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Tobacco Land: The Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic Has Some of the World's Best Growing Regions for Premium Cigar Tobacco
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

The soil was dark brown and had the consistency of wet clay on a potter's wheel. No matter how fast the beat-up, burgundy Jeep Cherokee traveled on the rough dirt track, ripping through puddles and lurching past peasants and livestock, the thick muck stuck to its wheels and body.

"This soil is very special here; it's perfect for growing Cuban-seed filler," says Hendrik Kelner, an owner of Tabacos Dominicanos S.A., which makes Avo, Davidoff and other cigar brands. He took his eyes off the makeshift road for a few seconds and pointed to the rows of tobacco plants growing on the other side of one of the canals that crisscross the heart of the northcentral Yaque Valley, the prime tobacco growing region for the Dominican Republic. The luscious area is a sub-region of the Cibao Valley, located in the northwest of the country. The Yaque Valley is to the Dominican Republic what the Vuelta Abajo is to Cuba. These two regions, separated by 500 miles of the Caribbean Sea, are two of the world's greatest locations for growing premium cigar tobacco, and this year, the harvest in both were some of the largest in recent memory. In the Dominican Republic, at least, the tobacco growers are extremely optimistic.

The Dominican Republic's prime tobacco growing area begins on the outskirts of the city of Santiago, in the northcentral part of the country, and continues northwest about 25 miles to the town of Esperance. The region, often called the Yaque Valley (for a river that flows through its center), averages about six miles wide and is bordered by two mountain ranges, the Cordillera Septentrional and Cordillera Central. The best tobacco is grown closer to the foot of the northern mountain range, Cordillera Septentrional (Zones B and C), since the soil is richer and deeper with better drainage. In addition, the climate is fresher, with afternoon breezes cooling the normally scorching daytime temperatures.

Some quality tobacco is grown farther west, but most tobacco experts agree that the best is located here. In addition, some cigar tobacco is cultivated south of the Yaque Valley (Zone A). The largest plantings there are Connecticut leaf for candela, or green-colored, wrappers for General Cigar, the makers of Partagas and Macanudo as well as machine-made cigars. Other small plantings in the south are primarily those of the Fuente family of Tabacalera A. Fuente, which has a gorgeous premium wrapper tobacco plantation (see sidebar, page 131) about two hours' drive south of Santiago near the village of El Caribe.

Generally, however, the overall quality and quantity of fine tobacco from the lush Yaque Valley exceeds that of most other areas. "I just spent four years in Cuba's Vuelta Abajo and Partido region and I can promise you that the Yaque Valley is growing some of the best tobacco in the world right now," says Emilio Reyes, a well-known tobacco man in the region who runs Tabaco Flor de los Reyes and who buys and processes tobacco from dozens of the region's farmers. "In some cases, this valley may be growing better quality tobacco than even in Cuba."

The Yaque Valley is like a patchwork quilt of roughly paved roads and bumpy dirt tracks. Small farms pop up all over the valley, with sleepy villages and towns in between. The only lively element in route are the brightly painted small buildings on the side of the road, where passersby can purchase cold beer, rum or simple foodstuffs. Tobacco- and mixed-crop farmers dot the countryside. Tobacco farmers number between 4,000 and 4,700in the main part of the valley. Some have contracts with specific cigar manufacturers, but the majority sell to middlemen, called empacadores, or packers, who process the tobacco before selling it to cigar companies. About eight major empacadores are active in the Yaque Valley.

Cigar tobacco farming is centered around the town of Villa Gonzalez, extending about 10 to 15 miles northwest and about the same distance southeast. Plantings in the valley total about 15,650 acres, or about 15 percent of the region. Expansion for the moment is quite easy, particularly in the northeast, but elsewhere a large part of the land suitable for tobacco is already occupied by, as Kelner puts it, "lots of towns, rice, fruit and cows."

The town of Villa Gonzalez has a handful of cigar factories, including one of Kelner's (which makes such brands as Avo and The Griffin's) and the newly established Tabacalera El Credito (La Gloria Cubana and La Hoya Selecta, among others). Villa Gonzalez is to the Dominican Republic what the town of Pinar del Río is to Cuba. Both serve as centers to tobacco growing and other farming in their respective regions.

The key village in the tobacco-growing region southwest of Villa Gonzalez is Jacagua, which has the most tropical climate and richest and most bountiful soil of the valley. Most tobacco growers here only farm two or three acres and work their land themselves. By comparison, the region in the northwest of the valley, with its hub of Navarette, is much drier, with a large system of irrigation canals to counter the arid weather. The soil is much poorer than Jacagua's, while farms are much larger, usually with crops of fruits and cereals as well as tobacco. The farms, some as large as 100 acres, are worked by hired help from the surrounding villages.

Villa Gonzalez, Navarette and Jacagua are just a few of the half-dozen or so tobacco villages in the Yaque Valley, each with its own soil types and microclimates. Others include La Canela, Palmar and Las Cienagas. "Each village has its own climate and soil and therefore its own style of tobacco," says Kelner, who has done a great deal of research on the subject, even developing his own map that could one day serve as a basis for ranking villages according to the quality and character of their tobacco. "Moreover, you can even say that particular farms within the boundaries of each village have their one specific character of tobacco."

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