Carlos Fuente Jr. is one of the most recognized faces in the world of cigars. The 51-year-old president of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. is a passionate cigarmaker who finds inspiration in breaking new ground in the cigar business. He and his father, Carlos Sr., revived the perfecto shape with their immensely popular Hemingway series of cigars and drove the demand for full-flavored smokes with their creation of the Fuente Fuente OpusX, the first successful cigar to be made with a Cuban-seed wrapper grown under shade in the Dominican Republic. n As the 10th anniversary of the Fuente Fuente OpusX launch loomed, Fuente Jr. sat down with senior editor David Savona for a wide-ranging discussion on his past, present and future in the cigar business.
Savona: When did you smoke your first cigar?
Fuente: I was between the age of six and seven years old. I went to my dad's dresser, and he had a couple of Arturo Fuente Brevas. I remember sneaking them outside. It was daytime. I opened up the matches and took a couple of puffs.
Q: And taking this wasn't something you had permission to do, right?
A: No, no. When my father got home, he started asking, Where's the cigars? And I was very quiet. I never told him, but he knew. As soon as he got home, I put my head down, and had a big smirk on my face.
Q: Where was this?
A: It was on Dewey Street, in West Tampa. My family moved from Ybor City to West Tampa when I was three years old. I was born in a hospital, and the next day I went to my grandfather's [Arturo Fuente's] home. My mom was 18 and my father was 19, so my parents lived with my grandfather, and the cigar factory was part of the house. The doctor who delivered me was a good friend, and he was paid with a box of cigars. Everybody seemed to be involved somehow directly or indirectly with cigars. It was a different world, but it was a beautiful world. I remember the afternoons and the early evenings, being on the porch with my grandparents. My father, my mother, my uncles, my aunts. Godparents. Neighbors would be walking up and down the street and stop, and smoke a cigar with my grandfather. It was a wonderful community.
Q: Was the company called Tabacalera A. Fuente at that time?
A: The original company was A. Fuente & Co. It was started in 1912 by my grandfather. He was a very young man at the time. He migrated to the United States from Cuba in search of the American dream. [The factory] was known as A. Fuente & Co. till 1924, when it burned down [during] one of his visits to Cuba, where he would spend months and months during the tobacco season. He reopened again in the 1940s as the Arturo Fuente Cigar factory. It became Tabacalera A. Fuente in 1980, when we moved to the Dominican Republic.
Q: Your company has changed dramatically over the years, and this is a big one: 2005 is the 10th anniversary of the launch of the Fuente Fuente OpusX. Tell me a little about how that brand has changed your company over the last 10 years.
A: People didn't really know about the Dominican Republic at that time, especially in Florida. But we had a group of visitors, and one gentleman in particular, from Paris. He saw our factories and he said, "Carlito, you don't produce cigars, you assemble cigars. Just like the clothing companies around here: they bring in clothing, they assemble it and they export it. It's not really a Dominican product. You bring in tobaccos from all over, but you're not really producing a Dominican cigar, because the most important part is the wrapper." And that statement literally broke my heart. I was so grateful to the Dominican Republic, and I believed so much in the Dominican Republic, there was no logical reason in the world why you couldn't grow great wrappers in the Dominican Republic.
Q: It insulted you?
A: I believe God speaks to you in many ways, and I believe in destiny. I think it was a message, and this really opened my mind, to ask myself, Why not? And I started speaking to my dad about the importance of growing wrappers. And the person who is my mentor, the person who guided us in the '70s and someone who I think of every day was Angel Oliva. And I asked Angel, and the Oliva family, if they would grow tobacco for us in the Dominican Republic the way it was grown in Nicaragua.
Q: Did they grow tobacco when you were in Nicaragua?
A: Yes, along with Juan Francisco Bermejo, who was my father's partner at the time. At that time, most of the cigars made in the Dominican Republic were very mild. Most of the larger companies used marketing people, and the information they got was that the market wanted cigars that had a light aroma, very mild. At that time, it was the era of Miller Lite, Marlboro Light, everything light. That was totally against what I believe in, what I love, and what my father had taught me. I wanted something that was rich and bold, and the only way to achieve that was through the real Cuban-seed tobacco. And we approached the Oliva family, who was and still is very close to us. In the beginning, they were a little hesitant, but then my father convinced them to grow in Caribe, which is now Chateau de la Fuente [the farm where Tabacalera A. Fuente grows tobacco for OpusX and other cigars]. The first year—it was 1990-'91—they grew a whole crop of Cuban-seed tobacco. My father had made a commitment to take the whole crop.
Q: Was it shade?
A: It was sun-grown, and it was piloto Cubano, Cuban-seed from the Dominican Republic. And we didn't use any wrappers that year, but it was very promising. So we asked the Oliva family if they would grow shade-grown and use wrapper seed, and really grow wrappers, and that's when the Oliva family, especially Angel, he told me that the farm was too small to achieve what we were looking for. And he encouraged me. He said, "If you really believe in this, the best thing to do is for you to take over the operation." I was very hesitant. And I said, "Angel, can we really grow wrappers here?" He said, "Carlito, the reason we went to that farm is the soil is the closest thing I have ever seen to San Luis [Cuba.]" He said these soils were meant for Cuban-seed tobacco, not Connecticut-seed.
Q: Tell me about getting the cigars to market.
A: There was a lot of controversy about wrappers in the Dominican Republic, that this product would never reach the market, that it didn't exist. In 1993, a gentleman came to visit us from Cigar Aficionado magazine. I knew it was premature. And I was very concerned, because our colleagues in the industry were saying that this project will never be successful, that we were going to fail.
Q: People knew about it?
A: There's no hiding. At the time, we were already making more cigars than anyone else here by hand, and our brands were oversold. They said, "Your son is taking a big risk. You have no need for this." My father, the more people told him no, the more he said we have to do it. My father is a person who the word "impossible" doesn't exist for. He's the person I love most in life, and my dream is to follow in his footsteps, but it's impossible to fill his shoes.
Q: When you say negativity, where was that coming from?
A: It was the other manufacturers. For some reason, they felt that great wrappers cannot be grown [in the Dominican Republic]. The article came out, "Seeds of Hope," and it was positive, although there was still a lot of doubt. Our colleagues were also interviewed. No one, no one at all, said that they were hoping it was successful. I was heartbroken by that. That's where the idea came [for our ad] Chateau de la Fuente, Birthplace of a Dream. We didn't have a product yet, but we showed my father and myself in a tobacco field. That was not [directed] to the consumer. It was not to promote. That was a response to my colleagues.
It wasn't until 1995, when we had the bands, that my father said, "We're going to wait until November the 18th [to ship]. That's your grandfather's birthday, and we'll need his help." On November 18th, I was here in New York City for the Big Smoke. I started getting calls from the finest retailers in New York City saying there were people in line around the block. It was amazing, the demand for this product.
Q: I was going to ask you when you knew the cigar was a hit. I guess you knew the first day.
A: I knew I loved it. This was my baby. But I didn't know who else was going to like it. At that time, cigars were basically very mild, and all of a sudden, after the Fuente Fuente OpusX had this tremendous success, it started a whole new trend in the cigar industry, a whole new trend for rich, flavorful cigars. I feel blessed.
Q: What did it do for your core brand, Arturo Fuente?
A: I believe it enhanced our family of cigars. I believe, and most people believe, our greatest cigars are the Reserva Don Carlos, the Arturo Fuente Hemingway series, Chateau Fuente series and, of course, our bread and butter, the Arturo Fuente 8-5-8.
Q: Is the 8-5-8 your best seller?
A: I don't really know what's our best seller.
Q: You don't know which of your cigars you sell the most?
A: I really don't know. I consider myself a chef, my father a chef. We blend leaves. It's very much like cooking, to get the complexity, the dimension, the personality, the signature of our family name inside every puff. We're chefs, and we have to offer different tastes for different people.
Q: Have you always liked strong and flavorful cigars?
A: Absolutely. When I was 18, 19 years old, I used to visit the Dominican Republic. My father wanted me to learn tobacco from the ground up. I was not able to go to Cuba because of the economic embargo, so my father sent me to the Dominican Republic to work with José Mendez & Co., one of the great Cuban families and one of the pioneers in the Dominican Republic with Cuban-seed tobacco. Everybody was shocked, because I would get the [powerful leaves called] coronas and the medio tiempos and make cigars out of that.
Q: Those are the highest leaves?
A: Yes, the highest, thickest leaves, and everyone was amazed. At that time, everyone wanted mild, but I wanted more intense. Maybe it's part of my heritage, but it's just what I love. Like the coffee we drink, like the food we eat.
Q: Do you like food with lots of flavor and spice?
A: Absolutely. At my age I can't eat the spices like I used to, but I was known for just chewing away at jalapeño peppers.
Q: Did your grandfather like strong cigars, too?
A: Of course. I'm not saying strong. I don't believe in strong cigars. I really believe in flavor, balance, richness. I think the Fuente Fuente OpusX is very powerful, but it's like a silent power. I believe it's very complex, very rich, but sometimes you don't realize it until you stand up.
Q: You mentioned blending. Can you talk about how different sizes in a brand have different flavors?
A: I don't blend a gran panetela the same way I would blend a double corona. They would be the same tobaccos but in different proportions. With different dimensions and different lengths, you get different cigars. Cigar making is probably the most difficult craft in the world. In the wine industry, you have a crop of grapes, you ferment them, and you mix liquids together and it becomes uniform. With cigars, you're blending solids. That's where it takes not only know-how, but also art. You're blending sometimes as many as five, six, seven different flavors together. I like to refer to them as herbs and spices. The Fuente line is extensive, and that's because it evolved. In Nicaragua, we made a certain type of cigar. Before the Cuban embargo, we made a certain type of cigar. When we moved to the Dominican Republic, a lot of the people wanted them milder. And little by little we toned them down. Around 1982, we started adjusting it back up, and we introduced the Chateau Fuente line.
Q: That's with Connecticut wrapper?
A: Yes, but it was a blend that was very rich and more full-flavored. We kept on bringing more things with more taste, and different shapes. For example, in 1983 we introduced Arturo Fuente Hemingway. It was a shape [perfecto] that was lost on the market. It was really a lost art. But I really have a passion, and my heart is in the past. I wanted to recapture that lost art. My father went back to our warehouse in Ybor City and gathered as many molds as he could find of the perfecto shape, which my grandfather called Arturo Fuente Fancy Tales, and I believe it wasn't made since the '60s. No one knew how to make those shaped cigars. I asked my father, and he said when he was young, he used to make them. My grandfather had taught him. And my father practiced and worked on it, and taught our master roller to make it. It wasn't until about a year later that the cigar was introduced, and it became an instant success. It was the only perfecto shape on the market that I was aware of.
Q: When did you come out with the Hemingway Short Story?
A: It was becoming difficult to smoke in certain areas. We were talking about making a shape that was small but very flavorful. There was only one or two cigarmakers making each of these cigar sizes at that time. It was an instant success. For many years there wasn't a shape like that on the market. The Short Story became perhaps the most imitated shape. My father always taught me you either lead or follow.
Q: What about Don Carlos?
A: The Don Carlos series was launched in 1986. It's an honor and tribute to my father, but I also think of someone very dear to me, a brother, Richard Meerapfel [the recently deceased grower of Cameroon leaf]. We developed Don Carlos for the European market. Today, it's a classic. It's what many people believe is our finest cigar.
I just can't create something new because someone asked me to. A lot of times when we develop new sizes and new blends, most of the times it's during my most difficult moments. Sometimes it happens in the middle of the night. I can't turn it on, I can't turn it off. Don Carlos was developed this way. My father was involved, I was involved, and also Richard Meerapfel with his wrappers. It pays tribute to someone who's probably the most humble man you could meet.
Q: Can you tell me about your grandfather Arturo?
A: At a very young age, I used to sit on my grandfather's lap, in this old wooden house in Ybor City. Every evening, my grandfather would take me to his room with a cigar in his mouth, and put it on a little night table right by his bed. And he would tell me stories about Cuba, about the folklore, about El Indio, the goddess that protects the tobacco fields. How there was so much pride when he was a young man in Cuba. The tobacco farmers lived a life to make tobacco taste better. It was in their culture, in their veins. My grandfather told me all these stories, and I was like a computer without information, a blank slate. And all these stories are my inspiration.
Q: What kind of man was he?
A: I never saw my grandfather without a cigar. My grandfather, and I say this in a very affectionate way, was a guajido. A guajido is a Cubano from the land, who is affectionate, respects life, and is also very proud. A man with honor. A man above all whose word is his bond. My grandfather was probably the most tender human being I ever met. He was a simple man, but a man everybody loved. Right now, I smell his Old Spice aftershave. I see my grandfather sitting in a wooden chair, caressing tobacco. At a very young age he told me tobacco is like the most beautiful woman. As you caress the tobacco, it becomes more beautiful. It speaks to you. He was a simple, humble man, but a man who left such a deep impact on my life. When it comes to tobacco and cigars, everything I do, I do it with my grandfather in mind, and hope that he is proud.
Q: Let's talk about your tobacco farm, which has grown so much over the years. How many acres are you growing now?
A: The total property is approximately 300 acres. The most we grow in one year is 190 acres. The farm when we started was around 38 acres. We're in negotiations now to buy another property to develop a filler farm at Chateau de la Fuente.
Q: And will that go into your other cigars, besides Fuente Fuente OpusX?
A: Of course. Most of the tobacco that we grow on Chateau de la Fuente does not go on Fuente Fuente OpusX. On Fuente Fuente OpusX we use tobacco from the farm and tobacco from around Santiago.
Q: Which of your other cigars uses the Chateau de la Fuente tobacco?
A: A lot of different cigars, David. Cigars in the Fuente brand, and, of course, we own other brands, and also cigars with the Newman family. It could be half a leaf. How can you not use it, when the taste is so unique? In Connecticut, or other great growing regions in the world, if there's a bad crop, you always have something else to fall back on. If Chateau de la Fuente fails, there's nothing else to fall on. I'm not saying it's better, but it's different.
Q: Is that why you're careful with your inventories?
A: One thing I learned from my father: you run the cigar business with your heart, not with pencil and paper. And our greatest passion is tobacco. We have inventory that's scary. We've had business tragedies. We had a fire in 1995 where we lost about 1,800 bales of old, aged tobacco. And that same morning, when the buildings were ablaze, a lot of people in the industry were there watching the fire. That next day, one of my friends and colleagues was approaching the Newman family offering to make their cigars, because the industry thought we were out of business. But no one in the industry knew the dozens of warehouses we had just like that full of tobacco. We're a family business, and we're very private. And people didn't know how much tobacco we had.
Q: Just to give perspective, how many cigars can you make with 1,800 bales?
A: I have no idea.
Q: A lot?
A: A shitload. (Laughs) But my family is not about numbers, it's not about being big. We're not really businesspeople. We do things from the heart. When it's great tobacco, it only gets better with time. We have enough tobacco to supply quite a few companies in the cigar industry. We do it because we have a love for it. You never see my father with a tie. You'll never see a memo. Nothing is written down. Not even our blends are written down.
Q: They're not written down?
A: They're not written down.
Q: All your blends? That's amazing.
A: That's how my father taught me. We're from the old school. Remember, I was born in a community where right next to my grandfather's house was another cigar factory. At night, when they would have conversations, they would go, "Hush. They're listening."
Q: But with so many warehouses, tobacco everywhere...
A: We have our inventories, everything is in bond, and numbered. It's itemized. When we look at tobacco now, we would designate it thinking it's going to be for X. You're constantly inspecting it, the tobacco evolves, you see whether it's ready to use. That's why it's alive. If you were to run things by the book, it would not be consistent. You feel the tobacco, the oils, and you have an idea of the heat that's going to be required to bring out all the flavors and the aromas of that tobacco. It's like cooking. If you have [two] Chilean sea bass, and one is three inches thick and the other is one and a half, you don't cook them the same.
There's three parts to making a great cigar. There's the science and the know-how, the experience. There's the art, which is the judgment call, that feel that you know exactly what to do. But there's something else: the inspiration. And I consider that very spiritual.
Q: Say you were going to make a new cigar today. Would you have an idea in your head?
A: I can't go out and make a cigar. It's an inspiration. It's a feeling. It's timing. That's why sometimes you see many years go by without something new, and then it's just bam-bam-bam-bam, you have six, seven different sizes, a different blend. Like right now, I really feel that motivation. I want to create this magical farm for the best fillers in the world.
We just want to make the best cigar possible. We made a decision years ago, my father and I. At one time during the '90s we worked Saturdays, we were working sometimes into the night, the demand was so big. And we just said to ourselves, "No. We're going to make the best cigars we can." And we're making a lot less cigars today than we did in the '90s.
Q: How many cigars do you make?
A: This year I think we're going to be over 36 million cigars. In the '90s we hit over 40 million. But today we'll stay at 36. Right now we're expanding our operations, but to make more small specialty rooms. I love the art, I love the creativity, the excitement.
Q: How many factories do you have?
A: Four factories.
Q: Can you describe your change in cigar-making method?
A: During the time between 1994 and 1997, we were losing 300, 400, 500 cigarmakers a year. Prior to that, we were one of the only cigar factories with a school. We were constantly teaching people. And people would come like bounty hunters, standing in front of our factory, and offer them money. In a year over 200 factories opened up. At that time we were the only ones making Hemingway shapes, and our Hemingway cigarmakers were targeted, and they were hired away from us. I used to tell my dad—I'm going to go down like John Wayne in True Grit. It became an industrial war.
Q: It had to drive you nuts.
A: I was in the middle of a lawsuit [against the Opus One winery], people were knocking off our shapes, we had over five wage increases in one year. I kept increasing the cigarmakers' wages, and my dad came to me and said, "You're going to destroy the cigar industry. Enough is enough." I said, "I'm going to fight to the very end." He said. "But Carlos, you have to be wise." One night, in the middle of the night, I was really stressed out. I woke up and said, "My dad is right." A lot of our cigarmakers don't know how to read and write. They're making more than a teller in a bank, a teacher, administrators in our company. But no matter how much money they made, by Friday they were in debt. Then a door opened in my mind. I said, "With what a cigarmaker makes today, I want to find someone educated, from the city, that will have a career they can be proud of. To become artists." We realized we couldn't bring them into our factories to train them. There were a lot of bad habits.
Q: What kind of bad habits?
A: When we went to the Dominican Republic, there were cigarmakers from two towns, but those towns traditionally made rustic little cigars, perritos. They made 800 cigars a day. We came into an industry with a pay standard, and a lot of cigarmakers in 1980 made 400, 500 cigars a day. They used to fold leaves in half to make a cigar.
A: Booking. That wasn't the proper way. But we couldn't be too strict, because they would go down the street. So we told the cigarmakers, "We're going to change the way we make cigars. Instead of folding, you're going to make an accordion." It springs back. But technically it wasn't right.There's a lot of different things and techniques that were born at Tabacalera A. Fuente.
Q: The accordion method is better than booking?
A: It's much better. But then a door opened, and I thought to myself, we need to get educated, young cigarmakers. I wanted to make sure when I taught these young men and ladies, they were going to be unique and different. And I wanted to do something so special, I knew they could not go work somewhere else and make 400, 500 cigars per day. For the first two or three months, it was nothing but philosophy, showing them tobacco plants, listening to Cuban music, showing them magazines, showing them the lifestyle of people who smoke cigars. It was Operation Blank Slate. Instead of doing the accordion, we taught them to make these very small entubado, little tubes [with the tobacco leaves]. You're making something round. It's like a rose. And you start making your cigar round on the inside. I didn't know it at the time, but they can only make 75, 100 cigars a day like this. In the old days, traditionally in the cigar industry, you would start in the cigar factory young, making brevas, fumas, and you had to make a lot of cigars in order to make minimum wage. And you would hope in years you would move up in scale to maybe a corona gorda. That would take many years. But when you're making 500 cigars, you pick up a lot of bad habits. I said this has to be different. I said this is like a military academy. When you graduate, you're going to be a colonel. You'll never be a private. And if you love it, one day you'll become a general. One day, I took all the cigarmakers who make Fuente Fuente OpusX—our best cigarmakers—and said, "I'm really proud of you. But there's going to be an adjustment. Either you go into the main gallery, or I will pay off your benefits and you can get a job with any other factory." Most of them stayed. A few left. That was a great risk. I took all these cigarmakers with 15 years' experience, and I brought all these young men and ladies that were 19, 20, 21 and sat them down to make Fuente Fuente OpusX.
Q: What did your father think of this? Was he worried?
A: He must have been worried, of course, but my father has always given me support. He always taught me, if I fall, I would learn to get up by myself. We used to have horses. When I was seven, eight years old, I fell off the horse. I went to the house crying. My father picked me up by the belt—I never remember touching the floor—and he put me right back on that saddle. It was a big risk, but through those cigarmakers I learned things never imaginable. I learned you could make a gran panetela, a lancero, by making these small little tubes, by using five different tobaccos, and two binders. The cigarmakers that make the Fuente Fuente OpusX, they're the best in the world. You have to remember, the first classic pyramid to come out of the Dominican Republic with a point was the Fuente Fuente OpusX. Before that, all the pyramids had a flat head. We tried for years to teach cigarmakers, and they refused to make it. It was the mentality. By bringing on the young people, who were artists, we created all these different shapes—the Cuban tickler, the football, the baseball bat. When we saw the results, we changed the Arturo Fuente Hemingway room, because we have different rooms to make different cigars, and Don Carlos. Now all the production today, all the cigars are now made entubado. Everything.
Q: Some of the shapes you mentioned, like the cigar that you're smoking, the BBMF, you sell only for charity. Why not sell them to the market?
A: Remember, it's not about cigars, it's about people. And it's a privilege to have a product that you can use for charity events, to help others. We've been very fortunate and blessed. My family is living the American dream. But America is a philosophy. America does not have borders or boundaries. America represents a dream, a dream for human beings all over to understand. It's freedom, freedom from poverty, illness, repression. It's the right to dream. I know, as an American, I have the responsibility to share this dream with everyone who's around me.
Q: Do you have a favorite spot to sit and reflect, when you're at peace?
A: Right now at this moment, this is the spot. I'm enjoying my cigar tremendously. You're helping me reminisce and remember the most beautiful memories of my life. At this moment, my vision is very clear for the wonderful things that are left to come.
Photo by Justin Steele