The huge logo of Fuente Fuente OpusX was set in the small knoll just above the tobacco drying barns of Chateau de la Fuente, the esteemed wrapper plantation of the well-known cigar dynasty, the Fuente family. It was made of tiles and looked like a small platform for a sports event. It was a warm, humid January day last year as I looked across at close to 100 acres of tobacco planted in the rich soil of the La Vega Real valley, about an hour's drive south of Santiago, Dominican Republic, near a village called Bonao.
Carlos Fuente Jr. was in a good mood as he described how his family started the plantation in 1992 and how the dream was to have the island's first real quality wrapper production, and how this was essential for the development of what has been an icon for the cigar industry—Fuente Fuente OpusX. I had heard the story many times about his legendary cigar and plantation, and I had been to the property two or three times before. But I still enjoyed hearing it all again, especially with the enthusiasm and passion of Fuente.
"Some people still believe that this doesn't exist," he said with a huge smile as he proudly pointed to the handful of massive tobacco drying barns and fields of green tobacco plants under cheesecloth. The rich, red land reminded me of the unique soil of the Vuelta Abajo, the best tobacco-growing region in Cuba, and the Holy Grail for great cigars. "Look at it! They say this shit doesn't exist. Here's the proof. It really is the most beautiful tobacco farm in the world," he added.
It sounds like a cliché, but the view below us looked like a postcard, or even a promotional photograph. It was almost surreal. Everything was pristinely maintained. The big tobacco barns with their red corrugated metal walls and thatched palm leaf roofs were perfectly kept. The thousands of yards of cheesecloth tents looked as if they had just been put up for our visit. Every leaf of tobacco seemed to be in impeccable condition and positioned just right. "It is like a Caribbean resort here," joked Fuente. "But instead of the great beaches and hotels, we have great tobacco."
Similar tobacco plantations are few and far between, even in Cuba. I have been traveling to Cuba for more than a decade and have visited most of the key tobacco growing regions, and you don't see pristine tobacco plantations like Fuente's. This, of course, is primarily due to the economic difficulties in Cuba stemming from the U.S. trade embargo, but I think it's also because few tobacco growers take as much pride in their work as the Fuentes. Pride is the middle name of all the Fuentes, and Carlos Jr. spells his middle name with capital letters.
I have spoken many times to old Cuban tobacco growers, and when they describe the great tobacco plantations of the Vuelta Abajo before the embargo, they could be describing the Fuente plantation down to the last tobacco leaf. I told Fuente this, and he didn't seem surprised. In fact, I was almost reading his mind.
"It was built out of a dream I had of Cuba," said Fuente, who admitted that he couldn't have done it without the support of the Olivia family, which is one of the most important tobacco growers and traders in the world, especially in Ecuador. The Olivas experimented with growing wrapper in the same place for more than a decade before passing the reins to the Fuentes. "The plantation is what I learned from my grandfather," Carlos said. "He told me stories of the great farms of Cuba. Every detail is right...it doesn't have to do with tobacco. It has to do with pride."
With that, I heard the thunder of a helicopter in the distance. It became louder and louder as the thudding of the rotors of the white Bell 206 Jet Ranger bounced off the nearby green hills and echoed through the valleys. I could see the whirlybird coming straight for us. In just under 30 seconds, it whizzed by us about 50 feet above our heads and banked in back of us before circling the knoll where we were standing. It was traveling at well over 200 miles per hour. A slim man with dark pilot's sunglasses was controlling the aircraft. If he had been in the United States, he would have probably already broken a dozen or so FAA regulations. But this was Latin America, and all rules, including aviation, have always been different—or let's say, interpreted differently.
Fuente forgot to tell me that what I thought was a work of homage to his great cigar brand was actually a helicopter landing pad. The 50-year-old cigarmaker explained to me that every month or so, one of the Dominican Republic's top generals sends his crack helicopter jockey to pick up some fresh boxes of Fuente Fuente OpusX. After the heli landed, the pilot stepped out of the cockpit with a passenger and shook hands with Carlos, who introduced me. Fuente had an unmarked bag with the cigars, and after a friendly conversation, he handed it to the pilot. If the Drug Enforcement Administration had spies in the hills in back of us, I am sure that they would have thought they were witnessing a serious drug deal, but it was only cigars. (I promise, officer!)
But it may as well have been drugs because we were doing a deal on Fuente Fuente OpusX, and for many, it is one of the hardest-to-find, most sought-after smokes on earth. It set the standard for non-Cuban cigars in the mid-1990s and has stood as a model for superpremium cigars ever since. I still remember, in 1996, giving an Opus torpedo to a snobby German friend who said any smoke other than Cuban was crap, and he thought the torpedo was one of the best he had ever puffed. (I had replaced the OpusX band with one from a Cuban Montecristo.) He wasn't happy to learn that his prejudices did not stand the test.
I think that current critics of Fuente Fuente OpusX should do their own tests and do away with their prejudices. Some smokers say that the pure Dominican cigar doesn't deserve its legendary status. Worse, others say that it is overrated and overpriced. I have even heard a few say that OpusX is a Cuban cigar.
But I say that they don't know what they are talking about. I would agree that a few years back, the Opuses that I smoked didn't seem to be the same quality as they were in the mid to late 1990s, but the slight decline in quality was more a problem with the blend then construction—at least that was my take on it. Opus cigars are always perfectly produced, with 32 rollers in a special room of the family's factory in Santiago. The space is literally a premium factory within a factory, and every cigar is made with care and love. Workers even use the old Cuban method to create the filler, called en tubado, in which the roller makes small individual tubes of each leaf before pulling them together into the bunch. It takes more time, but produces a cigar that draws beautifully.
However, the key to the quality of Fuente Fuente OpusX is the plantation itself. Fuente says that essentially the plantation supplies about 70 percent of the tobacco for Opus. "But the wrapper is so dominating that it really gives the character to the cigar," he said reassuringly. The binder (the leaf under the wrapper holding the filler together) is also wrapper, but slightly lower quality due to cosmetic problems such as blemishes.
"This doesn't make business sense," said Fuente. "We use wrapper for binder and sort by texture and ripeness. We primarily use the fourth and fifth priming for the wrapper.... If you want the taste of Opus, it is the only cigar with this taste. That's what makes the cigar so special."
This is also why OpusX is a cigar icon for me. It is a unique cigar because it has a unique blend that is defined by a particular tobacco from a particular place on the face of the earth. It's like talking about great wines, reds or whites, that have a special character due to where their grapes are grown—what the French say are terroir-driven wines, or vineyard-specific wines. You may not be head over heels for OpusX or Château Lafite-Rothschild, but you can't say that these products are not special. They are some of the greatest cigars and wines ever.
I recently smoked an OpusX Belicoso, and I was impressed with how rich the cigar was. It seemed even more powerful than a Cuban cigar in the same shape. And it was spicy, with a slight earthiness and a tea/cappuccino flavor. There was a hardness to the smoke—sort of like getting smacked in the back of the neck—that came through. It is a trait I often find in Opus, but I like it very much all the same. It is a cigar to contemplate, a cigar that makes you dream.
I have a sneaky hunch that some of the biggest critics of Opus are either jealous or they haven't smoked the cigar. Opus is extremely difficult to find and nearly always seems to be priced much higher than its suggested retail price. The rarity and price speculation only adds to the animosity in the marketplace. I can't tell you how many times I have heard smokers say things like, "Opus isn't worth the money," or "I don't need to smoke an Opus anyway." And it has to be because they can't get the cigar or they can't afford it.
I just wish that more people who love cigars had the chance to smoke one. Annual production is still very limited, between 650,000 and 750,000 sticks or so. And not many cigar shops carry them. Then, when you find one that does, you have to shell out a small fortune to buy one. But it's worth it.
Besides, it's not everyone who can send his helicopter pilot to pick up a box of Fuente Fuente OpusX when he needs one.