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Tobacco Man

Henke Kelner, the maker of Davidoff cigars, is a true lover of the leaf and a demanding connoisseur of a good smoke.
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

(continued from page 1)

"I love every aspect of cigar making, from the tobacco fields to the rolling galleries," says Kelner with a slightly guilty look. "People sometimes ask me what stage of cigar production I like best. I can't make up my mind. I like it all. Besides, it all happens at different times, with the exception of cigar making. The crop is from October to January, February. The fermentation process is April, May, June and July. And we finish everything in November." Then, for Kelner, it all starts over again.

Kelner's zealotry for tobacco is almost the stuff of legend. He spends hours studying every aspect of cigar making: soils and climates of the tobacco fields, temperatures and efficiency of fermentation, quality and style of cigar rolling and, finally, the aromas and tastes of different blends and cigars. He probably hasn't read a novel or watched a film in years. He's too busy reading and writing about the various aspects of Dominican tobacco and cigar making. He has reams of documents, magazines, graphs, slides and books about tobacco and cigar production.

"I am convinced that the only way to make quality cigars is to have control through the entire process," he says as he puffs away on what must be his 10th cigar of the day. "The problem with the cigar business has been a question of tradition. Traditionally, even before the Cuban Revolution, cigar producers did not have much to do with tobacco growers. They knew everything about making cigars, but very little about growing tobacco."

Tobacco growing is certainly one area in which Henke outshines many of his contemporaries, no matter where they originate--including the Dominican Republic, Honduras or Cuba, Kelner works with a core of tobacco growers about a half hour's drive from Santiago near the town of Villa Gonzalez. He logs in thousands of miles a year crisscrossing the Yaque Valley in his battered 1988 burgundy Jeep Cherokee, visiting growers and checking on the tobacco fields. Kelner has even created his own tobacco growing map for the prime Dominican regions, denoting the styles and qualities of the various plantations up and down the valley. It's a little like the classification system for Burgundy vineyards, which ranks particular plots of land according to their soil, climate and quality for growing grapes.

It all makes Kelner better informed about tobacco. With about 1,200 acres of tobacco under his control, Kelner has long-term contracts to buy tobacco from about three dozen farmers each harvest. He treats them more like family than like business associates since he knows that he has to get the best possible tobacco from them. "The quality of the different processes at the tobacco farms is crucial," says Kelner. "If you make a mistake with growing or processing the tobacco, you can't reverse the problem. You have to be right the first time. So, I rely on my growers to do things properly.

"It depends on the time of the year, but during the growing season, I may visit each farmer a couple of times a day," he says, emphasizing that he gives them technical advice as well as fertilizers and other products to grow a successful crop. "I like to see with my own eyes what happens with the tobacco. I like to see the ripening of the tobacco, the quality of the leaf. I also like to see how the farmers are handling their tobacco and see the conditions in the curing barns."

Kelner must know and understand the origins and quality of all the tobacco he uses, since he is one of the few premium cigar producers in the world who base their cigar blends on specific farms. From the moment he receives the tobacco from his various farmers, he maintains and processes each crop separately until the tobacco is finally blended for a particular cigar. Kelner, a keen wine drinker, likes to compare the way he makes cigars to the production of great red Bordeaux. Both are blends of different components--tobacco and grapes--with their own unique character due to their provenance.

"One of the most important things is to keep everything separate," says Kelner. "I keep track of every leaf from every farmer at every step. Then you can make real decisions on blends. The only problem is that you have to keep a good inventory of tobacco, and financial people sometimes don't understand this. You can't make great blends without a good inventory of different tobacco. The tobacco from all my farms are different. You can have one next to the other and they may seem to have the same seed, soil and climate, but you have different quality. There are small differences in everything."

Driving through the tobacco fields in late January, Kelner wore a huge smile as he visited a handful of his growers near the towns of Villa Gonzalez, Navarette and Jacagua. A policeman on the road might have mistaken Kelner for someone who had a few too many cervezas at lunch, considering his jolly mood and rather erratic driving, but Kelner was high on the excitement of one of the best harvests in years. Although the Dominican Republic had plenty of rain and cooler than normal temperatures this year, the tobacco was in beautiful condition--and there was lots of it. "The last time we had a harvest like this was 1992," says Kelner, as he swerves to miss a tractor and roars down the highway, which runs the length of the valley. "This year is really a great crop for us. We can use the tobacco much more quickly, since it is a lighter style of tobacco. We don't have to age it as long; plus, we have a large quantity. It is about 60 percent larger than last year's crop."

Eladio Diaz, Kelner's right-hand man, was equally enthusiastic about this year's crop. Diaz and Kelner are inseparable, with Diaz primarily involved with production. "I have worked for 16 years with Kelner, and we really complement one another," says Diaz. "He is really the expert in tobacco and I take care of the processing and production."

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