Nothing particularly unusual was going on in the acres of farmland that lay behind a locked gate in Jalapa, Nicaragua. The shade-covered fields that were once owned by dictator Anastasio Somoza were growing tobacco just as they had decades before. Nevertheless, in 2000, in the post-cigar-boom world, the operation was a source of some suspicion in the industry.
For one thing, its owner was new to the cigar world and his workers were all from Cuba. Furthermore, no one in the cigar busines had any idea who was buying all the leaf. The rumor around the industry? That the tobacco was being produced for Cuba’s cigar factories, to be used in place of Cuban tobacco to wrap some of Cuba’s best cigars.
Today, Eduardo Antonio Fernández Pujals, the owner of Aganorsa S.A., chuckles at the wild stories, as it was his farm that caused the ruckus. “I have no association with Cuba except hiring Cuban tobacco growers,” says the 61-year-old. He’s a tall man with thick salt-and-pepper hair parted in the middle. He talks in a very calm and methodical style. He came to Nicaragua in 1997 with a desire to get into agriculture. Now he understands why his moves created suspicion, for he did a very unusual thing for the cigar business—he planted his crop first, and sought out customers later. “Tobacco is planted by contract with established factories. I came out of nowhere and planted this huge crop and didn’t have customers—it caused an uproar among the establishment.”
Now there is no mystery about who buys his product, as Aganorsa has been transformed from an unknown organization into a major force in the world of Nicaraguan tobacco that has built a clientele by growing tobacco in the old-fashioned Cuban style, using Cuban seeds and the oversight of well-seasoned agronomists from Cuba.
Aganorsa plants some 1,200 acres annually in Nicaragua yielding some 15,000 bales of wrapper, binder and filler tobacco, all of it grown from Cuban seed, enough to make tens of millions of cigars. Aganorsa claims to be the biggest grower in Nicaragua—Plasencia Tobacco disputes this, saying it is the larger grower—but there is no denying that Aganorsa grows immense amounts of cigar tobacco that is being used inside and around some of the world’s best cigars.
Giant and boutique companies alike get tobacco from Aganorsa. The Illusione Epernay Le Taureau, Cigar Aficionado’s No. 3 Cigar of the Year, is made with Aganorsa tobacco, as are several others on the list. Altadis U.S.A. Inc., which is one of the world’s largest producers of premium cigars, is a major client. Aganorsa also counts Padrón Cigars Inc.—a company that has scored higher in Cigar Aficionado taste tests than any other—as a customer.
“It’s just unique,” says Aganorsa client Ernesto Padilla. Most of his cigars use Aganorsa tobacco, and some are made entirely of the company’s leaf. “The way they cure the tobacco, the way they process it, it’s what Cuban cigars should taste like and burn like.”
Aganorsa has its own cigar brands—Casa Fernandez—which unsurprisingly uses Aganorsa leaf. Most of its cigars are made in Honduras by Fabrica de Tabacos Raices Cubanas, which uses vast amounts of Aganorsa tobacco. Fernández also owns a small cigar factory in the United States.
Fernández clearly enjoys cigars, but it’s tobacco growing that is his passion. “Tobacco is not something you can plant anywhere. The soil and the infrastructure has to be there,” says Fernández. “My philosophy about agriculture is do what has been done since time immemorial. Find quality vegas. In order to make that huge jump I had to go back to Cuba—and that’s where the suspicion arose.”
Born in Havana, Fernández moved to the United States as a young boy. After graduating from Wharton School of Business, he began a career in banking in New York City. He spent 10 years in Manhattan, then moved to Madrid and joined his brother Leopoldo to open Telepizza, a restaurant chain combining Spain’s tapas with New York pizza, delivered on Vespas. The business proved very successful, with sales exceeding $275 million, and the brothers took the company public.
Fernández then had quite a sum of money, and yearned to escape Madrid and get away from corporate life. “Being an island person, being in Madrid, four hours from the ocean, I felt a choking effect,” he says. He yearned to work the land. Unable to farm in his native Cuba, he looked to Central America. “I always had this great image of Costa Rica, but I was won over by Nicaragua,” he says.
Fernández saw a bargain opportunity in the post-cigar-boom environment of Nicaragua. A tobacco cooperative called TAINSA was struggling as cigar sales tapered off.
“People stopped buying tobacco when the boom ended, and the last [TAINSA] crop rotted into the ground,” says Fernández. “For almost one year the farmers worked and were not paid, so they went on strike. All these cooperatives became available.”
In the summer of 1997, Fernández created Agricola Ganadera Norteña S.A.—known as Aganorsa. He dipped a toe in the waters, making a first purchase of 100 manzanas, or about 168 acres in the Spanish measurement system common to farms in Nicaragua. Most of the acreage was in Jalapa, in the north of Nicaragua, which is a region known for the country’s most beautiful wrappers. He also owned a smaller amount of land in Condega, a region located farther south, closer to Estelí, with a reputation for growing tobacco that strikes a balance between elegance and power.
Fernández was immediately taken with the beauty of what he had purchased. “These were unique lands, more than 60 shade houses and some of the best lands in Nicaragua that had been confiscated by Somoza. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
But despite having great land and Cuban technicians to handle the planting, Aganorsa’s start was a troubled one. The cigar business is built on trust and reputation, and it’s hard for a newcomer to break in, especially during difficult times. “People would not buy tobacco from us,” remembers Fernández. Flustered, he turned back to Europe, and began selling tobacco to long-leaf brokers in Spain. And that’s where he met Arsenio Ramos.
Ramos is Fernández’s tobacco MVP, a 76-year-old from Cuba with big glasses and a cigar perpetually stuck in his lips. (Casa Fernandez has a fine cigar bearing his name, the Casa Fernandez Arsenio, which rated 89 points in this magazine.) Ramos is a walking encyclopedia of tobacco who was ready to retire from Cuba’s cigar industry, where he was in charge of fermentation operations. “He was the best in Cuba in terms of fermentation,” says Fernández.
In Jalapa, Ramos shows off some of his skills, pausing to describe the dirt in this gorgeous part of the world, which is a long, bumpy drive from the cigar capital of Estelí. “See this soil?” says Ramos. “It’s the same as San Luís, in the Vuelta Abajo. This is just like the El Corojo farm.” He stoops down, grabbing a fistful of brown earth in his calloused hand.
Spending an afternoon with Ramos is a constant lesson in the art of growing fine tobacco, not to mention a nonstop smoke session. “Tobacco has 27 minerals,” Ramos says at one point to explain how proper fermentation is essential to rid the leaf of unwanted properties. “The hardest to take away are the proteins and the acids.” Protein is a particular problem, he says, as it turns to ammonia, the bane of tobacco.
“Tobacco requires tender loving care from the seedling to the ash,” says Ramos, lighting yet another cigar. “There are 292 times when the human hand comes into contact with the cigarmaking process. The soil is very important, the climate is very important and the man is even more important.”
Ramos is a weathered man with a generous belly and a frown that quickly turns into a broad smile when his sense of humor kicks in. He is smoking various puros made entirely with one type of tobacco to get the true taste of that single component. When Ramos decides cigar “A” is a good match for cigar “B,” he jams both in his mouth at the same time to prove his point.
This maneuver elicits guffaws from his coworkers.
Joining Ramos and Fernández is Jacinto Iglesias, another Cuban tobacco technician who looks entirely different from Ramos. He is almost impossibly lean, with a mustache thicker than a push broom flecked with white hairs. “Jacinto came in as an expert in sanitation and fumigation,” says Fernández. The two are Fernández’s go-to agronomists.
Ramos and Iglesias are seasoned smokers, but Fernández wasn’t a cigar smoker before this venture. “I started when I entered the cigar business. Being in this business, you have to smoke, you have to try. We’re always smoking the different tobaccos.”
Fernández broadened his business in 2002 when he bought Tropical Tobacco from Pedro Martín. Tropical owned such brands as Don Juan, V Centennial and Cacique. The move helped, but Fernández says his big breakthrough came about two years later, when revered tobacco broker Oliva Tobacco of Tampa, Florida, began buying some of his tobacco. “That ended the blockage,” he says. “That put us on our way to making a business out of it.”
He later worked together with José “Pepin” Garcia to open cigar factories in Miami and Nicaragua. The partnership ended poorly. After a lawsuit that began in 2010 was settled last year, the two companies have now gone their separate ways.
Fernández now has a new Miami factory, owned entirely by him, and it’s already making some stunning cigars. The factory’s Casa Fernandez Miami Toro, an $8 smoke, scored 92 points to earn the No. 12 spot on Cigar Aficionado’s most recent Top 25 tasting. It was the only American-made cigar on the list. The cigars at the factory are made in the Cuban way: “Triple capped, Grade-A, Aganorsa leaf,” says Paul Palmer-Fernández, Fernández’s cigar-loving cousin. Fernández brought Palmer on board to run his cigarmaking operations after he acquired Tropical, and today Palmer is president of Casa Fernandez/Tabacalera Tropical.
Fernández can now speak for hours about the properties of tobacco and what makes one type different from another.
“Jalapa has better aroma and flavor. Estelí has strength and a white ash. The heavy magnesium creates the white ash,” he explains. He is standing near a bubbling stream, a field of tobacco behind it. The fields here are irrigated by an expensive system of canals built by Somoza when the lands were his. The water comes from the mountains, four kilometers away. “In tobacco you need water, you need people and obviously good land,” says Fernández. He looks at Iglesias and Ramos. “These guys live for tobacco. The crop requires that from you.”
Most of the tobacco here is grown under shade. It’s tall and elegant, rising from the reddish soil that’s reminiscent of the fields in the Vuelta Abajo. The curing barns that store it after the harvest are tall and long, beautiful structures that have stood strong against scores of hurricanes and lesser rainstorms that have battered their wooden exoskeletons for 50 years.
Near the end of the long day, the Aganorsa team of Fernández, Palmer, Ramos and Iglesias stand in the gloom of a dreary tobacco warehouse. Palmer has dubbed this area the Skunk Works, for here is where they come up with blends, mixing a bit of this and a bit of that. Palmer has a worker mix up a blend on the spot, with some Corojo ’99 ligero from Jalapa, seco from Jalapa grown from Criollo ’98 seed, and some medio tiempo harvested in Estelí.
The men light, puff, squint and nod. “There’s freshness and smoothness on the palate,” says Palmer. “That’s signature Aganorsa.”
Arsenio puffs heartily—it’s almost impossible to imagine the man without a cigar in his mouth—and he gives a wonderfully simple formula for blending great cigars. “If you blend good with good,” he says, “it’s going to come out better.”