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Part Two: Las Vegas Big Smoke Saturday Seminars

Seed to Box: A Cigar's Journey

Consumers don't often think about it, but the cigar that they blithely pluck from a cedar box in a tobacco store took longer to make than the car they drive and, in some cases, the house they live in.

The extensive journey that a cigar traverses in getting from the fields to its eventual owner was the subject of the "Seed to Box" seminar, hosted by senior editor David Savona in the Saturday session of the Big Smoke Las Vegas.

"It's a long, painstaking process," said Savona, hoping that the seminar, which included a tobacco grower, a cigarmaker, a brand owner and a retailer, would make the audience wonder how cigars could cost only five dollars or so to buy at the end of the cycle.

Nestor Plasencia Jr., one of the world's premiere experts on cigar tobacco.

Nestor Plasencia Jr., who represented Plasencia Tobacco as the fifth generation of his family to grow tobacco, introduced the first part of the process. He noted that tobacco typically takes 60 days to mature and then undergoes another 60 days of curing in barns before it can be rolled. Plasencia, whose company typically has 30,000 bales of tobacco on hand, discussed the many travails of weather that threaten each crop in their fields in Nicaragua and Honduras, saying: "If you want to get into this you must like it."

José Blanco, director of sales for La Aurora S.A., told how the journey to the store can then go on for years. Some of the company's current cigars include tobacco from as far back as 2005 in its blends. That process, while expensive, is worth it, he insisted. "There is only one way to make cigars—good tobacco, well aged."

La Aurora's José Blanco takes a question from the audience.

Sathya Levin, whose company, Ashton Cigars, markets such brands as Ashton and La Aroma de Cuba, spoke from the perspective as a brand owner, revealing how he and members of his company sometimes test 15 to 20 blends before settling on a mixture of tobaccos when creating a new product. "Over time, if you trust your taste, you will come up with something good," he said.

Matt Arcella, owner of the Davidoff shops in Las Vegas, represented the retailing end of the process and spoke to the importance of serving the end user. "The consumer doesn't see the years of hard work that go into a cigar," he said, noting the importance of providing tobacco knowledge to the customer. Matching the consumer with a cigar was one of the key points he stressed, as well as maintaining and presenting the cigars in a clean environment.

Retailer Matt Arcella, owner of Las Vegas' Davidoff cigar shops.

Levin added that part of his job as a brand producer was to raise retailer awareness of cigars, "to get them excited, so the consumer can get excited and feel the passion." He also discussed the creation of a specific cigar, the San Cristobal, explaining it was born from the need to diversify the company's portfolio. The concept going in was to make a full-bodied, spicy smoke with Nicaraguan leaf. The company tapped Jose "Pepin" Garcia, who has impressed the cigar world so much in recent years with a parade of blends that have scored invariably high in the Cigar Aficionado ratings.

Levin said that the process was nevertheless long and involved as tasters went through at least 20 sample blends before arriving at a winner. Blanco, who has a hand in his share of successful blend developments, interjected that "you're not going to get 30 people to immediately like a blend. The day that happens the world will come to an end."

The La Aurora executive also spoke to the serendipity of the blending process, which sometimes yields a smoke that is better than the sum of its parts. Asked by Savona if blending great components could result in a bad cigar, he said, "Yes, a cigar made of all ligero. Smoke it half way through and you will puke and shit your pants."

Sathya Levin, vice president of Ashton Cigars.

Plasencia spoke extensively about the fragile nature of cigar tobacco and the many maladies that can befall a crop. "All stages have their dangers," he said. If the weather is either too dry or too humid, the tobacco will be adversely affected. Farmers tend to favor dry weather for a growing season as they can always irrigate their crops, but if they grow during a wet spell they can't protect the tobacco from being washed out.

The fertilizing process is also a delicate one and must be done in exacting amounts as an overdose of nitrogen will kill the leaf's flavor. Planting legumes in the off season is a method used to keep Ph levels in check. Even after the tobacco is picked it is still highly susceptible to mishaps, he said. "The curing barn can spoil an entire crop in one day if the air circulation is wrong."

Experimenting with new types of tobacco is also an ongoing process for tobacco growers, Plasencia said, adding that it takes three years to find out if an innovation works. "Tobacco speaks to you. You just have to listen."

Photos by Sjodin Photography

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