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Litto's Twist of Fate

How Litto Gomez's La Flor Dominicana was spawned from disaster—and other things you probably didn't know about one of the industry's hottest brands.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

(continued from page 2)

"This farm is like a huge blending room for us," says Gomez. "This is where the cigars start." Gomez's satisfaction is visible even in the dim light of the curing barns, which are full of tobacco. Bulks of cured tobacco lie under plastic sheets on the floor in several barns, each of which houses thousands of leaves curing either on wooden poles known as cujes or strings known as sartas. Less refined, the sartas hold leaves that will become filler and with which breakage isn't much of an issue. The leaves in which he hopes to wrap cigars require the coddling that the rigid cujes provide.

Gomez eagerly grabs a leaf, unwraps its wrinkled form and points to the rich, reddish brown color emanating from the edges of the still green center. "Perfect curing," he says. The next leaf is the color of tanned leather, and he puts it near his boot for comparison. The colors are nearly identical. "When it looks like my boot, it passes the test," he chuckles.

Gomez grows all types of seeds at the farm: piloto Cubano, the traditional seed of the area that yields the country's best filler; Sumatra, a toothy, difficult wrapper leaf that he has struggled to grow well; Corojo, which he plants in a range of shade and sun conditions. The various tobaccos add strength, complexity and earthy, robust flavor. The LG Diez, his pride and joy, is wrapped with Cuban-seed leaf he grows under shade at the farm, the first of his cigars to use that wrapper. "When you taste some of our blends and compare them to what a Dominican cigar was 10 years ago, it doesn't taste like a Dominican cigar," he says. "The farm has brought us choices."

Gomez is a demanding boss, and he often finds himself at odds with his agronomist over how to do things. Standing in a curing barn that's being filled with piloto Cubano, he frowns at the sound made by the women sitting on the floor, binding leaves to the sartas. "You hear that cracking?" he asks. "That's the stem being snapped. I hate that sound." Walking through the tightly packed plants in a nearly mature field, he stomps on two that have been damaged to ensure that workers won't harvest their inferior leaves.

Gomez is not afraid to innovate within the tradition-bound world of tobacco. He instituted a system of marking harvested leaves with different color strings to denote the primings they came from. (Primings are locations on the plant from which the leaves are harvested—leaves closer to the top of the plant, known as upper primings, need more time in the fermenting bulks than lower primings.) He also installed an advanced climate-controlled barn at the far end of the farm. After some trial and error, it's fully operational, allowing for better, faster curing.

The gorgeous farm includes a small house decorated with purple bougainvillea. On its patio Gomez can reflect on a day spent in the fields. A barn holds three Paso Fino horses the high-stepping beauties that are the equine equivalent of tap dancers. Gomez is an expert rider—as a child in Uruguay he, along with his brothers, would often sneak into a farm at night and ride horses bareback, using their belts as makeshift stirrups.

La Flor Dominicana recently acquired a second, smaller farm virtually next door. Measuring 40 acres, this one will be owned solely by the company. It has sat largely idle for the past three years, so the soil is rested and ready. "I probably want to do Corojo and Sumatra there," says Gomez, envisioning the possibilities of having even more tobacco inventory. "I want to have tobacco that's 10 years old. We're experimenting. It gives you untold options for your blends."

Business has never been better for La Flor Dominicana. All its cigars are made by hand in one factory. Most are sold under the La Flor Dominicana name, which spans everything from the very mild Connecticut-shade-wrapped cigars in the original La Flor Dominicana line to the bolder Ligeros and absolutely powerful Double Ligero Chisels. There is also the limited LG Diez brand, created when Gomez celebrated his 10th year in business, as well as the Coronados. Few La Flor cigars are extremely expensive—special releases such as the Factory Press sell for around $16—but none are cheap.

Unit sales have nearly doubled in only two years. The company made 1.5 million cigars in 2004, 1.9 million in 2005 and 2.9 million last year. This year it hopes to produce around 3.7 million. "We've been preparing for this," says Gomez, "building inventory for a long time."

Contributing to La Flor's growth has been the creation of an in-house sales force that has virtually ended its reliance on brokers. "For a small company, it's very expensive to hire your own salespeople," says Gomez. "Ines and I debated that." Company salespeople are the uncompromised face of the brand, but they draw a salary and incur expenses. Brokers operate on commission, but they represent many brands and operate on their own.

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