A little more than two decades ago, Carlos "Carlito" Fuente Jr. planted 37 acres of Corojo seeds in the Dominican Republic with every intention of producing quality wrapper leaf. The fact that no one had been successful doing so in the past was of little consequence to him. And although it stung his pride when his peers in the cigar industry dismissed his ambition as a starry eyed waste of time, Fuente refused to be bogged down by the restrictions of conventional wisdom. Had he listened to the chorus of detractors, there would be no such thing as the Fuente Fuente OpusX, one of the most sought-after and mysterious cigars in the world.
Now in its 20th year of being sold on the market, the brand has evolved into somewhat of a phenomenon and is arguably America's first true cult cigar. Its price tag can be prohibitively high, its fan base can be fanatical and its availability is at times frustratingly scarce, but, love them or hate them, the full-flavored Dominican puros have become celebrated symbols of luxury and connoisseurship akin to the status of first-growth Bordeaux or exotic cars.
"I can't think of any other cigar that's reached this level of fame," says Fuente, still in awe of its success. "Maybe Cohiba. It was supposedly the cigar of Castro himself. That's quite a story. Besides that..." Fuente shakes his head and doesn't finish the sentence. When he talks about the cigar, one gets the feeling that he's still in the reverie of a dream. Ask him any technical specifics about the Fuente Fuente OpusX, and he'll go into a grandiloquent narrative before he directly addresses the question. He doesn't want you to simply know the story. He wants you to feel it. At 60 years old, he still gets excited at the opportunity to talk about his creation.
Part of the success of Fuente Fuente OpusX lies in critical acclaim, and it would be easy to lose count of all the high scores awarded to the brand. In 20 years, various sizes of Fuente Fuente OpusX have been rated more than 150 times in Cigar Aficionado and Cigar Insider (our twice-monthly Internet newsletter about cigars). Most have rated higher than 90 points, with many scoring in the 92- to 95-point range. In 2005, when the brand marked its 10th anniversary, Cigar Aficionado named the Double Corona the Cigar of the Year, the highest accolade a cigar can earn.
Fuente is easy to spot as he walks around his cigar factory in the Dominican Republic. He's the one who's always smiling under his panama hat, always making eye contact with anyone he sees and always saying hello with a subtle nod. Casually known as the Fuente Factory, Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. consists of four facilities in Santiago's industrial freezone and produces 30 million cigars a year by hand. About 700,000 of those cigars are Fuente Fuente OpusX, a mere 2.3 percent. One of them always seems to be in his hand, more stuffed in his shirt pocket, ready to be smoked next or handed to a visitor.
"Understand that everything in life is relative," Fuente says as he fondles some loose, dark tobacco on a rolling table. "Back when the OpusX was released in 1995, most of the cigars on the market were mild. People liked Miller Lite, Bud Light, light beers and that was reflected in their taste for cigars. I wanted something stronger with more flavor. At the time, OpusX was considered to be a very strong cigar relative to what people were smoking."
Fuente puts his hand on the roller's shoulder and moves on further into the factory, reciting the story as he walks, a puff of cigar smoke following him with every few steps. By Fuente's recollection, the genesis of the Fuente Fuente OpusX really begins with the snide comment of a French retailer.
"The '80s were a period of steady growth for our company," Fuente says. "A well-known French retailer who owned a shop called Boutique 22 in Paris said to me ‘Carlito, you're not a cigar maker. You just assemble tobaccos.' He told me that unless I made cigars out of Dominican tobacco, I'll never be a real maker of Dominican cigars, just an assembler of different parts. That really stuck with me."
Fuente brooded on the comment. He knew there was no commercial demand for a cigar that consisted solely of Dominican tobacco. And even if there was, the consensus in the industry was that quality wrapper leaf could not be grown in the Dominican Republic. It was a different time in the cigar industry, one where milder cigars were most prevalent and no premium brand was being made with a wrapper grown in the Dominican Republic. Most Dominican cigars up until that point were made with wrappers imported from other countries, namely Connecticut, Cameroon or Ecuador.
Determined to prove conventional wisdom wrong, Fuente turned to tobacco grower and family friend Angel Oliva Sr., the founder of Oliva Tobacco Co., who brought Fuente to a plot of land in Bonao situated in a Dominican town called El Caribe. Oliva owned the land, claiming that its soil had similar properties to the soil in Cuba's San Luís region. Intrigued, Fuente asked the Olivas to plant a tobacco varietal called Piloto Cubano. The tobacco grew, and although the resulting crop was not of wrapper quality, Fuente noted the uncommon elasticity of the leaves and suspected that there might indeed be something special in this soil.
"I really have to thank Angel for showing me this land," Carlito says. "The soil here is different than the soil in other growing regions of the Dominican Republic. It isn't as dark. It's loamier with more clay. Other people have tried to grow wrapper in the Dominican Republic. They failed, and I know why. It wasn't the soil. They were planting the wrong seeds. You don't plant Connecticut seeds in volcanic soil."
Encouraged by the previous planting, Fuente tried a different seed type, having acquired a varietal called Corojo from the Meeraphel family (growers of Cameroon tobacco in Africa). He planted 37 acres of tobacco in 1991. This time, the Olivas did not grow the tobacco for him, but rather let Fuente take over the operation before eventually selling him the land. Fuente took his cues from Cuba and grew this crop under shade, which filtered the sun's rays through a mesh netting, ensuring that the tobacco leaves did not become too thick or too dark. The crop was harvested in late 1991 and early 1992.
Word got around the Dominican Republic of Fuente's endeavor. As Fuente remembers it, most in the industry were doubtful he'd produce anything of wrapper quality.
"Cigar Aficionado did an article on the tobacco before OpusX even had a name," Fuente says. "My father, he encouraged me. He thought I was crazy, but he got behind me no matter what. When I read that article and Cigar Aficionado interviewed other people in the industry, I was surprised by all the things everyone had to say. Everything was negative."
When the tobacco was ready, Fuente formulated a blend that consisted of four to five different tobaccos, all of which were Dominican. The wrapper farm, which he named Chateau de la Fuente, provided cover leaf. The rest of the cigar was made up of different tobacco varietals grown in other parts of the Dominican Republic. The blend was made up largely of heavy tobaccos from the upper portion of the plant, giving the dark cigars strength and body.
"I first called it ProjectX From Planet 9. It was a working title until I could think of a real name," explains Fuente. "I was looking through the thesaurus and was thinking of using the word "opulent." Next to it in the dictionary I came across the word "opus." The definition was perfect. I combined that with the letter X and thought ‘OpusX. It sounds like sex!' "
To adorn the cigar, Fuente called upon the sophisticated lithography of Vrijdag Premium Printing, an old Dutch printer in the Netherlands known for its high-quality impressions. The result was a complex, regal band with gilded embossments and intricate details. The cigars were boxed in cedar-lined mahogany trunks stained a deep, sanguine shade of oxblood. Fuente considers the colors to be an allusion to the reddish hue of the wrapper.
Before the Fuente Fuente OpusX cigar hit the market, there was already a good amount of preexisting buzz. Firstly, the 1994 Cigar Aficionado article "Seeds of Hope" detailed Fuente's risky wrapper experiment. Then, Cigar Aficionado rated two of the cigars, and they scored exceptionally well, but due to packaging delays the cigars were not on the market as intended. Anticipation began to build.
On November 18, 1995, the Fuente Fuente OpusX had its premiere in New York City. A few Manhattan retailers were granted the right to debut the cigar and the response was akin to something you might see outside an Apple store today before the launch of a new product—lines down the block.
"It was the night after the New York Big Smoke and I couldn't stay for the release, but I had retailers telling me on the phone how people were lined up just for the cigar," says Fuente. "Nobody had ever seen anything like it. Not for a cigar. But I had a strict rule—the retailers could only sell the cigars as loose sticks. No boxes. This was because the artwork wasn't finished and I shipped the cigars without internal labels. I didn't want anyone to see an incomplete box."
From that point on, the cigar has been a tightly rationed, back-ordered cult classic cigar synonymous with rarity and exclusivity. In its early years, you couldn't buy these cigars west of the Mississippi.
"We had never seen anything like that," recalls Gary Pesh, owner of Old Virginia Tobacco Co. "All year long we would get phone calls from all across the country two to three times a day at each of our seven shops, ‘Have you got any OpusX?' People I barely knew who really didn't even smoke cigars would ask me, ‘Hey Gary, you got any Opus?' We had seven stores and would get about 12 boxes maybe four times a year."
That's not 12 boxes per store, but 12 boxes to be divided among seven stores. Other retailers tell similar tales. And like many retailers, Pesh was as judicious as possible about rationing out what few of these coveted sticks he had. He only sold one cigar at a time to avoid hoarding and to help ensure that his regular customer base got the chance to enjoy the rare smoke.
Fuente's small supply and limited distribution made demand stronger. It also lead to frustration among the rest of the retailers in the United States who couldn't get any product at all—retailers who had supported the Fuente brand but felt as though they were being excluded from the phenomenon.
"A lot of shop owners were very angry at me," Fuente says. "They'd let me know it at the RTDA [the annual cigar trade show now known as the IPCPR]. Texas retailers especially. When California announced that they were having that massive tobacco tax increase, I thought ‘what could I do to help out our brothers in California?' So I gave them Opus. That made everyone even madder."
OpusX skipped over the entire expanse of the United States and went straight to California, further enraging a number of already disenfranchised retailers.
"This one retailer—he seemed like he was eight feet tall—he really got in my face about it," says Fuente, "but I had to do what I felt was right."
Enjoying unprecedented popularity, the red-hot cigar was officially released in seven sizes (scoring an average of 90.1 points in its inaugural vertical brand tasting in the January 1996 Cigar Insider). It was on the market for less than a year before it hit its first major speed bump—a lawsuit. On October 2, 1996, the California-based Opus One winery filed suit accusing the Fuentes of trademark infringement and unfair competition. Opus One winery is a joint venture between Robert Mondavi Corp. of Oakville, California and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux, France.
"How the hell are you going to confuse a bottle of wine with a cigar?" asks Fuente with a mixture of incredulity and bitterness that still seems fresh today even after nearly two decades since the lawsuit.
The winery sued to have Fuente remove all OpusX cigars from the market and destroy all the cigars it had in inventory. Furthermore, it was suing for profits made on the sale of the cigars, plus damages and legal fees.
Opus One winery had, in fact, trademarked its name for tobacco. They acquired the trademark in 1995 from a German company that was selling pipe tobacco under the name Opus One. That pipe tobacco was later imported to the U.S. in 1997 by Swiss company Davidoff of Geneva. There was even talk that Davidoff and Opus One were in the midst of collaborating on an Opus One branded premium cigar.
After a period of what Fuente calls one of the most stressful times in his life, a Tampa Florida judge threw out most of Opus One's lawsuit and, in 1998, ruled the cigars were not likely to cause any customer confusion among wine customers. Nor did the judge find any evidence that the Fuentes intentionally copied Opus One's mark.
Fuente has framed a news clipping from the Tampa Tribune announcing his legal victory against Opus One. It hangs in his office.
Another puff of the slim, dark cigar and Fuente rounds a corner in his factory. He pauses at the precipice of an antechamber. The floor changes from industrial concrete to decorative tiles, and if you look closely, you can see that every quartet of tiles forms the pattern of an X. It's a lobby of sorts to the Opus Room, the small, sacrosanct rolling gallery where his best rollers make nothing but Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars.
Ask Fuente how one becomes an Opus roller, and his answer is more intuitive than precise.
"Someone could be rolling regular Fuente, and I might like the way he or she rolls. It could be their hands. Their hands just look right to me. I'll say to myself, ‘that's an Opus roller.' It's as much a feeling as anything."
Fuente appoints one roller to produce one size and one size only. The No. 2, for example, which is a pyramid, has its own dedicated roller. The Robusto as well. Each roller becomes intimately familiar with the nuances and requirements of his or her own size, and the slow, meticulous bunching method ensures that the rollers are not producing more than 100 or 150 per day. The cigars are made in the entubado method, a time-consuming technique whereby each leaf of tobacco is carefully scrolled into the bunch. This way, each leaf has its own unobstructed air passage and combustion is greatly improved.
In Fuente's experience, his way of rolling cigars can't be taught to rollers who have worked in other factories, so he only hires people who've never even touched a piece of tobacco. He has no use for experienced rollers. He's only interested in people who can be properly trained.
"If they worked at another factory, it's too late," Fuente says dismissively. "They've already picked up too many bad habits and no amount of retraining is going to change that."
In the OpusX room, which is painted in an optimistic shade of yellow, rollers barely look up as Fuente enters. One roller produces lanceros while another forms an intricate figurado with sensuous tapers and decorative caps. When the cigars are finished, they go into the OpusX aging room, a dimly lit cellar of brick and wood that has the ripe smell of cinnamon and dried fruit. Unlike Fuente's other aging rooms, where cigars are exposed on shelves, all Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars are shut in by cabinets.
"I age these differently then my other cigars," Fuente says. "I keep the doors closed so that they retain their flavors and age like a slow cooker."
Right now, Fuente has a little over one million OpusX cigars in his aging room. Some have been sitting for years. When asked how long he ages the brand, he offers no precise answer.
"A minimum of a year, but after that, it's by feeling. It's by smell. It's by intuition. I might smell something and say it needs another year. Or not. I like to release 600,000 to 700,000 OpusXs to the market a year if I can," he says. "Remember, the tobaccos I use are very heavy and take time to come together in the cigar."
Fuente is unconcerned with shelf space or time. If he has to sit on a batch until he feels it's right, he'll do it, an enviable luxury.
"It's the rest of my Fuente production that lets me treat OpusX this way," he says. "Opus is like the yacht that sits in the marina all day. It's only used a small percentage of the time. That's the OpusX—my yacht."
Twenty years after its release, there's still plenty of mystique around the Fuente Fuente OpusX, but a few things have changed. Yes, it's still in limited production and true, it still only comes out a few times a year, and it's more expensive today than ever. But Fuente is now able to supply more of the country than before. Time has allowed him to build tobacco inventories and to better understand his Chateau de la Fuente farm, a Disney World of tobacco farms, with immaculate landscaping, picturesque gazebos with thatched palm roofs and painted mosaic rock gardens whose designs can be seen from 1,000 feet in the air.
Tobacco from Chateau de la Fuente wraps Fuente Fuente OpusX (as well as Ashton Estate Sun Grown), and some of the farm's other leaves become binder and filler, but unused tobacco from the Chateau gets destroyed.
"The last thing I want is to sell any of that tobacco," explains Fuente. "The day I do that, people are going to start saying that their cigars have the same wrappers as OpusX. I'm not giving anyone that opportunity.
"Chateau de la Fuente is over 300 acres, but I only grow on about 130 to 150 acres. The yield for this kind of wrapper leaf is very low—about 700 pounds per acre, 1,000 or more in a very good year. That's not a lot."
Fuente insists that, in 20 years, he really hasn't changed his blend. He allows that as he grew the farm, he's been able to build up a larger inventory, and become more particular about the leaves he uses in the blend, but he's been able to keep it in the same spectrum of strength.
He's taken steps to refine the product, but still refuses to rush it to market. And while it remains an undeniably powerful cigar, the industry has changed around it, so it no longer stands alone in terms of strong smokes. "Compared to what's on the market today," says Fuente, "I don't think it's that strong." Others have followed in his pioneering footsteps, planting wrapper in the Dominican Republic to make puros of their own. No one with even a passing knowledge of tobacco would claim that the Dominican Republic cannot produce high-quality wrapper today.
What Fuente is most proud of is not his farm, not the fact that he continues to grow quality wrapper when everyone said he couldn't, or the fact that 20 years later, OpusX is in as high demand as ever. It's his ability to give back through charity, much of it revolving around OpusX. Fuente has raised millions and millions of dollars through charity auctions, special releases and events centered on the Fuente Fuente OpusX alone. All the proceeds get funneled directly to his charity—the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation.
"I built a school. It gives these kids a chance to have a future when otherwise they'd be in poverty for the rest of their lives."
There's no question that Fuente is sentimental about the story of his cigar, but along with his pride and sense of civic duty, there's also an undercurrent of anxiety. On some level it seems that Fuente is afraid that this will all quickly disappear if he isn't constantly burying himself in his work.
"You know, I could say that I just got lucky," says a pensive Fuente. "But I kept getting lucky at the right times and in the right places and with the right people over and over again. I don't think it's luck anymore. I think it's something else. I think it's my god-given mission to keep producing so that I can keep giving back. And my father has supported me the whole time. I'm eternally grateful for that."
We reached into our humidors at Cigar Aficionado and lit up some of the original release Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars that have been aging for two decades. To find out how they look—and how they taste—click here.