Updated: February 9
Salvatore Fontana, who spent six decades working in the cigar industry, died yesterday in his hometown of Jupiter, Florida, less than a week after celebrating his 86th birthday. Fontana, known to everyone as Sal, was a top executive at Camacho Cigars and spent nearly his entire adult life in the cigar business.
For 62 years, Fontana sold cigars and tobacco products. His first tobacco industry job was in the cigarette business, where he spent two years, but for the last 60 years he worked with cigars. American Tobacco Co. was his first cigar industry job, where he focused on the Roi-Tan brand. He spent 18 years there before selling a brand made in Tampa named Carl Upmann, which later was changed to Baccarat. Fontana ultimately became part of Camacho, which now makes Baccarats and La Fontana cigars, along with the core brand Camacho as well as the new Room 101.
"Sal was the kind of guy who could walk into any cigar store in the United States and be welcome—and there are very few people you can say that about," said Ron Shapiro, co-owner of the International Cigar Factory Outlet, who started working in the cigar industry in 1954 and knew Fontana for many years. "He was a goodwill ambassador for the industry, and for whatever company he worked for. Terrific man."
"Thank you for being a great friend and mentor to so many of us," Abe Dababneh of Smoke Inn in West Palm Beach, Florida, wrote on Twitter. "R.I.P. Sal Fontana."
Fontana worked closely with Camacho president Christian Eiroa. In their first years together the relationship was occasionally contentious. "Sal hated me—a young kid, cocky, coming in," said Eiroa in a 2005 interview with Cigar Aficionado magazine. "Sal wrote a letter of resignation and everything, but he didn't do it." The two later became extremely close and would tease each other endearingly. Fontana was godfather to Eiroa's youngest son, Santiago.
Eiroa often referred to Fontana as his consigliere, and it became Fontana's official title at Camacho. A consigliere (pronounced kahn-sill-YEHR-ee) is a trusted and wise adviser, a word familiar to anyone who has watched the popular Godfather films. To commemorate Fontana's title, Camacho created a cigar brand called La Fontana Consigliere. Naturally, it comes in three sizes—Part I, Part II and Part III.
"Aside from my father, no other person has been more influential to me—personally, and professionally,” said Christian Eiroa. He first met Fontana when he was a nine-year old. “We ended up being very, very close. He was my compass. I loved him. I still do.”
Eiroa said Fontana would light up a cigar “anywhere,” and would announce that “he had a license” to smoke when challenged. “One time he lit up right in Customs,” said Eiroa. When an agent roared at the smoke, Fontana looked at her nonchalantly and said, “Do you want one?”
Fontana was responsible for some of Camacho's biggest accounts, said Camacho's Dylan Austin, including mega-retailers JR Cigars, Famous and Cigars International. He came up with the idea for the Camacho Triple Maduro, a cigar made entirely from maduro tobaccos. When it launched in 2007 it was a first in the premium cigar industry. Fontana was a regular sight at many cigar industry functions, from the IPCPR trade show to the Tobacconists Association of America annual meeting, as well as various cigar events.
Cigar Aficionado spoke with Fontana last week on his birthday. "The cigar industry will never, ever die," he said. "It's been going through a lot, but it's never going to fail."
Fontana is survived by five children; Bonnie, John, Jim, Robert, and David; and 17 grandchildren. His son Stephen died in 1993, and his wife, Connie, died on his birthday in 2005.
A viewing for Fontana will be held on February 11 at Taylor & Modeen Funeral Home in Jupiter, Florida, with funeral services the following day at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Palm Beach Gardens.
Photos by Ilona Lieberman