When Pedro F. Gomez left Cuba 60 years ago, long before the Cuban Revolution spurred an exodus of that country's cigar masters, he was just a lad of 12, not even a teenager. Yet he was already a skilled cigar roller, having worked in the H. Upmann factory in Havana for two years. He had already developed what would be a lifelong appreciation of fine cigars, because he smoked his own hand-rolled products several times a day.
When the young boy left Havana with a few H. Upmanns in his shirt pocket, he started on a restless odyssey familiar in the cigar world. His ports of call included only places where fine cigars were produced and savored as he worked to become a master in his own right. His passport reads like a guidebook to the history of cigars in the twentieth century. First he went to Spain, working in cigar factories there, and then to the Canary Islands to do the same. The United States was next, and he spent years in Tampa, Florida, where U.S. production was rising thanks to an influx of Cuban experts. From there he went to the Dominican Republic--another stopover where Cubans were planting Havana seed with fine results--and then on to Honduras, where he toiled in Copán and later Danlí.
Finally, eight years ago he moved to lush San Andrés Valley in southern Mexico where, at last, he seems to have found a home as production manager at the Matacapan Tabacos cigar factory, home of Te-Amo and other Mexican brands that are finding an increasing number of loyalists in the United States.
Perhaps it's the tropical hills that remind him of his boyhood in Cuba. Or the nearby port of Veracruz, just two hours away by car, where coffee is served strong and sweet--Cuban style--and where the joyous music in the streets has its roots in the Caribbean and Africa, not the mournful highlands of Mexico. But Gomez, who is rarely seen these days without a Te-Amo wobbling in his mouth, says it's the cigars that do the trick.
"What most distinguishes San Andrés tobacco from the other places I've been is that it has everything," he said recently as he took a break from checking out the latest batch of a new line of Te-Amo pyramides, introduced earlier this year and selling well. "You don't have to look in other countries for anything. When I was in the Canary Islands, we had tobacco from many places--Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Brazil--and we had wrapper from many places. It was similar in the Dominican Republic and Honduras. There are only two countries where I have found that you have all the materials you need, all the raw materials for an excellent cigar, only two countries, Cuba and Mexico." While others may dispute his analysis, it is an unassailable fact that Mexico's position in the world of fine, hand-rolled cigars is respected and secure.
The first thing new arrivals notice when they reach the San Andrés Valley, home of Mexico's finest cigar tobacco and the center of Mexico's cigar-export business, is the freshness of the air and the abundance of cool, clear water. Hundreds of rivers and streams crisscross the valley, which is about 4,000 feet higher than the scrublands along the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles away. The valley is much cooler because of the altitude. A few volcanoes tower even higher, and the rich volcanic soil--high in potassium--nurtures tobacco, which has been cultivated in the region since before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors who landed in the port city of Veracruz nearly five centuries ago.
The tradition of enjoying a fine smoke goes back even farther than the Spanish conquest. Wild tobacco grew in the region, and archeologists and scholars who study the ancient Mayan monuments in the area often find stone carvings that depict exalted priests and Mayan deities smoking long tubes of tobacco, a forerunner of today's premium cigars.
Tobacco played an important role in the Mayan mythology, says J. G. "Pepe" Gutierrez, a vice president of Consolidated Cigar Corp. who frequently visits the San Andrés Valley to check production of the various Mexican brands his company distributes throughout the United States.
"You can see carvings of the gods smoking cigars and blowing big billowing clouds of smoke," says Gutierrez. "In the Mayan mythology, they thought that big clouds in the sky were actually emanations of the gods smoking cigars in the heavens and they thought that shooting stars were actually embers of the gods' cigars. You can see that this means the tobacco is truly a gift of the gods, and over the centuries people have learned to appreciate it. In all of this area, down through the Yucatan and all the way to Honduras, they developed the ability to cultivate tobacco."
The cigars found depicted on Mayan monuments pay homage to a mysterious past when cigars were used in religious rites not fully understood as yet, but the growth of the modern Mexican cigar as an instrument of pleasure is a story told through three revolutions: the Mexican revolution that started in 1910 and broke up many of the great cigar estates that had already formed; the Sukarno takeover in Indonesia in 1949 that brought Dutch cigar makers to the San Andrés Valley in search of a new place to plant their favorite Sumatra seed, which had for years produced distinctive wrappers in Indonesia and would soon flourish in Mexico; and the Cuban Revolution, which brought Cuban experts to the valley to help Mexicans prepare a cigar that would capture the fancy of smokers in the United States--in this case, primarily smokers in New York City--who had been deprived of their Cuban favorites.
The family of Jorge Ortiz Alvarez, general manager of Tabacos Santa Clara--which produces the Santa Clara 1830 and Aromas de San Andrés brands--has been involved in cigar making since before the Mexican revolution, but did not make a dedicated effort to penetrate the U.S. market until the Cuban trade embargo created a demand for new sources of quality cigars.
"That was when the United States discovered the San Andrés Valley," says Ortiz, a warm man who is proud of the role his ancestors have played in the growth of the Mexican cigar industry. "That was in the late '60s, and it changed things greatly here. We started to choose tobacco differently; we made changes to meet a market that was more demanding. We learned a lot from the Cubans who fled the Castro Revolution. A lot of them came to Veracruz and they helped change the way we presented cigars to the world."
His great-grandfather had built a huge cigar estate before the Mexican revolution, shipping tobacco leaf to Holland where it was made into cigars. But the revolution--with its battle cry of "land and liberty" for Mexico's millions of landless peasants--put an end to the family's vast wealth. More than 90 percent of the cigar fields were seized without compensation for the family, and the 10 percent that remained was mismanaged and gradually sold off.
"Because of my great-grandfather's age and the effects of the revolution, he lost many things. He lost his will and his energy," Ortiz says. "The land was sold little by little by his son, but from there, a nephew of his, who grew small quantities of tobacco, started the business again, and it grew very slowly into what it is today. I think the cream always rises. That's no false pride; it's a reflection of what we have done for many generations."
Ortiz credits the natural qualities of San Andrés tobacco for his family's ability to recoup. He says it retains moisture better than other premium tobaccos because of the plant's unusual elasticity. Conditions in Veracruz allow him to create a special blend using Havana-seed tobacco grown in northern Veracruz state with slightly sweeter tobacco grown in the San Andrés Valley to produce a unique cigar.
"This is precious," Ortiz says. "It is a beautiful thing. We market that now as Santa Clara 1830. We chose that name because we think 1830 is the year when someone in our family first got involved in tobacco in a very rudimentary way. It's not precise; we can't be sure, but there are many indications that this was so."
An earlier factory burned to the ground in 1984, and the fire consumed not only a precious collection of vintage cigars but all the family's records, including a history that had been prepared by a professional researcher. Nearly a century of cigar memorabilia was lost. It is a pity that records have been destroyed--all sorts of historical oddities were chronicled, including an account of the first tobacco workers' strike in San Andrés, which pitted Ortiz's great-grandfather, the planter, against one of Ortiz's grandfathers, who was a labor leader.
In the old days, Ortiz would be grooming a son to take over the family business and carry the tradition forward. But women in Mexico are no longer expected to take a backseat, and Ortiz has found--to his surprise--that it is his 23-year-old daughter Gabriela, and not his son, who is most interested in cigar production. She has indicated that she wants to start working at the factory when she completes her university studies. Perhaps it is a new tradition started when Ortiz relied on his wife Josefina to make important decisions when he was ill with a mouth infection that kept him from sampling tobaccos. She even test-smoked the raw tobacco to decide which batch tobaccos to purchase from outside suppliers--a rough job for someone not accustomed to the harsh tastes produced.
While the Mexican revolution shaped the destiny of the Ortiz family and Tabacos Santa Clara, the friendly crosstown rivals at the larger Matacapan factory that produces Te-Amos credit the Sukarno takeover in Indonesia with creating the conditions that allowed them to produce a unique, all-Mexican cigar. With more than 1,000 acres planted, and more tobacco warehoused and drying in sheds throughout the small city of San Andrés Tuxtla, the Matacapan factory is one of the region's largest employers.
Permeated with the aroma of aging tobacco, the factory is a one-stop shop. Everything is made here, even the cedar boxes used to package Te-Amos sent to the United States. Workers laboring here mix the sacred and the profane in a uniquely Mexican way: posters of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the country's most revered saint, are bracketed by calendars showing blond pinup girls in bikinis.
Alberto Turrent Cano, the white-haired chairman of the Mexican consortium that operates the factory and also the head of a separate, family-run planting operation that dates back four generations, loves to spend his afternoons touring the fields of Sumatra-seed tobacco from Indonesia, which allows his company to make a cigar without the high cost and bureaucratic headaches of importing wrapper tobacco from another country.
"The Dutch planters abandoned Indonesia after Sukarno took over," he says, inspecting several mature plants to be harvested in the next few weeks. "They came here to make tests because they knew this was a very productive tobacco area, and they found it was good-quality soil for Sumatra, but they never planted it commercially. They just left."
The Dutch departed, and the planters of the San Andrés Valley made use of the seed they left behind. Sumatra tobacco has become an integral part of the great Mexican cigars. It means that San Andrés cigar makers do not have to buy wrapper from Connecticut, Cameroon or anywhere else and they can earn extra revenue exporting wrapper tobacco to other countries in the region.
Although the Matacapan factory produces millions of export cigars each year, including many with the characteristic dark Maduro wrapper, it is still run with the intimacy of a small family operation. Each afternoon, Turrent gathers a handful of his senior people to discuss plans for the next day. It is an improvisational process: What is the most pressing problem, the most urgent need? More than a few Te-Amos are savored during the meeting.
They have had to confront serious problems in the past decade. Perhaps the worst was the blue mold infestation that severely damaged tobacco crops in Mexico and Central America. Turrent says the problem is under control, but there are constant worries.
"If you leave things for even one day, it's trouble," he says. "Everything has to get done in a certain way at a certain time or you will have problems. There is some tolerance with the cutting of tobacco, but if you do it too soon or too late you will not get the right quality and texture. You can ruin it, and one big wind or hail can end a crop within 24 hours. There are many, many dangers, things that are risky."
One thing he is not worried about is succession. His 21-year-old son Alejandro seeks to learn every aspect of the business and spends his university holidays hanging around the factory, immersed in details. He is studying international business and agribusiness at one of Mexico's leading universities--giving him far more formal training than his father enjoyed--but he will still have much to learn when he comes back to the factory full-time.
"Alejandro will have book experience and technical training, but he will still have to learn how to choose tobacco, how to blend tobacco," Turrent says. "Every planter has his own way of doing things, his own style, his own guidebook inside of him. Every year is different. Some tobacco needs more fermentation, some needs less. These are the things he will have to learn."
The main product of the Matacapan factory is the Te-Amo, the best-known line of Mexican premium cigars. The brand started in the mid-'60s, after the Cuban embargo, with the financial backing of a New York businessman who helped develop a faithful following for the cigar among the managers and workers in New York City's garment district.
"At one point in the '70s, there were more Te-Amo cigars smoked within the five or six blocks of the garment district on Seventh Avenue than there were in the rest of the country," says Gutierrez. "As the garment district began to lose its stature and factories closed, people moved to the suburbs with their Te-Amos. So today the major markets are probably in the suburbs of New York City and [on] Long Island, but the brand has also expanded into the Midwest and other cities as well."
He says Te-Amo, now in the hands of Consolidated Cigar Corp., has retained a solid base of loyal smokers, but has not yet been able to match the cachet enjoyed by premium brands from the Dominican Republic.
"It's a unique taste and aroma," says Gutierrez, enjoying his fourth Te-Amo of the day. "It doesn't have the prestige of some brands, but the quality of the tobacco from the San Andrés Valley and the quality of the cigars are as good as anywhere else in the world."
Te-Amos have been around for decades, but the company has a new rival in the premium market--Cruz Real cigars, which were introduced in the United States in 1993 as part of an aggressive marketing push that has also brought the San Andrés Valley cigar to Switzerland and Italy. It will soon be available in Canada as well, says Ricardo Rangel, export manager of Tabacos y Puros de San Andres, which makes Cruz Real and several other export brands. Rangel typifies a new breed of Mexican entrepreneur based in the northern industrial city of Monterrey Neuvo Leon. He, like many young, Mexican business executives, is savvy in the international market.
"Our competitive advantage is that the cigar is produced entirely in Mexico," Rangel says. "We would like to keep it that way. Our rollers are very skillful, and our plant supervisor has been making cigars here for 40 years and he's only 48. We recently added three sizes because we weren't meeting size demands in the United States very well. Mexican cigars have a reputation for burning too hot, but ours smoke very easily. It took us three years to launch a premium cigar, but we are very pleased."
Rangel says the cigars have been well received in Europe because they cost substantially less than Cuban cigars and also cost less--and offer stronger flavor--than competitors from the Dominican Republic and Honduras. He says his mission is to build awareness about Mexican cigars, which he believes have been overlooked.
"We had a big success recently at the World Equestrian Games in the Hague," he says. "They didn't know Mexicans made cigars, but the price of a Cuban in Holland is more than six times' our price. Until now, it was all Cuba, Cuba, Cuba, but we think we will do very well. Our success in the United States is building, too. We think we have found our niche."
It is a niche ready to be exploited. The awareness of Mexico and Mexican products is at an all-time high in the United States, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Cigar smokers everywhere are more than ever willing to sample the cigar wares of the world, whether they come from Caribbean islands or south of the border.
Gregory Katz is the Mexico City bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.