographs of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Their images are fading under a thick coat of dirt and tobacco stains.

It is hardly a monument to what is considered Cuba's greatest tobacco plantation, but there's still a richness to the head office at El Corojo. You can almost smell and taste the opulent soils surrounding the building where the greatest wrapper tobacco in the world grows. Each time smokers caress a legendary cigar such as an Hoyo de Monterrey double corona or a Cohiba robusto, they can almost always rest assured that its silky wrapper came from the fields of El Corojo.

"Travel 500 yards in any direction from this building and you are in the heart of El Corojo," says René Somonté Leon, an agricultural engineer and head tobacco man in the area of San Luis y Martinez, one of two key villages known for growing the best tobacco for cigars. Somonté glows as he describes El Corojo. You would have thought he was sitting in an affluent Italian villa, describing his great estate. But he is reveling in his good fortune to be overseeing one of the world's great tobacco plantations.

Part of his joy is from the success of this year's harvest. It has been three years since his last good wrapper crop, and the fact that his tobacco barns were now full of days-old harvested wrapper leaf only added to his delight. Even though he had all the fertilizer, gasoline and other products necessary to grow tobacco this year, he was worried a few months earlier that the crop would be devastated by tremendous rainstorms in November and January. But the wrapper tobacco survived the rains virtually unscathed.

Originally named after a palm tree growing on the property, El Corojo is located a few miles from the town of San Luis y Martinez in the heart of the Vuelta Abajo. Today it encompasses approximately 395 acres; about 600 people work on the property, doing everything from cultivating the soil to maintaining the tobacco barns.

Talking to Somonté about El Corojo is like talking to a French vintner about the coveted wine estates of his country; both are proud that such places produce what is considered the very best. In fact, the best vegas for tobacco are no different than the top wine estates of Bordeaux or Burgundy. Places such as El Corojo, San Vicente, Hoyo de Monterrey and Hoyo de Mena are as unique as Latour, Lafite, La Romanee and La Tâche. The regions have similar God-given attributes that no other places in the world can match, enabling them to produce fabulous crops, whether it be grapes or tobacco.

"It is really the soil that makes El Corojo so great," says Somonté, sitting in his spartan office and dragging on a freshly rolled cigar made from 100 percent El Corojo tobacco. "It is a variety of things that makes the soil so special, such as its numerous chemical and organic components. The soil has a unique character. It is the ultimate soil. Man can hope to improve it, but we can't duplicate it."

It doesn't matter if they produce cigars in Cuba, the Dominican Republic or Honduras, tobacco men know that El Corojo is at the pinnacle for tobacco. In a small straw poll of some of the world's leading experts on cigar tobacco--including Brussels-based Heller Meerapfel, who controls the production of Cameroon tobacco, and Alfons Myers and Benjamin Menendez of General Cigar, producers of Macanudo and Partagas from the Dominican Republic--all of them put El Corojo at the top of their list of the best plantations in Cuba.

Menendez says his family was the biggest buyer of El Corojo wrapper leaf before the '60s, when they still owned the Havana factories that produced H. Upmann and Montecristo. "It was the very best," he agrees. "I always say that Cuba can produce the greatest tobacco in the world and the worst. El Corojo obviously fits in with the former."

Today's tabaqueros are just as enthusiastic about El Corojo. "There is nothing in the world like El Corojo," says Lazaro Peña, the representative for Habanos S. A., Cuba's cigar distribution organization, in the Vuelta Abajo. Pena is in charge of selecting the best tobacco in the region for the handful of factories that make cigars for export. "There are many other good wrapper plantations in and around the towns of San Juan and San Luis, but nothing compares to El Corojo. El Corojo is El Corojo for various reasons--soil, climate; some things can't be explained."

El Corojo is one of a handful of large plantations run by the Cuban government, established under a program that Somonté calls the UPB, or Unified Production Base. He says that these government-run plantations only represent a fraction of the entire production of the Vuelta Abajo and that the majority of the nearly 75,000 acres of tobacco are still privately held--although the government sets prices each harvest, and no one else may buy tobacco. Only about 15,000 acres of the total are planted to wrapper tobacco, he adds, and most of those plantings are near the towns of San Juan and San Luis y Martinez.

El Corojo takes priority over the other government-run plantations in receiving fertilizer and other agriculture products for cultivation, says Somonté, due to its track record for producing the best-quality tobacco. In addition, Somonté's staff regularly rotates a part of the property out of production for a few years to restore the chemical balance in the soil. "We do whatever is necessary to maintain the quality," Somonté says.

Before the Revolution, all the plantations were privately owned, and harvests were sold to brokers who then sold the tobacco to hundreds of different factories. The entire production of El Corojo was bought by the H. Duys Co. Plantation workers cured, aged and sorted the tobacco before it was sold to Duys, which then sold the tobacco to several cigar-rolling factories. Today, El Corojo, like most other plantations, only performs the first step in the processing: drying the tobacco in tobacco barns. The rest of the steps are done in government-run warehouses centrally located in the Vuelta Abajo. The tobacco is then shipped to the factories.

'El Corojo' is not only the name of a particular plantation, but also describes a certain type of wrapper tobacco. The property's former owners, the Rodriguez family, developed this particular strain of tobacco in the 1930s and '40s. According to family members who now live in Miami, Diego Rodriguez spent years selecting and nurturing the best tobacco grown each year at his plantation, to finally arrive at what today is considered the very best in shade-grown tobacco."El Corojo is a legend," says Adelaida Perez Fuentes, 56, grand-daughter of Diego Rodriguez, who works for Caribe Imported Cigars in Miami, producers of Baccarat, Camacho and La Fontana cigars. "My grandfather and uncle created a genetically distinct plant. It was a different color, a different texture and a different size. They took the seeds from that and continued to develop it."

Grown under the large tents of cheesecloth, called tapados, which protect the leaves from direct sunlight and help give them a uniform appearance and texture, shade-grown tobacco such as El Corojo should be at least 15 inches in length and about 4 inches wide to be large enough for use in cigar production. Until the development of El Corojo tobacco, shade-grown represented a tiny percentage of a harvest in Cuba. Today, at a property such as El Corojo, the percentage can total nearly the entire harvest, according to Somonté--weather permitting and assuming the necessary resources, such as fertilizer, are available. In a good harvest, the very top and bottom leaves of the plants are never used for wrapper, but are still good enough quality for filler and binder.

The plantation of El Corojo began as a single property in the 1920s, when Diego Rodriguez rented it from the Allones family, which lived in Spain. Although Rodriguez never actually owned the original parcel of El Corojo, he bought several neighboring properties over the years that shared similar soils and microclimates, such as La Vigia and El Cipres. By the late '50s, the property totaled nearly 400 acres--about the same size as it is today.

Rodriguez was well-liked by nearly everyone who lived around the plantation and was known for his devotion to the many workers in the area. He built houses and schools and provided other social services when possible. After he died in 1956, a small statue was built in his honor, although it was torn down after the Revolution. His son, Daniel, carried on the tradition and even paid the workers to finish the harvest before he fled Cuba in early 1960. Aged workers living near El Corojo still have fond memories of both men. "Daniel and Diego were real gentlemen," says Jesus Rodriguez, a distant relative who spent his life working at El Corojo and still lives nextdoor in a small two-bedroom bungalow. "They were devoted to this property and also to the workers."

Some of the old-timers from the Vuelta Abajo--both in Cuba and abroad--can't help but wonder what El Corojo would have been like today if the Rodriguez family had not left, as so many landowners did in the early '60s. They couldn't agree with the new government's policies, which included nationalizing major industries as well as widespread land reform. "When my family left Cuba in 1960, we took the memories of El Corojo with us," says Perez Fuentes. "The government took everything from us. What were we to do?"

Yet, like many other exiles now making cigars outside Cuba, part of their hearts still remain in the Vuelta Abajo. "We have the name, El Corojo, registered in the United States, but I don't care," says Daniel Rodriguez, Perez Fuentes' cousin. "I just want to live over there one day. I would do anything to do that, but the situation must change." Daniel's father had worked closely with Diego Rodriguez. "I love it in the Vuelta Abajo," he says. "I wish I could go."

Meanwhile, Somonté continues to do the best he can at El Corojo. Sitting in his dilapidated office with little material gain to show for his years of hard work, he still considers himself a rich man to be overseeing something as grand as El Corojo. "What can I say about Rodriguez today?" he says, when asked how he thought the founder would react if he visited the plantation today. "Sincerely, if Diego Rodriguez were alive today, I am sure he would be content with the way the property is being run--with a social conscience and an adequate technique," Somonté says. "We have a desire to do everything possible to grow a better product. It is our privilege from nature to have such great land, which grows some of the greatest tobacco in the world. This may be one aspect of the Revolution he might have agreed with."

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