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This year marked my 20th wedding anniversary and, to celebrate it, my lovely wife, Sharon, and I decided to go to Cuba. It was a natural choice given my love of cigars and her love of sun, sand and the adventure of going somewhere "different." It seemed equally natural that my cigar buddy and his charming wife, Barbara, should accompany us.

This was our first visit to Cuba, and it will most certainly not be our last. We found the Cuban people to be as warm and welcoming as their climate, and were delighted to be surrounded by wonderful Cuban music wherever we went. While struggling with the economic woes generated by both the embargo and the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the people whom we met showed a zest for life that we found refreshing.

Armed with sound advice from Cigar Aficionado publications, we studiously avoided offers of black-market cigars (which were everywhere). We even called the bluff of one purveyor of "genuine Cohiba Lanceros, only $80 a box!" by asking for and receiving a sample which, we decided, may have seen the digestive tract of a donkey before being rolled; the similarity to the smell of burning compost was most convincing. Eschewing all but the single sticks sold at our resort hotel and those purchased at a lovely approved outlet run by a friendly and knowledgeable staff, we marked each of our eight days with a parade of the finest cigars on earth. Bolivar, Cohiba, Partagas, Montecristo and other famous brands were savored, discussed and logged into my "cigar journal," which would be used to guide our final purchase of boxes of cigars to take home to Canada, all at prices from one-third to one-seventh what they cost at home! We thrived on a daily diet of cigars that had previously been reserved only for birthday and Christmas celebrations.

Our last day was the most wonderful as we purchased boxes of our favorites: creamy Partagas Lusitanias, silky Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas, Romeo y Julieta Petit Coronas and incredible Bolivar Royal Coronas. Now, Dennis and I survey our collection of cigar treasures, agree on which we shall smoke and discuss, carefully cut and light, and lean back and share dreams of our next trip--to Cuba, of course!

Dr. David Carter
Kelowna, British Columbia

* * *

Dear Marvin,

As an avid reader of and subscriber to your publication, I am dismayed by what I perceive to be an effort (conscious or otherwise) to simultaneously downgrade the reputation of Havana cigars and upgrade that of non-Havanas.

This perception is based on my reading of various relevant articles as well as the cigar ratings that have appeared in the last few editions of Cigar Aficionado. My perception is further grounded on the knowledge that Americans refuse to settle for second best.

Having been a cigar aficionado for 25 years, and having had the opportunity (and privilege) to consistently enjoy Havanas for 20 of those years, it is my considered opinion that all this talk concerning the dwindling quality of Cuban cigars is absolute nonsense, or even worse. My personal experience is that, if anything, the opposite is true: Cuban cigars are better than ever, from every point of view. The Cuban brands I regularly smoke include Cohiba Esplendidos and Robustos, Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas and Epicure No. 2s, Partagas Lusitanias and Serie D No. 4s, Bolivar Belicosos Finos and Royal Coronas, Punch Churchills and Punch Punches, and Romeo y Julieta Churchills and Montecristo No. 2s.

On the other hand, I have recently had an opportunity to sample a wide variety of non-Cuban smokes during a two-week visit to New York. I deliberately made the more prestigious and higher rated brands my focus for the sampling. I was surprised and disappointed to discover that, to my taste, only the Fuente Fuente OpusX Robusto approached the Havana standard; the others were barely mediocre.

I can truly appreciate the dilemma you Americans face in that you demand only the very best, which unfortunately happens to be largely inaccessible to you. But instead of dealing with the situation practically, namely, by pressuring your obtuse government to put an end to its ridiculous embargo on Cuban goods, you have chosen to badmouth Cuban cigars while making a virtual cult out of smoking certain "prestigious" non-Cubans (I refer to the outrageous and unjustifiable prices asked for these truly undistinguished smokes).

However, if you want truly solid evidence of the cigar fantasy you are creating, you need look no further than the October 1997 issue of Cigar Aficionado. In the Online feature, nearly 50 percent of your Internet readers claimed that Cuban cigars were overrated, yet almost 70 percent claimed that they would smoke Havanas "if price and availability were no issue."

Never have I seen a more blatant example of the sour grapes syndrome! Americans, to use your own words: get real.

Reuven Zasler
Karmiel, Israel

* * *

Dear Marvin,

For the past 15 years, I have been enjoying Havana's finest (especially Romeo y Julieta Churchill Tubos) in spite of the pesky embargo problem. Midway through a recent Churchill, I began to contemplate the impact of the inevitable end of the embargo and decided that I, and all other U.S. Habanos aficionados, would be adversely affected by the opening of the market to imported Cuban cigars.

It is a simple matter of supply and demand. Premium Cubans are already in the $30 to $40 range. With demands for production at an all-time high, quality standards are being strained and occasionally compromised to unacceptable limits. How could costs and quality possibly be maintained if the market was suddenly opened to the largest cigar-consuming nation on earth?

I can tolerate the inconvenience of buying my beloved Romeo y Julietas across the border. I do not look forward to the day when I am asked to pay $60 for that same cigar, rated 81 by Cigar Aficionado, at my local tobacconist.

Tim McEwen
Novi, Michigan

* * *

Dear Marvin,

I recently returned from Cuba and can't resist making a few observations, not only about that country, but the cigar industry in general.

Despite all the hype coming from Cigar Aficionado and the media, I have felt for several years now that the cigar industry is mired in deep ka ka. The reason stems from my conviction that I haven't had a truly fine cigar in over two years--not one, and I can get anything I want, including authentic first-rate Cuban cigars. Where are the heavy, oily, perfect long-ashed cigars laced with tasty hints of chocolate, roasted nuts, coffee, cocoa, and nutmeg spices that we all used to smoke? It is my experience that these cigars have become distant memories.

For the last 30 years, I have experimented with smoking different cigars in the same way I am always seeking out new wines. Then, four years ago, I discovered Avo and became convinced that I would never smoke anything but Avo unless it were Cuban. Now, about every three months, I buy one more Avo just to check in, smoke maybe one inch, and then throw it out. Avo has gone from being one of the best cigars in the world to being harsh, bitter, astringent, and smelling like ammonia. The only brand that I feel has held the line somewhat on quality is Macanudo, which I have returned to as a relatively safe haven.

What is occurring in the cigar industry is similar to bottling a wine on Tuesday and selling it on Wednesday, with consequences just as predictable.

Cigar company stocks have crashed, so I know consumption is down. Most of my friends have simply quit smoking cigars, and I smoke far less than I did two years ago. And it has nothing to do with all these yakking do-gooders either. It's all about quality.

Of course, I can't help but be amused at all these young peckerwoods that don't know a good cigar from a good woman. They tout their fake Cohibas whose labels jump out like neon lights across a crowded room. But woe be the cigar industry if they think their future lies in these faddists.

Yes, there were plenty of pretty good cigars in Cuba. And to my way of thinking, Cuban cigars will always be superior for the same reason that certain wine regions in the world simply have the best soil and growing conditions that can't be duplicated. But even in Cuba, in the motherland of cigar aficionados, I had cigars that were less than note-worthy and often made my eyes bug out trying to draw them, even those that I purchased in the factory, including the much-touted Trinidad.

The simple fact remains that curing and aging is just as important to a fine cigar as fermentation and aging is to a fine wine. It's called patience, and it lies at the oppositeend of the spectrum from greed.

Circumvent this process, and you do so at the gravest of risks, which is now manifesting itself in the market place. Maybe, in the long run, we all do get what we deserve.

My solution is simple. Use your position of leadership and readership to exert pressure on the industry to manage itself before it is too late. Be honest with your ratings. THERE ARE NO TRUE 90 RATED CIGARS EXISTING IN THE MARKET PLACE TODAY. Period. Anyone who knows cigars knows that. Become a responsible crusader for keeping the cigar industry on the straight and narrow, even at the risk of losing some of your cherished ad income. It will pay off in the long run.

People will always drink fine wine with fine food. Whether they conclude that meal with a fine cigar depends on a lot of variables--quality should not be one of them.

William S. Bishop
La Avinta, California

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