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The Rarest Cigar In The World

Douglas Doan
From the Print Edition:
The Sopranos, Mar/Apr 01

Like you, I became frustrated with Arturo Fuente. Sure, they make great cigars, but my god are they hard to find. The Fuente Fuente OpusX is the most elusive. This Dominican dandy is so rare that it is one of the favorite brands of counterfeiters. What good is it to finally have a great non-Cuban cigar if you can¿t ever get the damn things? And the cost! OpusXs are over $20 a smoke, providing, of course, you can find one.

Enough is enough, I said. I decided to fight back by growing my own tobacco and rolling my own cigars. A quick Internet search, and I found a source for seeds of the best cigar tobacco plant in the world, Havana 688. A few more clicks of the mouse and I was buying every book had on growing tobacco. In short, without too much trouble, I was in business.

Ever see those neat Fuente ads in Cigar Aficionado? They like to talk about the long tradition in the Fuente
family for growing cigars. Tradition? I will show you tradition! I will be growing my tobacco in a small garden plot (a respectful but discreet distance from the septic tank) in the state of Virginia.

Virginia¿s tobacco-growing tradition goes back to 1612, when John Rolfe, who had arrived in the colony two years before from England, began experimenting with planting tobacco. From that time, the ¿jovial weed,¿ the ¿bewitching vegetable,¿ the ¿precious stink,¿ as tobacco was known at the time, would serve as the basis of the Virginia economy for the next 200 years. Rolfe would later marry Pocahontas and secure his place in every fourth-grade history book. But the real accomplishment had already been made when he planted those first seeds in the rich Virginia soil almost 400 years ago.

My seeds arrived within a few days, and in mid-March the Virginia cigar crop was officially on its way. The first surprise was the seeds themselves. You might think that tobacco seeds would be big, imposing things, something akin to a pumpkin or watermelon seed or even a corn kernel. Nope. Tobacco seeds are very small, tinier than the head of a pin; they look a lot like ground black pepper. Drop the seed container and you lose them for certain. Plant them outside and you run the risk of a sudden gust of wind, or worse, a strong rain washing them away. Because the seeds are so small, they aren¿t actually ¿planted¿ at all. Instead, they are sprinkled on top of the soil. Plant them more than one-sixteenth of an inch in the ground and you can forget about ever getting a mature plant.

To avoid these potential nightmares, I elected to plant the seeds indoors in little containers for the first few weeks, then transfer them outside when the tiny plants looked as if they could make it on their own. It was a great plan that would require some finessing that the Fuentes never needed to confront¿negotiations with my wife for every square inch of window space in the house. It all looked like a scene out of Little Shop of Horrors: tiny plant containers were everywhere.

Within two weeks, I had very small green buds poking up out of the containers. Within three weeks every container had at least five or six tobacco plants emerging. I thinned some out and started planning for the next stage, transferring them outside.

I knew I needed some help on deciding when it would be best to do the transfer, and how to prepare the ground for tobacco (the information in my tobacco-growing books was rather limited). Quick as you can say ¿Cohiba,¿ I was back online, writing to the Virginia Cooperative Extension office for advice. Ask these guys a question on how to plant tomatoes and they will gladly give you reams of information. Need to kill some aphids on your roses? They have a million possible solutions. But ask them about growing tobacco for cigars, and you are on your own. Virginia may once have grown the world¿s best tobacco, but the state apparently has forgotten the long-lost art.

Three weeks later, I started rotating my seedlings outside on sunny days to condition them for the upcoming transfer. That¿s when disaster struck in the form of a two-year-old girl from Tucson. When I wasn¿t looking, the little terror had toddled over to the flat of seedlings that I had placed outside and was quite busy pulling them out, one by one. (What is it about women and cigars, anyway?) I saved about three-fourths of the ¿crop.¿

I still had about 50 plants ready to transplant and it was time to prepare my field. Tobacco is not the easiest crop to grow. It needs lots of fertilizer and an abundance of potassium. For this reason, early farmers in Virginia had first burned off the existing fields, thereby creating a sufficient amount of potassium in the soil. Instead of setting my neighborhood on fire, I bought several bags of potassium and spread it around liberally. I also bought a giant container of Miracle Gro. Ever see the picture of the guy who sprayed it on his tomato plants and ended up with tomatoes the size of basketballs? I had to believe that Miracle Gro would help create the biggest tobacco crop in North America. More importantly, the chances of the Fuentes using Miracle Gro on their plants in the Dominican Republic had to be small. Here was my chance to get a leg up with good ol¿ American know-how.

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