Cuba Dreams

The vision still remains; the flowing black and gold walls emblazoned with the Montecristo Gran Reserva emblem, the beautiful, tall models in floor-length, black gowns with gold bling and the elegant table settings with gold tablecloths. The sounds of traditional Cuban music floated around the room, with the ceiling draped with “tapado” cloth, the fabric used for shade tobacco, as the top names in the Cuban cigar business entered the room. Everyone was shaking hands and talking with everyone in attendance, from Cuban government ministers, to Casas del Habano shop owners and Habanos’s worldwide distributors, to simple consumers from everywhere, even the United States. Whether it was David Tang or President of the National Assembly Ricardo Alcarón, the evening was electrified by the shared perception: this was the pinnacle of the world of Cuban cigars.

The Gala dinner was dedicated to the Montecristo cigar. We were served Montecristo No. 5s, the Montecristo Open Series, the Edmundo, and then the piece de résistance for the evening, the Montecristo Gran Reserva No. 2, a pyramid-shaped cigar with specially selected and aged tobacco from the 2005 harvest. I’m not a fan of rating cigars on the spot, especially when they are handed out as part of a special event like the gala dinner; we know that some of the cigars presented at the Habanos Festival are specially selected, and often rolled in different factories than the brand’s normal factory. But on top of that, by the time the Gran Reserva arrived at my table, I had consumed a glass of rum, a few glasses of wine, and was working on my after dinner glass of rum, all after a rich meal with well-spiced food. It’s a great time to have a cigar, just not a great time to be objective about it. That said, my first impression of the Gran Reserva  I smoked was that it still needed a bit of time for the tobaccos to meld together; it was a beautifully balanced cigar that acquired more depth after the first part  was smoked and promises to age well. But we’ll wait to rate it until Greg Mottola, our tasting coordinator, can find it in the global marketplace and we can judge like we judge all cigars—blind.

The evening also showcased the best of Cuban culture. We were serenaded by Omara Portuando, who sang her traditional songs, the Compay Segundo band, which covered some of the favorites of the Buena Vista Social Club repertoire, and the stage was filled almost non-stop with dancers from various Cuban dance companies. They twirled and jumped and pranced, and finally, one group in white, floor-length dresses entered the crowd and began pulling up reluctant participants, including this correspondent. As David Savona observed, she was beautiful so it wasn’t all bad, and I wasn’t part of a Merengue contest, like the one my good friend José Blanco got me into last year in the Dominican Republic.

Habanos S.A. gala dinner.

Savona and I spent some time walking around the room, visiting with old and new friends. I wanted to find Hector Luis Prieto, the grower from Pinar del Río that we had visited in December; you can see Savona’s story in the Jan./Feb 2011 issue of Cigar Aficionado.  Prieto was the winner of a Habanos Man of the Year award for production in 2008. He was glad to see us, and introduced us to his father, who has also been a cigar tobacco grower his entire life. We also found Hiroshi Robaina, the young man now is in sole charge of Cuchillas de Barbacoa, the farm developed by the don of Cuban cigars, Alejandro Robaina, who passed away last summer. Hiroshi told me that this year’s crop may have produced the best tobacco on the island in more than 15 years. When we saw him in December, the younger Robaina was already excited about the quality of the crop, even though the beginning of the harvest was more than a month away, but he said last Friday night that the weather during the entire growing season had been virtually perfect, and the tobacco looked incredible. His assessment was also confirmed by Prieto.

We also spoke to Ajay Patel, who operates the Casa del Habano in London. He’s a true aficionado of aged Cuban cigars and it was extremely informative to speak with him about that category of cigars. We also chatted with Max Gutmann, who distributes Cuban cigars in Mexico, and is an old friend. We also saw all the executives of Habanos, the co-presidents Buenaventura Jiménez Sanchez-Cañete and Fernando Luis Maique, who just was named to the position a month ago, and Ana López Garcia and Gonzalo Fernández de Navarette González-Valerio. We interviewed  the executives, except for Maique, in December, and you can find the interview in the March/April issue of Cigar Aficionado, which will be coming to you soon.

Marvin R. Shanken, the editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, went up on stage to present the Habanos Man of the Year / Communications award to Adriano Martinez, a former executive of Cubatabaco, who has written a number of books about Cuban cigars, and helped put together the exhaustive Encyclopedia of Post-Revolutionary Cigars. Shanken told the crowd he had made his first visit to Cuba 20 years ago, and it was during that trip that he decided to create Cigar Aficionado magazine. He recalled one of the highlights of his professional career when he interviewed Fidel Castro, and he told the crowd they were part of the magazine’s worldwide audience of more than two million readers. He ended by saying how much he loved the crowd and the country. He left the stage to a rousing round of applause.

Cohiba humidor auction.

But the grand finale of the evening was the live auction for a series of custom humidors. The total auction raised nearly $1.1 million for the Cuban public health system. The biggest tab for the evening went for the Cohiba humidor, which was purchased by Jose Maria Palacios Fernández of Spain’s Altadis S.A.; he paid approximately $620,000 for the lot. It included 25 Cohiba Lanceros, 25 Cohiba Esplendidos, 25 Cohiba Maduro Genios, 25 Cohiba Maduro 5 Magicos, 25 Cohiba Siglo VI, 30 Cohiba Behike BHK 56, 30 Cohiba Behike BHK 54, 30 Cohiba Behike BHK 52  (Cigar Aficionado’s 2010 Cigar of the Year), 45 Cohiba 1966 Edicion Limitada 2011, 25 Cohiba Coronas, 25 Cohiba Gran Coronas, 30 Cohiba Piramides, 30 Cohiba Sublimes Extra,  30 Cohiba Robusto Especial. It was an extraordinary selection of cigars, and the bidding was spirited.

As we exited the hall, the music was playing, and the same beautiful models in their black and gold regalia stood wishing us a good evening, and a safe return next year. We’ll be there.

"For knowing the situation of the Cigar industry in Cuba, no better source than Cigar Aficionado." —April 6, 2011 18:46 PM
"GUY, You are exactly right. The United States has full ecomomic relations with China yet the Chinese have no freedom. This is exactly why we should not give money to the Castros. Doing so would only legitimize a totalitarian communist dictatorship and enable the government to maintain the 52 year long repression of its citizens." —April 4, 2011 15:49 PM
"remolina2, I would then imagine that you have NOTHING in or around you or that you would even think of buying ANY article "Made in China" ? Amicalement, Guy" —March 28, 2011 11:28 AM
"We are trying to have a Cigar Night for the troops in Afghanistan. We are desperately short of cigars. If you would like to contribute, the address is: Frank Pacenza Cigar Chairman 455 ECES/FP APO AE 09354" —March 10, 2011 06:32 AM
"So much for the idea that the United States is the beacon of freedom in the world. It's a sad, sad day when American principals have sunk so low that they purposely choose to bury their heads in the sand to smoke cigars from Cuba while the Cubans live in fear, hunger and misery. Just remember, every dollar spent in Cuba or on products from Cuba helps a murderous and repressive dictatorship maintain power. I love cigars but I love freedom more.The Cubans have suffered long enough under the Castros. Stop ignoring that. " —March 1, 2011 19:40 PM
"I agree and disagree with remolina2. Yes, there is no "normal life" in Cuba as we know it. The Cuban government may terrorize it's people and the general population certainly does not have the political and civil liberties that we enjoy. Still, I believe it is "Cigar Aficionado's" responsibility to go to the "roots" of all fine cigars, and let's face it friends, some of the best cigars in the world come from Cuba. It's our privilege to be informed (by C.A.) about the world of cigars, and it's also our privilege to buy (when and where we can) or not to buy Cuban cigars. I you don't want to "support" the Cuban government then don't buy their cigars. Let's not throw stones! Let's just enjoy the fine reporting and editorial work that C.A. does in and around the finest cigars, regardless of where they come from. " —March 1, 2011 15:36 PM
"Cigar Aficionado is being used by the Castro regime to promote the image that the situation in Cuba is normal.The people of Cuba have no freedom. Cuba is like a giant jail. The Castro regime has lasted more than 50 years by terrorizing its own people. " —March 1, 2011 10:21 AM
"What an amazing list of cigars!!!!! Can someone lend me $620,000???" —February 28, 2011 20:15 PM