What do cigar enthusiasts and newbies alike do when they are privy to a conversation among tobacco men with more than a combined century's worth of cigar experience? They listen intently, if they are smart.
After Dion Giolito of Illusione educated the crowd on his Epernay Le Taureau, Cigar Aficionado's No. 3 cigar of the year, it was time for what was perhaps the weekend's most anticipated cigar seminar-Industry Veterans.
Scheduled to speak were seven of the industry's most famous names, six of them recent inductees into Cigar Aficionado's elite Hall of Fame. In order to make it easier for the audience to digest, the Industry Veterans seminar was broken up into two parts.
Additionally, the stage was set up to resemble a typical smoking lounge, replete with standing ashtrays and plush, leather chairs. With executive editor Gordon Mott and senior editor David Savona moderating, the seminar essentially conveyed the feeling of being a fly on the wall. Where else but the Big Smoke could this happen?
The first group of veterans to take the stage was Carlos "Carlito" Fuente Jr., president of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., maker of Arturo Fuente and Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, owner of EPC Cigar Co. and former maker of the La Gloria Cubana brand, and Eric Newman, president of J.C. Newman Cigar Co.
Throughout the conversation, the tobacco men offered anecdotes on such topics as the trials and tribulations of making cigars in Tampa, Miami and the Dominican Republic, the secrets of blending tobacco and how family is so important in their business.
Fuente started off the seminar by talking about what drove him to grow tobacco in the Dominican Republic.
"Origin," he said. "A Paris retailer told me I would never be able to be considered a real producer because I didn't grow my own tobacco." Having fallen in love with the Dominican, Fuente set up a farm with one goal in mind: to grow wrapper-quality leaf. Eventually, after much trial and error, Fuente was able produce the leaf that would cover the now legendary Fuente Fuente Opus OpusX brand.
When Perez-Carrillo was asked what was his secret to creating great tobacco, he offered a rather spiritual explanation. "No secret, just love. One really has to dedicate the time and learn as much as you can about tobacco. This may sound weird but the tobacco has to say something to me, to my heart."
Perez-Carrillo continued by explaining that he looked at a cigar as a living organism, a sentiment the other panelists nodded with in agreement.
Newman spoke about being the man in charge of the only major cigar company left in Tampa, once considered the cigarmaking capital of America.
"When the embargo happened in 1961," Newman said, "suddenly we could not get Cuban tobacco anymore." Newman continued by talking about how factories were forced to close, but his father, Stanford, who followed the philosophy that when faced with adversity, one must innovate, was determined to stay open.
"That's when he discovered Cameroon wrapper," said Newman. While the company does not make any profit off of the cigars it produces in Tampa, he is determined to keep making cigars in the city "because it is special."
With that, the first part of the Veterans seminar ended and Sathya Levin took to the stage to discuss his La Aroma de Cuba Mi Amor Belicoso, the reigning No. 2 cigar of the year. After he finished, it was time for the other Veteran panelists to speak.
This time the group consisted of Manuel Quesada, owner of Manufactura de Tabacos S.A., or MATASA and creator of Fonseca and Quesada cigars, Henrik "Henke" Kelner, president of Tabadom Holding Inc. and maker of Davidoff and Avo cigars, Benjamin Menendez, senior vice president of General Cigar Co., and Jose Seijas.
Seijas, who recently retired as the head of Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd., a Dominican factory capable of rolling some 60 million cigars a year, started off the conversation by talking about his new endeavor, a small factory in La Romana.
Seijas said he was excited to start small again because it would give him lots of freedom and time to do what he wanted to do. "My vision can be clearer," said Seijas. While he didn't go into specifics, Seijas was excited for the blends he had in store for next year.
Menendez, the son of the creator of the Cuban Montecristo brand, was asked to talk how he created his Special Selection cigar, a Top 25 cigar of 2011. Menendez said the first thing he did was look for a blend with flavor, because he could always adjust for strength, if needed.
The cigar, he said, is a 54 ring gauge and so you have to treat it different in order to keep it flavorful. "It would be easy to blend the taste right out of it."
Continuing the talk about the challenges of blending, Quesada spoke about the why its far more difficult to blend a 38 ring gauge cigar than a 50.
"Because of the way the leaf grows, it's easiest to blend to a 43 or 44 ring gauge," said Quesada. "That way, you can go up or down. Going up is a lot easier, as you have more room in the gauge. I like to say we, as blenders, blend in solids, as opposed to winemakers who blend in liquids. Adjust a tiny quarter of an inch there in the leaf, adding an inch here, that is far easier than subtracting."
The four tobacco men continued their discussion, and the audience listened intently. With so many pearls of cigar wisdom hitting the brain at once, it was easy for some to get overwhelmed. But, like most of the Big Smoke cigar seminars, audience members that were able to remember even the tiniest nugget of information were excited.