A man in a pinstriped, well-tailored three-piece suit paces the room with a microphone on a Sunday morning. He has the alert countenance of a boxing promoter, but the passion and indefatigable gusto of a preacher. This is Michael Giannini, director of marketing for El Credito Cigars and he’s talking to a ballroom full of 500 people. Though he does not break into song, there is a lyrical cadence to his voice as he sings the praises of the venerable La Gloria Cubana cigar brand.
In some of the more evangelical churches, this might be called channeling. Giannini is a strong presence here, but he doesn’t spread the word alone. If he indeed adopts the role as preacher, then his ministry is Team La Gloria: an assembly of four handpicked men dedicated to the life and perpetuation of this brand.
The event they preside over is a Team La Gloria Super Roll, which is a traveling demonstration that not only spreads brand awareness, but shows first-hand how a La Gloria Cubana cigar is made. This particular Super Roll happens to be the Team’s largest congregation as it is an integral part of the Cigar Aficionado Big Smoke in Las Vegas. Giannini starts with a prayer of sorts:
“We have a real affinity for our veterans here at General Cigar and La Gloria Cubana. We adopted the 10th Mountain Division. There were four gentlemen last year who I introduced. They are now in Afghanistan, but they are here with us in spirit.” He lifts his hand in the air, lowers his head and continues into the microphone. “To all the mothers, fathers, husbands, spouses, brothers and sisters. To the troops.” There is a moment of silence. Then the rest of Team La Gloria takes its cues from Giannini and the gospel of tobacco begins.
You already know La Gloria Cubana. You know the brand has Cuban roots, and was once a cult-classic boutique cigar made in a small rolling gallery in Miami before expanding into the Dominican Republic, then was acquired by corporate giant Swedish Match AB in 1997. Perhaps you even met the brand’s former owner and ambassador Ernesto Perez-Carrillo.
One cannot talk about this brand without mentioning his name and for good reason: what he did was extraordinary. How many people could both project a boutique feel and at the same time maintain consistent quality control over a corporate-owned, nationally distributed brand for so many years? La Gloria is indeed a boutique brand within a corporation. What you might not know is that Perez-Carrillo had a dedicated pit crew to help maintain and develop the line, but when he departed La Gloria and Swedish Match subsidiary General Cigar in March of 2009, La Gloria Cubana was left without a captain or a figurehead.
Rather than trying to introduce a new face or identity to this wellestablished, and in some cases, beloved brand, General turned La Gloria Cubana over to the support team that helped keep the cigar line on the forefront of the industry. Previously, they had no name.
Now, this gang of four has come forward and is known as Team La Gloria, the ministers of the brand: Michael Giannini, director of marketing for El Credito and team leader; Yuri Guillen, production manager for General Cigar Dominicana, where La Glorias are made; Rick Rodriguez, premium cigar apprentice; and Leo Peraza, master cigarmaker. Seem like a marketing ploy? It isn’t. This A-Team was trained and established before anyone knew who they were or before they were given an official name.
I sat down with Team La Gloria in Las Vegas the day before the Super Roll for a round-table breakfast interview.
“You have the head of our brand who leaves,” says Giannini, referring to Perez-Carrillo, “but people don’t realize that they are still left with a team of heavy hitters. I look at it like this: There are celebrity chefs who can have 50 restaurants, but are so rarely in the kitchen. We’re the guys in the kitchen.”
Giannini has been visible for years, present at cigar events as a kind of character actor for La Gloria Cubana. His appearance contradicts all the notions you might have of a serious cigar man. Pinstriped suits and haute-horology watches aren’t normally images that evoke tobacco fields and factories, yet he is unapologetically tailored and proud to sport the Hyde Park look of a pocket watch and vest.
Nor does Giannini feel compelled to have his clothing allude to his 27-year cigar history, which started in a small smoke shop in Philadelphia during the early 1980s while working on a PhD in psychology. He would own the shop before becoming a broker for a tobacco and accessories company in the 1990s, a stepping-stone that lead him to Ashton as a sales representative for 18 months. “I think like a cigar smoker because that’s what I am,” he asserts.
Giannini came to Swedish Match in 2000 where he was immediately assigned to promote La Gloria Cubana under the tutelage of Perez-Carrillo. At the time, the La Gloria Cubana core line and the Serie R existed.
It was Giannini’s idea to establish Team La Gloria as part of the promotions aspect of the brand—to not only keep the cigar brand in the consciousness of cigar smokers, but to make sure that the smokers still have a connection. “La Gloria smokers are different than Partagas or Macanudo smokers,” says Giannini. “They’re part of a fraternity and are serious loyalists because they embrace the personalities behind the brand.”
However, the psychology of kinship and fraternity can only go so far. In the end, a consistent, quality product is what earns the loyalty and seals the bond, and that starts with tobacco. When Guillen began working at General Cigar Dominicana in 1997, he was first charged with supervising production of the Macanudo and Partagas brands. He had an engineering degree from the Universidad Technologica de Santiago in the Dominican Republic, but had no formal experience with tobacco. Today he oversees the tobacco for every La Gloria brand, supervising the grading, sorting, sizing and fermenting of all of the tobacco found in every La Gloria Cubana cigar.
“I started extracting all the knowledge I could from Ernesto,” says Guillen. “At first, he didn’t think I could handle the pace.” That pace may make Guillen’s job the most difficult: he is dealing with tobacco by the ton. As with any brand, the right types of tobacco must be properly chosen. Fermentation time must be assessed, and samples must be smoked tobacco-by-tobacco, crop-by-crop, in order to properly blend the right proportions throughout the cigar. Consistency is paramount, especially when maintaining a boutique taste for such a large brand.
In the case of the La Gloria Cubana core line, Guillen is responsible for the quality of its Ecuadoran Sumatra-seed wrapper, Dominican binder, and blend of Nicaraguan and Dominican filler leaves. It’s a small batch, boutique formula that he must honor, yet scale up exponentially without giving the end product an assembly-line taste.
Guillen points to two retired executives—Angel Daniel Núñez, the former president and chief operating officer of General Cigar Co., and former executive vice president of tobacco and operations, Modesta Fondeur—as his personal mentors. The wild card of the team, and perhaps the most vigorously trained, is Rodgriguez.
“I sold carpets before I got into the industry, but I was a casual smoker,” says Rodriguez. “When I became a salesman for General Cigar, I had the North Florida territory for six years before the Cullmans [who ran General at the time] approached me to get deeper in the industry.”
Impressed with Rodriguez’s passion and industrious nature, Núñez and former chairman Edgar M. Cullman saw potential. “When I agreed, they shipped me out to the Dominican Republic almost immediately,” says Rodriguez. “From farming to fermenting to tobacco selection to growing, I learned all of this and Daniel [Núñez] was my mentor, but it was tough. He was like a drill sergeant. He said to me, ‘My job is to bring you to your wall of limitations and then to push you through that wall. You will be angry, but you will appreciate it in the end.’”
Rodriguez remembers when he was unexpectedly called by Núñez to roll five boxes of cigars. Núñez grabbed a random smoke, lit it up, looked at Rodriguez and said, “Ricky, you have wasted my time.”
“It was humbling,” admits Rodriguez, “but you need to learn everything, and my purpose is to learn everything about tobacco.”
After the Dominican Republic, Rodriguez spent time in Honduras, where he diversified his exposure by visiting more farms, trying other types and blends of tobacco, as well as observing the operations in another factory outside of General Cigar Dominicana, namely Honduras American Tabaco S.A., where Punch and Hoyos are made. During his training, he rarely got to see his family. Rodriguez apprenticed under veteran cigar master and senior vice president for General Cigar Benjamin Menendez, who refined Rodriguez’s tobacco education.
“If Daniel Núñez built my foundation, Benji built my house,” says Rodriguez. But Rodriguez’s position and future is more or less an experiment.
“This has never been done at General Cigar,” says Giannini, “and this program was created exclusively for Ricky. He’s a cigar master-in-training, meaning he is constantly working on new blends and innovations. He will hope to complete his course work by the end of 2011.”
Despite his ongoing training, Rodriguez still finds the time to travel with the Team as a brand ambassador.
Team La Gloria’s cigar roller and silent sage is Leo Peraza. He’s been working in cigar factories (such as Cuba’s Romeo y Julieta) since he was 14 years old, and is a living, working remnant of both the prerevolution and post-revolution Cuban cigar industry. Pereza expatriated to Miami in 1995 and began working at El Credito Cigars (the Little Havana factory that rolled La Gloria Cubanas) that year. While Giannini and Rodriguez interact with La Gloria smokers, the white-haired Peraza seldom speaks. He assembles tobacco components on a rolling table with monastic concentration. Sumatra leaf is stacked around him like parchments in a collection of holy texts, and when he rolls a cigar, his movements are fluid and natural, as though guided by a higher power. The tobacco, pliable and obedient, responds to his hands.
At a Team La Gloria event, you have the option to be a spectator of this art, or a participant. Attendees watch carefully and are invited to try their hand at rolling a cigar themselves. Skillful or not, this exercise of rolling, listening, smoking and engaging will, of course, bring them closer to the brand.
“We do in-store Super Rolls around the country approximately 30 to 40 a year,” says Giannini, “and this is a consumer participation event but obviously on a much smaller scale than we do the Big Smoke events.”
Outside of maintaining the image and quality of the La Gloria Cubana brands, Team La Gloria has also innovated. When brainstorming concepts and experimenting with blend ideas, they enjoy access to enormous volumes of tobacco during the trial-and-error process, an advantage to operating under the umbrella of a large corporation.
First there was the Artesanos de Tabaqueros, a two-toned, dual blended cigar that not only has two wrappers, but has two distinct flavor profiles within one roll. Then came the Tabaqueros de Obelisco, a figurado shaped like the towering Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration in Santiago, Dominican Republic.
The cigars, a celebration of the artistry of La Gloria’s rollers, are stunningly presented in half-circle (demilune) boxes, fanning out from their pointed heads. The blend consists of an Ecuadoran wrapper, an American broadleaf binder from the Connecticut River Valley and a blend of Dominican and Nicaraguan fillers. Most recently, the La Gloria Cubana Serie N shipped to retailers last fall as a medium-bodied alternative to the Serie R.
The band has been redesigned to reflect the new series, which uses a dark, Ecuadoran wrapper—Team La Gloria calls it capa oscura—as well as proprietary Nicaraguan tobacco. The wrapper is adorned with an “N” cut out of a lighter shade of tobacco and stuck onto the cigar like a varsity letter—a contrast against the dark cover leaf and something that Giannini chuckles about. “You know how mad the factory workers were when I made them do that? They still give me dirty looks.”
So what do the teachers think of their students? Menendez, who is still very active with General Cigar, has overseen their progress.
“While I am still happy to share ideas when called upon, I feel that with these four gentlemen, we have the makings of a dream team,” says Menendez, who enjoys collaborating with the Team. He calls Giannini a “true cigar man who has a firm grasp of what the consumer wants.”
Menendez is also impressed with Guillen’s ability to work with tobacco varieties not traditionally used in General Cigar products and praises the amount of progress Rodriguez has made. “He has grown tremendously over the last several years,” says Menendez, “and is well on his way to becoming a great cigar man. And Leo [Peraza’s] 50 years of experience rounds out the team. They are the perfect four legs for a table.”
Menendez has at least 50 years of experience in the industry as well and avails himself to the Team at all times, though he is not the only one who lauds them. Even the departed Perez-Carrillo has favorable words.
“When I left, it was their turn to take over and bring La Gloria Cubana to the next level,” says Perez-Carrillo. “In their hearts, I know they want to keep it a boutique brand, and they’ll make sure La Gloria Cubana stays in the position it deserves. I think it’s a great team.” Praise from the king himself.
Back at the Super Roll event in Las Vegas, Peraza is seated on stage at an elevated rolling table and his deft hands are projected onto two giant screens. He concentrates only on his work, though perhaps from time to time his mind wanders back to a factory in Miami, or maybe even Cuba. Peraza finishes one cigar, reaches over to a pile of wrapper leaf, and begins another. His skill is centuries old and 500 people try to emulate it and learn as they smoke cigars in unison. Giannini picks up a piece of tobacco leaf and holds it up to the audience.
“This is your wrapper leaf. This is everything,” he says. “You want to get out all the wrinkles. You want to make it perfect. If the wrapper dries out, just take a little bit of water to it.”
Clouds of smoke migrate to the front of the room and blossom into a series of luminous beams as they catch the light of the video projectors. For a moment, it has a nimbus effect behind Giannini, but he moves on and circulates through the room, turning all of us, if only for one morning, into true believers.