Then I heard my name called to the stage.
The Dominican Republic is famous for its merengue, the fast paced dance with the non-stop beat. The ProCigar guys like to entertain, so they had a troupe of professional dancers doing the merengue while people finished their dinner. Then Jose Blanco of La Aurora took the microphone and announced a surprise: there was going to be a dancing contest. He began to call 10 people up to the stage.
Now if you’re Dominican, it’s likely that you can do the merengue pretty well. If you’re a cigar writer with very little rhythm, your chances are considerably lower. In fact, any kind of dancing really isn’t my thing. When I heard Blanco call my name, I uttered a few expletives under my breath and reluctantly walked up to the stage.
Ah, the lovely feeling of standing in front of nearly 200 people, knowing that you are about to embarrass yourself. I introduced myself to my dancing partner, a very patient young woman who knows how to dance the merengue very well, and she helped me do a few steps and spins. We didn’t win (big shock there) but I managed to dance without killing anyone on stage, so I consider the whole thing a modest success.
Note to Jose Blanco: I won’t forget this. Expect some form of revenge at the Vegas Big Smoke.
Today is day two of the ProCigar Festival, and my group headed out to the oldest free trade zone in the Dominican Republic to visit the first cigar factory to open there: Manufactura de Tabacos S.A., also known as Matasa. The fabrica, known for making Fonseca and Cubita cigars, opened its doors in 1975.
We toured the facility, which was in pristine condition, watching the intricate steps that go into making cigars. I’ve been at Matasa several times, and I’ve toured cigar factories for nearly 14 years, but I always learn something new: here at Matasa they do a step I hadn’t seen before, breaking down bales of filler tobacco, then separating the filler blend for a cigar by weight (14 ounces of this type, 13 ounces of that type), wrapping it in burlap, then putting it a room to add humidity for a few days before rolling. They call the little bundles, which look like very rough, undersized pillows, pesadas. Interesting step.
I took a break from the tour to sit down with Matasa’s head honcho, Manuel “Manolo” Quesada. I fired up a Vega de Fonseca Toro, which is one of my favorite blends from Matasa. It’s a combo of Dominican and Nicaraguan fillers, a Connecticut shade binder and a Cameroon wrapper. It’s a pleasant, medium-bodied smoke. Manolo and I had a great chat about the creation of Casa Magna, our Cigar of the Year, which you’ll read about in an upcoming Cigar Aficionado.
One of the interesting things about Matasa is how the next generation is proving itself. Manolo’s daughters, Raquel and Patricia, are heavily involved in Matasa’s operations, Raquel (who is now the No. 2 at the company) as a blender and Patricia in administration. His nephews, Jose “Blondie” Bermudez, Hostos Fernandez and niece Esther, are instrumental at Matasa. “The five young ones are really coming along,” says Manolo with pride. Raquel even has her name on a cigar box, the Fonseca Cubano Limitado.
We rejoined the group, all of whom were smoking cigars. Manolo spoke about the trials of making cigars day in and day out, speaking in particular about how difficult it can be to manage a product that is made entirely by hand. “The hand is very important, but hands are fickle. At eight in the morning, they’re happy. At four, they’re tired,” he said. “We have to make a cigar that reminds a smoker of what he smoked yesterday,” he said.
One member of the group remarked how lively the factory was, with energetic Dominican music playing while people rolled. Manolo smiled. “When we started the factory in ’74, we put a reader in,” he said, speaking of the Cuban cigar factory tradition, where a person reads newspapers and books, often in a deep, somber voice. “They almost lynched the guy! They said we want music. And music it is.”
Soon it was time for lunch, and we headed to Rancho Steakhouse, where we met up with the part of the group that toured La Aurora. I saw my dear friend Jose Blanco, and I started to joke about the merengue contest from the night before. He raised his hands when he saw me.
“My hands are clean—I’m like Pontius Pilate,” he said with his trademark smile. “It was all Manolo’s idea!”
Jose passed the buck like a journalist caught with the dinner check. I’m going to have to dig a little more to find out who really set me up with that dance contest. We’re meeting later on at the Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration for drinks, dinner and more cigars. I’ll report more later.