While the Sunday Big Smoke breakfast was wrapping up down the hall at the Mirage, Michael Giannini of General Cigar Co.'s Team La Gloria was warming up for his annual "Roll Your Own Cigar" seminar.
Every seat in the house came equipped with a rolling mat, a premade bunch, some vegetable glue and a small razor blade. A stack of wrapper leaves was waiting at the entrance to the room, as were several members of Team La Gloria waiting to distribute the leaves and a La Gloria Cubana Wavell for everyone to smoke while they (try to) roll a premium cigar.
Giannini was talking prizes with his team as they organized the boxes of La Gloria Cubana Serie R No. 5s, Artesanos de Tabaqueros, El Rico Habano Gran Coronas, Reserva Figurados, and two grand-prize humidors filled with Serie R stock from 2003.
The breakfast over, the crowd moved down the hall, waiting in excitement just outside. Giannini called the team together for one last pep talk, and they put their hands in the middle for a "go-team" moment as the first of the crowd headed though the doorway, dashing for seats up front.
Leo Peraza had already taken his place on stage when Giannini began. The next 20 minutes were relatively quiet for a Sunday Big Smoke seminar. Participants worked diligently while listening to the authoritative instructions, watching Peraza's deft hands cut and then roll and unroll the cigar's wrapper with ease, hoping to duplicate his professional moves.
The act of rolling a cigar began with stretching the wrapper taught. Giannini cut in as the audience of 500 took their best shot. "You want to be able to wrap the cigar so it's nice and seamless."
Some were already struggling, and as Giannini tried to move onto the next step, there were a few pleas to wait. "This is probably the easiest part," said Giannini, "So if you're struggling..."
Giannini explained that what they're holding in their hands is a genuine piece of La Gloria Cubana Ecuador Sumatra wrapper leaf, filling the silence as Peraza demonstrated on large video screens how to cut and shape the wrapper.
"Please do not cut yourself-we do not have insurance," joked Giannini as the seminar-goers lifted their razors and began to make the two shaping cuts to the wrapper leaf.
Giannini stopped short in one of the back rows. Someone was cutting with a military knife, and he borrowed the blade to hold up and show the audience. He continued around the room, offering advice here and there as Peraza continued his tutorial, and all moved rolling and sealing the wrapper tight with a bit of vegetable glue.
A very confused Giannini broke the silence, standing in one of the corners of the room, shaking his head over one of the participants. "I don't know what you did here..."
Finally, Giannini called for submissions to be held up for his team to collect. He offered the audience one guideline for determining if their cigar has a shot: "If you saw this in a La Gloria Box, would you spend six dollars for it?"
Before the presentation of the three best cigars, it was time for a laugh from some of the funny, pathetic, and just plain weird submissions brought to the stage.
A CRA-themed Uncle Sam doll with Giannini's face superimposed on the head made the list, as did spaceships, helicopters and a voodoo doll. There was also an actual store-bought La Gloria with a band already on turned in by someone in the audience.
There were several prizes for ridiculous products. Two Canadian veterans split a prize for most inventive submission with a cigar model of a Bell 4-72 helicopter. A Californian presented a wine bottle dressed to look like an over-fat La Gloria Cubana, for which he received a box of Serie R.
Giannini described the winners of a box of Artesanos Tabaqueros as having "too much time on their hands" when they turned in a rocket ship made from more than a dozen cigars. The bribery prize went to a cigar wrapped with a $20 bill; a special award went to veteran and roller Lenny Abramowitz, who lost a few fingers in Vietnam. Since he can't roll, he occasionally submits his bunch topped on either end with his prosthetic digits. This year it got him a box of El Rico Habanos.
Then it was time for the top three cigars. Third place went to a first timer from Lexington, Kentucky, who received a box of Reserva Figurados amid jokes about his "secret" being a hangover.
The haul of prizes for second place was immense: two boxes of Serie R, and a box each of Wavells, Reserva Figurados, and Artesanos Tabaqueros. The lucky contestant, a first-timer from Beaverton, Oregon, told Giannini that he won't have trouble getting his prizes home. "I'll charter a plane if I have to."
Finally, with only one prize left to go, it was time to crown the winner. Giannini picked up the bag containing the winning cigar and dangled it in the air like a hypnotist.
"Who thinks this is their cigar?" Giannini called out, toying with the crowd. A few hesitant hands rose into the air, but no one was sure as they marvelled at the smooth wrapper leaf, the tight pigtail cap, and the even, tucked foot of the winning cigar.
Giannini stretched the tension again as he fumbled with the bag to read out the name: Ron Taylor.
Taylor was in shock as he came to the stage through a thunder of applause. It was his fourth Big Smoke and his third time rolling at the seminars. Taylor, who hails from Omaha, Nebraska, told his wife earlier in the weekend that he felt confident going into the contest.
Taylor won two humidors full of La Gloria Cubana cigars with nearly a decade of age. Giannini handed him an extra box of Serie R so that he can "have something to smoke" for the moment.
As Taylor posed for photos with Giannini, holding up his prizes, some members of the crowd were reassessing their own work, wondering if it could be them up there next year.