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Surprise in Connecticut

Some of the world's best cigars use Connecticut wrapper leaves.
| By Mark Vaughan | From Bundle Of Cigars, Winter 92/93

Mention cigar and tobacco growing regions the next time you're on the golf course or after lunch at your club and see what associations come up: Cuba, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico and maybe Cameroon. Mention them to your favorite cigar dealer though, and you're just as likely to get an unexpected reply: Connecticut .... Connecticut?

That tobacco is grown in Connecticut is certainly a surprise to the uninitiated. That tobacco leaf grown in the Constitution State has become the cigar industry's most sought-after outer wrapper leaf for premium, hand-rolled cigars, however, can come as something of a shock, even to those natives who for generations have seen the weedlike plant grown profusely in the wide, level fields of the Connecticut River Valley.

In fact, production of Connecticut "shade" tobacco, so called because it is grown under large, tentlike awnings that protect the tender leaves from the sun, has declined steadily in recent years, to a fraction of its former levels. But no matter. The handful of farmers and two major companies still involved in its cultivation and processing enjoy a rather unique situation: as production has declined, demand has increased, making shade-grown Connecticut wrapper leaf one of the world's most expensive agricultural commodities.

Yet as any true cigar aficionado knows, a sexy wrapper alone does not a premium cigar make. The best cigars are made from the best tobaccos, and those at the top of the line, your Macanudos and Davidoffs, are filled with the finest Piloto (a Cuban seed plant), Jamaican and Mexican tobaccos available. But it is the wrapper, like a mink coat on Sophia Loren, that adds that touch of class and extra flavor.

As Daniel Nuñez points out, the best wrappers are those that contribute most to the overall experience of smoking a cigar. "The three basic elements that concern us," says Nuñez, director of Culbro Tobacco's Connecticut and Dominican Republic operations, "are flavor, aroma and burn. With flavor we don't want anything disagreeable, no metallic or foreign tastes; we want the aroma to be sweet, not bitter; and the burn should he consistent, a long ash as white as possible that doesn't fall. That is what we strive for with our Connecticut shade tobacco and that is why Connecticut shade is the best wrapper leaf on the market today."

Few dispute Nuñez's claims. Many of the top producers of cigars, especially from the Dominican Republic, fight to get the best quality Connecticut wrappers for their products. Listen to Robert Levin, owner of Holt's Cigar Company in Philadelphia and the maker of the premium Ashton cigar: Connecticut wrapper is "definitely one of the best wrapper leaves you can buy. I like it because it holds up and it enhances the blend of tobacco. It also looks great on a cigar."

Or hear the maker of the Dominican Republic's H. Upmann and Dom Diego, Richard DiMeola, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Consolidated Cigar Corporation: "Connecticut shade is one of the best looking tobaccos in the world. It tastes good too, but taste is subjective. It's the wrapper that people see, and people smoke with their eyes, just like they eat and drink with their eyes."

Davidoff cigars, once made in Cuba, now also use the best available Connecticut wrapper on its Dominican-produced cigars. Christoph Kull, president of Davidoff of Geneva's U.S. operations, takes his praise for Connecticut shade one step further. "A nice Connecticut wrapper," insists Kull, "is like the skin on a baby's bottom, very silky, very fine. From a marketing point of view, it is considered at the moment to be one of the best tasting and looking wrappers available."

Edgar Cullman Jr., president of Culbro Corporation, has been around the company's tobacco fields all his life. His grandfather started the shade operation, an endeavor that was always close to his heart despite his "other job": holding a seat on the New York Stock Exchange and running a cigar factory. For the younger Cullman, there's been a special attraction to the tobacco. "We've always prided ourselves on producing the best tobacco in the valley," says Cullman Jr. "We've always taken extra steps to do it. There are so many steps that have always been time-honored, from when you fumigate the land in the fall, preparing it for the following spring, to finally putting it into a bale of tobacco. There is no `right' step, but you do it when it feels right for the tobacco."

Connecticut wrapper averages $24 a pound, with the premium quality selling for as much as $40. The high price is partly a reflection of the high labor, land and other costs of running a U.S.-based operation, and partly due to the growing demand for premium wrapper in the U.S., Canadian, European and Japanese markets. Production costs in Connecticut can run as much as $20,000 an acre, or roughly $13 per pound. This high cost of production translates directly into higher prices at the consumer end of the scale.

With approximately 90 leaves per pound, and only two cigars per leaf, the average cost of just the wrapper on a single premium cigar can be as much as 50 cents, after damaged leaves are discarded. For certain premium brands, such as Macanudo, additional handling and processing boosts the per-cigar cost of the wrapper to over $1.00.

"Connecticut wrapper is very expensive," agrees Carlos Fuente Jr., president of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Compania, a Dominican Republic-based producer of handmade premium cigars. "But the producers of Connecticut wrapper run first-class operations, and traditionally, the sorting has been very good. You can always count on high quality, and aside from being expensive, it sells."

Quality is a word frequently associated with Connecticut shade. Grading standards for wrapper tobacco are stiff, with a leaf torn or bruised on one side worth as little as one-fourth that of an entirely good leaf. Wrapper leaf tobacco is judged according to its "priming," the point at which a leaf is taken from the plant. Every priming represents one picking of a field, with just two or three leaves taken from each plant at a time, starting with the bottom and working up. Normally, there are six primings in every harvest, and for each priming there are at least 18 different grades of tobacco, based on size, color, texture, elasticity and other factors.

"There is a tremendous amount of grades," notes Lawrence Palombo, general manager of General Cigar Company, a sister company of Culbro Tobacco and maker of Macanudo and other premium cigars. "You've got green, light and brown, and within those grades you have different degrees. You can have a brown leaf that is very clean, which would be a one. A leaf with a little blemish is a two; one that has more color variation or larger veins would be a three, an so forth. The best tobacco goes for $35 to $40 a pound, but if it's broken or bruised, the price drops to $10 to $15 a pound, which really doesn't even cover production costs."

The Connecticut Valley is to quality tobacco what the Médoc region of Bordeaux is to fine wine. A combination of good soil, adequate rainfall and abundant sunshine has made it one of the world's premium tobacco growing regions. Though wrapper leaf tobacco seed varieties developed in the valley has been planted in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and other places, no one has yet been able to duplicate the color, flavor and texture of the Connecticut Valley leaf.

Tobacco cultivation in the valley follows the Connecticut River from just above Springfield, Massachusetts, to a point just below Middletown, Connecticut, with the highest concentration of fields slightly north of Hartford. Tobacco growing was once the principal farming activity in the area, but today only a handful of tobacco farms remain. Culbro Tobacco (a subsidiary of Culbro Corporation), which grows, processes and markets wrapper leaf, is a leading producer of Connecticut wrapper leaf. A decade ago, the company was operating seven farms on 1,300 acres of land. Today, production has been scaled back to just four farms on 400 acres, with only 200 acres planted in tobacco in 1992. According to Nuñez, the company, which still maintains extensive landholdings in the valley, cut production by half in 1992 (from 1991's 600,000 pounds of leaf) in order to bring supply and demand into balance.

"We want to achieve the highest quality standards possible," says Nuñez, "and then we'll see. If the market demand is there, we've the option to increase production back to our 1991 levels or even greater."

Cullman adds: "We are growing a lot less tobacco than we used to grow, but these things tend to go in waves. The valley as a whole is growing about 1,200 acres. In 1970, there were nine billion cigars being consumed; now there are just over two billion. That's a huge change that occurred in the cigar business, and it has to be reflected in the growing of wrappers in Connecticut."

The other remaining wrapper leaf processor in the valley is the Windsor Shade Tobacco Company, a cooperative of twelve farmers, working about 1,000 acres of land between them. Windsor Shade, which was founded in the mid-1930s, processes an average of one million pounds of wrapper leaf each year, though in some years production reaches nearly two million pounds. Andres Sepulveda, general manager at Windsor Shade, is reluctant to talk about the company's operations, because, he says, "We are a member-owned and-directed cooperative. I really don't want to speak for our members."

Tobacco farming in Connecticut has a long and illustrious history. When the first settlers came to the valley in 1635, tobacco was already being grown by the native Indian population. By 1700, tobacco was being exported via the Connecticut River to England, Ireland, Gibraltar and other Mediterranean ports; and by 1800, cigar manufacturing had found its way to the Hartford area, with the ancestors of today's hand-rolled premiums going for $1 to $2 a thousand. The use of Connecticut tobacco as a wrapper leaf began in the 1820s, and by 1830 several farmers was experimenting with different seeds and processing techniques.

The emphasis on quality began in the 1850s. As a farm manual published at that time notes, "the tobacco grown in Connecticut is used for making cigars, but chiefly for the outside, or wrappers for cigars made of imported tobacco. For this purpose only the best leaves are used, and it is in order to obtain these best leaves (the prime wrappers) that the tobacco is cultivated." By 1870, more than eight million pounds of tobacco were being produced by local farmers, and there were 235 factories in Connecticut making hand-rolled cigars with imported filler tobaccos and Connecticut wrapper leaf, which was then selling for 40 cents a pound. The growing of wrapper leaf in "shaded" fields was introduced in the valley around 1900, and by 1904, Connecticut shade tobacco was winning awards in international competitions. By 1924, there were 15,000 acres of tobacco being cultivated under shade in the Connecticut River Valley.

The technique of growing shade tobacco has changed little in the past 92 years. From a distance, the covered fields seem like tents of some nomadic tribe, billowing in the soft breezes that sweep the valley, and gleaming white in the bright summer sun. To form the tents, a tobacco field is set with posts nine feet high and about 33 feet apart. Heavy wires are stretched from post to post, and a light, durable fabric (once cotton but now synthetic) is tied across them and draped along the sides. Under the tents at midday on a bright, sunny afternoon, the light is soft and diffused the air moist and slightly warmer than outside. "If this tobacco were grown in direct sunlight," explains Palombo, "it would be coarse and tough. By filtering the sun, you can produce a thinner, more elastic leaf, that cures to a lighter, even color."

The growing cycle begins in late March, when the tobacco is seeded in special beds covered with clear plastic stretched over hoops. The seedlings are grown in trays of 96 plants each, with about 125 trays required per acre of planting. By mid-May, when they are four to six inches tall, the seedlings are ready for transplanting, and are set in the fields, 14 inches apart in rows alternately 36 and 44 inches wide, with the wider rows used as access ways for farm workers. During the early stages of development, the fields are weeded and dusted with insecticide and fungicide to guard against aphids and mold.

In late June, the three bottom leaves, too small for cigar wrappers, are removed along with any "sucker" leaves that would otherwise grow from the joint of leaf and stalk. After suckering, support strings are tied and then wrapped around the growing plants and attached to the ceiling wires of the tents. This helps the stalks grow straight and is an added prevention against breakage in bad weather.

A quiet reverence pervades the tents during the growing season, as if even the sound of a human voice might disturb the delicate leaves. A full-grown Connecticut wrapper leaf plant will stand as high as ten feet, its giant leaves, some nearly a half-yard across and twice again as long, brushing its neighbors on all sides, so that beneath the tent the field is a near solid mass of greenery. By the time the plants are ready for their first priming in late July, any untrained movement through the field could spell disaster for the crop.

"Shade tobacco is incredibly delicate in the field," says Nuñez, who, after 20 years in the tobacco raising and processing business, insists he still has much to learn. "If you walk into the field, no matter how careful you try to be, you break leaves. At all stages it is a delicate process. If you do something wrong in the seed beds or in the field, you will have to live with it until the tobacco is on the cigar. The tobacco will never forgive you, it will keep telling you that you made a mistake."

A mid-August morning dawns hot, a hazy, muggy day much like the Tropics. Unusually rainy weather has slowed the tobacco harvest and many plants, stretching their tops toward the billowing fabric of a nine-foot-high tent, are reaching their ripest point. By the end of the month, weather permitting, the crop will be in.

Today, the pickers are on their third "priming," deftly snapping the seventh, eighth and ninth leaves from the bottom of the thick, almost iridescent green stalk and gingerly placing them on long, apparently stationary mats stretched between the wider rows of the field. The men work in teams, with one picking while another sits waiting at the end of the row on a wheelbarrowlike contraption with a bicycle attached to its front where the bucket should be.

Once the row is picked, the man on the bicycle begins to peddle, and the long mat stretched between the rows, now covered with the fresh tobacco leaves, begins to move, winding slowly around a spool that has replaced the front tire of the bike. The picker stands at the end of the row, lifting the leaves off the mat as it passes and carefully placing them in wide plastic containers, which, when filled, are slid onto low wagons for the short ride to the drying shed. There are a dozen such teams working side-by-side, and another dozen or so men driving tractors, loading and unloading tobacco containers, moving the leaves out of the sun. It will take them nearly five hours to complete one picking of this particular five-acre field.

Chris Rivera, field manager on one of the four, 50-acre farms that Culbro Tobacco is operating in 1992, and a company veteran of 28 years, stoops and picks up one of the many discarded fresh leaves that litter the lane between the tobacco fields. "Blossom rot," he says, pointing to a large, dark spot staining one side of the leaf. "It's been a bad year for it. When we see them like that, we pull them out; it doesn't make sense to process a leaf that's already spoiled."

"If you can't get to the tobacco on time," explains Palombo on a tour of the fields, "it starts flowering, the blossoms drop off onto the leaves below and rot, damaging the leaf. Ideally, you try to keep breakage and damage down below 15 percent; in a bad year it can run as high as 35 percent, and there goes your profit margin for that year. In the field, in the shed, at the sorting table, it's a very, very delicate process."

A tractor, pulling a wagonload of fresh tobacco leaves, passes on its way to a drying shed. Tobacco sheds, in groups of four or more, dot the landscape for miles. Like much of Connecticut's tobacco heritage, they seem remnants of a time gone by. Tall, awkward wooden structures, 30 to 40 feet wide and 120 or more feet long, the sheds are at once the most valuable and the most ephemeral link in the tobacco processing chain. A fully loaded shed will hold over 5,000 pounds of tobacco, worth as much as $125,000; but even empty, the sheds themselves are worth more than they can he insured for. "A couple of kids got into a shed last winter and torched it," says Palombo, "burned it to the ground. The replacement cost on one of these babies is unbelievable ... once they're gone, they're gone."

It is in the shed that the first and most important stage of the leaf-curing process takes place. Here, the tobacco is hung and dried, using a combination of natural and artificial heating. First, once the shed is fully loaded, the leaves are allowed to rest for two or three days, until they begin to yellow at the edges and wilt. Then the shed is "fired," using squat, mushroom shaped burners spread on the floor beneath the hanging racks.

The initial firing takes five days, with the shed temperature gradually being increased to just over 100 degrees. After the first firing, the tobacco is allowed to rest again for 24 hours, and then is refired for an eight-hour period. Depending on weather conditions, as many as 11 subsequent firings take place. Ideally, the tobacco is brought to a brittle dryness, allowed to reabsorb moisture and redried several times, the entire process taking as long as six weeks.

Standing in one fully loaded shed, Palombo shines a light up through the densely packed racks of drying tobacco leaves. The air is close and hot, punctuated by the sweet, sugary smell of drying leaves and the quiet hiss of the gas burners. "This tobacco is curing down beautifully," says Palombo. "We let it dry, turn off the heat, let it take up moisture and then dry it again. We call that 'going in and out of case.' It's what gives the leaves that nice, golden-brown color."

At another shed, fresh tobacco leaves are arriving constantly from the field. A crew of 30 or so men and women work steadily, performing their duties in a serious fashion. The predominant language is Spanish, and in the half-light of the busy shed, you can again easily imagine yourself in the Dominican Republic, Honduras or Mexico.

The tobacco leaves are first sewn into a string and attached 12 pairs to a wooden lath. Most of the sewers are women; working at a steady pace, they carefully lift the leaves by the thick stems and hold them in the path of the sewing machines. As each lath is filled, it is passed up to the hanging racks, where men are perched like sailors in the riggings of a tall ship, filling the shed from top to bottom, with the last rows hanging about six feet from the floor.

In the already filled part of the shed, it is refreshingly cool; here and there water drips from the still bright green leaves. "It's been a wet year," says Bill Light, manager of one of Culbro's four farms. "When the tobacco is this wet, just looking at it wrong will bruise it."

Light--a tall, laconic Texan from the Panhandle region around Abilene who once ran a 43,000-acre, vegetable-raising operation in New Mexico--came to the company four years ago with no prior tobacco-growing experience. Unlike the older hands, he laughs at the notion that there is any mystique to tobacco raising. "Hell," says Light, "tobacco is a weed. It's the easiest thing in the world to raise. Water and fertilizer and it grows." Then, casting a doleful eye at his busy crew, he adds, "The trouble doesn't start until you get it into the shed. This is where the tobacco will break your heart."

Once the tobacco is fully cured, enough humidity is added to make it malleable and manageable again, and it is taken down from the drying racks and tied into "hands," bundles of 24 leaves removed from each lath. The hands are then transported to

Culbro's warehouse, a long, low, three-story building easily as old as the oldest tobacco sheds, that houses the company's field offices, the "bulking" and sample rooms, and what was once a sorting and grading station. There, the leaves are delivered into the care of Tony Stanatis, manager of warehouse operations and a 40-year Culbro veteran.

Bulking is a method of fermenting the leaves in order to darken the color, remove some of the natural gums and sugar and guarantee the optimum texture and elasticity. As with the growing and drying processes, bulking techniques have changed little since they were first introduced in the early 1800s. Working with a crew of 20, divided into three turning gangs, Stanatis stacks the hands of tobacco in large, open-sided wooden bins, called bulks, each holding about 3,000 pounds of leaf.

A thermometer is inserted into the center of each bulk, and when a temperature of 116 degrees is reached (after about seven days), the bulks are "turned" by stacking the tobacco in an adjoining bin so that the outer hands are placed on the inside and those that were previously in the middle are on the outside. This, explains Stanatis, provides for an even fermentation. "We turn each bulk three times, and the whole process takes about one month. Then we pack the leaf in 132-pound bales and ship it to the Dominican Republic for sorting and sizing.

"Years ago everything was done here," adds Stanatis, somewhat wistfully, motioning towards the warehouse's large, empty sorting room. "There were a good 200 women working down there, sorting and sizing. But the way labor prices are today, you just can't do that anymore."

In the Dominican Republic, most of the tobacco goes through its final processing stages. The bales are unpacked and each leaf is individually sized and graded. The various lots are then packed in cases and "mulled," given one last seven-day fermentation in a humidity-and temperature-controlled environment. Culbro reserves its highest grade tobacco for General Cigar's premium brands.

This tobacco, according to Nuñez, undergoes even more extensive processing. "We keep about ten percent of our crop for Macanudo cigars," says Nuñez. "After it's been sorted, sized and mulled in the Dominican Republic, the Macanudo wrapper is baled and sent to Hatfield, Massachusetts, where the temperatures are very low and dry. In Hatfield we give it a "winter sweat" for about eight months, then we send it back to the Dominican Republic, break the bales and stack it again in 3,000-pound bulks for one last fermentation. After that, it's re-sorted, with about half being selected for Macanudo production. The entire process takes at least 30 months, and by that time the tobacco is worth ,about $120 a pound."

Dedication and love are apt words for describing the labor that goes into producing premium Connecticut shade. Like Stanatis, many of Culbro's employees have been with the company all of their working lives. Nuñez is a good example. His association with tobacco growing and processing started just after he graduated from Texas A&M at the age of 19; two years later he was offered a job with Culbro, and he's been with the company ever since. Now 41, he says he has no regrets. "I love my job. Even when I have to get up at three o'clock in the morning and work until nine o'clock at night, I love it. Every day there is something new to learn, something different. I got married 20 days after I started with Culbro, and I always say it was a double wedding. I don't know which takes the most time, but I've enjoyed them both in about the same way."

Cullman, too has spent his life in tobacco. But he sees some big, maybe even positive things, happening with cigars. "I think it's a niche business and it's a luxury product, for which the demographics are good. A luxury product in most people's mind is something that is very expensive. But when you think you can pick up a luxury product, a cigar for $3 to $5, that's what we've got to get across to consumers. People are willing to buy a bottle of wine for $10 to $15, and they don't think that that's expensive. It's no different in this case. You're buying a cigar that in fact you have a more personal attachment to and that you may be with even longer than a bottle of wine." Nuñez, when asked the same question, just flashes a sly smile. "I think there is room for any high-quality product on the market. People will always go for a good cigar."