Trial by Fire
Fires, hurricanes and legal battles haven't dampened the Fuente family's passion for making cigars
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00
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"I told my son, 'If we're going to continue in this business it's either automation completely or move overseas.'"
This time the Fuentes moved to Santiago, which in the early 1980s wasn't the calm place that it is today. In April 1984, the tense atmosphere exploded into a war zone. "I opened the [factory] door and I stepped out, and around the corner I saw a whole mob of people coming towards our factory," Fuente Sr. recalls. "I ran inside, locked the door. Sure enough, [there was a] gunshot right through the back room. The first thing that came to mind was: I'm back in Nicaragua."
The Dominican Republic didn't turn into another Nicaragua, and Fuente Sr. survived that scare.
"If anybody had a reason to throw the towel in, it would have been Carlos Fuente Sr.," says Wayne Suarez, a Fuente executive and the son-in-law of Fuente Sr. "But he didn't. He's unbelievable. He works harder today than he did 10 years ago."
The Fuentes have built an empire on a modest foundation. The company's core Arturo Fuente brand, named after Fuente Sr.'s late father, is one of the best-selling premium cigar brands in America, with annual sales of around 20 million cigars, second only to General Cigar Co.'s Macanudo. In August, Cigar Insider, the monthly cigar newsletter published by Cigar Aficionado, named Arturo Fuente the most sought-after brand in America for the fifth year in a row.
The bulk of the Arturo Fuente brand cigars are inexpensive, starting around $3, but Fuente also has many premium-priced cigars, such as its Don Carlos line and its Hemingway line of perfectos. In addition to the brands the company owns, Fuente also makes cigars under contract, including Cuesta-Rey and Diamond Crown cigars for the Newman family, which distributes Fuente's products through a 10-year-old joint venture; Diana Silvius cigars; Savinelli ELRs; Sosas; Bauzás; and all the varieties of Ashton cigars, including the VSG, possibly the hottest cigar on the market today.
But the cigar that pushed Fuente over the top was the Fuente Fuente OpusX, the brainchild of Fuente Jr. The brand's signature is its wrapper: dark, reddish Cuban-seed tobacco leaf that the Fuentes grow on their farm in the Dominican Republic. The cigar faced challenges even before it hit the market. Some of Fuente's fellow cigarmakers told the world that good wrapper couldn't be grown in the Dominican Republic. Packaging delays kept the cigars from making their launch date.
But publicity about the uniqueness of the wrapper built interest in the brand, and when it was finally rolled out in November 1995, supplies were so limited that Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars were all but impossible to find.
Those who did find them quickly realized that the quality of the cigar lived up to its billing: the Fuente Fuente OpusX routinely outscored Cuban cigars in both Cigar Aficionado and in Cigar Insider. In the October 2000 tasting in Cigar Aficionado, the brand's Reserva d'Chateau was the second-highest rated Churchill in the issue.
The new cigar brought a host of new worries to the Fuentes. In November 1996, the makers of Opus One wine sued the Fuentes, alleging that the Fuente Fuente OpusX brand name was a takeoff on its Opus One brand. The winemakers wanted the cigars taken off the market. The Fuentes won the case, but ran up more than $2 million in legal fees during the two-year battle.
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