Cigar Aficionado

Part Three: Las Vegas Big Smoke Sunday Seminars

Roll Your Own

A satiated group of cigar enthusiasts made their way through the airy halls of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, traveling from the Marcello ballroom to the DelFina ballroom. They had finished Charlie Palmer's gourmet breakfast and were ready to participate in the Roll Your Own seminar, hosted by Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, president of El Credito Cigars. The attendees were handed a La Gloria Cubana Wavell cigar as they filed in. Master of ceremonies Michael Giannini, director of marketing for El Credito, was the first to take the mic, asking the guests, "Is anybody hung over today?" He then welcomed each to the 11th annual Roll Your Own seminar. "For us as a manufacturer, this is an amazing time," said Giannini. While attendees sat down to their own rolling station, Giannini announced that the person to roll the best cigar would win an all-expense-paid trip to Miami for a factory tour.

Giannini introduced guest roller "Papa" Leo from Little Havana, Miami, before turning the mic over to 2005's champion roller, Gerry Curry.

Participants get to work rolling.
"I was the winner of the contest last year," said Curry, "and I just wanted to let you all know that I had no prior experience, it was my second try. It's not impossible for any one of you to win this, and if you do win it, you will have a whole new appreciation as far as your cigar life goes. The trip to Miami -- I can't even describe it. The hospitality, the friendship, everything that we experienced was off the charts. Not only that, but you'll become part of La Gloria's family."

It was then time for the star of the show, Perez-Carrillo, who requested a moment of silence for Alfons Mayer, a cigar icon who passed away on October 11. Then he began the show.

"Because of you, the cigar industry is what it is today," said Perez-Carrillo. "I've been in the business for 35 years, and to see the growth and enthusiasm that all of you bring to the Big Smoke really touches me deep in my heart."

He offered the crowd sage advice: "There's no secret to cigar making. It's all about patience and focus. People ask me if it's really as hard as it looks, and I always say 'No. It's harder.'"

Professional rollers make the art look a lot easier than it really is, as many amateurs at the event discovered.
This was something for everyone to ponder. Some attendees were still smoking the Bolivar and Montecristo cigars from breakfast. At each rolling station was a makeshift board, a razor blade serving as a chavetta, a corona without its wrapper, a cup of water to moisten the leaf and a small cup of gomma, a natural gum used as an adhesive. Participants were handed a rich Ecuadoran Sumatra leaf, which they were instructed to lay across the board. Papa Leo took center stage while a camera zoomed in on his workstation, projecting his image onto an enormous screen.

The first step was to finesse the wrapper by stretching it out, making it as wrinkle-free as possible without tearing the leaf. Papa Leo demonstrated and all eyes were on the screen. An occasional dab of water moistened the leaf to render it more pliable. Perez-Carrillo walked around surveying the initial steps of the rolling process. Gerry Curry also circulated, as did General Cigar Co.'s Sherwin Seltzer.

For many of the attendees, this was not their first time rolling under Perez-Carrillo's tutelage and some of them were former winners.

Still, many caught on quickly and were confident going into the judging stage of the contest.
The next step was to cut the perimeter of the leaf in order to smooth out the edges and create a more aesthetically pleasing cigar. Giannini strolled around the room, checking everyone's progress until he came across someone who had decided to roll his cigar early. "Wait, we're not up to that part yet," he said in mock scolding, then he walked over to one of the ladies participating in the seminar. "The women do very well at this competition," said Giannini. "I always said it's because women listen better. Women listen. Guys don't."

Meanwhile, Papa Leo deftly handled the chavetta and showed the audience how to cut a long half-moon arc shape from the bottom of the wrapper. The cut went the expanse of the leaf, making it look like a paisley shape.

Then the moment of true torcedor talent was tested. Perez-Carrillo went around placing participants' bunches in the correct position for rolling -- head down at an angle on top of the wrapper leaf.

Carrillo inspects the finalists' entries.
An expert torcedor, or cigar roller, will stretch and roll simultaneously for smoothness and tightness. On-screen, Papa Leo's veteran hands made it look easy, like second nature. He produced a box-ready cigar as casually as someone would remove it from its cellophane wrapper. He then unrolled it and did it again, and again and then again. A small dab of gomma along the leading edge of the wrapper made it stick to the bunch, followed by a quick twist at the top to form a pigtail cap, which was cut an eighth of an inch from the end. By this time, many people had fired up their La Gloria Cubana Wavells. There were long periods of silence -- not the sleepy silence that might come after eating a large breakfast, but one of collective concentration.

Some rollers got creative, and produced novelty cigars in odd shapes. One resembled a cowboy smoking a cigar. Another cigar was rolled into the shape of a lady with golden ringlets of hair and small sunglasses. One participant made a Perez-Carrillo cigar, which bore a band with the face of Ernesto on it. The creators of these unique cigars all walked off with prizes such as guayabera shirts, golf bag/beer cooler/humidor combination bags, and boxes of cigars.

After the preliminary judging, the real judging commenced and every rolled stick was collected. Some of the cigars looked tight enough to go straight into the retail market, while others looked as if they had passed through a meat grinder. All the while, Papa Leo continued to stretch, roll and twist. He did so fluidly, in a seemingly single motion, banging out one perfect cigar after another as though he was in the factory. The running was narrowed down to three cigars and three winners.

All participants received an hononary cigar roller certificate.
The rollers taking third and second place received guayaberas as well, and the grand prizewinner ended up being a fairly young guy named Michael Amos of Beaumont, Texas. As Amos walked up to the stage, Perez-Carrillo said, "Michael, I want to see you cry when you get up here, or you're not going anywhere." Amos won the all-expense-paid trip to Miami where he and a guest will tour the El Credito factory, see beautiful south Florida and compete for the Super Roll championship. He also won tickets to next year's Las Vegas Big Smoke.

Although Amos approached the stage smiling, he still looked still a bit shocked, overwhelmed by his good fortune. "I'm blown away," he said as he was congratulated.

As everyone filed out of the ballroom, eager for the Cognac tasting seminar to follow, each amateur roller received a beautiful certificate decorated with the traditional La Gloria Cubana box art, bestowing the title of "Honorary Cigar Roller of the El Credito Cigar Factory."

Photos by Camilla Sjodin