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A Star-Studded Night to Remember

By David Savona | From Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

Millions of people stay up at night to watch "The Sopranos" on TV. For one magical night this spring, an intimate group of about 200 cigar smokers joined "Sopranos" star James Gandolfini and several other members of the cast for a night of premium cigars, fine wines and a charity auction that raised more than $1.4 million for the Prostate Cancer Research Foundation. It was Cigar Aficionado's 14th annual Night to Remember, drawing business icons, celebrities and many of the world's greatest cigarmakers to Manhattan's Four Seasons on March 28. Since the inaugural dinner in 1993, Cigar Aficionado Nights to Remember have raised nearly $13 million for the prostate cancer foundation.

The evening began with the guests in black tie mingling and sampling dozens of cigar brands on display in the Grill Room. Dom Pèrignon 1996 was the featured drink. A buzz accompanied the arrival of the first of the "Sopranos" stars—Dominic Chianese, the actor who portrays Tony Soprano's uncle, Junior, who stole the show in the season opener by nearly killing his nephew with a shot to his stomach. Chianese joked with attendees, then it was time for dinner in the Pool Room, which was decorated with spring trees in full bloom.

Chianese and the other "Sopranos" stars sat at a large, rectangular table by the bubbling waters of the pool. Joining him were the lead player of the series, Gandolfini, who plays Tony Soprano; Steven Van Zandt, who first gained fame playing guitar with Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and now is known as the consigliere Silvio Dante; Tony Sirico, a.k.a. Paulie Walnuts; Vincent Curatola, who portrays incarcerated New York mob boss Johnny "Sack" Sacramoni; John Ventimiglia, who plays chef Artie Bucco; and others. The TV mobsters came with Tim and Aylin Ozgener of C.A.O. International Inc. A cherry red box of C.A.O. The Sopranos Editionsm cigars adorned each table. Other TV personalities joined the dinner. Joel Surnow, the co-creator of the thriller "24," which was recently featured on the cover of Cigar Aficionado, was there, along with his cocreator Howard Gordon and the actor Peter Weller, a federal agent on the series. A walk-on role on the show would become one of the prized gems put on the block later that evening.

Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado magazine, was the host of the evening. He greeted the crowd, then added a note of regret about the prevalence of smoking bans. "We started this 14 years ago when cigar smokers were welcome. When we were part of society. When people treated us with respect," he said. "Today, we are unwanted, but we celebrate together." The featured speakers included evening cohost Rush Limbaugh, Michael Milken, the founder of the Prostate Cancer Research Foundation, CNN's Jeff Greenfield and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a frequent Night to Remember attendee, who spoke about his love of cigars and shared tales of going up against one of his former foils, the real-life gangster "Fat Tony" Salerno. Giuliani shared his personal interest in the event: he had prostate cancer, a disease that claimed his father. "If people had done this 30, 40 years ago, my father would have lived, and probably died of something else," he said.

Star chef Emeril Lagasse said a few words. John Salley, the former Chicago Bull and Detroit Piston and a star of "Best Damn Sports Show Period," joked about meeting Limbaugh, listening to him, then becoming a Republican. "I thought I was going to be able to save some money," he said. Bo Dietl, the renowned former police officer, was there, along with a who's who of American business leaders, including Facundo Bacardi, chairman of Bacardi & Co.; Ed Rabin, former president of Hyatt Hotels Corp.; Richard P. Torykian Sr., director of Lazard Frères & Co.; Jim Taylor of Cadillac and Mike Jackson of General Motors; Philip Geier Jr., chairman emeritus of Interpublic Group of Cos.; restaurateur Drew Nieporent; and wine store magnates Don Zacharia and Michael Goldstein.

The cigar stars in attendance included Cooper Gardiner, Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, Benjamin Menendez, Sherwin Seltzer, Whit Beebe, Mike Giannini, Bill Chilian and Victoria McKee of General Cigar Co.; Carlos Fuente Jr. and Wayne Suarez of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia.; Jose Orlando Padrón and Jorge Padrón, makers of Padrón Cigars; Robert Levin of Ashton; Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana; Tim Ozgener, Aylin Ozgener and Mike Conder of C.A.O. International Inc.; Peter Baenninger of Davidoff of Geneva; Julio and Christian Eiroa of Camacho Cigars; Eric Newman of J.C. Newman Cigar Co.; Charlie Toraño of Toraño Cigars; Ernesto Padilla of Padilla Cigars; Daniel Miranda of Miami Cigar & Co.; Peter Arnell of Zino Platinum; Les Mann of Colibri; Matt Arcella, owner of the Davidoff stores in Las Vegas; and Stan Shuster, owner of the Grand Havana Rooms in New York City and Beverly Hills.

Limbaugh, the radio celebrity, came to dinner decked out in a "24" smoking jacket-cum-tuxedo jacket. He congratulated Shanken and the Four Seasons for standing up to the "health nazis" by holding the event. Shanken congratulated Limbaugh on his loyalty to the dinner, which he has never missed.

"Fourteen years ago, Rush said to me, 'This is the greatest evening of the year,'" said Shanken from the dais. "'As long as I'm alive, I'll never miss this dinner.'"

Greenfield used his time at the podium to lightly roast Giuliani, speaking of the challenges he faces if he decides to run for the presidency. "He has problems," said Greenfield. "He has a four-syllable name, and we've only had one four-syllable president." Greenfield joked that Giuliani, if elected, would most certainly end the U.S. embargo on Cuba and be sworn in "with one hand on the Bible, and one hand clutching a now legal Romeo y Julieta. It is often said there are no atheists in foxholes. Well, there are no principled anticommunists in a humidor."

Unlike his on-screen persona, the real-life Gandolfini was reserved. It took some convincing by Shanken to get him to briefly take the stage. When he spoke, it was from the heart. "I came from a blue-collar family," he said. "I look around this room and I'm amazed by the amount of generosity and power that is here. I think we have to remember those who are less fortunate, and what a great country this is."

Chianese also spoke, lauding his colleague Gandolfini. "I've never seen a man work so hard, with such passion and talent," he said. Sirico, speaking like his alter ego, hammed it up and encouraged the guests to be generous for the auction. "I'm speaking of all the Sopranos: It's great to be here, and to be part of what's going on in this room. Go into your pockets, fellas," he said, "it could be you next."

The attendees did just that, offering munificent sums for the fine items donated for the auction. The bidding began with seven mystery wines, bottles cloaked in bags, their identities kept secret until after the winning bid. Limbaugh bought the first for $15,000—a 1961 Chàteau Pètrus, which (as tradition dictates) he shared with his guests at the head table.

The second bottle, a younger Petrús (it was from the 1996 vintage), went for $12,000 to Richard Cuneo of Sebastiani Vineyards. Tim Ozgener, hosting his "Sopranos" table, won the third wine, but as he went to the podium to accept it he was persuaded to take the fourth as well by Shanken, who told him that he had a large, thirsty table and shouldn't be caught short. Shanken offered Ozgener two bottles for $20,000. "Do you like wine?" Shanken asked Gandolfini from the dais. "Not that much," he answered. The wines turned out to be superstars, a 1983 Mouton Rothschild and a 1986 Chàteau Margaux. Charlotte and Chuck Wagner, the coproprietors of Caymus, won their own wine, a Caymus Special Selection, for $14,000. "It's a great wine!" said Shanken. Lee Einsidler of Sidney Frank Importing took a 1961 Haut Brion for $12,000, and Royce Pulliam of Global Fitness Holdings and Pete Moore of Sagent Advisors won the final mystery wine, a 1995 Haut-Brion, for $14,000. It was time for the main auction to begin. Lot No. 1, a vacation at Anguilla's luxurious Cap Juluca resort, plus a remarkable collection of 500 Ashton cigars, including the Ashton ESG, went for $25,000 to Frank Arcella of Arcella Premium Brands. The lot was donated by Ashton's Robert Levin and Cap Juluca's Eustace Guishard. Charles Palombini, the president of Kobrand Corp., purchased a dinner for 70 of his closest friends at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House for $44,000. It was donated by Jamie B. Coulter, the chief executive officer of the parent company of Del Frisco's, Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon Inc. The third lot was a Daniel Marshall humidor with a solid bronze seal of the governor of California that had been signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Doug Wood, a partner with the New York City law firm of Reed Smith, won the unique lot with a bid of $14,000.

A collection of 488 Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars, including a special presentation of 95 Double Coronas, Cigar Aficionado's 2006 Cigar of the Year, sold for $33,000 to Coulter. The lot, which included limited-edition cigar accessories from S.T. Dupont, was donated by Tabacalera A. Fuente., makers of the cigar. A vacation in paradise at the Four Seasons Resort in Maui, donated by the resort, sold for $24,000 to Michael Milken. A generous collection of Joseph Phelps Insignia wines—Wine Spectator's 2005 Wine of the Year—plus two cases of 100-point Vintage Ports were donated by Palombini of Kobrand. Dan Baldwin of Stanfield Capital Partners bought it for $18,000. "A Flight to Remember," five hours on a NetJets Gulfstream IV-SP, donated by NetJets' chairman Richard Santulli, went for $50,000 to Brett T. Setzer of Lexington, Kentucky's Brett Construction Co. Gandolfini bought a collection of rare Partagas 150 Signature Series and Partagas Limited Reserve Decadas cigars for $10,000. It was donated by the makers of the cigar, General Cigar Co. During the auction, the waiters brought out dinner and poured wine. The first course, a black bass wrapped in phyllo with a lemon thyme sauce, was paired with a Louis Jadot Puligny-Montrachet Clos de la Garenne Duc de Magenta 2003. The main course, a filet mignon served with morels, polenta, asparagus and springtime ramps, was matched by a superb first-growth Bordeaux, a Chàteau Mouton-Rothschild Pauillac 1995.

The auction resumed with a collection of 500 La Aurora cigars, donated by Fernando León of La Aurora, consisting of Preferidos and 100 Años, which sold for $10,000 to Martin Sosnoff, chairman of the board of Atalanta Sosnoff Capital Corp. An active buyer, Sosnoff also purchased a vacation at Las Ventanas in Los Cabos, Mexico, for $36,000, which was been donated by Andres Araya, managing director of the resort.

A new Cadillac Escalade, donated by Jim Taylor, general manager of the brand, proved too alluring to Lagasse, who won the SUV with a bid of $64,000. Coulter, who typically buys several lots, won a selection of La Gloria Cubana cigars in special chests for $12,000. They had been donated by General Cigar. A five-day Caribbean cruise on the 141-foot luxury yacht Relentless, donated by Coulter, went for $80,000 to Kenneth Ambrecht of KCA Associates LLC.

A rare Imperial bottling of Chàteau Pètrus 1961, which was donated by Limbaugh, went for $80,000. A beautiful selection of 400 Padrón cigars, including Padrón Millenniums, 40th Anniversary smokes and cigars made just for the auction, sold for $28,000 to Coulter.

The final lot, which always draws great interest, was Marvin's Mystery Box, which began as always with a rare Elie Bleu humidor made especially for Shanken with authentic Cuban cigar bands. Like all Mystery Boxes, this one contained other gems, from a guaranteed winning Super Bowl wager (bets are placed on every NFL team) to many other prizes, including a walk-on role on the hit TV show "24." This year, the lot went for $175,000 to Coulter, who was buying his second humidor of the evening.

The walk-on role on "24" proved too popular to auction only one—ultimately four more were put on the block, each going for $50,000 to $100,000. Milken purchased two, intending to give one to Giuliani. Limbaugh bought another.

As the meal and auction drew to a close, diners were handed a Humidipak with three special cigars inside—Cigar Aficionado's No. 1, 2 and 3 cigars of the year. No. 1 was a Fuente Fuente OpusX Double Corona; No. 3 was a Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series Exclusivo; and the No. 2 smoke was described by Shanken as coming from "an island south of Key West." The waiters poured glasses of the final beverage of the evening, Hennessy Paradis Extra Cognac. Soon the smell of rich cigars wafted through the air, mixing with the heady aromas of fine Cognac.

Einsidler took the podium and spoke of his late boss, Sidney Frank, who was one of three winning bidders for Marvin's Mystery Box at the 2005 Night to Remember. (The lot brought a record $900,000 when Frank, Limbaugh and Michael Jordan agreed to $300,000 bids.) Einsidler remembered Frank, who died in January, as a man who loved life and cigars. "He died with a cigar in his mouth, and a Jägermeister in his hand," said Einsidler. "Thank you, Marvin, for another great night."

Shanken invited Milken to speak about his organization's progress in the war on cancer. "This is a great night for cancer research," he said. "For the first time in 70 years, fewer people passed of cancer than in the year before." He said it was the goal of his organization, and others fighting cancer, to eliminate it as a cause of death by 2015. "We want to make sure our children, and our children's children, don't know cancer, and only read about it."

Milken described the impact of charity on the war against cancer, particularly prostate cancer, and said that over the last 14 years 400,000 men in the United States alone with the disease have survived—years ago, they would not have fared as well. He pledged to continue the fight. "Our promise to you tonight," he said, "is that we will continue that work."