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Surprise in Connecticut

Some of the world's best cigars use Connecticut wrapper leaves.
Mark Vaughan
From the Print Edition:
bundle of cigars, Winter 92/93

(continued from page 1)

With approximately 90 leaves per pound, and only two cigars per leaf, the average cost of just the wrapper on a single premium cigar can be as much as 50 cents, after damaged leaves are discarded. For certain premium brands, such as Macanudo, additional handling and processing boosts the per-cigar cost of the wrapper to over $1.00.

"Connecticut wrapper is very expensive," agrees Carlos Fuente Jr., president of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Compania, a Dominican Republic-based producer of handmade premium cigars. "But the producers of Connecticut wrapper run first-class operations, and traditionally, the sorting has been very good. You can always count on high quality, and aside from being expensive, it sells."

Quality is a word frequently associated with Connecticut shade. Grading standards for wrapper tobacco are stiff, with a leaf torn or bruised on one side worth as little as one-fourth that of an entirely good leaf. Wrapper leaf tobacco is judged according to its "priming," the point at which a leaf is taken from the plant. Every priming represents one picking of a field, with just two or three leaves taken from each plant at a time, starting with the bottom and working up. Normally, there are six primings in every harvest, and for each priming there are at least 18 different grades of tobacco, based on size, color, texture, elasticity and other factors.

"There is a tremendous amount of grades," notes Lawrence Palombo, general manager of General Cigar Company, a sister company of Culbro Tobacco and maker of Macanudo and other premium cigars. "You've got green, light and brown, and within those grades you have different degrees. You can have a brown leaf that is very clean, which would be a one. A leaf with a little blemish is a two; one that has more color variation or larger veins would be a three, an so forth. The best tobacco goes for $35 to $40 a pound, but if it's broken or bruised, the price drops to $10 to $15 a pound, which really doesn't even cover production costs."

The Connecticut Valley is to quality tobacco what the Médoc region of Bordeaux is to fine wine. A combination of good soil, adequate rainfall and abundant sunshine has made it one of the world's premium tobacco growing regions. Though wrapper leaf tobacco seed varieties developed in the valley has been planted in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and other places, no one has yet been able to duplicate the color, flavor and texture of the Connecticut Valley leaf.

Tobacco cultivation in the valley follows the Connecticut River from just above Springfield, Massachusetts, to a point just below Middletown, Connecticut, with the highest concentration of fields slightly north of Hartford. Tobacco growing was once the principal farming activity in the area, but today only a handful of tobacco farms remain. Culbro Tobacco (a subsidiary of Culbro Corporation), which grows, processes and markets wrapper leaf, is a leading producer of Connecticut wrapper leaf. A decade ago, the company was operating seven farms on 1,300 acres of land. Today, production has been scaled back to just four farms on 400 acres, with only 200 acres planted in tobacco in 1992. According to Nuñez, the company, which still maintains extensive landholdings in the valley, cut production by half in 1992 (from 1991's 600,000 pounds of leaf) in order to bring supply and demand into balance.

"We want to achieve the highest quality standards possible," says Nuñez, "and then we'll see. If the market demand is there, we've the option to increase production back to our 1991 levels or even greater."

Cullman adds: "We are growing a lot less tobacco than we used to grow, but these things tend to go in waves. The valley as a whole is growing about 1,200 acres. In 1970, there were nine billion cigars being consumed; now there are just over two billion. That's a huge change that occurred in the cigar business, and it has to be reflected in the growing of wrappers in Connecticut."

The other remaining wrapper leaf processor in the valley is the Windsor Shade Tobacco Company, a cooperative of twelve farmers, working about 1,000 acres of land between them. Windsor Shade, which was founded in the mid-1930s, processes an average of one million pounds of wrapper leaf each year, though in some years production reaches nearly two million pounds. Andres Sepulveda, general manager at Windsor Shade, is reluctant to talk about the company's operations, because, he says, "We are a member-owned and-directed cooperative. I really don't want to speak for our members."

Tobacco farming in Connecticut has a long and illustrious history. When the first settlers came to the valley in 1635, tobacco was already being grown by the native Indian population. By 1700, tobacco was being exported via the Connecticut River to England, Ireland, Gibraltar and other Mediterranean ports; and by 1800, cigar manufacturing had found its way to the Hartford area, with the ancestors of today's hand-rolled premiums going for $1 to $2 a thousand. The use of Connecticut tobacco as a wrapper leaf began in the 1820s, and by 1830 several farmers was experimenting with different seeds and processing techniques.

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