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A Dominican VINTAGE

The 2006 harvest looks like one of the best in years for Dominican Republic cigar tobacco - including an increasing amount of wrapper leaf - which means even greater cigars are just around the corner.

By Mark Bernardo

Cigar masters, like everyone else, have certain pet peeves. They don't like experiencing a tough draw on a cigar that was rolled at their factory. They don't like seeing otherwise pristine tobacco leaves adulterated with blue mold or other ravaging diseases. They don't like having land they own taken from them by the state, a situation many have experienced at least once. And it's becoming more and more clear that there's another thing that the cigar industry leaders in the Dominican Republic cannot abide: the word "can't."

Over a decade ago, Carlos Fuente Jr. became tired of hearing the conventional wisdom repeated to him over and over - that you simply can't grow good cigar wrappers in the Dominican Republic. While Fuente and his family were highly respected among their peers in the cigar industry, his massive project to produce top-grade wrapper leaf in the fertile valley near the town of Bonao was widely derided as folly, and a waste of precious resources. The top-secret cigar project he envisioned that would use that wrapper - the cigar that became the Fuente Fuente OpusX - was destined, some thought, to remain only a dream.

Fast-forward to today. The OpusX is arguably the most coveted premium cigar made outside of Cuba, and Chateau de La Fuente, the experimental farm that met the "impossible" goal of yielding good Dominican wrapper, the most renowned site in Dominican cigar history. More significantly, other cigar makers in the island nation are making their own substantial inroads on the trail blazed by Fuente.

Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana inspects cigar bundles; Phillip Wynne of Felipe Gregorio samples the product at his Tamboril factory.
"I believe that the myths about growing wrapper in the Dominican Republic may finally be over," states Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana, with some amount of pride. Like Fuente, and undoubtedly inspired by his example, Gomez was determined to grow wrapper in his adopted country, and began experimenting with it several years ago on a plot of land in the region of La Canela. The fruits of this trial-and-error process can be appreciated now, on his highly regarded Litto Gomez Diez cigar, a Dominican puro celebrating La Flor Dominicana's 10th Anniversary, which uses the wrapper grown on the land.

"It has taken some time, and the yields have been very small for the first three or four years, but every year the yield gets better. This year we may get about 80 percent. It's amazing."

The sentiment hailing the quality of the 2005-2006 tobacco crop is one that would be echoed by nearly all of the cigar makers and tobacco farmers I spoke to on my recent visit to the Dominican Republic, and not only bodes well for the overall quality of Dominican cigars in the next few years, but augers a bright future for Dominican-grown wrapper.

The farm now producing wrappers and other tobaccos for La Flor Dominicana - co-owned by Gomez and longtime tobacco grower and broker Jose "Hochi" Blanco - is located in one of the first areas in the country to experiment with growing wrapper. Consolidated Cigar Company, now known as Altadis U.S.A., conducted the experiments in 1973. On the heels of that attempt, the Culbro Corporation - owned by cigar industry icons, the Cullman family - came in a year later and started its own experimental farm on the land. The head of that operation was an ambitious young tobacco man named Daniel Nuñez.

Today, Nuñez is president and C.O.O. of General Cigar Company, the cigar giant once associated with Culbro, which produces several of the Dominican Republic's marquee brands, including Macanudo, Partagas, and Cohiba. Nuñez is quite bullish on the quality of this year's leaf crop, though also pragmatic. "It's the most exciting crop I've seen in some time, and it has great potential, but it's still early," he says, adding with a self-deprecating smile, "It's one of those fortunate years. I hope we don't screw it up."

In a conversation at General Cigar's sprawling facility in Santiago, Nuñez points out that the company has actually been growing wrapper there for some time - albeit mostly the green candela leaf used on machine-made Garcia y Vegas and a handful of private-label premiums. In recent years, the company has devoted a substantial portion of its acreage to experimental crops of sun-grown and shade-grown wrapper leaf for use on premium cigars. Currently, the farms have produced 30,000 lbs. of wrapper that is yet to be put into production. This year's outstanding crop yielded 50 acres of what Nuñez calls, "the best shade-grown I have ever seen. I saw it this morning, and couldn't believe how exciting it was - its colors and flavors."

General's first Dominican-wrapped premium cigar, the Ramon Allones, went largely under consumers' radar and failed to catch on, but the company is prepared to put its full might behind an all-new brand of Dominican puro - a cigar made with all Dominican tobacco, from filler to wrapper - when the time is right. That moment will come only when there is enough high-grade wrapper for at least a few hundred thousand cigars. "We've never introduced anything that didn't consist of at least 500,000," Nuñez says. "If we don't have a minimum three years' worth of production, we wait. But we're getting closer, with both the quantity and the quality."

Davidoff's ultra-modern cigar factory headed by Hendrik Kelner.
A half-day's drive to the southeast, in La Romana, at the Tabacalera de Garcia factory, the sentiments about patience with Dominican wrapper projects are echoed by Nuñez's counterpart at Altadis U.S.A., José Seijas. Said to be the world's largest handmade cigar factory, Altadis' massive operation employs 3,400 workers (not counting the hundreds who work on the machine-made products in separate areas) and produces the Altadis flagship brands Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta - including their numerous specialized line extensions - along with Don Diego, Onyx, Por Larrañaga, and a plethora of private labels for well-known clients like Nat Sherman, J-R Cigars, and Dunhill. Not one among them uses Dominican wrapper leaf, but Seijas, a native of La Romana and a 30-year veteran of the industry, is looking forward to creating Altadis' first Dominican puro - but only when he and his team feels it is perfect.

"We have high hopes for the 2005 crop, especially after the very short crop in 2004," he explains. "We are doing some testing with Dominican wrapper, and the results have been very well-received. We have about three years' worth and we're beginning to use it. I think it is a nice experience to smoke a fully Dominican cigar, and as a Dominican I'd like it to be great. But, of course, I'd like all of our cigars to be great."

Davidoff's Hendrik "Henkie" Kelner, known for his ultra-scientific approach to growing and evaluating tobacco, waxes almost poetic about the quality of the 2005-06 harvest. "It was a beautiful crop... the whole water cycle was like clockwork, rainy one day, then sunny the next. The pattern was perfect." Kelner oversees factories in Santiago, near the town of Villa González, that manufacture all Davidoff cigars, as well as The Griffin's, Avo, and Zino Platinum. A separate facility produces a handful of cigars for high-profile companies like Alec Bradley and Cusano.

Kelner is also of the "slow and steady wins the race" school when it comes to growing wrapper. In 2003 Davidoff released its Capa Dominicana, an extremely limited-edition premium cigar that featured all Dominican-grown leaf, including the wrapper, grown way back in 1996. The cigar was a smashing success, but Kelner - and his son Hendrik, Jr., who also works in a management capacity at the factory - are proceeding with caution on future such projects. One reason is that Kelner is working with Cuban seeds, and prefers to age his leaf longer than most. "Cuban-seed tobacco is grown in the sun, so it needs more aging," he maintains. "With filler, you want at least three years of aging. If you're using that same seed [for wrapper], why would you not need at least that long?"

"Testing, testing, testing" is how Kelner Jr. describes the current philosophy on wrapper at Davidoff. "We're building fermentation sheds, setting up irrigation, planting in several different areas, and so far we're still only able to get small amounts. We're building up inventory, but it's still hard to get Dominican wrapper."

While educating and equipping tobacco farmers is undoubtedly one of the hurdles being overcome, much of the difficulty involved in growing wrapper in the country stems from economics, according to Phillip Wynne, owner of Felipe Gregorio, Inc., which makes cigars in both Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. The factory in Tamboril - a partnership between Wynne and a local tobacco grower named Radhames Perez - produces brands such as Petrus; Felipe Dominican; the recently introduced Felipe Felipe, with its Brazilian Maduro wrapper; Felipe Power, the new 15th anniversary brand with pre-embargo Cuban seed Costa Rican wrapper; and the visually arresting La Escopeta "double-barreled shotgun" cigars.

Wynne - who says he is "about 18 months away" from his own wrapper-growing project, notes that increased vertical integration in the Dominican cigar business has helped the cause. "The investment to grow wrapper is a lot higher than for filler," he says. "You need to invest in irrigation, in building curing barns, in gauze for the shade. If the demand is not there, Dominican farmers will not do it. During the boom, the price of wrapper went through the roof, so now more of us [manufacturers] want to control the source of our tobacco."

Increased technical know-how, in the wake of the trailblazing efforts by Fuente, Litto Gomez, and others, has also helped. In his own case, Wynne is bringing in an impressively credentialed outside source, tobacco veteran John Vogel, who has had success growing the ancestral Cuban-seed wrapper, used on Felipe Power, in Costa Rica. Wynne is confident the joint venture in the Dominican Republic will bear fruit. "John has got quite a pedigree, and the learning curve has been greatly reduced," he says with confidence. "Now people know it can be done."

La Aurora, headed by Guillermo Leon (left) with his father Fernando, has had success with the Aurora Cien Años, which uses Dominican-grown Corojo wrapper.
The Dominican Republic's oldest cigar manufacturer is helping to lead the charge toward more homegrown wrapper. La Aurora celebrated its 100th anniversary in grand style with the much-anticipated (in fact, one year delayed) release of La Aurora Cien Años (100 Years), a limited-edition ultra-premium Dominican puro with a painstakingly prepared Corojo-seed wrapper grown in the region of Navarette. Founded in 1903 in Santiago, the company is still family-owned and currently headed up by Guillermo León, grandson of founder Eduardo León Jimenes. León refers to the 2005-06 crop as "a godsend" and notes that the more demanding U.S. consumer has inspired a higher level of quality of cigars across the board - and has translated to widespread success in that market for La Aurora, which had been sold only domestically until the 1970s.

José Blanco, La Aurora's sales director, provides a historical perspective on wrapper tobacco's rocky road in the country. "The first person to grow wrapper in this country was Guillermo's father, back in the 1960s," Blanco states. "The climate has changed over the years; it was very rainy during that decade and we're not getting as much rain now. So we're continuing the experiment that he started and the crop is looking good. This year we have four farms on which we are growing wrapper."

Even with four farms, Blanco emphasizes, producing good wrapper remains an endeavor that requires patience. Because of its need to be aesthetically pleasing, the standards for wrapper are much higher than for filler or binder, which are tasted by smokers but not seen. He and León had hoped that the planned 400,000-cigar run of Cien Años would be released within three years of their debut, but due to low yields, the last of the popular limited edition will likely not hit shelves until the middle of 2007. "With the usual yield on Corojo, a good bale of 100 pounds of tobacco will get you maybe 35 pounds of wrapper."

"If you get 60 percent of useable wrapper out of any given crop, you should go to church and thank God," concurs Manolo Quesada of Matasa, the producer of Fonseca cigars. Last year, Quesada released the limited-edition Matasa 30th Anniversary by Fonseca, the longtime producer's first Dominican puro. It uses wrapper grown by the Reyes family, one of the Dominican Republic's most prominent tobacco dynasties, with hands in growing, brokering, and cigar making. Only 30,000 cigars were made, largely because of the difficulty in acquiring enough high-grade wrapper. "We said we'd make cigars as the wrapper for the project came about," Quesada says. "You'd like to have 100 percent yield from the wrapper crop, but you never do. So we had enough to cover the 30,000, and then it's gone. This was never meant to be an ongoing project." Quesada does, however, have plans for future cigar projects using native wrapper, including more limited-run specials that include extra-aged tobacco in the filler, from the D.R. and perhaps elsewhere. "The future," he says, echoing the thoughts of his peers, "looks very good for Dominican wrapper."

Carlos Fuente, Jr., the man whose crazy gamble led the way, also sees opportunities galore. "Dominican wrappers, as far as I can see, are the future," he says succinctly and matter-of-factly. "I'm proud that other cigar makers are growing it successfully, and 'following the yellow brick road.'" Fuente - whose factory makes all the Arturo Fuente brands, including the OpusX and Hemingway lines as well as Ashton and J.C. Newman brands - has put his Chateau de la Fuente wrapper on Ashton's long-awaited Estate Heritage Sun-Grown line of cigars, which has already generated a huge amount of positive buzz in the cigar world. In a nod to how much consumer perceptions have changed, Fuente points out that smokers may actually be more open than ever to cigars wrapped in Dominican-grown leaf, because the success of the OpusX (and, in fact, of the LG Diez and Aurora Cien Años) has conditioned them to expect excellence. And if the potential of the 2005-06 Dominican tobacco crop is fully realized, cigar smokers should not be disappointed. Fuente echoes the comments of his peers, calling it "one of the best years we've had in a long time."

The quest for wrapper in the nation now recognized as the world's largest cigar producer has been, and continues to be, a slow, deliberate process - but the floodgates that were nudged by General, Altadis, and La Aurora in the 1960s and '70s, unlocked by Fuente in the 1990s, and forced to widen by La Flor Dominicana and others in the new millennium, may finally be ready to swing open fully - and it is loyal smokers of Dominican cigars who stand to reap the rewards.

SMOKE - Summer, 2006
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