Notes from Don Carlos

Details are key in the magazine business, and sometimes one word can hold you up for hours. I’m not talking about a frustrated writer hunched over a keyboard searching for the proper way to describe how a night was dark and stormy—I’m talking about facts, and getting them right. I found myself in such a situation earlier this week as we were making the final edits on the May 19 Cigar Insider.

We conducted a vertical brand tasting of the Arturo Fuente Don Carlos brand, one of my all-time favorite cigars. To fill out the brand summary, I found myself searching through the notebooks of my cigar country travels to flesh out the origins of the brand. I picked up a reporter’s notebook from June 2006, when I was researching my Fathers and Sons piece for Cigar Aficionado. That book held an interview I did with Carlos Fuente Sr. (the Don Carlos behind the Don Carlos brand) and his son, Carlos Fuente Jr. I found the fact I was looking for (did you know the first Don Carlos cigars were made in Nicaragua, more than 30 years ago?) but during the search I couldn’t help but reread the interview. When you research a story, you end up with tons of notes and plenty of quotes, most of which don’t make it to the final story due. I thought I’d share some of the tidbits with you.

June is a very hot month in the Dominican Republic, and that day was one of the hottest I’d ever experienced in my more than 10 years of taveling to the Santiago area. The Fuentes and I sat down at their incredible tobacco farm, Chateau de la Fuente. We sat around a rustic table, which was covered with Fuente Fuente OpusX cigars and had a simple thermos filled with hot, Cuban-style coffee. Each of us lit cigars, took our seats in the oppressive heat, and started talking about a little bit of everything.

I had known both men for years, especially Carlos Jr., but my meetings with his father were more rare. Carlos Sr. is a quiet man, a man not known for giving interviews or spending time with the press. He really opened up that day, and told me things I had never heard before about his entry into the cigar business—which was a far different world when he started making cigars than it is today.

Fuente Sr. has worked hard all of his life, whether it was going from school to a job in a pharmacy to delivering papers—all in one day—to simply not stopping at the cigar factory. “I’m using to working seven days a week, for my whole life,” he says. Fuente began as a humble, family cigar business in Ybor City, Florida. “My father [Arturo] would case tobacco outside, under the mango tree….we took the house over [to make cigars]. We used to make the blends in the living room, in the kitchen we would cellophane cigars.”

Fuente Sr. built his own house, worked at the bakery as well as the cigar factory when funds were too tight for him to take a salary from his father, and learned how to do every job in a cigar factory, from fixing cigar machines to doing the books. Today, Fuente is a giant company, making north of 30 million cigars each year, all by hand. “There’s not one cigar shipped that I don’t know about,” he said.

“My dream wasn’t to be the biggest,” Fuente Sr. said to me in his gravelly voice, as we puffed away on cigars, “just the best. I never dreamed it would go this far. I just want people to enjoy our product.”

I’d say he’s done that and much, much more.

"excellence is in the details. " —May 22, 2009 01:25 AM