A pile of wet tobacco leaves sat on the table. Standing before it, a succession of eager cigar fans, attendees of Cigar Aficionado's Big Smoke Las Vegas, forming a long line out the door at the Mirage Hotel and Casino's conference center. These men and women were itching to grab one of the damp, dark leaves to participate in the famed Roll Your Own seminar and learn how to roll a premium cigar.
"Keep it balled up in your hand, keep it moist," team La Gloria Cubana members shouted at the swelling room of seminar attendees, handing each participant a tobacco leaf and instructing them to keep it close at hand, lest it shrivel and crack in the dry Vegas air.
Cigar fans rushed to find a place amongst the rows of tables stationed in the conference room. At each seat, a hard plastic table mat, cigar bunch, razor blade and a cup of vegetable glue (called gomma) had been placed, the tools of an amateur cigarmaker. The conference room had been transformed into a rolling gallery.
At the head of the room, projected on two massive television screens in front of the audience, sat Leo "The Pope" Peraza of General Cigar Co.
Peraza is one of the company's most experienced premium cigar rollers. He was ready to teach the audience via a visual demonstration how to roll a cigar wrapper around a pre-formed binder and filler combination called a bunch.
At his side stood cigarmaker Rick Rodriguez, brand ambassador for CAO cigars. Rodriguez was the voice of the seminar, providing auditory rolling lessons to the audience. His first year hosting Roll Your Own, Rodriguez is the affable successor to cigarmaker Michael Giannini, the previous and longstanding seminar host.
"I want everyone to stand up and say, ‘We love you, bro' to honor Michael Giannini, the original host of Roll Your Own," Rodriguez told the audience. "I was nervous and excited to take over for Mike. I know he's got a lot of friends here. I couldn't imagine a better guy to do it."
The chant rang out from the audience and it was time to roll some cigars.
"Today, you are rolling La Gloria white box," Rodriguez explained. (White box is the colloquial term for the company's proper La Gloria Cubana line, which comes packaged in a white box.) "You're using a Sumatra wrapper. It's a great blend, a legendary blend."
Rodriguez instructed the room to gently stretch the tobacco wrapper in front of them and to flip the leaf over, veins up.
"When you look at your tobacco wrapper, you want your veins on the top, facing upwards," Rodriguez said. "Now watch Leo."
Peraza's hands danced across the television monitors. Grasping a chavetta (a large metal blade), Peraza made a few quick, clean slices alongside the edge of the tobacco leaf.
"He's trimming the outside edge," Rodriguez explained. "The reason we do that at the factory is because the outside edge is bitter. Think of it like trimming the fat off a steak."
The crowd of attendees followed along, using their razor blades.
"Ok, second step. After we trim the edge, we're going to make a half-moon cut."
The crowd watched as Peraza's chavetta sliced through the middle of the tobacco, making a crescent shape.
"Ok, great. Now you're going to pick up your bunch. Watch Leo, he's tucking it close against the wrapper, he's putting a little bit of pressure and pushing it forward. When you get to the head of the cigar, pinch it and twirl the tobacco. You can cut it, you can make a pigtail. Use a little bit of glue if you'd like."
There were laughs and cries of frustration as participants struggled to perform this delicate operation. La Gloria Cubana team members prowled the conference room, giving assistance, or sometimes a playful jab (as is Roll Your Own tradition) to the rollers with the most grotesque-looking cigar creations.
"OK, we're going to pick the top cigars and also the worst cigar, bring them up on stage. And that gentleman or lady will come up [on stage] as well."
Next came the judging portion of the seminar. Rodriguez and his team evaluated the audience submissions, giving prizes to the worst and most skillfully rolled cigars. Some of the more fanciful submissions included a cigar tank, a cigar military bunker and Viking ship made from cigars.
Winners of the fourth- and third-best rolled cigars were given small La Gloria Cubana humidors. The second place winner received a leather attache briefcase. And the winner of the best-rolled cigar, Lowell Gibson from Grants Pass, Oregon, won a massive, nine-drawer cabinet-style La Gloria Cubana Humidor.
"I want to thank you all for coming," Rodriguez told the crowd. "And thank you for having me [as your host]....Should I come back next year, do you want me back?
The crowd roared with applause, bringing the 19th Roll Your Own Seminar to a close, heralding in the next and final seminar of Big Smoke Las Vegas 2016.