I still haven't cleaned the Ecuadoran soil off my boots. Something about that dusty patina on top of the black leather makes me think for a second or two that I'm some sort of a cowboy, or at the very least a rugged ranch hand. Never mind.
In November I went to Ecuador to check out the recent crop of Havana-seed wrapper grown by the Tampa-based Oliva Tobacco Co. It's quite an impressive operation, and whether you know it or not, you've probably smoked at least one cigar with Oliva's wrappers. So why am I writing about this now? Well, the full article appears in the recent issue of Cigar Aficionado, and is full of great pics of tobacco farms as well as objective information on the tobacco, so you could regard this entry as a sort of digital appendage to the main text. But thinking back to the article, I realize that although I imply it, I never come out and say what I've been thinking for the last two months: John Oliva Jr. is one of the unsung tobacco men of the premium cigar industry. Not that he regards himself in that light. Not at all. But if you take a look at the Top 25 Cigars of 2013 and years passed, you'll find his wrappers appear on cigars up and down those lists.
Here is a guy who, along with his family, is the primary supplier of Ecuador Havana wrapper to the entire premium industry and each year one of his main goals is to produce a better crop than the last. If you'll allow me to intellectualize his work, I'd say that he produces an expression of Ecuadoran terroir through tobacco just as profoundly as the country's best cocoa, coffee or fruit (yes, I've had all three).
The harvest period has just wrapped up in Ecuador, but I was lucky enough to see fields full of tobacco before the crops were culled and hung to dry. The soil itself is beyond fine. It doesn't even look or feel like dirt, but has the sifted consistency of cocoa powder. Oliva focuses on growing Havana 2000 and Corojo '99, both native seeds of Cuba. He grows Sumatra-seed as well and his farms are a patchwork of plantations, some of which are in the Los Rios province near Quevedo, others in Guayas at the foot of the Andes mountains. Although the seed varietals are the same, different plots of land will produce a wrapper leaf with different properties.
Some tobacco is stronger, some sweeter, some more rugged in appearance, and some achieve that perfect balance of sweet-and-sour, much like the unique agrodolce quality that tomato growers in Italy strive for. But Oliva isn't growing tomatoes. Nor is he trying to duplicate a Cuban wrapper any more than California is trying to duplicate a French wine. I can hear the Habanophiles sneering at the term "Cuban seed" as they read this. Cuban seeds take very well to Ecuador's soil and are more than capable of making a statement of their own.
Because this year was so dry, Oliva was able to grow Cuban-seed wrapper well in to January. He pushes plantings as far as he can, and who can blame him? When the climate is dry, the growers can control the water and don't have to worry about over-irrigation. Now, all the fields are fallow and if you went down to Ecuador today, all you'd see are bare vistas. However, you can check out this video and see what I saw in November.
The footage was taken at the Don Angel farm, which is named after Oliva's grandfather Angel Oliva Sr. Unlike many farms, it's not on a flat field but situated in the hilly basin of the Macul River. In a few months, that entire basin is going to be underwater and what's usually a tobacco field for most of the year will turn into a lake come March. When the waters recede, they leave behind nutrient-rich sediment that adds fertility to the soil and character to the tobacco.
Before you watch the video, make sure that you don't get John Oliva Jr. mixed up with David Perez and ASP Enterprises Inc. Perez is the guy who provides the industry with Ecuadoran Connecticut-seed wrapper, not only for American market cigars, but Europe as well. In terms of bulk, it's a far larger operation than Oliva's, but it's a totally different wrapper for a totally different style of smoke. The way I see it, Ecuador Connecticut-seed wrapper is desirable for its neutrality and combustion. And cigarmakers can blend accordingly. Havana wrapper, on the other hand, truly elevates almost any type of blend. And don't get the Oliva Tobacco Co. confused with the Oliva Cigar Co. either. They're separate entities with different objectives. One makes cigars (Oliva Serie V, Oliva Serie V Melanio) and the other grows tobacco.
A few random footnotes to my trip:
- Ecuador's constant cloud cover makes it ideal for growing wrapper, but not filler. The tobacco comes out too thin for that. Despite this conventional tobacco wisdom, a guy named Carlos Aray used to make Ecuadoran puros in Ecuador anyway. They were for the local market, but are now difficult to find.
- In addition to Havana 2000 and Corojo '99, Oliva is growing a few experimental Cuban-seed varietals. He has no idea who will buy it and what cigars they'll go on, and even if he did, he wouldn't tell me.
- Remember when I said that the soil is as fine as cocoa powder? It is, but that's in Los Rios and on Oliva's new La Lydia farm. The original La Meca plot, which is literally at the foot of the Andes, is rocky and coarse. Does this affect the taste of the tobacco? Yes.
I think it's time I finally dust off my boots. There's a reason why they ask you at customs whether or not you've been on or near a farm. Sure the boots look cool, but one walk through an orange grove or even a vineyard with those soiled shoes and I might destroy the next three seasons of U.S. crops.