Before last week, I had never attended the first part of ProCigar's yearly festival. It always came at a time that was difficult for me to get out of the office, and it only has one cigar-centric tour anyway. Seeing how this year was my fifth ProCigar Festival, and how we had a bit of downtime here in our editorial cycle, I decided to go for the whole trip. Plus, there was always the guilt factor nagging at me. Outside of a factory tour on the way to Santiago, the first leg is pretty much a vacation at Casa de Campo. Yeah, there are cigars waiting for you in your hotel room, and yes, there is a cigar dinner every night, but let's be honest—it's a vacation. Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. Not at all. The warm weather was a welcome change from the winter wasteland I left behind in New York, and I was much happier sunbathing on the sapphire shores of Minitas beach rather than shivering on the dirty platform of a subway station, merely looking at a billboard of Minitas beach. So I jumped straight out of the misery of a New York winter and right into the pages of a brochure.
For two days, I woke up whenever I wanted to, took breakfast and a cigar on my terrace, went to the beach, and had lunch at Sirio Maccioni's Beach Club by Le Cirque. The more adventurous guests took a catamaran trip to the Palmilla sand bar and spent their days on the pristine sands of Saona Island. Me, I just parked on the beach, kept the Presidente beers coming and dipped into the cigar pack that was waiting for me in the hotel.
Seeing how this portion of the trip was sponsored by Altadis, most of the smokes offered were Altadis brands. Remember, Altadis has taken a huge (and very smart) initiative by fortifying its marquee brands with a hearty Ecuadoran Havana seed wrapper. Romeo by Romeo y Julieta, Monte by Montecristo and H. Upmann Reserve are all emblematic of this effort.
During the dinner at the Beach Club restaurant, ProCigar handed out a Monte by Montecristo Jacopo No. 2 and all guests were asked to rate it according to a sheet. It went like this: You had a sheet that listed about 15 taste characteristics. Next to each one you put a number from 1 to 10. For example you'd have the word "chocolate" and then a slot for the number. Other descriptors included nuts, cut grass, etc. If you got the numbers right, you got a prize. I take issue with the word "right." There's a difference between how much chocolate flavor Altadis says its cigar should have and how the cigar actually ends up registering on my personal choco-scale. Besides, I didn't even know they blended for such specific flavors.
Take an operation like Davidoff where they blend for elemental stimulation on the tongue. If Davidoff achieves a balance of sweet, spicy, salty and bitter, they let you determine what the particular quality of that sweetness is. They stimulate, you decide. It's up to you if that sweetness is redolent of caramel, butterscotch, the finest Viennese Sachertorte or a Hostess Twinkie.
I smoked the Monte and enjoyed it, but I refused to take part in the exercise. Not everyone sees your cigar the way you see your own blend. That's sometimes an uncomfortable reality for cigarmakers. I recall one cigarmaker getting unexpectedly irate at a tasting note that said "white pepper" when referring to his smoke. Perhaps this sheet was just for the festival-a simple document that anyone could relate to. I picked up on about four flavors that weren't even listed on the sheet, so I suppose I not only failed the exercise, but didn't understand it in the first place.
The next evening was less academic at La Casita restaurant on the Marina. There, I ran into José Blanco and José Seijas. Neither of them had samples of their new brands. Since departing Joya de Nicaragua last year, Blanco is having his Señorial made at Tabacalera La Palma, and said that he's still in the blending stage. I regard prototype cigars as an artist's sketch and always smoke them with great interest. Seijas's La Matilde Renacer cigars, however, are finalized and ready to go. They're just made in very small quantities. Either way, I got nothing from either of them that night. I don't take it personally and was perfectly happy to smoke the Romeo by Romeo y Julieta Toro that was passed out.
Day three in La Romana brought me to the massive Tabacalera de Garcia factory owned by Imperial Tobacco Group PLC (owners of Altadis). It's the largest in the Dominican Republic, and as large as the facility is, they really do make every square inch of that factory work for them. Cigar molds, for example are stacked on top of rolling tables and pressed by compact, overhead hydraulic machinery, unlike in most factories where hand-cranked presses take up valuable floor space. Factory manager Javier Elmudesi (who took over after Seijas retired from Altadis in 2012) conducted the tour rather quickly, but I don't blame him. Despite the size of the place, he wanted to show us everything from box construction to leaf sorting, and we still had a bus to catch to Santiago.
At the end of the tour we each got a five-pack of cigars and an additional personalized box of three Romeo by Romeo y Julieta Toros. They even spelled my name right. The box is quite sleek, constructed of heavy wood and finished with glossy red and white enamels. You've seen it. You know it. You can't miss it. It's quite striking and I think that was the point. I was surprised to see that each box starts with a gray primer before it's coated with its bold shades of red and white. According to Henk Nota, director of Vrijdag Premium Printing (which is a member of ProCigar), this makes perfect sense. In printing, gray is the most neutral color. Even more, he said, than white. Color has been Vrijdag's business for almost 110 years. I believe him.
As for that nice little personalized box, remember how you felt in third grade when the teacher called you up to her desk and handed you a pack of pencils with your name printed on each one? Same feeling.