The large cloud of dust should have been a dead giveaway.
The objects producing the dust resembled a small group of tanks rushing across the desert on maneuvers. But instead of M1 tanks, the vehicles were 1950s-era Grayline buses full of cigar-touting retailers from Spain. The battered coaches blocked the entrance to the tobacco plantation of Alejandro Robaina, the well-respected grower whose face and name are printed on hundreds of thousands of boxes of Cuban cigars each year. By the time I reached the plantation located in the outback of the Vuelta Abajo, Cuba's greatest tobacco-growing region, the passengers were already out of the buses. The merchants were taking a tour, which was organized by Jose Maria Cazes, the Cuban cigar agent from the small European nation of Andorra.
I arrived at the entrance behind about 20 other visitors, many of whom were carrying boxes of Vegas Robaina cigars for the tobacco man to sign, like groupies at a rock concert. Two well-built Cuban men with dark sunglasses stood at the entrance asking whomever came to the gate if he had an appointment. They looked like bouncers at clubs in New York and Miami and they were about as friendly. "I am sorry, but Don Alejandro cannot see you without an appointment," one of them said to me. "He has a huge group of Spanish cigar merchants with him. He couldn't possibly see you for an hour or two."
I don't do this very often, but I decided to explain that I was from Cigar Aficionado. "I am sure the Don would like to see you, but he is too busy at the moment," he said with slightly more interest. "Can't you come back later in the afternoon? Look, in the meantime, take one of these cigars. They are made with 100 percent tobacco from the Don's plantation. They are not the same as the Vegas Robaina cigars that you buy in shops."
I thanked him for the smoke, told him that I would try to see Robaina later in the week, and stepped back from the entrance. A rather portly man nearly knocked me over as he rushed up to the entrance and explained to the gatekeeper that he had traveled all the way from Canada to have his five boxes of cigars signed by the legendary tobacco grower. "I just gotta have these boxes signed by the Don," he said, with sweat pouring through his tight-fitting Ralph Lauren Polo shirt. He didn't get any farther into the plantation than I did and he didn't even get a consolatory cigar.
It was an amazing spectacle when you consider that just a few years ago hardly anyone near the tobacco town of San Luis ever visited the Robaina plantation. Maybe a government agricultural engineer would have stopped in to see the new crop, or a relative from the town of Pinar del R"o or Havana would have visited for a few days. But it would have been unthinkable to see hundreds of cigar smokers traveling thousands of miles to pay homage to the aged tobacco grower. Hell, a few years back you probably couldn't even have found anyone in the area to give you directions to the plantation. Today, people stand at stop signs in the tiny town of San Luis and, for a few dollars, offer to give visitors a guided tour of Robaina's plantation.
I certainly would never have fathomed that Robaina would become so famous when I first visited him in 1994. I stopped by Robaina's plantation with a couple of friends and a representative of Habanos S.A., the global distribution company for Cuban cigars. It was a no-frills visit. We sat outside on the porch of his small house and talked about tobacco. He spoke about how tobacco should be grown, how to get the best quality, and why other growers in the region could not get the same quality. We smoked a cigar together. We drank strong coffee. We listened to classical music on his ancient gramophone. He even brought out his scrapbook and showed me copies of yellowed newspaper articles describing an award he received in the early 1980s from President Fidel Castro for his outstanding tobacco.
What was really impressive, however, was his tobacco. We went into his drying barns to look at his silky green tobacco leaves and it was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. I have visited dozens of wrapper-leaf plantations around the world and have never seen anything like it. Even the sand leaf -- the tiny leaves at the base of a tobacco plant -- were of perfect quality. Robaina claimed that his yield -- the percentage of leaves harvested that could be used to make cigars -- was nearly 90 percent, and this was when the rest of the island was lucky to be able to use one in every five leaves picked and cured. He was clearly the maestro of tobacco in the Vuelta, and his nearly 40-acre plantation was ground zero for the best tobacco in Cuba. Most of his leaves ended up on some of the island's finest cigars -- from Cohiba Esplendidos to Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas.
That's why I was shocked a few years later when I first saw the Vegas Robaina cigar line. Five cigars made up the line -- and they were some of the worst-looking cigars I had ever seen. The wrappers looked like medium-grade sandpaper. Rough with an inconsistent color, I thought, they couldn't possibly have come from Robaina plantings. Although they were perfectly OK to smoke (in fact, the double corona and the torpedo were damn good smokes), I couldn't get over the poor appearance of the cigars. It seemed a bit of a sham. I thought that Vegas Robaina cigars were supposed to be made from the tobacco master's leaves, and perhaps these cigars were just a new brand made in honor of the great man.
To this day, no one, not even the tobacco man himself, has been able to explain to me the poor quality of the Vegas Robaina wrapper. The newer Vegas Robaina cigars look a bit better than the ones produced for the launch in 1997, but they still don't look like what I have seen drying in Robaina's curing barns at his plantation, Finca El Pina in Chuchillas de Barbacoa. Perhaps this is why the brand has not been a success in the marketplace.
The annual production of the brand is about 3 million cigars, with most made at the H. Upmann factory in Havana -- which is a respectable amount of cigars for a Cuban brand. However, most cigar merchants I speak to say every cigar in the line is a tough sell. My trips to cigar shops throughout Europe as well as Cuba confirm this. There's never a problem finding boxes of Vegas Robaina, even hard-to-get sizes such as double coronas or torpedos. The brand's lackluster performance could be attributed to its lack of a distinctive size. In other words, consumers would rather buy established brands such as a Punch Double Corona or Montecristo No. 2 torpedo. Or perhaps -- what I think is the case -- consumers just don't like the smoke. Not only does it look rough, it smokes rough, too.
I finally get an opportunity to speak to Robaina a few days after my doomed trip to his plantation. I meet him in Havana. It feels just like old times. We sit on the porch of a house in the Miramar section of the city, drink strong coffee, smoke great cigars and talk about tobacco. Robaina may be in his 80s, but he has the energy and enthusiasm of a 30-year-old. He believes that he has never grown better tobacco than he is growing today and he attributes that not only to the soil and climate of his plantation, but also to the dozens of people who work for him.
"I pay them well and I make sure that they do everything the right way," he says, puffing on a cigar made with 100 percent of his own tobacco. "If they don't do their work correctly, they don't have a job for long."
Robaina's farm, like most plantations in the area, is privately owned, but he pays his workers better than other owners in the region. In addition, few people have his experience. "I learned from my grandfather and my father about tobacco and my son has done the same, just like my grandson is now doing," he says.
He doesn't seem very upset when I tell him that I don't think much about the Vegas Robaina cigar brand. He doesn't really seem to know why the wrappers on the brand have been of such poor quality. "All I can say is the cigar you are smoking is from my plantation," he says, holding out a duplicate of the one he gave me a few minutes earlier. "The wrapper, the binder and the filler, all come from my plantation. And it's a great cigar."
I sit back and smoke the No. 1 -- the same size as the Cohiba Lanceros -- it is smooth, rich and satisfying. There isn't a trace of harshness. Moreover, it looks as if it was wrapped in a brown piece of silk.
As I smoke the cigar and speak to Robaina, I think back to my visit to his plantation. I think back to the crowd of people in the Vuelta Abajo clutching their boxes of Vegas Robaina cigars in hopes of getting a signature from the tobacco grower and the traffic jam of cars and buses on the dirt road of the plantation. It all seems so absurd, almost obscene, and it all, thankfully, seems a long time ago.