Carlos Fuente Jr. has become one of the most recognizable people in the cigar business. While at the helm of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., he has seen the company rise to one of the preeminent positions in the industry. Under the watchful eye of Carlos Sr., his father, Carlos Jr., with his sister, Cynthia Suarez, and brother-in-law, Wayne Suarez, have transformed their company from something they once described as a "small family business" into a powerhouse that produced nearly 40 million cigars in 1997.
The Fuentes' success is no accident. The family is steeped in a tradition of tobacco and cigars. Their odyssey began in Cuba around the turn of the century and went through Tampa, Nicaragua and Hondurasbefore finally settling in the Dominican Republic in 1981. His struggling company was down to seven rollers at that point, but that did not deter Carlos Sr. from putting together from scratch a factory that began turning out cigars. Although still a young man at the time, Carlos Jr., now 44, was already devoted to a life as a cigarmaker. He had learned and begun to master the craft of cigars at the feet of his father and grandfather, from how to prepare a field for planting to the intricate art of blending a cigar in the distinctive Fuente style.
Carlos Jr. also started dreaming in the early 1980s about a cigar that he wanted to one day make using all Dominican tobacco, including shade wrapper. As he pursued his dream, tobacco experts tried to discourage him, saying any past attempts to grow shade wrapper in the Dominican Republic had failed. But Fuente wouldn't give up. Finally, in 1992, he harvested the first leaves from a small plot that was to become Chateau de la Fuente, and in 1995, he launched the Fuente Fuente OpusX, a 100 percent Dominican cigar. Today it is one of the most prized cigars in the U.S. market. Perhaps more importantly, the project marked Fuente as a tobacco man driven by a passion to achieve excellence.
In an interview with Marvin R. Shanken, the editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, Carlos Fuente Jr. talks about his dream, about the lawsuit that aimed to deny him the Fuente Fuente OpusX trademark, the difficulties in keeping trained rollers during the incredible cigar boom in the Dominican Republic, and his own hopes for the future of Tabacalera A. Fuente.
Cigar Aficionado: Let's start with your pet project, Fuente Fuente OpusX, and the Fuente family's shade-wrapper operation at Chateau de la Fuente. Many people doubted whether you could successfully grow Cuban-seed wrapper tobacco in the Dominican Republic. Even today, people doubt its success. Why the controversy?
Fuente: When we started the project, we planted seeds that I've always called the seeds of hope. But they became the seeds of controversy. Maybe it's because so many people had tried and failed to grow shade wrapper there. I don't really know why they had failed. There was no logical reason why you couldn't grow world-class wrappers in the Dominican Republic.
The story begins a long time ago, when I was living in Nicaragua. I was so fortunate to be around the great tobacco masters, and I spent a lot of time at the tobacco farms of Angel Oliva and his son, Johnny, and Juan Francisco Bermejo. I fell in love with the idea and the reality of growing wrappers. When our family moved to the Dominican Republic, I felt there was something missing, a piece that was missing to complete the circle that would help us create a cigar that in our hearts, in my heart, I believed we could be making; that is, a cigar with 100 percent Dominican tobacco.
There was actually a single incident that triggered my desire--that moved me off of thinking about what was missing, to doing something about it. It started when a group of retailers from Europe were visiting our factory, and because I am a believer in destiny, I realized it was a message being sent to us. These retailers were in our factory, and I was very proud of showing them everything that had been accomplished in the Dominican Republic. I remember them commenting that, after traveling to other countries that were producing cigars at that point, it was unbelievable what had been achieved in the Dominican Republic, because the cigar manufacturers in the Dominican Republic were not really producing cigars, they were assembling them with tobacco from elsewhere. That comment broke my heart. And that triggered my desire to produce wrappers in the Dominican Republic.
CA: What year was that?
Fuente: It was 1989. But I wasn't sure where to turn. The Oliva family, which has been very supportive of us throughout our history--in fact, I consider them an extension of our family--had been, and is today, very successful in importing wrappers and supplying wrappers to cigarmakers all over the world. They had a farm in the Dominican Republic where they had sun-grown, Connecticut-seed tobacco. It was a beautiful farm. I approached Angel Oliva, who was like a godfather to me, and asked him to produce Cuban-seed wrappers for us on that farm. After several conversations he agreed, and when I saw the results, I knew it would be possible to grow shade wrappers on that property.
Being around the Olivas probably first gave me the passion to grow wrappers, and I wanted to relive that. I had a burning passion to grow wrapper. When the Olivas grew the first crop there, my father and I knew it was possible to grow great wrappers there. But it wasn't that easy. Actually, it was the perfect combination of many things. A lot of the credit belongs to the Oliva family. It took a lot of guts on our part to invest a lot of money, and lose a lot of money, but in the very beginning, it was the Olivas who gave us moral and technical support. They helped us build a team on that farm with a lot of knowledge about tobacco and a lot of heart.
We started off the first year with 50 acres. At the time, there was very little on the farm. A lot of credit for what it has become belongs to my father. He came to me and said, "Carlos, if we are going to be successful, we have to put in everything that we have."
It was extremely difficult the first year. It only became more difficult as the pressures started growing on us, with people telling us it would be a total failure, that it would be impossible to grow a classic wrapper on that farm in the Dominican Republic. But we knew we had to do it for ourselves. It was not considered a prime area, because some people had tried to grow wrapper there and failed. But it was the area where the Cuban exiles had first tried to grow wrapper when they came to the island. I knew in my heart it was the right place, partly because Angel told me that the soil there was just like San Luis in Cuba where he grew up. [Editor's note: San Luis is one of the Vuelta Abajo's prime growing regions in Cuba.]
We named it Chateau de la Fuente almost immediately, even though we hadn't bought the farm yet. But the Olivas wouldn't take any money from us until they were sure we were going to be successful. Each year we started growing a few more acres. We were also buying small plots of land adjacent to the farm, and in 1996 we bought the farm across the road, which was about 150 acres, and we started building roads and tobacco barns. The Olivas finally sold us the original farm.
Before that we weren't tobacco growers, we were cigarmakers. But I believe today that the project needed a cigarmaker to make it successful. A cigarmaker was not only going to grow the wrapper, but then use it on his own cigars. We made the best we could because we knew we were going to smoke the cigars ourselves.
In truth, though, the Dominican shade-wrapper project was like having an inspiration. I am from the old school. I believe in el destino--"destiny" in English. The idea of producing a 100 percent Dominican cigar was important to us, and especially important to me. I believe with all my heart that for a country to be considered a truly great producer of cigars, it's important to produce all the components of cigars. That's why this wrapper has been so important.
CA: Have other manufacturers begun to experiment or to grow shade-wrapper tobacco in the Dominican Republic?
Fuente: Yes. They have always been experimenting with growing wrappers. As I understand the history, people started experimenting with wrappers in the Dominican Republic in the late 1960s. And since the launch of the Fuente Fuente OpusX, there are many more people trying to grow wrappers. But I don't know if it's gone beyond the experimental stage.
CA: What was it about you and the Olivas that allowed you to be successful where others had failed?
Fuente: I truly believe it's not so much an issue of agriculture. I mean, there have been a lot of agronomists and tobacco experts that have been involved with growing tobacco in the Dominican Republic. If you really want to understand our secret, it's the heart, the soul, the passion that we brought to the project, and the belief that it could be done. Maybe it was just perseverance. But it was definitely more than agricultural techniques. That can be studied in books. It's something more. It's nursing the tobacco from seedbed to the field. It's suffering with it, watching it grow, doing whatever has to be done to bring in the crop. I think that that's really what has been the secret element of success for that wrapper.
I remember in 1992, driving to the farm with my father. As you get near the farm you go up a small mountain, and you can see down onto the farm. Every time I went there I got chills, wondering what we would find. One time I remember very well. There had been a storm. And when we got there, it looked like cattle had run through the fields, there were so many tobacco leaves down on the ground. The workers there had tears in their eyes when we walked up to them. The thought in my father's and my mind was that it might be the end. But that's when I first said this was a test of God. I told the workers that. I knew I had to keep the team together and motivate them and get them to work together.
CA: Early on, you had certain production goals for Fuente Fuente OpusX. But you delayed the launch because you said you weren't satisfied, and you wanted the cigars to have more time in the aging room. Have you learned that this tobacco needs more aging, that it requires a different treatment than other tobaccos?
Fuente: Yes, absolutely. Every tobacco is like an individual human being. It has to be treated or nurtured accordingly. There was definitely a learning process for us. We had to learn how to cure it, how to regulate the fermentation with this tobacco to capture the flavors that we're looking for, and how to bring out the utmost in its color. It was, and is, a long, slow process that really involves some trial and error. It's an ongoing learning experience.
CA: Is there a different fermentation process or is it basically the same?
Fuente: We rely on the Old World methods of fermenting, which is to say, really, Cuban techniques. But it's more than that. You have adjustments and you have your own personal style. Every tobacco master that I had the opportunity to observe when I was very young had their own book, their own techniques. They're all different but they are also very similar.
Each situation is different. The tobacco that we ferment from the Chateau de la Fuente, and the wrappers especially, are fermented differently than other tobaccos. We would not ferment a Connecticut-shade wrapper, or even a Cameroon wrapper, the way we ferment the Cuban-seed wrapper. We use different techniques on that rosado wrapper. I won't tell you the exact techniques--that's secret. But we use the old methods of natural curing on [the Cuban-seed] wrapper. We select by texture and grade by priming. Then we slowly ferment the leaves. But we don't totally end fermentation at that point. My grandfather told me it's like a slow-roasted pork: you have to leave a little juice in it. It's like that with our wrappers. We don't ferment it all the first time; we let it age for a couple of years with the "juices" still in it, and then we take it for another fermentation. We re-ferment. The tobacco is constantly changing, and the crops change, so you have to adjust year to year. But the secret is that it is done very slowly. We don't want to lose the character or the life in the tobacco.
CA: Do Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars get a longer aging process before they come to market?
Fuente: Yes, there is a longer aging process. That was possibly accidental. The accident started because there were some other reasons that there was such a long delay in bringing the cigar to market. I have to take responsibility for that because I had a setback in the packaging for the product. It was such a special cigar to me, and to my family, that I wanted something so special that I kept on going back and trying to improve it. I wanted the band to be powerful. I wanted to capture the Old World feeling and to highlight the family's dedication and involvement. It just took a long time to get it right. That kept setting us back with the introduction.
The box was also a big problem. I had a specific box in mind, and it took us a long time to make it. So, when we were finally ready, the cigars were already over a year old and we were forced to set a time of aging of one year. We originally had planned on aging them three to six months, but we had to change that to keep up the consistency.
CA: The biggest complaint I hear about your cigar is nobody can find it. What's your production target for 1998 for the Fuente Fuente OpusX?
Fuente: We hope to release between 750,000 and a million cigars.
CA: What was the number in 1997?
Fuente:Last year, we put into the market just under three quarters of a million.
CA: Are you going to open up the western United States?
Fuente: I would love to open up west of the Mississippi. Obviously, we have a lot of pressure to do that. There's nothing more important to me than to have our cigar available to as many cigar lovers as possible. But it's an impossibility at this moment. Every cigar that's being released is already spoken for. One thing I've learned in this whole process is that to achieve anything in life, it takes a lot of patience.
CA: But does that mean that three years from now, you still expect to be releasing 750,000 to a million, or will you be able to increase production to 2 or 3 million cigars a year? What is the growth potential for Fuente Fuente OpusX?
Fuente: With the expansion of Chateau de la Fuente, we had almost 200 acres planted last year. We've been expanding that acreage for the last couple of years, purchasing more land nearby and growing more tobacco in the hope someday that we will be able to produce more cigars. The expanded tobacco production will probably be going into cigars by the middle of 1999. By the year 2000, if everything goes well, there's no reason why we won't be able to release between a million and a million and a quarter cigars.
CA: In 1999, however, production will be about the same as this year?
Fuente: Possibly a little bit more. We are making more cigars. So, I expect to release a little more.
CA: Do you have plans to release any new sizes of OpusX?
Fuente: Yes. We began making the Fuente Fuente OpusX Perfeccion "A" about two years ago with every intention to introduce the cigar into the marketplace. But it's such a special cigar that we were caught by surprise when we began donating them for charity and saw what kind of prices they were bringing. It was a very warm feeling to see the kind of money that the cigars brought in for charity, and for great causes. We realized that for us cigars are not about money, and this was a way for us to give something back to people. It was our intention to have cigars available for charities, and that's what we've been doing. We had only one cigarmaker. That's all he made: the Fuente Fuente OpusX Perfeccion "A". He made approximately 50 to 75 cigars a day, and the cigars began accumulating in the aging rooms. So now, we are going to release cigars that are about two years old in the aging rooms. They will be released sometime in the fall.
CA: What will the price be?
Fuente: The price will be approximately $25 each.
CA: The Opus One winery, which is a joint venture between the Robert Mondavi family and Château Mouton-Rothschild, sued you over the use of your trademark, Fuente Fuente OpusX, claiming that it infringed on their trademark and created confusion in the market. I know this lawsuit was a painful, difficult and expensive experience for you and your family. Now that a judge has ruled in your favor, can you speak about the whole matter?
Fuente: It has absolutely been a very painful two and a half years. It's been very difficult. When it first came about, it was really a shock to our family. It was totally unexpected. Our family had gone through difficult times in the past, but this was different. I try not to think about the lawsuit too much, but I can't help it. I ask myself, why did it happen? And, still today, I can't answer it. The only thing I tell myself, hopefully to find peace, is that this is another test, maybe a test of destiny, a test of God.
The Fuente Fuente OpusX--the cigar, the tobacco--was a lifelong dream of mine, and this is one of the tests that we had to go through. From the beginning of the project, it's been a test. From the dream to the planting of the tobacco, the controversy over whether it would succeed, and people saying it couldn't be done. It was a struggle from the beginning. We wanted to accomplish this so much, not just for us because we believed it in our hearts, but we knew it would be good for the Dominican Republic and for cigar smokers everywhere. And when something is done for the right reasons and when it's so successful, it's hard to answer why there's so much controversy. I don't have an answer why these things happen, but it's over. At least, I pray to God that it's over and I pray to God that no other tobacco family has to be faced with this.
The cigar business is not about legal matters. The cigar business is about families, about people who have their hearts in the business, people that sleep, breathe, live and dream tobacco.
CA: While the judge did rule in your favor, the case isn't really over yet because of the possibility of appeals, and that means you are still distracted. Hasn't this had an impact on your business over the past two and a half years?
Fuente: It will never be over for me. It's a part of my life. The lawsuit is now a part of our life's history. It's unbelievable when I think back to being in Ybor City [in Tampa, Florida] with my father and my grandfather, in a little wooden house that had a little cigar factory in the back. To think that 40 years later we have been in a legal battle with giants like the Mondavis and the Rothschilds. It's part of the history of our family, and regardless of how painful it has been, truth was on our side, and if we had to go back and plant little seeds of hope again, we'd go back and plant and go through it all over again.
The day-to-day distractions were enormous. I still can't quite believe it. The paperwork from our attorneys, the requests from the Opus One attorneys. I had no idea it would be such a battle. No matter how much we tried to stay focused on cigars, it was very difficult. Sometimes I wouldn't hear what people were saying to me. I had a lot of sleepless nights. I'm not sure I could have gotten through it without the support we got from people all over the country.
I was deposed at least three times. It seemed like psychological warfare. One time I had to change all my plans. I was told it would be a day of being deposed in Tampa, so I went there expecting to be back in a couple of days. It ended up being over a week. They were asking about things that had nothing to do with the cigars. And that happened three times.
The legal cost to the family was unbelievable; it was well over $2 million. And it's still going on. But it's not about money. It was about defending our honor.
The first day we found out about it, my father walked into my office and said, "Carlito, we are going to have a fight. People have tried before to take away our company, but I won't allow someone to take our company away from us. This is ours. We have to look at ourselves in the mirror every day." Even though it was going to be difficult, we knew what we had to do. It's not easy, but when you have a father like I do...he was the pillar for the entire family.
CA: Many of the other large cigar companies have been actively creating new brands in recent years. But your company has really stuck to the basics. Other than Fuente Fuente OpusX, you haven't launched a new brand owned by your company in several years. Why is that?
Fuente: Fuente is our family name, and because our name is on the cigars we make, we have tried to stay focused on that. In fact, it is the thing that motivates me to want to get to the factory. A Fuente cigar to me is the only thing I have. When I smoke one of our ci-gars, it's a bridge to my grandfather; it's our heritage, it's part of me. That's why we've been focusing on what we have, not trying to start up a bunch of new brands or new cigars.
CA: What are some of the other brands that you do produce for other people?
Fuente: Most of the cigars that we manufacture are either owned by our family totally, partially, or made under license. Some of the brands don't carry the Fuente name, like Montesino. Montesino is an old brand that we've been manufacturing for many years. We also produce Ashton, and that's a joint venture between us and Robbie Levin of Holt's Cigar Co. We also have Bauza, which is a brand owned by our company [marketed by Oscar Boruchin of Mike's Cigars in Miami]. And we make several brands for the Newman family, under license with the Newman family, such as Cuesta-Rey, La Unica and Diamond Crown. We also make Savinelli ELR and several others.
CA: Have you ever tried blending Cuban tobacco into an Arturo Fuente or Fuente Fuente OpusX blend? And if so, how did it taste?
Fuente: No, sir, I have not. But I would be very curious to find out what would happen.
CA: There are very few successful privately held companies. And in the cigar business, your leading competitors today are larger publicly held corporations. How does your family divide up the responsibilities between family members?
Fuente: It's very hard to separate out what each of us does. I think the only time we're divided is when we all sleep in different beds. We're family. And my father taught us that our responsibility is to do whatever is humanly necessary to make the product as great as possible. I think that is something that is sacred to us and we must never forget that Arturo Fuente Cigar Co. is not a company, it's a family.
CA: Does your father work as hard today as he did 10 years ago?
Fuente: Yes. If there was a way I could try to describe my father, he's like Vince Lombardi; what Vince Lombardi was to football, my father is to cigars or to cigar making. He's taught us all and he still teaches us all on a daily basis.
CA: But what area of the business does your father focus on?
Fuente: Every single day he goes from factory to factory. I only hope that someday I can fill his shoes. He's built a company. It shows his brilliance because he's done it without having a formal education. He's taught so many people, in every department of the company. He personally teaches people, he personally makes cigars, he's personally taught people how to ferment tobacco. He's covered all the different aspects of the company, and he still does it.
CA: I can't therefore draw the conclusion that you're the guy in the factory and he's the guy in the fields, or he's the guy in the fields and you're the guy in the factory. It doesn't work like that?
Fuente: It's a very fine-tuned family. My sister is so much involved in the business; my brother-in-law, Wayne [Suarez], is too. I don't look at Wayne as a brother-in-law; he's a brother. Whatever has to be done, we do. I mean, Wayne's in the Dominican Republic spending a lot of time, or he's in the States working there. My sister grew up in the tobacco business and she knows an extensive amount about tobacco, which may surprise some people. But she worked in the factory, just like I did, when she was a young girl, and she's done just about everything in the factory. She has her heart in the business, like we all do.
CA: There must be some division of labor?
Fuente: Although we are really one as a family, yes, we do still divide up some functions. Cynthia is primarily in administration. She spends most of her time in the office today. But Cynthia was for a time in sales and she traveled around the [United States]. But now with three children, she spends a lot of time in administration. Wayne is also in production, coordinating cigar production and shipment orders. He also spends a lot of time in the United States on the sales and marketing side. There is a lot of overlap with Wayne and Cynthia. Cynthia also goes to the factories and checks cigars. Wayne, too--he's always in the factory checking cigars. It's a family effort.
For myself and my father, we've been a team. But my father does everything. Everything. I spend most of my time with the tobacco: between the farms, blending cigars, creating the new shapes and sizes, and working on the packaging. But we do it all. All of us basically do it all.
CA: Do you see the day when the next generation--your children [Editor's note: Carlos Jr. and his wife, Rosita, have three daughters: Liana, 18, Lidiana, 9, and newborn, Carla Sophia], Cynthia's and Wayne's children, all the grandchildren of your father--will come into the business?
Fuente: My father taught us well. But he never tried to push us into the business, though it was always there if we wanted. Because he knows, and he knew back then, that you have to be totally committed to cigars to be successful. And he knew that is something that you can't teach someone, that it has to come from within. And in the same way, I believe Cynthia and I will not try to [push] our children, but it will be there for them. And, at this moment, thinking of my last moment on earth, if I could have my wish, it would be that I would see my family healthy, my nephews and nieces healthy, and see our children following in our footsteps.
CA: Your standard cigar, the Arturo Fuente, has always been described as a fuller-bodied cigar than the type of cigar that was historically popular in the American market. Given the success of Arturo Fuente, do you think the American palatte has evolved? Do Americans today prefer stronger cigars?
Fuente: I believe there's a very, very small minority of Americans that prefer stronger cigars. But our heritage is Cuban. The way we make cigars, the way my father blends cigars, was taught by my grandfather. Before the embargo, we made cigars strictly of Cuban tobacco. Our heart was in Cuban tobacco. After the embargo, we were forced to look for other tobaccos, but it was always that love, that heritage, that we adhere to because that's really what we feel with our hearts. Therefore, we make a cigar with that kind of complexity often found in Cuban cigars, yet always trying to achieve finesse and balance.
CA: Your cigar sales keep growing and growing, which would lead one to believe that more and more people are looking for a richer, stronger taste.
Fuente: There's no question that there was a time in the United States when people wanted things light. The secret to a great cigar is to achieve as much taste as possible while still maintaining balance and finesse.
CA: Some people still get a little bit confused because you have a red-and-green band and a red-and-black band. There are different bands for the Arturo Fuente line and the Don Carlos line. Is there any easy explanation for the difference in the bands?
Fuente: The classic Arturo Fuente, the red-and-green band, comes from my grandfather's day. He had a red band, but there was a green tax seal placed under the band, and so the ring of green showed around the red band. When the tax seal practice ended after the embargo, we created a red-and-green band for the classic Fuente brand, which was the Flor Fina 8-5-8, which is the flagship of Arturo Fuente cigars. And the reason I say the flagship, it is because it was the blend that my grandfather created after the Cuban embargo. That was his personal blend. But it's sad, because my grandfather never saw that blend for sale on the market. It wasn't until after my grandfather passed away that my father brought out that blend in my grandfather's honor. The reason he named it Flor Fina 8-5-8 was because my grandfather was 85 years old when he passed away and my father wanted the name to represent something from beginning to end. It represents the heritage and the tradition that my grandfather left us through his lifetime.
CA: What about the red-and-black band?
Fuente: The red-and-black is different from the Flor Fina, or classic, Arturo Fuente blend. It's a little bit heavier and the tobaccos are aged just a little bit longer.
CA: Are all black bands Cameroon wrapper?
Fuente: Yes, all the black-banded cigars use Cameroon wrapper, but nothing stays the same and nothing will last forever.
CA: The red-and-green-banded cigars use mostly Connecticut-shade wrapper?
Fuente: Yes. We began making Arturo Fuente with Connecticut shade because of the shortage of Cameroon and the high demand for Arturo Fuente cigars. There is a bit of confusion because the red-and-green band also comes on cigars with Connecticut-shade wrapper in the Chateau Fuente series, which has a cedar wrap. And we also make Seleccion d'Or on the Arturo Fuente brand.
CA: Recently, you began to produce a lot more torpedo-shaped ci-gars, including for the Don Carlos line and for Ashton. Why didn't you do it in the past, and why are doing it now?
Fuente: Cigar making is an art. And obviously, the figurados are one of the most difficult cigar sizes and shapes to produce. It's not something new for our family. All the old photographs that I see of my grandfather, he is making figurado cigars. As a matter of fact, the Cuban perfecto, what we call the Hemingway, is a Cuban perfecto shape which was lost after the 1950s and '60s. But using my grandfather's old mold, we reintroduced the Cuban perfecto shape under the brand name Hemingway. I do see today that many of those shaped cigars are becoming very popular.
CA: Do you see your production of shaped cigars and torpedos growing dramatically in the next few years?
Fuente: Absolutely; we are making more and more of them. We have some sizes and shapes which have not been introduced yet that are absolutely incredibly beautiful. I have a fascination with shaped cigars.
CA: What is the most difficult cigar to roll: a pyramid or a Hemingway Short Story? What is the greatest challenge as a cigarmaker?
Fuente: One of the most difficult shapes that we're making in the factory is a size called Work of Art. It has not been introduced yet but it will be introduced sometime in the future. Another of the most difficult shapes would be the Short Story, because it's a cigar that's approximately four inches long and it tapers from a 49 ring gauge all the way down to an 18 ring gauge in about half an inch. It's a very, very difficult shape to make. That was a shape that we introduced into the market about 10 years ago. It instantly became very, very successful. People loved it.
CA: What is a Work of Art?
Fuente: A Work of Art is a cigar that is approximately five inches long, that starts with a complete point in the head and increases to a 56 ring gauge, like a pyramid or torpedo. It finishes off with a tuck similar to a Hemingway. It's a beautiful cigar. And very, very difficult to make.
CA: And when do you plan to release those?
Fuente: Those will be released this year.
CA: What will its price be?
Fuente: We haven't determined that yet. But one thing is certain: the price will be something that's very reasonable; I'm sure when people see the cigar, they're going to ask themselves why that cigar was introduced at that price.
CA: How many factories do you have today in the Dominican Republic, and does each factory produce a different brand, a different size?
Fuente:We started in 1980 with one factory. Actually, it wasn't a factory; it was an open space; it was just four walls and a roof. We started with seven employees and today most of them still work with us. But today we're making cigars in four factories. We have also built our own industrial duty-free zone [in the village of Palmar Abajo, in the town of Villa Gonzalez] which eventually will have another cigar factory running there. Today, we're using that free-zone factory for fermenting and aging tobacco, and also for selecting and grading the tobacco leaves.
CA: I remember my first visit to your factory in 1991, and you apologized about how you were just a little family cigarmaker, and then you took me on a tour. Two hours later [laughter], that simple little tour ended. How do you decide which brands and which sizes get produced at each factory?
Fuente: Each factory is designated to make certain brands. For example, Factory No. 1, where I spend most of my time, makes Arturo Fuente cigars, Hemingway, Fuente Fuente OpusX, Ashton Cabinets, Savinellis, Diamond Crown and a couple other brands. That's the oldest factory. That's in Santiago. Factory No. 2 is in Moca, which is a town that is approximately a 20-minute drive from Santiago. There, we manufacture most of the cigars for the Newman family: Cuesta-Rey, La Unica. My father wanted Factory No. 3 to be a model factory and he wanted to transfer Arturo Fuente cigars to Factory No. 3, but there's a certain nostalgia about Factory No. 1. That's where our office is. It's still the same small office.
CA: Though the office was small, the factory wasn't so small. So what do you make in Factory No. 3?
Fuente: Factory No. 3 [in Santiago] makes some Cuesta-Rey and some Arturo Fuentes with Connecticut shade, some Ashton and Bauza.
CA: What about Factory No. 4?
Fuente: Factory No. 4 [in Santiago] is making Sosa, Bauza and Montesino. There's some Montesino made at Factory No. 3, where my father is spending a lot of time. And, some of the new belicoso shapes that we are doing, like the Montesino Aged Cabinet Reserve, are being made at Factory No. 1.
CA: You've lived through a pretty crazy period in the cigar industry there in Santiago. I've heard reports that more than 100 cigar factories opened between 1994 and 1997, and the owners of those start-ups raided the traditional companies like Fuente for skilled laborers, especially rollers. But a lot of those factories are closing now. Can you describe what it was like to lose so many employees you had trained, and whether or not you are welcoming the workers back?
Fuente: It was a very difficult time.
CA: You basically trained the rollers for these new factories.
Fuente: I believe there's no one in the world in modern cigar history who's trained as many people as Tabacalera A. Fuente. We trained the people. They were an extension of our family, they were part of us, and all of a sudden, they were being approached with incredible bonuses, offered vehicles and housing. That's simply incredible. People came in to steal them away all the time, and that's when my father said the scene reminded him of when he used to watch the old cowboy movies with the California Gold Rush. The cigar business became like the Gold Rush.
It was very difficult to [comprehend] the drastic change in the industry because it happened so fast. Before that, one factory respected the other factories because everyone realized the difficulty that it took to train someone. And every cigarmaker's different. The way Fuente trains a cigarmaker is different than the way another factory would train a cigarmaker.
CA: My understanding was it wasn't the traditional factory owners stealing from each other; it was the new boys: they built a factory, or started one up, and they needed the workers to roll cigars.
Fuente: That's absolutely correct. And there were many, many factories. I remember you couldn't find a room at a hotel. That's why my father said it reminded him of the cowboy movies.
CA: How many rollers do you have today?
Fuente: Today we have over a thousand rollers. Close to 1,100.
CA: In the last two years, since this new group came aboard, how many rollers did you lose?
Fuente: We lost between two hundred and three hundred rollers.
CA: That you had trained?
Fuente: That we had trained. Some of them had been with us for many years. Most of them were our most experienced, older rollers, because a roller from our factory could go with someone and build a factory. My father had trained them and they were very, very good.
CA: Have you taken the rollers back from the now-defunct factories?
Fuente: We did, in the very beginning, take back the ones that never caused any serious problems. They were very good. They made a mistake. But we realized the most trusted of our rollers who returned were not as good as they were when they left, because they picked up a lot of bad habits. It took us a couple of months and a couple of dozen rollers before we realized that. They had been working with someone who wanted quantity, not quality. And we realized that we had to explore another direction.
What we did, and this is why Factory No. 4 came about, is that we brought in young men and women who had an education. That was possible because during that time when cigarmakers were fighting over and hiring away rollers, wages increased drastically. Just like what was happening to tobacco prices and everything else, we had three, four and five wage increases a year. During that time, the cigarmaker was making a lot of money. So it really brought the pay of cigarmakers to a very high level. We realized that with what a cigarmaker was earning, we could be very selective with the people that we would hire. So we went to the university, we went to the local churches and community centers, and we interviewed people there. We used a marketing group from the university to bring in people that would have a future in the cigar industry, people with an education. And they were young men and women who had never even seen a leaf of tobacco and never worked with it. After a year of this process, we realized that the best cigarmakers were not the ones that had been with us for 12 years. They were the new ones that we were teaching. This was the future. After that, we did not hire back any of the other cigarmakers, and that's what we've been doing ever since.
CA: What percentage of your thousand rollers are men versus women?
Fuente: The majority of the rollers are men.
CA: Have the rollers gotten younger on average?
Fuente: The average age has definitely gotten younger. Most of the rollers which we've hired in the last three years, during these employee crises, were between the ages of 20 to 24. We hired very young people because it's important to train them when they're young.
CA: How long is the training period?
Fuente: The training period is a minimum of a year. But actually for a cigarmaker to really excel, it's like anything else: it takes time. There are people that are born with it and have skills; there are some people that in six to eight months you can see it in their hands, just like someone who's never taken a music lesson and can play a musical instrument. But on average, it takes between one and two years. But for a cigarmaker to master the art of making cigars, it takes a minimum of several years more.
CA: Apart from the situation with the rollers during the "Gold Rush," as your father called it, the boom also played havoc with tobacco prices, which doubled or tripled during that period. Have the prices stabilized or come down?
Fuente: Because of supply and demand, tobacco prices over the past couple of years increased drastically. Recently, tobacco prices have stabilized, especially filler tobacco. Wrapper tobacco is still in very short supply. Wrapper crops have been tight the past couple of years, and with the best tobacco, there's still a problem. You know, there's tobacco, and there's Tobacco.
CA: How much have your wrapper tobacco costs increased?
Fuente: One of the classic tobaccos that we use, the Connecticut shade, may have cost five to seven dollars a pound eight years ago; today, the best quality can run to 44, 45 dollars per pound.
CA: How many cigars do you expect to produce from all your factories in 1998?
Fuente: It's hard to answer that, but roughly, we will reach about 40 million cigars.
CA: What was it last year?
Fuente: Last year, we were just under 40 million.
CA: Can you give us the approximate production of each of your major brands?
Fuente: Arturo Fuente shipped around 17.8 million cigars in 1997. This year, there will be some increase for Arturo Fuente, but not much; maybe just over 18 million.
CA: You already said OpusX, you expect...
Fuente: For Fuente Fuente OpusX, between 750,000 and a million. But it will end up under a million this year.
CA: Do those numbers for Arturo Fuente include all the brand extensions--Don Carlos and the others?
Fuente: Yes. For all the cigars that carry the Fuente name, we will produce just over 18 million.
CA: What is the next biggest brand?
Fuente: The next one is Cuesta-Rey, which should come in at slightly more than 12 million.
CA: And Ashton?
Fuente: Maybe up to 5 million this year.
Fuente: Montesino is a brand that we're growing at a higher percentage than other brands. Montesino this year should be close to 3 million cigars.
CA: Tell me more about Montesino.
Fuente: It's a brand that doesn't have a very high visibility. And yet, it's a well-made cigar and it's very reasonably priced.
CA: What's the history behind it, and what is your plan?
Fuente: Montesino was a brand that used to be made with Cuban tobacco in Tampa, and my father bought it from Antonio Suarez, who was an old friend of the family. We've now owned it for many, many years. My dad has always believed that Montesino someday was going to be a very, very big brand.
We introduced the Don Carlos range when we were back in Nicaragua, but when we came to the Dominican Republic, one of the first brands we started working with was the Montesino. Between 1980 and 1983, we were making more Montesinos than Arturo Fuentes, and Montesino was outselling Arturo Fuente. We could not make enough Montesino. At that time, Montesino was sold on the East Coast and in the Midwest; there was not enough production, it was so hot. It was outselling Arturo Fuente, and at that time we looked at ourselves, and I said, "This is silly. Arturo Fuente's my grandfather." It's an extension of our family and ourselves. So, at that point, we really started concentrating on the development of Arturo Fuente, with new sizes, new packaging and so forth. Montesino was not really focused on.
CA: Was Montesino sold at a lower price?
Fuente: It was sold at a price just under Arturo Fuente. But in the last year, we've started to expand production again. We've introduced some new shapes.
CA: Tell me about the tobacco.
Fuente: Montesino is very close, well, actually it's an Arturo Fuente with a Connecticut-shade wrapper. It is a Fuente. It comes from the same kitchen. The blend is different, though.
CA: Is it a little bit lighter?
Fuente: Yes, it is lighter.
CA: Can you tell us about the specific blend of Montesino, and how it differs from your Arturo Fuente blends?
Fuente: You know, our blends are something we don't really talk about. We just don't give up that information. I don't even like to talk about the origin of the tobaccos that we use, although we do talk in general terms. Our blends are sacred to us. My father knows the exact blends and I know them, and a couple of other family members, but that's it. The proportions are secret. They are really our family treasures.
I can say that we have been influenced by all the places where we have made cigars, in Florida and the Cuban tobacco in those days, in Honduras, Nicaragua and, of course, the Dominican Republic. The tobacco that was available in those places had an influence on us. And, yes, there are some cigars [the OpusX] that use all-Dominican tobacco in the blends.
CA: But you've never lived in the Cameroon, and you use a lot of Cameroon tobacco. What's happening in the Cameroon today?
Fuente: We do use a lot of Cameroon. I see the future of Cameroon as very positive. The tobacco continues to improve, and with the Meerapfel family running their wrapper farming operation and overseeing the tobacco production, there has been an incredible improvement in the tobacco.
CA: Which of your brands carry the Cameroon wrapper?
Fuente: Cameroon is used on the Arturo Fuente brand, principally the Don Carlos.
CA: Are most of your other brands basically Connecticut-shade-wrapper cigars, like the Ashton, for instance?
Fuente: Yes, Ashton, Cuesta-Rey, they are both generally Connecticut-shade-wrapper cigars. And most of the other ones are at least Connecticut-seed wrapper. For the Hemingway series, we use a Connecticut-shade wrapper, although all of the Don Carlos line is Cameroon wrapper. We use a Connecticut sun-grown for the maduros, and we use Ecuador wrappers from the Oliva family for some Arturo Fuente cigars, depending on the size. We're going to introduce in the Chateau Fuente series a special aged wrapper grown by the Olivas in Ecuador, which we've been aging for a couple of years now.
CA: Where do you see the premium handmade cigar market going in the next five or 10 years?
Fuente: Believe it or not, Marvin, I really don't follow the industry too much. I stay focused inside our four walls. I don't look to see what's coming outside. Of course, it's clear that we are in a cleanup period. I think that the interest for premium cigars is still growing; I think that people are maturing, too. They understand cigars better today. The average consumer has become very sophisticated and much more appreciative. And I see the cigar business adjusting itself to those new consumers. The best news is that there's still a growing interest in cigars and I see it as a very, very positive trend. Things have never been better for us.
CA: Do you have any plans to add new factories in the Dominican Republic or anywhere else, such as Nicaragua?
Fuente: If necessary, but I would like to see us keep building what we have in the Dominican Republic. I really believe that the Dominican Republic has been extremely good for us and, in life, we have to give something back when something has been given to us. I really believe that I could, or my family could, give more to cigar lovers by continuously struggling to improve what we've achieved in the Dominican Republic rather than go to other countries and divide ourselves. I really believe there's so much yet to be done in the Dominican Republic and I think as a part of history it's important that we continue to contribute as much as we can there.
CA: Your father and your family have endured a number of setbacks through the years: fires that have destroyed warehouses and entire cigar factories, the lawsuit; there are other things, too. How difficult were those challenges to your company, and do you feel that you've finally entered the golden age of the Fuente family?
Fuente: I feel now that I'm on top of the world. But I think that it's going to be more and more difficult for us as each day goes by. One thing that all these obstacles has given us is that they have brought my family even closer together. And that's the reason why I would like to see our future focused on what we have, and try to improve what we have in any way we can.
If I look back to my younger days, my life was cigars; no, first God, then cigars, then family, then our customers. And one thing that a lot of these painful situations has taught me--maybe it's the age I'm getting into--is that I see that family is more important than ever. It's always been family, but I see now it's God, family, then cigars, then our customers. I would like to see my father being able to spend more time with all of us--with my sister, with my brother, Richard, with myself, with my mother, Anna--and not working 18 hours a day like he does. And the same with my sister and my brother-in-law; it's day and night; it has been so for a long time. It's almost unfair, because to try to achieve what our customers want and give them as many Arturo Fuente cigars as they want, it's going to reach the point that it's not humanly possible.
CA: Do you and your family talk about the day the trade embargo against Cuba ends, and what that might mean to your business? After all, you not only have deep roots in the Dominican Republic, but you have historical ties to Cuba.
Fuente: We all have very strong emotional ties to Cuba. We always will have emotional ties to Cuba. When I was born and then raised in Tampa, I didn't speak English until I started first grade. My heritage is Cuban; I'm very proud to be a Cuban-American. When I was growing up, the conversation in my home was always that when there was an opportunity to go back to Cuba, we would visit and so forth. But life changes, and it changes for a reason. I don't think that we should never look back, but you should only look back to learn.
I would like to go back to Cuba one day, be able to visit Cuba, and meet the great cigarmakers of Cuba and the great tobacco growers and hug them. Hug them out of respect for what they achieved for tobacco and be able to enjoy a cigar with them--but not necessarily to open a factory. I believe my responsibility is to the Dominican Republic and to our customers. I have a great love for the Dominican Republic and that is where my heart is.
CA: Would you buy Cuban tobacco and produce the cigars in the Dominican Republic?
Fuente: I hope the day when the embargo's lifted that there will be tobacco available. Tobacco can once again be great in Cuba, and it would be very, very interesting to have Cuban tobacco available to blend for our cigars.
CA: Given your earlier answers about the lawsuit, I can't keep from going back to it before ending our interview. What did you learn from somebody coming and trying to take away part of your business by virtue of a lawsuit?
Fuente: I was definitely consumed emotionally. This was about the Fuente Fuente OpusX, the culmination of all my dreams. I think it would be any cigarmaker's dream to achieve something that has never been achieved before and to really offer something very special to their customers. Our family honor was challenged. It wasn't about a cigar, it wasn't about the name of a cigar; it was our family's honor and our family's integrity. One thing that I learned from this--and I like to look at the positive side--during this very, very difficult time, I started to realize how important it was to us to dedicate our lives to continuing to make great cigars.
Every time I traveled, people came up to me to express support for our family and their belief in our integrity and our honor, people that I never even met before: cigar lovers, retailers, people in the business, people outside the business--all of them. The kind of support we received during this very challenging time made me realize that in life you have to have purpose and meaning. I realized that our struggles, our long hours of hard work, our drive to do something to the extent of obsession in making great cigars, was something that had great meaning.
CA: Do you have any message to give to people from Mondavi or Mouton-Rothschild should they read this interview?
Fuente: It's not necessary for them. But it's just sad that all this happened. Cigars are not meant to be battled over. Cigars are meant to be enjoyed, and for people who enjoy cigars, there's a certain bond or bridge that brings them together. This is something that's very sad that happened, but it did happen and we learned. I think that today our family is stronger because we were able to persevere during the struggle.