Our tobacco-growing Virginian follows his fantasy to the Dominican Republic.
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.
When I made my cigars with my homegrown tobacco, I became intimate with just about every single leaf. Here it was no different; the care that is taken with the tobacco is nothing short of remarkable. I thought I had spent a great deal of time and special attention. Now I knew better. There are no machines involved, everything is done by hand. I quickly calculate that a tobacco leaf has been touched no fewer than several hundred times before it can be turned into an OpusX. Nothing is left to chance.
Each time I asked Carlos a question -- such as, "How did you learn to cure your tobacco in a checkerboard manner inside a cured oak barrel?" -- Carlos would smile and say, "I learned that from my father and grandfather" (Carlos Sr. and Arturo). One of the more fascinating aspects regarding premium cigars is the portion of the process that is not documented at all, but is part of a family's oral history. There is no book, no manual, no how-to guide. Instead, techniques and secrets are passed down from father to son and improved upon with each iteration. Each cigar family has its own secrets and methods. So, an OpusX is produced only by perfectly blending the experience of Arturo, the technique of Carlos Sr. and the passion of Carlos Jr.
You would think that with all of the Fuente experience, Carlos Jr. would be supremely confident about each cigar that is made. Not true. Carlos takes no chances. Outside each room of the Fuente factory is a full-scale wooden cigar god. In front of the OpusX room stands my favorite, a five-foot-high, bare-breasted cigar goddess. Fresh leaves are placed in her outstretched hands every few days. Even though Carlos Jr. has more than a hundred years of family cigar experience to draw upon, he knows full well that the process of making a great cigar cannot be perfectly controlled and that the cigar gods must smile on any successful endeavor.
I had learned what it takes to make a cigar, but I was seeing something else. I grew tobacco and made cigars. What Carlos does is high art. Instead of paint, brushes and canvas, he works with filler, binder and wrapper. But, make no mistake, he is an artist.
Around the Fuente factory we go until he has shown me every step taken to construct an OpusX. We make our way through the packaging room, and I see how he makes the boxes. Carlos tells me that he could never get anyone to make the quality boxes he demands, so he decided to take that part on as well. About that time, I realize that I am enjoying the rare privilege of watching a man at the top of his game. It was like being on the mound with Nolan Ryan and watching him throw bullets past helpless batters. This is simply as good as it gets.
We have been touring the factory for about six hours when Carlos says, "OK, quick, get that Panama hat of yours on and let's go out to Chateau de la Fuente, the farm where we grow the OpusX wrapper." Carlos puts on his white Panama hat, gives me a grin, and off we go. I never mentioned that my hat was a complete and total rip-off of seeing his picture in so many copies of Cigar Aficionado. But he knew it, and once more, as with any big leaguer, I got the feeling that he appreciated that he had become the symbol representing the highest possible standard. I ponder that a bit more and with a grin spread wide across my face, we pull into Chateau de la Fuente.
The center of the cigar universe is marked with -- what else -- a large "X" imposed on beautiful tile. Carlos and I sit down on the X and watch a glorious sunset on what had been a magnificent day. I have had a handful of great moments. When I was 16, I kissed a girl named Kim for the first time, in Monterey, and learned about the possibilities of life. When I was 30, I got a glimpse of Lurita, my bride-to-be, as she stepped down the aisle, and for the first time understood true beauty. Five years later, I watched on wobbly knees as our first daughter, Natalia, was born and I marveled at the world. Three years later, on less wobbly knees, I helped deliver my second daughter, Alexandra, and realized how lucky I was.
Sitting on the X at Chateau Fuente was one of those few glorious and magical moments that I shall always remember. There was of course only one thing left to do.
Feeling a lot like the little drummer boy with nothing else to offer but a woeful "pah rum pah pum pum," I gave Carlos a box of my homegrown cigars, Virginia Blues. Carlos smiled. He was someone who knew the cost of these cigars. He knew the anguish, the heartache, the struggle it took to achieve. He also knew the indescribable joy of achieving something that everyone thought was impossible. He was the one person in the world whom I wanted to have one of the few remaining boxes.
Carlos, of course, had his own surprise in store and reached down and handed me a box of Opus Xs. And so two men, one a cigar hero, the other a total rookie, puffed away on cigars made by the other. I knew for certain that the cigar gods were smiling, that life was good, and that I would never forget sitting at the center of the cigar universe with Carlos Fuente Jr.
When Douglas Doan isn't competing with Carlos Fuente Jr., he works as a technology professional specializing in border surveillance issues.
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