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Great Moments

Our tobacco-growing Virginian follows his fantasy to the Dominican Republic.
Douglas Doan
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

Has Willie Mays ever called you up wanting to come over and play catch? Has Julia Roberts told you she needed a date for the Oscars and was hoping you were free?

Well, it happened to me.

Early last spring Carlos Fuente Jr., one of the best-known cigarmakers in the world, called and invited me to come to the Dominican Republic to see how he makes the phenomenally popular Fuente Fuente OpusX. Carlos had read an article I wrote for Cigar Aficionado (April 2001) in which I talked about my struggles to grow my own tobacco and make my own cigars in Virginia. I was not sure why he would ever want to talk to a guy like me. My tobacco growing experience lasted exactly one year and it had been an absolute miracle that I ever produced a single cigar. Fuente, on the other hand, produces the OpusX. So why was the master calling me, a tobacco rookie with one, thin year of experience? Why indeed! But when Willie Mays, Julia Roberts or Carlos Fuente calls with an invitation, it is best not to think too much, to control your rapid breathing, and muster enough presence of mind to say, "Yes! I would be delighted to join you." And then quickly hop on a plane.

Four days later, I was in the Dominican Republic, standing outside the Fuente factory in Santiago. Like many cigar lovers, I was well aware of the Fuente saga. The Fuentes left Cuba and came to the United States with a dream to make fine premium cigars and nothing else. That dream would take the family to Nicaragua, where revolution forced a sudden move to Honduras. A factory fire and a difficult economic environment forced the family out of Honduras, and the Fuentes found themselves back in Florida with not much else than the original dream to make fine handmade cigars. In 1980, Carlos Fuente Sr. banked it all on a move to the Dominican Republic.

Dreams are powerful things and slowly the Fuentes started to build a solid reputation for making premium cigars. Then in 1989, Carlos Jr. announced that he would grow premium wrapper in the Dominican Republic, which immediately set the cigar world laughing. As everyone knew, great wrapper came either from Cuba or Connecticut, not from the D.R. But everyone was wrong. It wasn't easy, but Carlos defied the skeptics and produced a superior Dominican wrapper, which he used for a new cigar named the OpusX. It quickly became one of the most sought-after cigars in the world.

It was a dream of mine to one day go to Santiago and visit the Fuente factory and maybe catch a glimpse of Carlos wearing his trademark Panama hat. You've seen that picture in the Fuente ad inside every issue of Cigar Aficionado. Carlos and his father are standing in the middle of a perfect tobacco field with the look of absolute bliss. In fact, one of the reasons I decided to grow my own tobacco was to try to capture that field of dreams look.

So, I bought myself a white Panama hat, and every time I worked my own small tobacco crop, I proudly wore it. Kids all across the country are wearing Cubs or Giants hats and swinging for the fences like Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds. It was the same for me. Standing in the middle of my small tobacco plot, wearing my Panama hat, I was transformed. I was not some rookie farmer out of his mind trying to grow tobacco. I was a Fuente proudly and defiantly growing my tobacco despite all the skeptics.

But now I was actually standing outside the Fuente factory on a bright spring morning wearing a white Panama hat. No factory tour will get you in at Fuente. Admission is by invitation only, and I knew that the Fuentes were very guarded about their processes and cigar-making secrets. My wife took a lot of tourist-type pictures of me mugging in front of the Fuente factory before I went in. I was a little embarrassed by the notion that Carlos would see me standing in front of the Fuente coat of arms with my white Panama hat. But it was a picture I had to have.

Ten minutes later I was shaking hands with the real deal. It is impossible not to like Carlos Fuente Jr. He is an engaging man, fully animated with an easy comfortable laugh. "I wanted to meet you," he says. "You now know how hard it is to make a great cigar; now let me show you how we make a Fuente Fuente OpusX." I was in heaven.

With me in tow, Carlos takes me through a Willy Wonkañlike tour of the Fuente factory. We start with the aging room where rows and rows of OpusXs age gracefully. The entire time, I am peppering Carlos Jr. with questions: How did you do this, how did you do that? With each answer I slip farther down the rabbit hole. Each task is performed in a special room (there is even a Cigar Aficionado room, the main cigar-rolling gallery) with a unique name inscribed above to highlight the special operation that takes place there. Carlos wends me through it all and I am very quickly overwhelmed. It is kind of like getting a drink from a fire hydrant. I see processes and practices that I am ill prepared to fully comprehend.

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