Like you, I became frustrated with Arturo Fuente. Sure, they make great cigars, but my god are they hard to find. The Fuente Fuente OpusX is the most elusive. This Dominican dandy is so rare that it is one of the favorite brands of counterfeiters. What good is it to finally have a great non-Cuban cigar if you can¿t ever get the damn things? And the cost! OpusXs are over $20 a smoke, providing, of course, you can find one.
Enough is enough, I said. I decided to fight back by growing my own tobacco and rolling my own cigars. A quick Internet search, and I found a source for seeds of the best cigar tobacco plant in the world, Havana 688. A few more clicks of the mouse and I was buying every book Amazon.com had on growing tobacco. In short, without too much trouble, I was in business.
Ever see those neat Fuente ads in Cigar Aficionado? They like to talk about the long tradition in the Fuente
family for growing cigars. Tradition? I will show you tradition! I will be growing my tobacco in a small garden plot (a respectful but discreet distance from the septic tank) in the state of Virginia.
Virginia¿s tobacco-growing tradition goes back to 1612, when John Rolfe, who had arrived in the colony two years before from England, began experimenting with planting tobacco. From that time, the ¿jovial weed,¿ the ¿bewitching vegetable,¿ the ¿precious stink,¿ as tobacco was known at the time, would serve as the basis of the Virginia economy for the next 200 years. Rolfe would later marry Pocahontas and secure his place in every fourth-grade history book. But the real accomplishment had already been made when he planted those first seeds in the rich Virginia soil almost 400 years ago.
My seeds arrived within a few days, and in mid-March the Virginia cigar crop was officially on its way. The first surprise was the seeds themselves. You might think that tobacco seeds would be big, imposing things, something akin to a pumpkin or watermelon seed or even a corn kernel. Nope. Tobacco seeds are very small, tinier than the head of a pin; they look a lot like ground black pepper. Drop the seed container and you lose them for certain. Plant them outside and you run the risk of a sudden gust of wind, or worse, a strong rain washing them away. Because the seeds are so small, they aren¿t actually ¿planted¿ at all. Instead, they are sprinkled on top of the soil. Plant them more than one-sixteenth of an inch in the ground and you can forget about ever getting a mature plant.
To avoid these potential nightmares, I elected to plant the seeds indoors in little containers for the first few weeks, then transfer them outside when the tiny plants looked as if they could make it on their own. It was a great plan that would require some finessing that the Fuentes never needed to confront¿negotiations with my wife for every square inch of window space in the house. It all looked like a scene out of Little Shop of Horrors: tiny plant containers were everywhere.
Within two weeks, I had very small green buds poking up out of the containers. Within three weeks every container had at least five or six tobacco plants emerging. I thinned some out and started planning for the next stage, transferring them outside.
I knew I needed some help on deciding when it would be best to do the transfer, and how to prepare the ground for tobacco (the information in my tobacco-growing books was rather limited). Quick as you can say ¿Cohiba,¿ I was back online, writing to the Virginia Cooperative Extension office for advice. Ask these guys a question on how to plant tomatoes and they will gladly give you reams of information. Need to kill some aphids on your roses? They have a million possible solutions. But ask them about growing tobacco for cigars, and you are on your own. Virginia may once have grown the world¿s best tobacco, but the state apparently has forgotten the long-lost art.
Three weeks later, I started rotating my seedlings outside on sunny days to condition them for the upcoming transfer. That¿s when disaster struck in the form of a two-year-old girl from Tucson. When I wasn¿t looking, the little terror had toddled over to the flat of seedlings that I had placed outside and was quite busy pulling them out, one by one. (What is it about women and cigars, anyway?) I saved about three-fourths of the ¿crop.¿
I still had about 50 plants ready to transplant and it was time to prepare my field. Tobacco is not the easiest crop to grow. It needs lots of fertilizer and an abundance of potassium. For this reason, early farmers in Virginia had first burned off the existing fields, thereby creating a sufficient amount of potassium in the soil. Instead of setting my neighborhood on fire, I bought several bags of potassium and spread it around liberally. I also bought a giant container of Miracle Gro. Ever see the picture of the guy who sprayed it on his tomato plants and ended up with tomatoes the size of basketballs? I had to believe that Miracle Gro would help create the biggest tobacco crop in North America. More importantly, the chances of the Fuentes using Miracle Gro on their plants in the Dominican Republic had to be small. Here was my chance to get a leg up with good ol¿ American know-how.
With the ground prepared and the seedlings ready for transplanting, I faced the next big problem of all tobacco growers: labor. Tobacco is one of the most labor-intensive crops to grow, requiring an unbelievable amount of attention and care. The plants have to be watched daily for bugs and disease. Harvesting is done in stages, and for fine cigars, the leaves are harvested at different times and picked individually. Once harvested, the leaf-curing process is nightmarish and labor-intensive. Worse yet, absolutely no part of the process can be mechanized. Not surprisingly, Thomas Jefferson urged Virginians to grow other crops. Tobacco growers, Jefferson noted, were ¿in a continual state of exertion beyond the power of nature to support.¿
When you consider the labor involved in growing tobacco, you begin to understand why most of the finer cigar tobacco is grown in areas with exceedingly low labor costs such as Cuba, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Nobody could ever make a decent cigar if you paid workers the American minimum wage. It¿s just not possible.
For my crop I decided to rely on conscripted labor. I invited my young professional friends over when work needed to be done, plying them with alcohol and barbecue. I quickly set up a schedule for a Planters Party, Harvest Party, Curing Party and Rolling Party. In hindsight, the cheap labor was not all that skilled: lawyers, business leaders and technology CEOs make poor field hands. The work did get done, but more often than not it was I who was out in the field late at night tending the crop.
Shortly after the plants were established, I doused them on a weekly basis with enough Miracle Gro to turn them into redwoods. Slowly, they began to grow. Soon I had very respectable plants of three to four feet.
Then disaster struck again. This time it was the tobacco hornworm, which awoke from a long slumber in my Virginia field to gorge again on fine Virginny tobacco. This worm is a truly nasty bug that devours tobacco leaves until it swells to several thousand times its original size. A small bug will become gargantuan within a day if unchecked. I immediately noticed that 10 percent of my crop was infected. Doing some quick math, it didn¿t take too long to figure out that my entire crop would be lunch for the hornworm if I did not act, and act fast.
But what to do? Cuban and Honduran tobacco are heavily fumigated with God only knows what kind of chemicals. The average cigar smoker has absolutely no clue as to how heavily the average tobacco crop is fumigated. Ever see those reviews of cigars that state that a cigar has a ¿peppery¿ taste? Well, if you ask me, chances are that peppery taste is the residue of chemicals with which the farmer bombarded his crop.
I thought I could apply advanced concepts of organic farming by using some organic pesticides. Sure, I might lose some tobacco, but on the positive side I could boast that my tobacco was totally organic and no pesticides were used. So I mixed up a solution of lemon juice, habanero pepper, Tabasco and soap. I sprayed every bug I saw and waited patiently for them to start squirming. They didn¿t. The next day, the hornworms, considerably larger than the day before, were doing the macarena across my tobacco leaves. They loved the pesticide and were thriving.
This was getting serious. A couple more days and I would be growing nothing but stalks. Worse yet, at the geometric rate the hornworms were growing, they would soon become a threat to livestock and children. Tougher measures were needed.
Organics were out. Instead, I went to the local tree nursery and bought every product that Ortho makes for killing bugs. I mixed them all together into a nasty Ortho cocktail and sprayed every bug in sight. I have not seen a bug since.
It was then time to prime the plants by pinching off sucker stocks (additional shoots that rob nutrients from the leaves) and the flowering crown in order to channel the plant¿s energy into the production of larger leaves. This is a lot like pinching off tomato plants, with one big exception: the tobacco plant is very gummy, and an incredibly sticky resin quickly adheres to your hands. This resin is easily removed¿by continually washing your hands with lava soap for three days. Getting rid of it any sooner is impossible.
Weeks passed and the plants prospered. Harvest time arrived in July and my friends were once again summoned to the fields. My plants, admittedly on the steroid of Miracle Gro, topped out at about five feet high. Each leaf was handpicked and sewn together with others. This method is called the ¿sewn sunshine¿ method of harvesting. The process starts with picking (¿pulling¿ in tobacco jargon) the lower leaves and working your way up. I tried to keep the big leaves together, but as the alcohol began to take hold of my ¿workers,¿ the discipline began to slip. I wanted to cut the beer ration, but with temperatures in the low 100s and humidity at an all-time high, I didn¿t dare. It would have been mutiny for sure. Still, when we were finished, we had a lot of tobacco leaf ready for the next stage of the process.
Each green bundle was then hung from a pole. Once each pole was covered with leaves, I suspended them from my basement¿s rafters. There they hung for several weeks until they turned a rich shade of brown.
I then packed them in a big cardboard box to ferment. Many people think you can smoke the leaf as soon as it turns brown. Not true. Tobacco has to be very carefully cured before it can be transformed into a cigar. If the leaves get too hot you end up with expensive compost. But if the fermentation is not allowed to progress properly, the leaves dry up and crumble to dust. Great cigars require an unusually high degree of craft, science and sorcery to get them just right. I was beginning to think that I would never see a single cigar out of the mess that now occupied half of my basement.
Each week I carefully inspected the leaves. They seemed to be doing OK. I carefully stripped off a few that showed signs of mildew, reshuffled the bundle and repacked it. I kept up this process for several more weeks and then stored the entire eight-pound bundle of tobacco in my humidor. What was left looked pretty good to me, but at this point, how would I know?
By this time I had thousands of hours of backbreaking manual labor behind me for a small bag of tobacco. I had no idea how to properly roll the cigars and, alas, that lost art had long ago left Virginia. In the hands of a good roller, tobacco is magically transformed from a weed into a thing of beauty. In Cuba, the master cigar rollers are people of great merit and distinction. Long ago, America viewed good cigar rollers as artists as well. But that time has passed.
Except in Florida. Virginia may have lost the art of good cigar rolling, but it is alive and well in Miami amidst the Cuban exiles. After checking around I found a small shop called the Tobacco Factory that was owned by a young Cuban named Rudy Rodolfo. His family has been in the tobacco business for more than a hundred years, and when I told him that I needed a good roller for some tobacco that I had grown in my Virginia backyard, he was, to say the least, a bit skeptical.
¿Let¿s see if it is any good first,¿ he said while unwrapping my bundle of treasure and inspecting each leaf. I waited in total panic. He concluded the inspection with a long ¿Hmmmm,¿ adding, ¿Looks pretty good. I can¿t believe you learned how to do this from a book.¿
I told him of my grandiose plan to make a better cigar than the Fuentes. He smiled kindly and said, ¿There is only one way to really know. Let¿s roll a couple and see how they smoke.¿
He lit up a leaf and took a nice, full puff. My tobacco was, of course, very young, and as such would probably burn poorly. Rodolfo told me not to be surprised if the taste was rather strong; it takes time to mellow, which is why good cigars are aged a few years, much like fine wines. He was a bit surprised to see that my tobacco burned nice and even. I got another long ¿Hmmmm,¿ but the mood was a lot lighter. By this time, the entire shop was surrounding my small bundle and waiting for Rodolfo to make his final pronouncement. He took another puff, then asked the group, ¿Can you believe this guy? This is good tobacco!¿
We quickly got down to business. Rodolfo recommended that we use a good Dominican wrapper on my tobacco and make robustos. I needed to stretch the crop as much as possible, since I had promised all the ¿field hands¿ a box each as further compensation. If we made robustos, Rodolfo estimated that I would get about 20 boxes.
As a small, gnarled little man approached us, Rodolfo introduced me to Jose Hernandez, who was once the number one roller for Partagas in Havana. Rodolfo said he would have Hernandez roll my cigars and guaranteed that they would look better than anything Fuente can produce. It would take him a couple of weeks to roll all my tobacco, just the time I needed to design a cigar label.
I decided to name my cigars Virginia Blues. George Washington originated the term to describe his most loyal and dependable soldiers who served with him during the French and Indian War. The Virginia Blues were no summer soldiers or sunshine patriots who quit the cause when the going got rough. They stuck it out, endured all the hardships, and gained the everlasting respect of Washington for their bravery and loyalty. The original Virginia Blues had all the qualities I hoped to emulate with my cigars: loyalty, pride, determination. I liked that. I liked that a lot.
I went back online to find a printer willing and able to help me design a cigar band. I talked to half a dozen printers who had some experience with bands; most were very skeptical about printing a small run of 500. I begged and pleaded with an excellent printer and cigar lover in New York named John Sabatino of Master Image. He told me that he was sick of guys asking him to print counterfeit cigar bands like Cohiba. When he realized that I wanted bands for new cigars that for the first time would have the words ¿Handmade in Virginia,¿ he warmed to the idea, gave me a good price, and quickly helped me design a respectable label that he then produced. They looked great.
Invites were sent to all who worked on the crop, announcing the birth of Virginia Blues, the rarest and most expensive cigar in America. We had a wonderful party and presented each of the field hands with a box of the finished product.
In all, I had 650 cigars for my efforts. I didn¿t want to think about what they had cost me to make; let¿s just say that each cigar was a lot more expensive than an OpusX. My good fortune to find a master roller was certainly evident; the cigars looked better than anything I had ever seen. The Dominican wrapper was just beautiful and each cigar was as well rolled as any Cuban cigar I had laid eyes on. They were gorgeous.
My fellow aficionados, who earlier were a bit skeptical of my endeavors, were amazed. We put several to a taste test and everyone was pleasantly surprised. The burn was consistent; the ash was nice and tight. In short, Virginia Blues were a hit!
I now appreciate a fine cigar far more than ever before, and I learned some very valuable lessons about cigars. For starters, there is no such thing as an expensive handmade cigar. When you examine all the steps that are required to make a cigar¿growing the tobacco, curing it, rolling it, and aging it to perfection¿it is indeed a remarkable process, and whatever price the consumer pays for such a cigar is well justified. Second, I learned that the art of making a cigar is nothing but high sorcery, its secrets carefully hidden.
But I had overcome the odds, perhaps with luck, maybe with persistence, but in the end I was able to produce a fine cigar. As I sat with my friends, smoking a cigar made from the first premium cigar tobacco grown and rolled in Virginia in more than 50 years, I was content. I had beaten Fuente. The OpusX was no longer the rarest cigar in America. That position of honor is now occupied by Virginia Blue.
You think it is hard to find an OpusX? Well, just try to get your hands on a Virginia Blue. There are only 25 boxes. Five are being reserved for the future weddings of my two daughters and for the births of their offspring, so that leaves 20. Eighteen boxes were given to the field hands. One was given to the senior senator from Virginia, John Warner, whom I hoped appreciated the gesture. The last box was sent to Marvin Shanken, the editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado. So if you want to get the rarest cigar in America, you¿re going to have to beg one from one of these people. Good luck!
Douglas Doan is a West Point graduate and has a master¿s degree from Harvard, a perfect education for a tobacco grower. He is busy planning next year¿s crop in Great Falls, Virginia.