Smoking Winemakers

Dedicated Cigar Smokers Puff Away in California's Vineyards
| By Anthony Dias Blue | From George Burns, Winter 94/95

A typical morning in the Oakcross Vineyard. It's still early and the Napa Valley is just beginning to awaken. A hawk circles high in the sky above, riding thermals along the valley's edge. Grapes hang in bunches from their trellised vines as Cabernet and Chardonnay slowly mature. Mist lingers over the neatly planted rows.

But look closer: this mist is more of a haze, rising in a lazy plume. Look down to its source, and there is a lone smoker enjoying the solitude. "My favorite place to smoke is walking in my vineyards," says Dennis Groth, former vice president of Atari and owner of Groth Vineyards.

Groth is typical of the small but devoted cadre of wine-country cigar smokers. Most have been smoking for years. Many prefer to smoke alone, enjoying cigars in reflective, relaxing moments. Each person has his own favorite place in this not-always cigar-friendly setting. There doesn't seem to be a common denominator. Some are well-known ultrapremium producers; some make sparkling wine. Some produce simple, low-cost wines for the mass market. What ties them together is their love of the leaf.

Steve Girard of Girard Winery prefers to smoke his Partagas Coronas in a hammock slung between two oak trees outside his office. He smokes five a week, the perfect way to relax for this vintner on the move. Girard has been busy developing a property in southern Oregon to produce Pinot Noir. The experience has not been without its rewards. "After spending 10 hours planting the very first grape vines, my ranch manager showed up with a case of ice-cold beer. I passed out Montecristo No. 1 "cubes" [shorthand for Cuban cigars] and I sat overlooking my new vineyard and watched the sun go down," he recalls. Nor is he limited to celebrations of a hard day's work. Girard recalls a recent New Year's fireworks display in Napa Valley that he ended "with a Romeo y Julieta Cube at 2 in the morning."

Steve Girard's partner in the Oregon venture, Carl Doumani, is also a cigar enthusiast. Doumani owns the historic Stags' Leap Winery, where he has restored the stone winery building and replanted many of the old vineyards. In addition to Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay, Stags' Leap produces an intensely flavored Petite Sirah from one of the oldest sites in Napa. It is this wine, with its smooth, soft tannins, that he often drinks with cigars. Smoothness and smoke go together.

Doumani also makes a Port--a sweet, silky, unctuous wine--from his vineyards, although it is not available commercially.

Doumani began smoking cigars in the 1940s around high-school poker tables and at one time consumed several a day; he now sees it as more of an occasional treat. "A few years ago, we were sitting on the Stags' Leap porch, drinking Cognac and Port and smoking aged Romeo y Julieta. It was a special, nice moment," he says. Romeo y Julieta Churchills are his favorite Cuban cigar and Partagas No. 10 is his smoke of choice from the Dominican Republic.

Groth, who produces only estate-grown wines from vines in the Oakcross Vineyard and Hillview Vineyard south of Yountville, is also partial to Partagas, but he prefers 8-9-8. He averages one cigar a day, enjoying H. Upmann 2000s along with the Partagas. But his tastes were not always so discerning. "I smoked my first cigar when I was a weekend surf bum in my high-school years. We smoked rum-soaked crooks because they were cheap and plentiful."

One of Napa's most celebrated and consistently excellent wines is the Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot from the Three Palms vineyard in Calistoga. Although often in the shadow of the coveted Merlot, Duckhorn's Cabernet Sauvignon and premium red blend are always rich and long-lived.

Both Dan Duckhorn (former banker) and his wife Margaret are cigar smokers, as is winemaker Tom Rinaldi. Rinaldi's first smoke was back in 1967 at the Alfred Dunhill shop off Union Square in San Francisco. "It was a real pleasure to sit amongst the humidors of the famous and infamous under the guidance of a knowledgeable tobacconist," he recalls.

Rinaldi prefers Macanudo Baron de Rothschild and Avo No. 5, smoking from four to ten a week. His wife enjoys Davidoffs. They have found the ultimate place for a relaxing smoke: in the spa on the back porch. Maximum number of smokers in the spa at one time: five. There is one rule. "If the cigar goes out because it touches the water, no relighting is allowed. Only a fresh cigar will do," Rinaldi says.

The list of smokers goes on:

Don Sebastiani of Sonoma's formidable Sebastiani Vineyards smokes his Cohiba Esplendidos in his car in traffic (which is fast becoming a concern in the wine country). He also unwinds with a smoke in his den or cellar, enjoying the cigar without distractions. "I used to smoke on the phone or while watching a movie in my den, but now it is me and the cigar alone," Sebastiani explains.

Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, a connoisseur of wine, cooking, art and cigars, perhaps more than anyone embodies the spirited good life of Napa. He inherited his taste for cigars from his father Carmine Coppola and later from Hollywood moguls such as Jack Warner. (see Cigar Aficionado, Winter 1992-93.) His elegant Victorian house in the vineyards was originally built by Gustave Niebaum, founder of the Inglenook winery. Coppola has added a small commercial winery, Niebaum-Coppola, on the property that produces a rich, premium red blend called Rubicon.

Tom Jordan, oil magnate and co-owner of Jordan Vineyard & Winery, which makes an outstanding Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and sparkling wine, was inspired by his grandfather. "As a very young lad," he explains, "I would snitch a cigar and smoke it in his garage. Contrary to the popular version, it not only didn't make me sick, but I loved it."

The wine crowd in Napa Valley has experienced everything from warm welcomes in incredibly opulent, plush settings to rude rejection. Like cigar smokers everywhere, they are always on the lookout for a place and time to smoke, whether it is in groups, on a special occasion or alone.

Belle Rhodes, a true Napa Valley original, worked for Mondavi in the 1970s and '80s. Her first smoke was at the Biltmore in Santa Barbara, California, just after the Second World War when she was still in the Navy. Today she smokes only on special occasions. Her husband Barney is a doctor and an avid wine connoisseur. Rhodes remembers one extravaganza that she helped organize nearly 25 years ago.

"Barney and I attended a wine auction at Christie's and were fortunate to get a triple magnum of Château Lafite vintage 1865," she says. "We agonized how best to consume this fabulous purchase and finally decided to honor André Simon, founder of the International Wine & Food Society on the occasion of his 93rd birthday."

The dinner was held at Cercle de l'Union restaurant on Mason street in San Francisco. Since Simon was a connoisseur of both wine and cigars, it was decided to include an after-dinner smoke as part of the menu. In addition to the cigars and the 1865 Lafite jewel, the dinner featured Bollinger Réserve 1934 and 1937, Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial 1953, Blandy's Sercial 1870 Madeira, Château Belair 1929 and Château d'Yquem 1953 in double magnum. As Rhodes describes it, the dinner clearly was an unforgettable night.

Just because most wine-country cigar smokers tend to puff alone, it doesn't mean they won't on occasion gather for a group smoke. Grant Showley of Showley's at Miramonte in St. Helena has sponsored a popular cigar dinner for the past two years. Vintners are encouraged to bring a bottle of their favorite wine to accompany the multicourse meal. Cigars and vintage Port provide a rousing finish to the festivities. Rinaldi recalls a recent Showley's smoke-out: "I went out to my car for a minute and upon returning noticed a window of the restaurant opened a few inches. A billowing fog of gray perfumed smoke drifted out into the night. The sight and the sound of laughter made it a magical and amusing moment."

Not all restaurateurs are cigar advocates like Showley. Lissa Doumani of the fantastic Terra restaurant in St. Helena has a strong aversion to smokers. Her father Carl Doumani has smoked in Terra once--and only once.

Doumani was dining with Lee Iacocca and a few others. The meal was superb, and Iacocca decided to savor the moment by lighting up a cigar. "I waited to see what Lissa would do. She made hand gestures to me, but couldn't bring herself to tell Lee Iacocca to put it out," says Doumani. Seizing this rare opportunity, Doumani and the others all lit up. Lissa called her father later to complain about the role reversal. "She told me, 'You're acting like the child and I'm like the parent,' " he recalls with a chuckle. Parent-child squabbling is nothing to Doumani. He recalls the time when he was smoking in another Napa restaurant and a woman hit him over the head with a purse.

Doumani isn't the only one. Mike Chelini, winemaker for Stony Hill Vineyard, was part of an amusing cigar escapade that is becoming increasingly rare. Following a private lunch at a local cigar-friendly restaurant, his group decided to continue the festivities at another eatery. The roasted-pork pig's head from the luncheon came along for the ride. They all lit up cigars--including the pig--only to discover the new restaurant was not as cigar friendly as they thought. "They were fairly cordial, but not sorry to see us retire."

Not surprisingly, wine-country smokers seem content to smoke in private. "Frankly, I understand the restrictions because I do not enjoy cigar smoking next to my table while I am eating," says Groth. "But I used to enjoy smoking in great hotel lobbies. Too bad so many are disallowing the activity."

A few wine-country restaurants permit cigar smoking in limited areas. Rhodes points out that both Mustards Grill in Yountville and Jeremiah Tower's new Stars Oakville Cafe in Oakville have smoking areas outside the restaurant. The elegant Auberge du Soleil resort in Rutherford allows smoking in the lounge and offers cigars at the reception desk.

What about the marriage of wine and cigars? Port is the obvious wine to accompany a cigar, but there are several other enticing options. Don Sebastiani has made a Mourvèdre and Syrah, both high-extract wines, that work well. "If I drink a claret, it is not a big, structured wine, but one with lush, smoky flavors like Palmer," he says.

Rinaldi thinks that the subtle flavors of red wine and cigars are lost when combined. He suggests that wines such as Champagne or Sémillon make a good match with a cigar. "But there is no better wine to accompany a cigar than Port. I have learned this by trial and error--with a lot of errors along the way," he says.

"I prefer a cigar after the wines," says Jordan. "Perhaps with a Port or Cognac."

Cognac and Armagnac are considered the best spirits to pair with cigars, because of their smoky, complex, woody flavors. A few vintners recommend grappa, along with Calvados, marc and applejack. For nonalcoholic tastes, Rhodes notes that premium, strongly brewed black coffee is an appropriate choice. And Rinaldi adds, "For a real treat, try a lager beer with a good cigar. An excellent combination."

The wine country has evolved into a remarkable home of mannered country living, where style and sophistication meet rural beauty and simplicity. Many residents are transplants from the city--doctors, lawyers, bankers and engineers--people whose success has allowed them to realize a dream of life in the vineyards. Others have grown up in the wine business either here or in Europe and would not consider trading their bucolic lifestyle.

Napa and Sonoma have not experienced the explosion in cigar smoking that is evident in other places. But there are enough cigar lovers around to keep several places in the valley hopping. Local tobacconists, like Baker Street Tobacco in Napa, have enjoyed a steady clientele, and Showley's dinners are always well attended, yet the general attitude is reserved. However, the strong contingent of cigar lovers in the wine country proves that where there is good taste, you'll likely find good cigars.

Anthony Dias Blue is the wine and spirits editor for Bon Appetit and a frequent contributor to Wine Spectator.