Carlos Fuente Jr. has become one of the most recognizable people in the cigar business. While at the helm of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., he has seen the company rise to one of the preeminent positions in the industry.
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The Fuentes' success is no accident. The family is steeped in a tradition of tobacco and cigars. Their odyssey began in Cuba around the turn of the century and went through Tampa, Nicaragua and Hondurasbefore finally settling in the Dominican Republic in 1981. His struggling company was down to seven rollers at that point, but that did not deter Carlos Sr. from putting together from scratch a factory that began turning out cigars. Although still a young man at the time, Carlos Jr., now 44, was already devoted to a life as a cigarmaker. He had learned and begun to master the craft of cigars at the feet of his father and grandfather, from how to prepare a field for planting to the intricate art of blending a cigar in the distinctive Fuente style.
Carlos Jr. also started dreaming in the early 1980s about a cigar that he wanted to one day make using all Dominican tobacco, including shade wrapper. As he pursued his dream, tobacco experts tried to discourage him, saying any past attempts to grow shade wrapper in the Dominican Republic had failed. But Fuente wouldn't give up. Finally, in 1992, he harvested the first leaves from a small plot that was to become Chateau de la Fuente, and in 1995, he launched the Fuente Fuente OpusX, a 100 percent Dominican cigar. Today it is one of the most prized cigars in the U.S. market. Perhaps more importantly, the project marked Fuente as a tobacco man driven by a passion to achieve excellence.
In an interview with Marvin R. Shanken, the editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, Carlos Fuente Jr. talks about his dream, about the lawsuit that aimed to deny him the Fuente Fuente OpusX trademark, the difficulties in keeping trained rollers during the incredible cigar boom in the Dominican Republic, and his own hopes for the future of Tabacalera A. Fuente.
Cigar Aficionado: Let's start with your pet project, Fuente Fuente OpusX, and the Fuente family's shade-wrapper operation at Chateau de la Fuente. Many people doubted whether you could successfully grow Cuban-seed wrapper tobacco in the Dominican Republic. Even today, people doubt its success. Why the controversy?
Fuente: When we started the project, we planted seeds that I've always called the seeds of hope. But they became the seeds of controversy. Maybe it's because so many people had tried and failed to grow shade wrapper there. I don't really know why they had failed. There was no logical reason why you couldn't grow world-class wrappers in the Dominican Republic.
The story begins a long time ago, when I was living in Nicaragua. I was so fortunate to be around the great tobacco masters, and I spent a lot of time at the tobacco farms of Angel Oliva and his son, Johnny, and Juan Francisco Bermejo. I fell in love with the idea and the reality of growing wrappers. When our family moved to the Dominican Republic, I felt there was something missing, a piece that was missing to complete the circle that would help us create a cigar that in our hearts, in my heart, I believed we could be making; that is, a cigar with 100 percent Dominican tobacco.
There was actually a single incident that triggered my desire--that moved me off of thinking about what was missing, to doing something about it. It started when a group of retailers from Europe were visiting our factory, and because I am a believer in destiny, I realized it was a message being sent to us. These retailers were in our factory, and I was very proud of showing them everything that had been accomplished in the Dominican Republic. I remember them commenting that, after traveling to other countries that were producing cigars at that point, it was unbelievable what had been achieved in the Dominican Republic, because the cigar manufacturers in the Dominican Republic were not really producing cigars, they were assembling them with tobacco from elsewhere. That comment broke my heart. And that triggered my desire to produce wrappers in the Dominican Republic.
CA: What year was that?
Fuente:It was 1989. But I wasn't sure where to turn. The Oliva family, which has been very supportive of us throughout our history--in fact, I consider them an extension of our family--had been, and is today, very successful in importing wrappers and supplying wrappers to cigarmakers all over the world. They had a farm in the Dominican Republic where they had sun-grown, Connecticut-seed tobacco. It was a beautiful farm. I approached Angel Oliva, who was like a godfather to me, and asked him to produce Cuban-seed wrappers for us on that farm. After several conversations he agreed, and when I saw the results, I knew it would be possible to grow shade wrappers on that property.
Being around the Olivas probably first gave me the passion to grow wrappers, and I wanted to relive that. I had a burning passion to grow wrapper. When the Olivas grew the first crop there, my father and I knew it was possible to grow great wrappers there. But it wasn't that easy. Actually, it was the perfect combination of many things. A lot of the credit belongs to the Oliva family. It took a lot of guts on our part to invest a lot of money, and lose a lot of money, but in the very beginning, it was the Olivas who gave us moral and technical support. They helped us build a team on that farm with a lot of knowledge about tobacco and a lot of heart.
We started off the first year with 50 acres. At the time, there was very little on the farm. A lot of credit for what it has become belongs to my father. He came to me and said, "Carlos, if we are going to be successful, we have to put in everything that we have."
It was extremely difficult the first year. It only became more difficult as the pressures started growing on us, with people telling us it would be a total failure, that it would be impossible to grow a classic wrapper on that farm in the Dominican Republic. But we knew we had to do it for ourselves. It was not considered a prime area, because some people had tried to grow wrapper there and failed. But it was the area where the Cuban exiles had first tried to grow wrapper when they came to the island. I knew in my heart it was the right place, partly because Angel told me that the soil there was just like San Luis in Cuba where he grew up. [Editor's note: San Luis is one of the Vuelta Abajo's prime growing regions in Cuba.]
We named it Chateau de la Fuente almost immediately, even though we hadn't bought the farm yet. But the Olivas wouldn't take any money from us until they were sure we were going to be successful. Each year we started growing a few more acres. We were also buying small plots of land adjacent to the farm, and in 1996 we bought the farm across the road, which was about 150 acres, and we started building roads and tobacco barns. The Olivas finally sold us the original farm.
Before that we weren't tobacco growers, we were cigarmakers. But I believe today that the project needed a cigarmaker to make it successful. A cigarmaker was not only going to grow the wrapper, but then use it on his own cigars. We made the best we could because we knew we were going to smoke the cigars ourselves.
In truth, though, the Dominican shade-wrapper project was like having an inspiration. I am from the old school. I believe in el destino--"destiny" in English. The idea of producing a 100 percent Dominican cigar was important to us, and especially important to me. I believe with all my heart that for a country to be considered a truly great producer of cigars, it's important to produce all the components of cigars. That's why this wrapper has been so important.
CA: Have other manufacturers begun to experiment or to grow shade-wrapper tobacco in the Dominican Republic?
Fuente:Yes. They have always been experimenting with growing wrappers. As I understand the history, people started experimenting with wrappers in the Dominican Republic in the late 1960s. And since the launch of the Fuente Fuente OpusX, there are many more people trying to grow wrappers. But I don't know if it's gone beyond the experimental stage.
CA: What was it about you and the Olivas that allowed you to be successful where others had failed?
Fuente:I truly believe it's not so much an issue of agriculture. I mean, there have been a lot of agronomists and tobacco experts that have been involved with growing tobacco in the Dominican Republic. If you really want to understand our secret, it's the heart, the soul, the passion that we brought to the project, and the belief that it could be done. Maybe it was just perseverance. But it was definitely more than agricultural techniques. That can be studied in books. It's something more. It's nursing the tobacco from seedbed to the field. It's suffering with it, watching it grow, doing whatever has to be done to bring in the crop. I think that that's really what has been the secret element of success for that wrapper.
I remember in 1992, driving to the farm with my father. As you get near the farm you go up a small mountain, and you can see down onto the farm. Every time I went there I got chills, wondering what we would find. One time I remember very well. There had been a storm. And when we got there, it looked like cattle had run through the fields, there were so many tobacco leaves down on the ground. The workers there had tears in their eyes when we walked up to them. The thought in my father's and my mind was that it might be the end. But that's when I first said this was a test of God. I told the workers that. I knew I had to keep the team together and motivate them and get them to work together.
CA: Early on, you had certain production goals for Fuente Fuente OpusX. But you delayed the launch because you said you weren't satisfied, and you wanted the cigars to have more time in the aging room. Have you learned that this tobacco needs more aging, that it requires a different treatment than other tobaccos?
Fuente:Yes, absolutely. Every tobacco is like an individual human being. It has to be treated or nurtured accordingly. There was definitely a learning process for us. We had to learn how to cure it, how to regulate the fermentation with this tobacco to capture the flavors that we're looking for, and how to bring out the utmost in its color. It was, and is, a long, slow process that really involves some trial and error. It's an ongoing learning experience.
CA: Is there a different fermentation process or is it basically the same?
Fuente:We rely on the Old World methods of fermenting, which is to say, really, Cuban techniques. But it's more than that. You have adjustments and you have your own personal style. Every tobacco master that I had the opportunity to observe when I was very young had their own book, their own techniques. They're all different but they are also very similar.
Each situation is different. The tobacco that we ferment from the Chateau de la Fuente, and the wrappers especially, are fermented differently than other tobaccos. We would not ferment a Connecticut-shade wrapper, or even a Cameroon wrapper, the way we ferment the Cuban-seed wrapper. We use different techniques on that rosado wrapper. I won't tell you the exact techniques--that's secret. But we use the old methods of natural curing on [the Cuban-seed] wrapper. We select by texture and grade by priming. Then we slowly ferment the leaves. But we don't totally end fermentation at that point. My grandfather told me it's like a slow-roasted pork: you have to leave a little juice in it. It's like that with our wrappers. We don't ferment it all the first time; we let it age for a couple of years with the "juices" still in it, and then we take it for another fermentation. We re-ferment. The tobacco is constantly changing, and the crops change, so you have to adjust year to year. But the secret is that it is done very slowly. We don't want to lose the character or the life in the tobacco.
CA: Do Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars get a longer aging process before they come to market?
Fuente:Yes, there is a longer aging process. That was possibly accidental. The accident started because there were some other reasons that there was such a long delay in bringing the cigar to market. I have to take responsibility for that because I had a setback in the packaging for the product. It was such a special cigar to me, and to my family, that I wanted something so special that I kept on going back and trying to improve it. I wanted the band to be powerful. I wanted to capture the Old World feeling and to highlight the family's dedication and involvement. It just took a long time to get it right. That kept setting us back with the introduction.
The box was also a big problem. I had a specific box in mind, and it took us a long time to make it. So, when we were finally ready, the cigars were already over a year old and we were forced to set a time of aging of one year. We originally had planned on aging them three to six months, but we had to change that to keep up the consistency.
CA: The biggest complaint I hear about your cigar is nobody can find it. What's your production target for 1998 for the Fuente Fuente OpusX?
Fuente:We hope to release between 750,000 and a million cigars.
CA: What was the number in 1997?
Fuente:Last year, we put into the market just under three quarters of a million.
CA: Are you going to open up the western United States?
Fuente:I would love to open up west of the Mississippi. Obviously, we have a lot of pressure to do that. There's nothing more important to me than to have our cigar available to as many cigar lovers as possible. But it's an impossibility at this moment. Every cigar that's being released is already spoken for. One thing I've learned in this whole process is that to achieve anything in life, it takes a lot of patience.
CA: But does that mean that three years from now, you still expect to be releasing 750,000 to a million, or will you be able to increase production to 2 or 3 million cigars a year? What is the growth potential for Fuente Fuente OpusX?