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Made In the Shade: Connecticut Shade

For A century, Connecticut farmers have grown some of the world's finest cigar wrapper tobacco
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

Connecticut Yankees are a no-nonsense, superstitious lot, and that tradition lives strong inside the tobacco barns lining the Connecticut River Valley.  

"We don't have a touch of blue mold this year," says Stanton Brown, the patriarch of H.F. Brown Inc., which planted its first Connecticut-shade crop in 1938. The word mold is fresh on Brown's lips as he looks behind him for a thick beam of wood, which he knocks several times with his knuckles. The tall man, his face hidden well by a weather-beaten baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses, peers down at a visitor. "We don't count anything until it's in the shed."  

Brown is standing in the gloom of a hot tobacco barn. The leaves of Connecticut shade hanging above him are considered by many to be the finest cigar tobacco in the world. Connecticut shade is wrapped around Macanudo, Davidoff, Montecristo, Ashton and Fonseca cigars, among many others.  

Cigarmakers say aficionados buy with their eyes, and nothing seems to draw them in like oily, golden-brown Connecticut shade. "I would estimate that 50 percent of the handmade cigars sold [in the United States] are made with Connecticut-shade tobacco," says Theo W. Folz, the president and chief executive officer of Consolidated Cigar Corp.  

The Connecticut River Valley tobacco region, which stretches north from Hartford, Connecticut, across the border into Massachusetts, had been free of blue mold for 19 years when an outbreak struck with a vengeance in 1997. The next year it reappeared. The voracious fungus is the bane of cigar tobacco, capable of destroying a field overnight. In the past two growing seasons the quiet sound of workers snapping off thick, ripe leaves was replaced by the roar of bulldozers plowing under fields infected with the fungus.  

"The crop was very poor last year, probably the worst ever," says John Oliva Sr., the president of Oliva Tobacco Co., which grows tobacco around the world. "I don't think there's been much money made in Connecticut over the last two crops."  

Blue mold thrives in cool, damp weather. Carried aloft by winds, it's a regular threat to burley tobacco farmers in the southern United States. Recently a National Enquirer-style news clip described blue mold invading from Cuba, as if the Bearded One himself were standing atop the Malecón, blowing spores toward America like a child holding a dandelion. Regardless of where the 1998 outbreak came from, cigarmakers and tobacco growers alike say it caused farmers to harvest earlier than usual, resulting in a greenish crop that will taste of youth when it's finally smoked.  

"Last year was the worst that I ever had," says Angel Daniel Nuñez, 48, the senior vice president of tobacco for General Cigar Holdings Inc. Nuñez has worked at General for 25 years. The company is one of the oldest cigar growers in the valley; the Cullman family, which controls General, planted its first Connecticut tobacco crop in 1906. General is a rarity in the business, a large cigarmaker that grows its own Connecticut shade. It makes enough to wrap all of its Macanudo cigars and sells wrapper to other cigarmakers in the Caribbean and in Europe.  

The 1999 shade harvest has been blessedly better than in years past. The record-high temperatures this summer that made the eastern United States swelter kept the fungus to a minimum (some growers reported isolated outbreaks of mold in late July, which was checked by applications of fungicide) and was fueling a big, high-quality crop. "Tobacco really loves that kind of hot, humid weather," says Nuñez. He looks proudly at a plant, whose wide leaves are reaching for the sunlight above the tents. "When the tobacco smiles," says Nuñez, "you can see it."  

The uninitiated are amazed that cigar tobacco grows so far north of the Caribbean, but native Americans grew tobacco in Connecticut before the arrival of Europeans, and historians say locals have grown cigar tobacco there since the 1600s. Tobacco is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world. Seedlings a few inches tall are placed in the soil in May, and by Independence Day the plants will have soared to nine feet. By the end of August, when the final priming is harvested, a Connecticut-shade tobacco plant might stand 12 feet tall.  

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