The soil was dark brown and had the consistency of wet clay on a potter's wheel. No matter how fast the beat-up, burgundy Jeep Cherokee traveled on the rough dirt track, ripping through puddles and lurching past peasants and livestock, the thick muck stuck to its wheels and body.
"This soil is very special here; it's perfect for growing Cuban-seed filler," says Hendrik Kelner, an owner of Tabacos Dominicanos S.A., which makes Avo, Davidoff and other cigar brands. He took his eyes off the makeshift road for a few seconds and pointed to the rows of tobacco plants growing on the other side of one of the canals that crisscross the heart of the northcentral Yaque Valley, the prime tobacco growing region for the Dominican Republic. The luscious area is a sub-region of the Cibao Valley, located in the northwest of the country. The Yaque Valley is to the Dominican Republic what the Vuelta Abajo is to Cuba. These two regions, separated by 500 miles of the Caribbean Sea, are two of the world's greatest locations for growing premium cigar tobacco, and this year, the harvest in both were some of the largest in recent memory. In the Dominican Republic, at least, the tobacco growers are extremely optimistic.
The Dominican Republic's prime tobacco growing area begins on the outskirts of the city of Santiago, in the northcentral part of the country, and continues northwest about 25 miles to the town of Esperance. The region, often called the Yaque Valley (for a river that flows through its center), averages about six miles wide and is bordered by two mountain ranges, the Cordillera Septentrional and Cordillera Central. The best tobacco is grown closer to the foot of the northern mountain range, Cordillera Septentrional (Zones B and C), since the soil is richer and deeper with better drainage. In addition, the climate is fresher, with afternoon breezes cooling the normally scorching daytime temperatures.
Some quality tobacco is grown farther west, but most tobacco experts agree that the best is located here. In addition, some cigar tobacco is cultivated south of the Yaque Valley (Zone A). The largest plantings there are Connecticut leaf for candela, or green-colored, wrappers for General Cigar, the makers of Partagas and Macanudo as well as machine-made cigars. Other small plantings in the south are primarily those of the Fuente family of Tabacalera A. Fuente, which has a gorgeous premium wrapper tobacco plantation (see sidebar, page 131) about two hours' drive south of Santiago near the village of El Caribe.
Generally, however, the overall quality and quantity of fine tobacco from the lush Yaque Valley exceeds that of most other areas. "I just spent four years in Cuba's Vuelta Abajo and Partido region and I can promise you that the Yaque Valley is growing some of the best tobacco in the world right now," says Emilio Reyes, a well-known tobacco man in the region who runs Tabaco Flor de los Reyes and who buys and processes tobacco from dozens of the region's farmers. "In some cases, this valley may be growing better quality tobacco than even in Cuba."
The Yaque Valley is like a patchwork quilt of roughly paved roads and bumpy dirt tracks. Small farms pop up all over the valley, with sleepy villages and towns in between. The only lively element in route are the brightly painted small buildings on the side of the road, where passersby can purchase cold beer, rum or simple foodstuffs. Tobacco- and mixed-crop farmers dot the countryside. Tobacco farmers number between 4,000 and 4,700in the main part of the valley. Some have contracts with specific cigar manufacturers, but the majority sell to middlemen, called empacadores, or packers, who process the tobacco before selling it to cigar companies. About eight major empacadores are active in the Yaque Valley.
Cigar tobacco farming is centered around the town of Villa Gonzalez, extending about 10 to 15 miles northwest and about the same distance southeast. Plantings in the valley total about 15,650 acres, or about 15 percent of the region. Expansion for the moment is quite easy, particularly in the northeast, but elsewhere a large part of the land suitable for tobacco is already occupied by, as Kelner puts it, "lots of towns, rice, fruit and cows."
The town of Villa Gonzalez has a handful of cigar factories, including one of Kelner's (which makes such brands as Avo and The Griffin's) and the newly established Tabacalera El Credito (La Gloria Cubana and La Hoya Selecta, among others). Villa Gonzalez is to the Dominican Republic what the town of Pinar del Río is to Cuba. Both serve as centers to tobacco growing and other farming in their respective regions.
The key village in the tobacco-growing region southwest of Villa Gonzalez is Jacagua, which has the most tropical climate and richest and most bountiful soil of the valley. Most tobacco growers here only farm two or three acres and work their land themselves. By comparison, the region in the northwest of the valley, with its hub of Navarette, is much drier, with a large system of irrigation canals to counter the arid weather. The soil is much poorer than Jacagua's, while farms are much larger, usually with crops of fruits and cereals as well as tobacco. The farms, some as large as 100 acres, are worked by hired help from the surrounding villages.
Villa Gonzalez, Navarette and Jacagua are just a few of the half-dozen or so tobacco villages in the Yaque Valley, each with its own soil types and microclimates. Others include La Canela, Palmar and Las Cienagas. "Each village has its own climate and soil and therefore its own style of tobacco," says Kelner, who has done a great deal of research on the subject, even developing his own map that could one day serve as a basis for ranking villages according to the quality and character of their tobacco. "Moreover, you can even say that particular farms within the boundaries of each village have their one specific character of tobacco."
It was slightly difficult to imagine this as Kelner's Jeep sped over the dirt road, turning the farms and trees into a constant blur of green. (Kelner used to drive road rallies in the region as a young man and, apparently, he likes to keep in practice even today.) It was difficult to focus on the hundreds of rows of bright green tobacco plants in the fields as we zoomed past. The occasional low-lying tobacco curing barn with its palm-frond roof added texture to the colors. We were only about an hour and a half outside of the town of Santiago, where many of the major cigar factories are located, including one of Kelner's factories, as well as Fuente, General Cigar and Manufactures de Tobacos S.A. (MATASA). Yet the clean, almost antiseptic rooms full of rollers and finished cigars seemed a thousand miles away.
The Dominican Republic has become the world's largest producer of handmade premium cigars in recent years, but its top tobacco growing region remains for the most part a mystery, even to many members of the cigar trade. "You've just seen more than most of the top people in the cigar business have ever seen," Kelner says with a laugh, as he throttles the Jeep northwest towards the village of Cruce de Barrero (forcing a man on a bicycle off the dirt road and into some bushes in the process). "They never come out and see the farms. But it is the key to making great cigars. You have to know the origins of your tobacco."
Kelner is always one to poke fun at his industry, although his deep affection for the tobacco and the cigars of his country is unmatched. The fact is that almost none of the Dominican Republic's cigars are puros, or pure, that is, made from 100 percent Dominican tobacco. (One exception is the Opus X brand from Tabacalera A. Fuente). Most cigars produced in the dozens of Dominican cigar factories are a blend of tobaccos from nations other than Cuba (although bales of Cuban tobacco have been known to pop up in factories' warehouses on occasion), including Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Cameroon and the United States. The producers blend the tobaccos to their own specifications for specific cigars, much in the same way that coffee producers mix coffee beans from various countries for their proprietary blends.
The amount of leaf and the number of different tobaccos greatly depends on the size and shape of the cigars and, of course, the blending style and skills of each cigar manufacturer. Basically, the larger the cigar, the more tobacco that can be used; thus, the greater variety of tobacco. For the most part, Dominican tobacco is used for filler, although some cigar makers use it for binder as well. The only cigar maker using Dominican-grown tobacco for wrappers is the Fuente family, although a few others use it to make candela cigars.
Few cigar producers on the island make their blends according to the specific location where the tobacco has been grown. Of course, none of the cigar makers interviewed for this story would reveal what exactly went into their blends, which is a closely guarded secret. In fact, key employees from some well-known cigar makers are occasionally wooed away by competitors in hopes of gaining access to such information. It is well known that the industry standard is the tobacco grown northwest of Villa Gonzalez, usually called La Canela, or southwest, called Jacagua. "La Canela is usually a richer, more full-bodied tobacco while Jacagua is finer and more elegant," says Miguel Dosal, the manager of Compania de Tabacos Quisqueya, one of the major companies processing tobacco for cigar manufacturers. "We could be much more specific in processing and selecting our tobaccos according to where they originate, but it is too costly and there isn't the demand."
Nevertheless, a growing number of cigar producers, including Kelner and the Fuentes, are selecting and growing tobacco according to its Dominican origins. In the aging warehouses of the Kelner and Fuente factories, hundreds of bales of tobacco carry various codes printed on their burlap or palm-leaf wrappings. These markings not only indicate what type of tobacco is in the bale, but they also frequently reveal the date of harvest and the name of the particular farm. "You have to know exactly where the tobacco comes from," says Carlos Fuente Jr. of Tabacalera A. Fuente. "This is the only real way to maintain a consistency in your blends. Each harvest is different, producing lighter or richer tobaccos. So you need to be able to blend a little more of this tobacco or a little less of that tobacco to maintain the style of each brand and cigar you make."
Even if some cigar producers are less "finca specific" than Fuente and a few others, most do use different varieties of Dominican tobacco: olor, piloto Cubano and San Vicente. These represent the three key tobacco types grown in the Dominican Republic for premium cigars. Piloto is the best of the three, with the seed type originating from Cuba's Vuelta Abajo. Due to the variety's richness and intense flavor, cigar makers use it primarily as filler to supercharge their blends. San Vicente, a hybrid of piloto and originally developed on the farm of San Vicente in the Vuelta Abajo, is slightly less powerful than piloto and more acidic in stimulation, while olor is salty and rather neutral in flavor. Cigar producers usually use varied amounts of all three in their blends, which are typically available in three strengths (in descending order of strength, ligero, seco and volado) depending upon what part of the plant the leaves originate. "It is just like a chef," says Kelner. "You use so much of this tobacco and a little of that. For example, I may only use 10 or 20 percent of olor in a certain blend, but it acts just like a little salt or spice in a particular recipe for soup or something."
Wrapper tobacco growing has had a spotted history in the Dominican Republic. Although some farmers tried in the late 1970s and early 1980s to grow premium wrapper tobacco, the results were not good and the demand was low. It was only after the Fuente family began growing wrapper tobacco that anyone took much notice. "I hope that one day a large amount of the cigars here will use home-grown wrappers. It's the future of premium Dominican cigars," says Kelner, who has conducted some highly successful experiments on his own plantation just north of Navarette. He was skeptical of the Fuentes' project at first, since his experiments about a decade ago were less successful, but he is now highly supportive of the idea.
This year's harvest, said to be the largest in two decades, will provide Kelner and his counterparts plenty of tobacco for their blends. The Dominican Republic Institute of Tobacco reported that 18,214 acres of olor and Cuban-seed tobacco were planted for this year's crop, about one and a half times larger than the 1994-1995 crop and more than double the 1993-1994 harvest. The only down side will be the quality, since most tobacco experts say the tobacco is slightly lighter in style than other years, meaning most blends will need to be fortified with tobacco from other areas, past harvests or stronger varieties or types.
This said, however, it was difficult to detect any doubt in the faces of Dominican tobacco men like Kelner as they drove through the region, looking out at the vast fields of beautiful tobacco during this year's harvest. The boom in the demand for premium cigars from the Dominican Republic has been a boon to tobacco production throughout the Yaque Valley. Anyone associated with cigars in the country is doing much better now than even a year ago. "A few years ago, many farmers were replanting their fields with just about anything but tobacco," says Kelner as he slides his Jeep around a corner of another nameless dirt track in the valley. "It's not like that anymore. We should see more and more better tobacco grown each year now." The Land of Opus X
"I must be out of my mind," says Carlos Fuente Jr., the president of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., one of the most prestigious cigar names in the Dominican Republic. Fuente was just a few miles away from the gates of Chateau de la Fuente, his family's showcase farm and the island's only superpremium wrapper tobacco plantation.
"I have so much riding on these 65 acres of tobacco," he says, biting on a smoldering Opus X pyramid-shaped cigar while driving his gray Mitsubishi four-wheel-drive through the lush tropical countryside. "It's like having your own private garden. There is so much tension."
Fuente may be slightly exaggerating his situation. He has nothing to prove anymore. Sure, the skeptics gave him a pretty good tongue-lashing back in 1993. Some openly said that he couldn't seriously grow piloto Cubano, the legendary tobacco variety from Cuba's Vuelta Abajo, as wrapper on his picturesque farm about two hours' drive southeast of the city of Santiago. Even he was slightly worried about what the results would be. Wrapper tobacco had been, and still is, grown on the island, but it has been essentially Connecticut seed for cheap candela (green-colored) cigars. Fuente had much bigger ideas about growing wrapper in the Dominican Republic.
No one now, especially himself, is doubting the potential and quality of Dominican wrapper, considering the high-quality crops the estate is pulling in every year. Opus X, his company's flagship brand that receives the best wrappers from Chateau de la Fuente, may be proof that the Dominican Republic can produce some of the greatest wrappers in the world and, consequently, the greatest cigars. In fact, Opus X gets part of its name from what the Fuentes and friends first called the estate: "Project X from Planet X." The four Opus X cigars tested by Cigar Aficionado have received scores of 90 points or above.
After arriving at the estate and walking through the tobacco barns and visitors buildings, Fuente admits, "I am very happy with the results. How couldn't I be? But I know that we can do better. We are really just starting out with this wrapper project."
The entire property encompasses 85 acres, which includes not only the well-manicured tobacco fields but also tobacco drying barns as well as a couple of brightly painted buildings for entertaining guests. Chateau de la Fuente is rightly named; it is the first tobacco estate designed to welcome guests and show them how a properly functioning finca goes about its day-to-day business.
"This is what my grandfather used to talk to me about as a young boy," says Fuente, gesturing to the fields of tobacco around him, covered with cheesecloth, or tapados, to assure that the tobacco leaves receive the proper amount of sunlight. The property also grows wrapper leaf in direct sunlight as "sun-grown piloto." "When I was a child growing up in Tampa [Florida], my grandfather and other old Cubans used to always speak of las fincas, the farms."
The 65 acres of tobacco fields are divided into eight plots: Hoyo de Elena, El Mango, El Porvenir, Las Palmas, Esperanza, La Palmas II, Las Casita and Rancho Nuevo. All the tobacco from each part of the property is kept separate during the picking and processing. A further selection is made through the handful of pickings or primings of each section. The entire plantation is organically farmed. Fuente is also growing tobacco on another 28 acres leased nearby.
"I produced and marketed the Opus X cigars earlier than I wanted to, because some people didn't believe we could get quality wrappers from here," he says. "I wanted to wait two more years but I had to come out. Some people still don't believe that this property exists."
Fuente is very emotional about Chateau de la Fuente. He's put in a lot of time and effort into establishing the Dominican Republic's first premium wrapper leaf plantation. A few minutes after walking through the fields and describing the workings of the plantation, Fuente is cheerfully dancing to the Cuban folk music that his two estate managers are playing, one on the guitar and another singing. He shuffles, claps and shuffles some more while puffing away on an Opus X. Fuente may still have a few reservations about Chateau de la Fuente, but he has plenty to celebrate.