SMOKE Feature - page 2

Enter Venezuela (cont.)

In this respect, Spain was largely disappointed. Venezuela became known as one of the most economically fruitless of all the Spanish colonies. The one area in which the colony was a success for the Spanish was tobacco. An 18th century survey by the Crown of exploitable areas in the New World listed a half dozen regions of Venezuela suitable for tobacco cultivation. This was not enough, however, to compel the Spanish to fight too rigorously to retain the colony, which gained its independence from Spain in the early 1800s.

Agriculture continued as the main effort of the Venezuelan economy after the departure of the Spaniards, and tobacco maintained an important role, if somewhat overshadowed recently by cash crops such as sugar cane and coffee. Modern times have completely overhauled the country, much to the chagrin of the Spanish, no doubt, as Venezuela has become one of the world's largest producers of petroleum, as well as an abundant resource for gold and diamonds. This rapid influx of money into one of the region's least populous nations has meant a widely different Venezuela from that known to the sailing Spaniards. The once sleepy Cumana, formerly dominated by Old World Spanish influence, now sports the latest in cargo-handling port facilities and other industrial pursuits.

The knowledge and tradition of the Spanish era has not gone completely to waste, however. DeLisa found the old Spanish survey of tobacco growing regions especially invaluable as he began the search for brand blending suitable for the U.S. market. "The five or six areas that the Spanish identified for tobacco led us to examine all the different regions," says DeLisa.

"We were looking at the different flavors, oils, heaviness, burn, scent - everything to work on the perfect blend." This has resulted in all three lines of Orinoco cigars attaining a reliance on Venezuelan tobacco for the filler and binder of the cigar. Wrapper has typically come from other sources, though DeLisa believes that conditions in Cumana are favorable for growing shade wrapper, and has begun to experiment with the leaf at the Don Yanes farm.

The relatively low profile of Venezuelan tobacco on the international market has allowed DeLisa to use tobacco aged to perfection, a step many other producers have found to be too much of a luxury in the face of world demand. "There is an opportunity to dump cigars into the market," DeLisa admits, "but I don't do that. I have a huge amount of history and a good product to protect." Using tobacco aged a minimum of three years is the key to the quality of his brands. "Because of the age of the leaf, we have tried to eliminate all the harshness from the smoke, leaving a creamy, smooth tobacco."

Bringing the history and tradition of these storied cigars along with the product itself to an otherwise unaware U.S. market has become something of a mission for the driven DeLisa. Eleven years as a lawyer convinced DeLisa that he needed his own cigar to help him celebrate legal victories with his clients. This led him to investigate his own heritage, and discover the tobacco culture of Cumana. "Five years ago, I learned of the cigar factories of Cumana from relatives in Venezuela involved in agriculture," tells DeLisa. This knowledge resulted in his pursuit of exclusive contracts with the three factories. Orinoco Cigars, the name a nod to the Orinoco River which spans the Venezuelan countryside, has evolved far beyond DeLisa's initial dreams of private label cigars. "I originally thought that I would sign these factories, they'd make the cigars and I'd be here designing ads," he says with a somewhat bemused chuckle. "That's not how it worked."

DeLisa now finds himself dedicated full-time to the pursuits of Orinoco Cigars, having become deeply involved with all elements of the three factories. "First I had to start a box factory, then I had to get some wrapper leaf on the international market... suddenly I had a global vision for the product, backed by the tremendous history of cigars in Venezuela." His efforts to educate the American consumer are reflected in DeLisa's commitment to doing things the right way the first time. "I set up my box factory as if it was subject to OSHA regulations, I have set up a training school and hired a master trainer - I want to do the right thing and produce an excellent cigar."

During a recent earthquake, an unfortunate reoccurrence of an event that has historically hit Cumana hard, DeLisa's modern box factory was one of the few buildings undamaged and still in working order, and operated as a command post for the emergency crews in the city. This type of commitment to the people of Cumana goes beyond DeLisa's heritage, and is carried over to his commitment to the success of Venezuelan cigars in the U.S. market.

"When you open up a book on cigars," explains DeLisa, "and look in the table of contents, I want there to be a page on Venezuela." DeLisa knows this won't be easy. Bringing in roughly two million cigars from the three factories this year is a respectable presence, but it will take more than that to garner the attention lavished on the giants of cigar production. He also faces consumer overload, and beating the pretender label. "People are becoming immune to the pitches by all these new companies," he says, lamenting the over-stimulation brought about by the countless new brands. "How different can it be?" His solution is a simple one, and tells of his confidence in Venezuela as a bastion of cigar tradition.

"Smoke the cigar. That's my pitch."

SMOKE - Fall '97




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