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Trial by Fire

Fires, hurricanes and legal battles haven't dampened the Fuente family's passion for making cigars
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

(continued from page 2)

"It's been very painful," Fuente Jr. said at the time. "I never thought my family would have to defend our name like that."  

After the legal battle, Hurricane Georges stormed across the Fuente wrapper farm in 1998, destroying or severely damaging 14 of its 16 barns--massive, expensive structures that store the wrapper tobacco for a month while it cures from green to brown. The storm cost the family one crop year, prompting them to temporarily cease making Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars and make Arturo Fuente Añejos instead. Fuente has since resumed making Fuente Fuente OpusX.  

The Fuente company is synonymous with family: Fuente Sr. is chairman of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., Carlos Jr. is president, daughter Cynthia is president of Fuente USA. Her husband, Wayne, is a top executive with Fuente, traveling to tobacconists around the United States when he's not in Tampa troubleshooting, making sure the Fuente name is properly represented.  

"The biggest problem I face in my travels," says Suarez, "is hearing 'I need more.'" Suarez knew the Fuente name long before marrying into the family. His first cigar, smoked at age 13, was a Fuente Curly Head, an inexpensive smoke rolled by novice cigar rollers. He joined the company in 1992, learning about the cigar business at the side of his in-laws.  

"To have Carlos Sr. and Carlos Jr. be your mentors--that's not bad," says Suarez. "And Cynthia is incredible. She's the driving force behind me. This is not a business to the Fuentes--it's a way of life."  

A 20-year-old sits at the front of the Fuente Fuente OpusX room, deep inside the oldest Fuente factory. He's wearing a white muscle T-shirt; his sideburns are slim and long. A huge cigar is crammed in his jaws, a thin snake of smoke rising to the ceiling as he slowly rolls pyramid No. 2s while facing the gallery. He pauses when his boss walks over and asks him a quick question.  

"Who smokes your cigars?" asks Fuente Jr.  

The kid smiles, clamping his teeth on the big cigar to keep it in his mouth. "Sylvester Stallone, Jeff Bagwell..." the words are slow and long, heavy with a Spanish accent. He knows where some of his cigars are turned into ash.  

"He's an artist," says Fuente Jr., watching his star roll cigars. Nearby, a young, beautiful girl slowly rolls leaves of dark Dominican filler tobacco in her slim hands. Each leaf is made into a loosely rolled tube, then held in her palm until it joins several others. When she is finished, the bunch resembles a star-shaped flower, which she then rolls inside a binder leaf.  

This slow method of rolling cigars is known as entubar, and it's how Fuente now makes all of its best cigars--Fuente Fuente OpusX, the Arturo Fuente Don Carlos line, Montesino, Ashton Virgin Sun Grown. It's unusual to see youngsters with mastery of such an old-fashioned cigar-making skill. But during the heat of the cigar boom, Fuente Jr. went on a mission that he could have dubbed Operation Blank Slate--his goal was to find bright youngsters with no experience with tobacco whom he could train his way.

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