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Inside Cuba

A Conversation with Alejandro Robaina

Sep 18, 2000
A Conversation with Alejandro Robaina

Posted September 18, 2000, 5:45 p.m. e.s.t.

It's hard to believe that Alejandro Robaina is 82 years old. The man is still full of energy, always inquisitive with a positive outlook on life. Many men half his age have less going for them.

Italy is a long way from home for the famous tobacco grower from the heart of the Vuelta Abajo in Cuba. He spent about a week here, mostly with cigar promoter and Lauda Air head Andrea Molinari of Milan. Besides attending the Formula 1 race in Monza, Robaina and his grandson, Hirochi, attended various cigar dinners and other events in Milan. In addition, he spent two days with me at my house in Tuscany.

Robaina said that the Tuscan countryside reminded him of Cuba in some ways, especially the large farm that I live on, which includes an expansive villa, stables and a winery owned by the fashion magnate Ferruccio Ferragamo. "This is what the great plantations of Cuba once looked like," Robaina said while walking around the estate, Il Borro near Arezzo. Robaina felt more at home visiting a local peasant farmer called Alvaro, whose three-acre estate looks like something out of a history book. It's a dusty little farm with vines, cereals and vegetables, as well as a couple of oxen, three pigs, a few dozen rabbits and chickens and a few dusty dogs. As we visited the tiny farm and then drank some homemade grappa with Alvaro, Robaina said, "This is the man who counts the most in the world -- the true farmer. I have all the respect in the world for him and his family." The two farmers spent a good hour together comparing agricultural techniques, from using oxen to till their fields to growing vegetables. The grappa was flowing freely as we spoke a mixture of Italian, Spanish and English.

For cigar smokers, it's hard not to have great respect for Robaina. His plantation, Finca El Pina, is amazing. Located in the area of Chuchillas de Barbacoa near the town of San Luis, the nearly 35-acre farm grows some of the world's best tobacco, which is used to wrap some of Cuba's most sought-after cigars. The plantation has been in his family's hands since 1845.

Few growers in the Pinar del Rio have more experience than Robaina. He is a legend in the region and arguably is one of Cuba's most famous citizens. The Cubans have even named a cigar brand after him, Vegas Robaina.

During Robaina's visit to Tuscany, I asked him to answer a few of your questions posted on our Web site. Unfortunately, he couldn't answer them all.

"It's always good to talk to cigar smokers, wherever they may be," he said.

Q: I have never seen a picture of you without a cigar in hand. I assume you smoke all day long. Given that you are at least 65 years of age, I can only wonder…not how many cigars that you have smoked in your lifetime, but how many MILES of wonderful Cuban cigars that would be if they had been laid end-to-end. Any guess?
--cubadude, posted September 8, 2:49 p.m.

Robaina: It is incalculable, because when I was young I smoked 12 to 14 cigars a day. They weren't big like Churchills or double coronas, but they were a good size. Today, I smoke five or six cigars a day. Some days I smoke more and some days less. I also like to chew on a piece of strong tobacco from my field during the day.

By the way, thank you for thinking I am close to 65 years old. I am 82.

Q: There have been reports that the days of Corojo are over, that [Habana]2000 will be the wrapper in the future. I understand you grow strictly H2000. We have heard much concerning the agricultural benefits of H2000 -- it's more resistant to blue mold, it's easier to get large leaf for the larger vitolas. Many smokers find that H2000 introduces an unpleasant taste, at least in younger cigars.

Could you, as a cigar smoker, comment on H2000. Do you find it to have an unpleasant taste? Is there a recommended aging period for cigars rolled with H2000? Could the negative taste qualities be reduced by increased aging of the leaf prior to rolling? And is El Corojo going away forever, or will it always be around to some extent?

Thank you, and know that you are a legend here in the United States.
--elrusso, posted September 8, 3:08 p.m.

Robaina: I like Habanos 2000, but I like Criollo '98 even better now. The problem is that each year the new varieties of tobacco become less resistant to diseases such as blue mold. So we have to continually create new varieties.

However, just comparing Habanos 2000 to Criollo '98, I prefer the latter. Criollo '98 is finer than Habanos 2000. Criollo '98 is much better in flavor also. It is smoother and much better. I am very happy with it.

Q: I have been told in the past that the wrapper used on Cohiba [cigars] came from the El Corojo plantation in San Luis. However, that contradicts Avelino Lara's contention that the wrapper used for Cohiba orginally came from farms outside Havana in San Antonio del Robainos and the filler and binder from Rio Seco.

In February, Emilia Tamayo [manager of Cuba's el Laguito factory] told me that Corojo is the leaf El Laguito will continue to use on the Cohiba brand and not H2000.

Based on all this conflicting information, what wrapper is now being used for Cohiba and Trinidad, and what was used in the past?
--McCallion, posted September 8, 3:35 p.m.

Robaina: I am really sorry but no one uses El Corojo in Vuelta Abajo. I can't say for sure what El Laguito uses, but I can say that no one plants El Corojo anymore. It just isn't resistant to blue mold anymore. It is immediately attacked.

Q: How much does the wrapper contribute to the overall flavor of a cigar? There is much debate over this, and I apologize in advance because I'm sure you've been asked this many, many times, but I would value your opinion.
--loupe, posted September 8, 4:17 p.m.

Robaina: I have spoken to many cigar factory officials and they say that the wrapper accounts for about seven percent of the flavor of a cigar. However, for me that is not true because if you have a cigar with a bad wrapper it ruins the cigar even if it has a good filler. So this can't be true. I think it is more than 10 percent. It is very difficult to calculate, but it's a lot.

Q: If the Cuban embargo was lifted this year, what effect would this have on Cuban cigars?
--Fidel®, posted September 8, 6:12 p.m.

Robaina: I think that Cuba has soil sufficient to increase the production of tobacco if the embargo is dropped and the U.S. market opens for Cuban cigars. We have a climate and soil that is superb in Pinar del Río, so we wouldn't have a shortage of tobacco. I can't speak about other things.

Q: Why are we getting cigars with no, or almost no, ligero? Do they (Cuban cigar manufacturers) think their market wants it that way, or are they trying to stretch out production? Is there a way to reverse this trend toward mild cigars? We want old-fashioned Habanos back!!!
--Hargetay, posted September 8, 8:30 p.m.

Robaina: I have spoken to the government about this problem, and there is a directive to produce more ligero. Now growers in Pinar del Río are growing their plants slightly lower to make stronger tobacco. We will see in the future if we succeed.

Alejandro Robaina is known as Cuba's greatest tobacco farmer, a man who consistently grows some of Cuba's finest wrapper leaves. Recently, the 82-year-old Cuban legend -- the namesake for the Vegas Robaina brand -- traveled from Cuba to Italy, where he sat down with James Suckling, European editor of Cigar Aficionado magazine. Suckling brought your questions to Don Alejandro. The first of his answers appeared on Monday; today we present the conclusion to the conversation.

Q: Buenas Dias. The Vuelta Abajo region has been world famous as a prime tobacco growing region for many years. In Cuba, do you use natural/traditional methods for the soil preservation/replenishment or do you use chemical fertilizer?

It seems that around the world the weather patterns have changed to some degree along with deterioration of the ozone levels, acid rain and other such environmental factors coming into play. Have any of these factors affected tobacco growing in Cuba during recent periods? Would you say that the overall quality/strength/taste of tobacco leaves produced in Cuba in the year 2000 is similar or much better than produced in the past?
--Holy Smokes, posted September 8, 10:16 p.m.

Robaina: I use very little chemical fertilizers. I use mostly organic fertilizers from animals in our region. It is the best way. Really the best thing is to use no chemical fertilizers, and all organic.

In regards to the climate, there has been a change. Traditionally, February is the month of wind and now it isn't. That has been better for us. I can't say that the weather is better or worse now in general. What it was like in December before, it is [now] like in January. But this is just a feeling.

Q: Sir, would you please compare the flavor and aging potential of the varieties of tobacco you have grown, i.e., Habana 2000, Criollo '98 and '99, El Corojo, Corojo '99 and possibly some you have not grown, i.e., Connecticut broadleaf and Cameroon?

Thank you, and long life and good health to you. Hope you can make the American World Series this year!
--Spiccato, posted September 8, 11:58 p.m.

Robaina: For me, I think that El Corojo for the wrapper and Criollo for the filler, like it was years ago, has the best flavor. We have good tobacco now, though. The important thing is the soil and the climate. That is not going to change.

Q: Don Alejandro, it was found that H2000 is resistant to blue mold in the field. However, was a test made for regular mold resistance by the H2000 wrapper in the curing barns? Some reports showed increase of mold for this year on the stored tobacco; some others blame the new asphalt shingle roofing.
--AmbassadorP, posted September 9, 12:24 p.m.

Robaina: The difference in the curing barns for different types of tobacco is not a question of resistance to blue mold or any other disease -- it is more a question of how quickly or slowly it cures. In regards to Habana 2000, there is no problem in the curing barns.

Q: Why do Cuban cigars taste good from the factory, but if left to sit for a couple months seem to taste stale and almost moldy, and then after about a year taste so very, very excellent? What makes them go through this aging process?

I have seen this "curing" in Brazilian tobacco, too. Yet never in Dominican or Nicaraguan etc.
--Montana Jack, posted September 10, 1:14 p.m.

Robaina: I don't really understand the question. It's hard to say. But perhaps it is a question of the humidity. The tobacco in the factory is at a certain humidity, then your cigars have a different humidity, perhaps drier. Finally, they come back to where they should. Cigars are a living thing. So it changes all the time from the humidity. So you have to be careful.

Q: Have you tried any of the top Dominican, Honduran or Nicaraguan cigars? How do you feel they compare with the top Cuban brands?
--king kong, posted September 8, 10:05 p.m.

Robaina: I have tried cigars from all the main producing countries, but since I am a Cuban cigar smoker, I find they don't have the aromas or flavor of a Cuban cigar. So, it's hard for me to really like them. They are not bad. For me, I like Nicaragua better than the other areas. If they could use our wrapper or a tiny bit of our ligero in a cigar from Nicaragua, then they would really [have] a great cigar.

Q: I've met and spoken to Don Alejandro many times in Havana and Pinar [del Río], and always find him more animated and accommodating than he has to be. I often joke with him that he has a line in his face for every harvest. My question will most likely not be answered, but you can give me the response next time I see you. [Over] the past three years Sr. Robania has become much more of a spokesman for Habanos than a farmer. He has essentially become a caricature of himself, and I can see the changes in his face each time we meet. Does he miss the day-to-day work at home, and does he feel like his fame and promotion by Habanos is his reward or his punishment?

He is a kind and gentle man who should really be left to do what he loves and what he has perfected.
--PGA pro, posted September 8, 11:08 p.m.

Robaina: I take offense to such a question and I wish I knew who you are. In any case, I love my country and I believe that Cuban cigars are the best in the world. So I believe that if I can help promote them in the world in any way, I should.

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