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Manuel Quesada: The Gentleman of Cigars

Michael Frank
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

It is nearly midnight on a Friday at an upscale Santiago, Dominican Republic, restaurant. The waitstaff is staring blankly at the ceiling, lingering only because one table of cigar makers has yet to finish a cigar-and-Port-fueled three-hour conversation. Traditionally, Dominicans stay in on Friday evenings, but right now nobody at the table heeds the clock, the local customs or the curt maître d'. The rules that hold this circle of men together in discourse are as old as tobacco itself; older, in fact, because only fire, gold or the opposite sex could provide men with this much purpose, devotion and satisfaction.

At the moment, Manuel Quesada is holding court. Quesada's great-great grandfather started brokering tobacco leaf in Cuba in the 1880s and, four generations later, Manufactures de Tobacos S. A. (MATASA) manufactures some of the finest cigars in the world: Fonseca, Romeo and Julieta, Licenciados, Sosa, Casa Blanca, Jose Benito and a new release in the American market, Cubita (which has been sold in Europe for three years). On his left, Carlos Fuente Jr. (maker of Fuente, Cuesta-Rey, Ashton, Bauza, Montesino and the highly touted newcomer Chateau de la Fuente) and his brother-in-law Wayne Suarez listen quietly, while Hendrik Kelner of Tabacos Dominicanos (TABADOM: maker of Davidoff, Avo, Griffin's and Troya) sits across from Quesada and nods his head in steady agreement.

Quesada's reverent tone has transfixed his audience. He is talking of a different era in the cigar world. In his smooth, Spanish-accented baritone, Quesada hypnotizes everyone with stories of the cigar world before Castro. His hands emphasize his words, cutting shapes in the blue smoke. "In Cuba, the rollers all lived above the factory. They worked six days a week and on Sunday afternoons they would go out socially. But if a roller came downstairs and wasn't wearing a coat and tie, he wasn't allowed to leave.

"These men had reputations, and when they went out they represented a trade." Quesada ("Manolo" to his friends) pauses to take a sip of Port, and we wait for him to continue. "My God, the things these people did with tobacco. They used to tell their kids to play in the tobacco bales and they would make games with it. They would stack the bales in such a way that it all fit together like a puzzle. You could unpack a bale and put it back together exactly as you took it apart. And not one leaf in that bale would be broken. The genius and the time...they don't exist anymore."

The times have changed. But the minds at this table remember. Earlier in the day, Quesada sat in his office behind a rickety desk and explained exactly why he is making cigars in the Dominican Republic and not in Honduras, Nicaragua, Jamaica--or Cuba. From the mid-1880s until 1960, Quesada's great-grandfather, grandfather, father and several generations of uncles brokered tobacco out of Havana and sold it around the world. In the 1930s, one uncle started to buy and resell Dominican tobacco, creating a permanent family foothold on the island of Hispaniola. By the time Castro came to power, Sobrinos de A. Gonzales (the company founded by Quesada's great-great-grandfather) and Constantino Gonzales (founded by a great-uncle) were the largest tobacco brokers in the world. In April 1960, Quesada's family was forced out of business.

Quesada tells the story in his usual deep, considerate Spanish lilt. But when he gets to the subject of the Cuban Revolution, his voice changes to a matter-of-fact monotone reserved for the weary recounting of painful memories. "Four guys in a jeep with machine guns came to the door, asked for the key to the safe, sealed it and one said, 'this vault has been intervened by the government; nobody can touch it.'

"In August of 1960, my brother and I were sent to Miami, and [the following month] my mother and two sisters came. My father stayed for a year educating Castro's men on how to run his business. One day they told him, 'go. Don't come back.' "

Manuel Quesada Sr. left Cuba and shortly after settling in Miami, he flew to New York and asked the Royal Bank of Canada for a $200,000 loan. "We had been doing business with that bank since 1907," Quesada recalls. "With no collateral, they loaned him the money in 1961."

Quesada's father used the loan to buy warehousing facilities and leaf in the Dominican Republic and began to grade, select, warehouse, sort and finally sell Dominican and other tobaccos to the same European and South American cigar makers who used to buy Cuban leaf from the Quesada family's Havana-based operation.

By the late '60s, some Miami-based cigar makers began to buy leaf, including Juan Sosa. The ties between the Sosa and Quesada families were already in place as Sosa's family had farmed and made cigars for domestic consumption in rural Cuba and the Quesadas owned a portion of Sosa's business. However, Sosa was beginning to have difficulty finding rollers for his Miami-made cigars. Because of rising labor costs and an aging workforce, Sosa shifted production to Santiago in 1972, and MATASA was born with Quesada in command of a four-legged table, a phone and three rollers. A couple of bales of tobacco sat on the floor beside the table. The opening capital of the company was $100.

Driving along a mountain highway in his Mitsubishi sedan, Quesada taps his fingers on the steering wheel, keeping the beat to Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman. "This is music from my hippie days. I was a very low-key hippie." It's hard to believe that counterculture was ever vaguely attractive to Quesada, who now seems very traditional--a man whose current fantasy is to "drop out" and return to college to study classics, history or literature. But there were times in his life when rebellion seemed like the only way to survive.

Before founding MATASA, Quesada was forced to choose between the possibility of fighting (and maybe dying) for a foreign country or quitting the family business.

"It was 1968, and I was a resident in the United States going to graduate school at the University of North Carolina and I was drafted three days prior to final exams. But I had no reason to go to Vietnam. I'm a Spanish citizen [Quesada Sr. was born in Spain, giving his son the legal right to Spanish citizenship], a Cuban exile, living here in the Dominican Republic. What would I be looking for in Vietnam? But if I didn't go and defected, I could never go back to the United States again. And it's the nature of our business--you have to be able to travel to the States."

Quesada was sent to Vietnam the summer after the 1968 Tet offensive. "I became a radio-telephone operator for a recon outfit--the new guy always got the radio with a 12-foot antenna so everyone knew where you were. After seven months it dawns on me. I am a Spanish citizen. Therefore, I am a mercenary. Mercenaries who get captured get shot. So I'm sitting here saying, 'why am I a Spanish citizen?' "

After a lengthy discourse with several officers and an inspector general, Quesada managed to convince the Army to make him a citizen and pull him from the front lines. After a year in a supply company, he was back in the United States, getting his M.B.A. from Florida State University on the GI bill.

Naturally, the not-so-rebellious hippie who came back to the Dominican Republic with somewhat longer hair and a master's degree was put to work in the family leaf operation. But after a few years at MATASA, Quesada began to wonder about the future.

"MATASA was not a viable proposition at all. In fact, only until General [makers of Partagas and Macanudo] and Consolidated [H. Upmann, Dunhill, Onyx] began to transfer production to the Dominican Republic [in 1979 and 1980] did the country begin to take off." According to Quesada, it also helped that Consolidated, beset by production difficulties, asked MATASA to produce Primo del Rey and Montecruz cigars for two years. This allowed Consolidated the time to train Dominican rollers and finish their giant La Romana factory. And at the same time, MATASA hired more rollers and experimented with new brands.

"Jose Benito was a family brand. Named after my uncle. (Actually he was my fourth cousin, but we called him Uncle.) This was the man who taught me everything I knew about leaf tobacco, so we decided to create a brand in his honor. But it took a couple of years to satisfy Uncle Jose Benito because he would smoke 14 cigars a day."

After Jose Benito, which is distributed by Hollco Rohr in North America, other brand owners came to MATASA and, in the mid-1980s, Quesada's factory began to produce Romeo and Julieta, Fonseca, Casa Blanca and several house brands. Distribution for these brands was handled by brand holders, which made life easier for Quesada and allowed the brands to reach various American regional markets without stretching MATASA's resources. Quesada could concentrate on making cigars.

Still, these brands are not what catapulted MATASA into the limelight.

"This is your damned fault," Quesada jokes, implying that Cigar Aficionado has made his cigars too popular. In recent issues, Sosa, distributed by Antillian in Miami, and Licenciados, distributed by Mike's Cigars (also in Miami), have scored in the high 80s and the Licenciados Toro pulled down a 93 in the Summer 1994 Coronas Gordas blind tasting.

But even before his cigars started to roar past the competition in blind tastings, Quesada's brand repositioning began the avalanche of praise and purchases of MATASA-produced cigars. "Three years ago we relaunched Fonseca into a national brand. We switched from Cameroon to Connecticut [wrapper] and even though it only got an 82 rating, it generated a huge amount of calls." Today Fonseca is on back order for 700,000 cigars.

The situation is similar for Licenciados. "I could sell 50,000 a month if I could supply them." Today MATASA is stretching to produce half that quantity. Still more stunning is the rise of Romeo and Julieta and the year-old Romeo Vintage line. "If I had one million Romeos, I could sell them. One million.

"I could have done that years ago. Just made 20 million cigars and retired. But that's not what we're here to do." Recently, however, the desire to make a quick buck has had a strong pull on Quesada and other manufacturers. (MATASA will produce about four million cigars this year, a 20 percent increase over 1993.) And for a man who is tremendously interested in the world outside of tobacco, the means to buy his way out of the world of ligeros and capas, bulks and rolling tables, has never been more readily at hand. Quesada could rush cigars to market, sell them before the tobacco is mature and fill all back orders in 40 days. But then he would have to retire. MATASA would be the bane of the Dominican cigar industry. Distributors would despise him and smokers would run from Licenciados Toros, instead of burning up the phone lines at Mike's Cigars.

And there is something else. Quesada--no matter how much he would prefer to sit in some cafe, idly smoking cigars, drinking espresso and reading Stendhal--could never let go of the leaf that is such an integral part of his character.

"Of course, the whole country could solve the back-order problem in 40 days; however, that would be a quick kill for a quick buck. We [members of a voluntary confederation of Dominican cigar makers] sit down and talk about this and we always come back to that."

For Quesada to continue to be successful, he must keep pace with demand--a process hampered by limited tobacco production and strict production standards. "Suppose you have tobacco and there are no cigar makers. It takes a year, at least, to train them. And a lot of the production of domestic leaf that we should take has been exported to other countries. There's no reason for it. We should be growing high-quality tobacco on land that once grew cigarette tobacco. For cigarettes, country of origin doesn't matter, but for cigars it does."

When asked why he doesn't staunch the short supply of Connecticut wrappers with other, readily available leaf, Quesada's mind jumps five steps ahead. "Well, there is no Cameroon. So you look at Sumatra, which is beautiful, but the taste is mouth-drying, and I personally do not like the taste and neither do Americans. So Connecticut becomes the only viable alternative. But if you grow it abroad the taste and texture change. So you look at Sumatra grown in Ecuador, which is darker in color. And there is Mexican maduro. But, for example, Fonseca is on such stringent standards that we don't allow the use of Mexican maduro. Only Connecticut broadleaf. You've seen it aging. I could wrap cigars with it now, but people would taste the difference." He throws up his hands, then quickly anticipates the next logical question.

"So why do we create new brands? Why come out with Cubita when you can't make enough Fonsecas?" Quesada explains that, with more tobacco purchased, more brands need to be created. "You need brands that sell for a little less. Every leaf isn't meant for a superpremium cigar. Licenciados is not meant to be a superpremium. It needs to be accessible to a large number of people."

For Cubita, or any of the brands on MATASA's rolling tables, a "large number" does not mean all of the smokers in the United States. "We haven't been in the tobacco business for 100 years by selling a million cigars at a time." Quesada's goals are modest for all of his cigars. "I think the Cubita blend will sell. I think that it will satisfy some people. I would like to see Cubita develop into a brand over the next 20 years. I've only discontinued one brand in 20 years and I don't want to do it again. You don't do this by cutting corners."

But Quesada realizes that modern palates are more demanding--wanting more than simple consistency. "These people are not my generation. We were happy with 'I like it' or 'I don't like it.' These people want to know how it works, where it comes from. Who does it? Their spectrum is much wider than ours was. This creates a much better smoker."

Philosophizing on this next wave of cigar smokers, Quesada discounts the threat of outlawing smoking. "Our problem is what we exude when we smoke a cigar. On the one hand, everyone's trying to stop you from smoking. But today there are restaurants that will try to accommodate you if you smoke a cigar. And a number of people are looking for better quality. Drink less, but better. Smoke less, but better. If quality dies, then we die."

By 12:30 a.m., now early Saturday, the last of the Port dribbles into Quesada's glass and Wayne Suarez burns his fingertips on a now very short cigar. Quesada, Kelner and Fuente give him a round of ribbing, but not too hard. They're happy that Suarez doesn't light another cigar. It's one less that will have to be made in the morning--all of these men, including Manuel Quesada, will be in the office in less than eight hours. There's not much time left to socialize or pursue hobbies, but each man here knows that quality requires diligence. "We're not here for today," Quesada says. "I'm the fourth generation, and the fifth generation is already working. We want to leave something for the next generation."

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