"These are not cigars," said the icon, his eyes alight under the wide brim of his straw hat. "They are sausages!"
Angel Daniel Nuñez felt the pain in his stomach. He was new on the job, and his mentor was angry. Very angry. This was not a good start to his new job, supervising General Cigar Dominicana. The factory was famous for making Partagas cigars for the American market. The man comparing his cigars to breakfast meat was Ramón Cifuentes.
In a world of cigar stars, none shined brighter than Cifuentes, an attractive man who was often compared to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Cifuentes was the closest thing in the world to cigar royalty, having owned the Partagas cigar brand in Cuba before losing it to Fidel Castro. He fled the country, sold the Partagas name to General Cigar Co. and had a fortune that would keep him comfortable for a lifetime. Now he was in the Dominican Republic, watching over a newcomer. Trying to make sure that the cigars bearing his beloved Partagas name didn't look like sausages.
The young Nuñez reached out to touch the offensive cigar. Cifuentes' arm shot from the table like a striking cobra, and slapped Nuñez's hand away.
"No, not now," he said. "We will fix that tomorrow."
Cifuentes was the only man who ever slapped Nuñez. The student spent three long months under the tutelage of the Cuban legend. Each day was a lesson, and Cifuentes was an old-school teacher, sometimes believing that the best way to teach is with one part shock and one (small) part pain. It was cigar boot camp, and it was just what Nuñez needed. When Nuñez would arrive at the factory in the morning, Cifuentes -- a man twice his age -- would be waiting impatiently at the door, always wearing his guayabera and straw hat, pointing out the importance of punctuality. (The lesson learned, today Nuñez tends to arrive at work around 6 a.m.)
In scenes remeniscent of Yoda tutoring Luke Skywalker, or Mr. Miyagi laboriously stressing the importance of detail to his Karate Kid, Cifuentes picked apart every aspect of his young student's work. On his very first visit to Nuñez's office, Cifuentes went straight to the air conditioner. "This is filthy," he said, peering at the filter. "You can't make good cigars in this type of environment." After that, Nuñez kept his office as clean as a hospital ward. "He was demanding," says Nuñez in a trademark understatement.
Nuñez is a quiet man, who speaks slowly in heavily accented English. The scattered wrinkles around his eyes are from decades spent in sunny tobacco fields and the wide smile that so often crosses his face.
He's sitting in his office in Bloomfield, Connecticut, in the heart of the Connecticut River Valley. A tiny Macanudo Maduro Ascot is burning in an ashtray to his right; four more in a pack aren't far away. It is early June, and tiny tobacco seedlings have recently been put into the ground just steps from here. In about a month, they will be ready for harvest. The best of the leaves will become Macanudo cigars.
Watching over the Connecticut crop is only one of Nuñez's responsibilities. As Executive Vice President of Tobacco and Manufacturing for General Cigar Co., the 50-year-old oversees the company's cigarmaking operations from leaf to box. Not only does he supervise the three premium cigar factories owned by General (including two in Honduras that belong to subsidiary Villazon & Co.), he manages the tobacco purchasing, tobacco sorting and processing for the company, and supervises General's tobacco growing operations in Connecticut and the Dominican Republic. Nuñez is one of the most influential executives at the company.
Despite his power, Nuñez remains modest. "In my life, I like to minimize mistakes," he says. He speaks of tobacco as if it were a religion; something to be honored, respected, but never truly mastered. He's fond of saying: "The tobacco speaks to us," but he believes that it speaks a language that's hard to fully understand. In his world, a person like himself can train and train, but ultimately can never fully control such a power.
Nuñez wasn't born in a tobacco field, but as a child growing up in the Dominican town of Moca one was never far away. His father grew a small plot of tobacco that augmented the income from his chief business of growing plantains. The backyard plot was a common sight in 1950s Moca, an agricultural town about 15 miles east of Santiago.
Becoming a farmer like his father wasn't a priority to Nuñez, but in the early 1960s the public schools of the Dominican Republic were becoming dangerous. In 1961 dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina was killed, sparking a power struggle for the government. President Juan Bosch was elected president in December, 1962, but was ousted less than a year later by the military. In April 1965, an attempt by his supporters to restore him to power resulted in civil war. The previous year Nuñez had enrolled in vocational school in 1964.
"It was right before the Revoluton [in 1965], and the political situation wasn't totally stable. The public school was getting worse and worse. There was a lot of shooting of students," said Nuñez. A vocational school specializing in agricultural studies was a safe haven. "That was one of the reasons I went to vocational school," he says. He proved to be a natural at the studies, and earned a full scholarship to Texas A&M.
"When I got to Texas I was 106 pounds and I spoke no English," he says. He learned the language at school. Studying agriculture, he learned how to create hybrids of plants, how to manage crops, even though he worked on tomatoes and roses, not on tobacco plants. In addition to hitting the books, Nuñez also learned a bit about business -- particularly how to augment his income.
"I had a full scholarship -- my notebooks, the winter coat, even my food was paid for. And money for incidentals, $100 per month. So I didn't need anything. But as soon as I finished my freshman year, I began getting up at 5 o'clock to get to the cafeteria. I worked two hours in the morning, two hours at noon and two hours in the evening. And it was the greatest time of my life, because I made my own money. I learned to get extra things, just with the effort."
The work ethic gave Nuñez enough extra cash to buy a 1970 Mustang, brand new. The $2,300 car was a welcome replacement for the '62 Triumph Nuñez he had driven through the previous Texas winter. (Which was fairly mild by most standards, but not by Dominican standards.) When he purchased it, the car was a wreck. It had no top and no battery. He paid $75.
Nuñez is an admitted car nut. His two older brothers are mechanics, and they revealed to him the mysterious tangle of wires, hoses and metal that makes up a car engine. The knowledge gave Nuñez another way to make extra money on campus.
"I love cars," he says. "I made quite a bit of money at Texas A&M fixing student's cars. I would get $5 for a tuneup, $10 for changing a clutch. It was good money in those days." He once overhauled a 4-cylander Nissan in less than 24 hours, taking apart the entire engine and putting it back together. But don't ask him to fix a new model. "Today, with my Audi, I don't even open the hood because everything is computerized," he says.
The curiosity and drive that gave him the confidence to take engines apart also pulled him from the one discipline of the cigar industry to another. He started in the tobacco fields in 1972, working for the Dominican Institute of Tobacco growing piloto Cubano, a type of filler tobacco grown in the Dominican Republic. Two years later, Nuñez took a job with General Cigar through a special partnership program with the Dominican government. The country was hoping to capitalize on the embargo against Cuban products, and hoped to build on its cigar country image by growing its first quality wrapper tobacco. General hoped the Dominican could provide a good source for tobacco, so it joined the project. With Nuñez as the Dominican technician, the partners started modestly, on a six-acre plot of land in a town called Bonao.
The tobacco grew well, but it really wasn't what American cigar smokers of 1970 were looking for. The tobacco was Connecticut seed, grown under shade, but it produced darker tobacco than the partners had hoped. The flavor was also a bit strong. "It was very nice tobacco, but in those days we were looking for a duplicate of Connecticut shade. There was not a market for anything that was not either Connecticut shade or Sumatra," Nuñez says. "It had the color of Connecticut shade, but it had the Dominican taste. The market wasn't there for that."
The Bonao project didn't work wonders for General, but it gave Nuñez the roots of an education in the cigar industry. "Edgar Cullman Sr. [the patriarch of General] told me once, "You need to see everything,"" says Nuñez. He took his boss seriously. He augmented his knowledge of growing tobacco in the Dominican Republic by traveling to General's fields in Connecticut. As soon as the Dominican crop was in from the fields in early spring, it would be time to go to Bloomfield and watch as the seedlings were transplanted into the rich, Connecticut glacial soil. When that crop was finished in the fall, the Dominican crop was ready to begin again.
Nuñez spent his first decade with General focusing on the fields. In the beginning, he failed to realize the importance of cradling the tobacco leaves being grown on the wrapper project in Bonao. As a filler tobacco grower, taking care of the leaf was a foreign concept. The difference was pointed out to him in 1977 by Joe Prensky, then the president of Culbro Corp.
"He took the crop from Connecticut and put it on the floor next to the crop I grew in the Dominican," says Nuñez. "His had a yield of 75 percent, 80 percent wrapper. Mine was 5 percent. I felt the pain in my stomach. I could see how unforgiving the tobacco is -- it never gives you a break."
His career at General was a series of lessons. In 1984, he spent all his time in the Dominican Republic, where General had its massive tobacco sorting operation. Sorting was the next step after farming, the process of preparing the leaves for the aging process. After sorting, he went to manufacturing, where he learned under the tutelage of Cifuentes. From 1992 to 1994 he traveled the globe with Alfons Mayer, then the chief tobacco buyer for General, where he learned how to purchase tobacco. Then he tackled tobacco processing, the stage where men use heat, water and time to turn raw, young leaves into smooth, elegant cigar tobacco.
"Every step was enjoyable, but tobacco processing was one of the greatest," Nuñez says. "It's where you become a chef. When you grow tobacco, there isn't much you can do. In sorting, you can't change it. But when it comes to processing -- we tend to believe we are in control."
Nuñez was later able to change tradition at General, convincing his superiors to let him shift fermentation of the Connecticut shade tobacco from the northeast United States to the Dominican Republic.
"It took me three years to convince Edgar Sr. to ferment in the Dominican Republic," he says. Why did he want the step done there? "Tobacco is from the tropics and it belongs in the tropics. In the tropics the tobacco never dries out. Here it does."
Nuñez has been at his busiest over the past two years, adding blends to the sizeable General Cigar portfolio. They include the Sancho Panza brand, a high-scoring bargain-priced line of smokes from Villazon, a new Punch Rare Corojo, and Hoyo de Monterrey 1066. In 2000, Nuñez blended a cigar called Ramón y Ramón, in tribute to his fallen former mentor, Ramón Cifuentes. The result is a strong, diverse product line with an increasing number of stronger taste profiles, the type of cigar that General seemed to lack in earlier days.
The price of Nuñez's seat of power is a Homeric travel schedule -- he's on a plane nearly every week. He flies constantly between Connecticut and the Dominican Republic (often stopping in New York City to visit the top brass at General Cigar headquarters) and he has to be in Central America every three weeks, to look at the two Villazon cigar factories. Every weekend, no matter the schedule, he's home in the Dominican Republic, where the trek begins again the following week.
The Dominican calls to Nuñez. "I belong there, and that's where I get my energy," he says. As busy as he is, he says he never brings work home, reserving his scant personal time for his wife and three children.
"Edgar Cullman Sr. saw something in me," says Nuñez, speaking about his boss. "When he first saw me, he said "I'm going to make a tobacco man out of you." He smiles. "Today he's still pushing me."
Cifuentes died last year. Mayer has retired. Many of Nuñez's mentors have moved on, in one way or another, leaving him to put their knowledge to use, and to pass it on to others. He's grateful for all the lessons, even though he knows in his heart that he can never truly perfect his occupation.
"You can be a master for a day," he says. Another fragment of the Macanudo is turned to ash as he puffs. "If you work hard enough, you may have many days like that."
Photo by John Peden