It is the height of the tobacco-growing season as I stand in the heart of Dominican cigar country. The sun-grown tobacco is gorgeous as it grows in the fields at a farm run by General Cigar Co., the makers of such brands as Macanudo and Partagas. The five-foot-high plants look fresh and healthy in the bright morning sun, and their oval leaves are about 20 inches long. I can almost imagine them becoming luscious, satisfying cigars.
Yet, looking past the 20 or so acres of tobacco towards the mountains, there is virtually nothing other than barren land with an occasional house, palm tree and scrub brush. I see a half dozen tobacco-curing barns, but they stand empty. Many no longer have roofs. They are quickly decaying in the hot, humid weather like rotting animal carcasses under a blistering desert sun.
Tobacco growing in the Dominican Republic seems to be at a standstill. For the second straight year, tobacco planting was minimal. Tobacco growers predicted that fewer than 2,000 acres were planted in 2000/2001, meaning that when the traditional time to pick the tobacco in March and April came around, very little was left to do. Three years ago, 52,000 acres of tobacco were planted. It was a record year. Tobacco plants were rooted in just about every imaginable area in the Cibao Valley. Everyone grew tobacco. Some people even changed their vegetable gardens into tiny tobacco plantations.
My, how times have changed. It has gone from boom to bust for many in the Dominican Republic. And the key cigar manufacturers couldn't be happier.
More important, however, this reversal of fortune should mean better-quality cigars from the Dominican Republic. Tobacco is back in the hands of serious growers, both in the plantations and in the factories. The days of shady characters buying tobacco, setting up a factory or dealing in cigars are over. People now have time to make good cigars and to reflect on their cigar blends. They are making much more interesting and higher-quality smokes.
"It was a bad time a few years ago," admits Daniel Nuñez, the executive vice president for tobacco and manufacturing for General. A mellow, philosophical man, he is one of a handful of tobacco experts in the world who really know their stuff. Moreover, he has a passion for cigars. He didn't like what he saw a few years ago and seems almost embarrassed about it.
"We just didn't have time to develop blends, and the tobacco didn't like it," he says as he drives his white Peugeot sedan over a dusty road near one of his tobacco fields in the Dominican Republic. "You can feel everything with the tobacco. We always say a blind man can feel and make a selection of great tobacco. You can follow it with a touch."
Unfortunately, just a few years ago, most of Nuñez's Dominican colleagues in the cigar industry in the Dominican Republic were following the scent of money instead of tobacco, and consumers suffered for it. I have been lambasting the Cubans for producing less than stellar-quality cigars for the last three or four years, but many manufacturers in the Dominican Republic also made their share of absolutely unsmokable rubbish. Talk to any of the serious manufacturers in the country and they will all quietly admit that corners were cut and blends were not maintained. But that's water under the bridge now. Today, it's a different story.
The improvement in cigars from the Dominican Republic is impressive. I used to be one of the biggest Cuban cigar snobs on earth. If my cigar didn't come from a shop in La Habana or some other Habanos outpost in the world, I wouldn't touch my lips to it. However, the more I smoked top cigars from the Dominican Republic (and, of course, Nicaragua), the more impressed I became with their quality. Granted, they are not the same as some of the great Cuban Habanos I have in my humidor (I am not ready to trade my 15-year-old Montecristo No. 1 cabinets or even my five-year-old Partagas Serie Ds for an Arturo Fuente Don Carlos or Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series). But more and more, I find myself enjoying the pleasures of non-Cuban cigars. It's like drinking one of Italy's great reds, a Brunello or Barolo, and then following it with a bottle of Bordeaux. They are all great wines, but they are different in style. That's why when I hear people say that non-Cuban cigars are crap, I bite my tongue, and try not to lash out at them for their ignorance or snobbery.
In the last year, I have had the chance to smoke such fine cigars as Padrón's Anniversary Series Principe and Millennium as well as Ashton's VSG Torpedo and Onyx Reserve Robusto, just to name a few. They are all excellent cigars.
I even found myself smoking a Padrón Anniversary Series Principe on a recent trip to the Vuelta Abajo in Cuba. I had tried smoking a couple of new Vegas Robaina Unicos en route to the fields, but they were raw and tight to smoke. Granted, the Padrón was the only cigar I had left in my pocket. I actually had two, so I gave one to my Italian friend, who was driving. We really enjoyed the cigar as we drove down the highway in his rented Jeep on the way to the tobacco fields. We were both laughing about it. "I can't believe that we are smoking a Nicaraguan cigar in Cuba," said my Milanese buddy. "That certainly tells you something about the state of the quality of Cuban cigars!"
Before hitting Havana last January, I had spent about four days popping into various factories in the Dominican Republic, including Altadis's factory in La Romana as well as the premises of General Cigar and La Flor Dominicana. I also hung out with Hendrik Kelner of Davidoff and Avo, and later in Miami with Jorge Padrón. These guys are making some of the best cigars of their lives right now. Of course, some blends are better, and one brand or one particular shape may be preferable to another, but they are all making cigars well worth smoking.
I still remember the morning in late January when I arrived at Tabacalera de Garcia factory in La Romana, and José Seijas, the mellow manager of the factory, was sitting in his office just after breakfast. He had eight robustos lying in a row on his desk. They were medium-dark brown and looked as if they had been wrapped in silk. I picked one up -- without asking since I couldn't stop myself -- and smelled the cut end. It was spicy and rich. I couldn't wait to smoke it.
"This is a new blend I have been working on," he said with a huge grin. "I am really happy with it. I can't wait for you to try it."
I instantly lit it up and it smoked like a dream. The draw was perfect with just enough drag. The flavor was spicy and flavorful like a light cappuccino with a hint of cinnamon. It left my mouth refreshed with each puff. "This is bloody good," I said, shaking my head. I greedily took three more of the cigars off his desk and stuffed them in my pockets. I was on my way to Havana in a few days and I couldn't wait for a few of my Cuban tobacco friends to smoke these new cigars -- of course, I didn't tell Seijas that.
"You know, I really prefer the situation now," said Seijas, as he puffed on his robusto. He was relaxed and reflective. "We can select tobacco better. We can make better blends. We have all the tobacco we need to choose from, between three and three and a half years' worth. We have the time to do what we need to make excellent quality cigars."
Yes, everything is at a much slower pace these days in the Dominican Republic, and it gives everyone, from smoker to cigarmaker, more time to enjoy better cigars.