ProCigar Festival 2010 Wrap Up

The Dominican Republic is known as cigar country. If you have any doubt in the merrits of such a nickname, than clearly you have never visited. Located on the island of Hispanola, which it shares with Haiti, the Dominican Republic produces some of the finest cigars available anywhere in the world. In a continuing effort to drive this message home ProCigar, a consortium of 6 of the leading Dominican manufacturers, hosted its third annual ProCigar Festival. This year also marked the 3rd year I was fortunate enough to host a group to experience this incredible trip.

The Festival begain on February 14 in La Romana with tours of Tabacalera de Garcia (home of Romeo y Julieta and Montecristo) as well as a golf competition. Unfortunately I was unable to participate in the first couple days, but the reviews from folks who attended said it was first class. Having had the pleasure of visiting Tabacalera de Garcia myself on prior trips and spending time with the great Jose Seijas, I'm sure it was both impressive and memorable for those who attended.

I departed on a Delta Airlines flight early on a snowy Tuesday morning. Despite our plane losing power due to some overzealous de-icers, and a small couple-thousand feet drop mid-air, we arrived safely in Santiago airport and was met by Catherine Kelner and Isangee Ramirez of ProCigar, with a tray of Dominican Cigars ready to fire up. I opted for a Davidoff 6000 while my buddy George selected a Fonseca "Especial" (a dark toro available only during the festival). Since the other flights were all delayed, George and I also delayed our plans and took a detour over to MATASA to visit the Quesada family. Despite the stress of prepairing for this festival, the Quesada's (as always) welcomed us with open arms and invited us to join them for lunch. Rene Gerard of Pipers Haven in Lafayette, LA and his crew were already there as well as my predecessor from Davidoff New York, David Kitchens. After we had eaten everything the Quesadas had to offer, we all piled onto our bus and made the trip through Santiago and the town of Gurabo up to Camp David Ranch, our home for the next several days.

This gorgeous little retreat in the Northern Mountain range is my preferred hotel. Although it is a bit out of the way compared to the hotels in town, it's worth it. This year we booked the entire hotel for our crew; 36 people to be exact. From the hotel you can see all of Santiago and the entire Cibao Valley. A few at a time, more and more folks joined us at the hotel arriving tired but excited. Some have attended all three years, for others it was their first time to Dominican Republic. We enjoyed a great buffet, smoked cigars, drank great wine, beer and rum, and welcomed each bus load until the final stragglers (The Spraberry brothers from Lubbock, Texas who attend every year) finally arrived. The "Camp David Group" were a series of consumers hosted by a few retailers including Yours Truly, Phil ledbetter (UpDown in Chicago), Jorge Armenteros (Tobacconist University),

Kurt Kendall (Twins Smoke Shop in New Hampshire), Rene Gerard (Piper's Haven in Lafayette, LA), Jeff Watson (Belle Meade in Nashville) and Arthur Zaretsky (Famous Smoke Shop in Pennsylvania) with his Famous Team.

Around 11pm, those who hadn't called it a night were treated to a visit by Steve Saka and Jonathan Drew of Drew Estate, Pete Johnson of Tatuaje and Havana Cellars and Journalist Gary Arzt. It was a late evening, but a great way to welcome in the third annual pro cigar fest.

After a wonderful (early) breakfast at Camp David overlooking Santiago we took our bus down the mountain to La Aurora in their new location. We were greeted my Guillermo Leon, Jose Blanco and our fabulous ‘group leader’ Ylma Estrella. Blanco ordered us all "not to smoke because we're going to be 'tasting alot not smoking' a lot" that day. Boy did he turn out to be right. We were given 4 small cigars, each numbered and each one a specific variety of tobacco. With each Surullo (a word we learned on Friday at MATASA referring to small cigars made to sample a particular variety of tobacco) we went around the room and explained our own experiences with each tobacco. Each person's experience was unique and not necessarily the same person to person. Drinking club soda in between to "cleanse the palate" on Blanco's instructions, he reassured us that despite the different experiences, there was no right or wrong answer but rather it was to identify the unique contributions of each tobacco as we experienced them.

Finally we smoked the fifth cigar which was a blend of the four tobaccos we smoked. This was a relief as it finally offered balance and complexity as opposed to the linear flavor and impact of the surullos. This cigar will apparently be a new product to be released some time in April but no other details were given.

Smoking this great cigar, we then took a tour of the facilities. One group was led by Jose Blanco, and the other by Manuel Inoa- a man who prefers to remain behind the scenes in the factory, although he has one of the most talented palates in Dominican Republic and is responsible for creating and maintaining the many blends that La Aurora makes. Though alot of the traditional manufacturing techniques are the same throughout cigar factories, one of the most interesting parts about La Aurora to me is in their rolling area. While the rollers still work in teams (one buncher and one person applying the wrapper) they use "cummunal presses" located in the center of 6 teams. This apparently has increased efficiency since these teams work at different paces.

After the festivities in the factory, we all moved to lunch at Rancho Steakhouse. A great buffet of wonderful food- more American than Dominican- and enjoyed a full compliment of Davidoff and La Aurora cigars. After lunch we made our way to the Grand Almirante hotel (where most of the festival guests were staying) for a press conference given by the principals of ProCigar Hendrik Kelner (Tabadom), Manuel Quesada (MATASA), Guillermo Leon (La Aurora), Dan Carr (General Cigar Co) and Juan Clemente (Tabaquisa). Unfortunately Jose Seijas of Tabacalera de Garcia was still in La Romana and was unable to attend.

Following the press conference there was a seminar led by Mr. Kelner called “The Art of Blending". As the Master Blender explained how seed variety, soil condition, geographic location and leaf position all play a role in the flavor a particular tobacco offers, there was a blind tasting competition. Three cigars (numbered 1-3) were in front of each attendee with a chart listing five potential options for what each numbered cigar could be. The winner was to receive a full paid trip to return to next year’s festival. [Editor’s note: Ultimately 7 people (including the author) out of the more than 150 correctly identified the three cigars. In a random drawing, David Kitchens of Providence, Rhode Island won the trip for next year’s festival] The three mystery cigars turned out to be a Montecristo Classic Robusto, Davidoff 6000 and a Partagas “Benji Menendez” limited edition.

In the evening, we attended the ProCigar Innaugural Event at the patio of the late Don Fernando Leon's house (former patriarch of the Leon Family). The food, music and dancing were superb, as were the cigars from all the ProCigar member factories, Brugal Rum and Presidente beer. In keeping with last year's tradition, Jose Blanco announced a dance competition. Yours truly and Arthur Zaretsky were brought up as last year's tied reigning champs along with several other festival guests. Zaretsky was voted out in the final five. My wonderful dance partner (and Dominican Sister) Patricia Quesada and I came in 2nd place. And this year's champ was Thaddeus Buggs, a consumer from Chicago. Mr. Buggs won 100 cigars of his choosing from any ProCigar manufacturer.

Following the festivities we made our way back up to Camp David and brought some stragglers with us including Pete Johnson of Tatuaje; Eric, Jamilet and Oscar Calvino of Cigar Snob magazine and Janny Garcia (daughter of pepin). We enjoyed Barcelo Imerial and cigars into the wee hours of the morning.

On Thursday morning, we drove out to Jicome with ‘group leader’ Isangee Ramirez to take a look at one of the farms Davidoff uses. Though much of the tobacco had already been picked, some still remained for us to look at and even harvest ourselves. We brought our freshly picked leaves to the almost completely filled curing barns and watched as they strung each leaf by hand in order to hang it to dry. According to Henke this year was a relatively dry year so the tobacco was in great shape. However some tobacco that was planted later suffered from the more recent rains.

A delicious lunch of assortmed cured meats, cheeses, fried plantains, beef skewers and of course Presidente and Brugal was offered outiside of the Davidoff tobacco processing facilities. At the end of lunch we were each presented with an un-banded, pig-tailed corona gorda. Later we found out this was the soon to be released Davidoff Puro d'Oro; a Dominican puro that uses a proprietary wrapper grown in Davidoff's newest farm in the Yamasa region (sort of near Bonao, home of the famous Chateau de la Fuente farm). New cigar in hand we walked through the fermentation process, specifically to see this new wrapper and its fermentation process. Hendrik Jr, Kelner’s eldest son who helped lead the tour, even removed the wrapper from some of the cigars we were smoking and put on the new Yamasa wrapper in order to see the influence of the new wrapper. While strolling, Mr. Kelner mentioned that their current inventory in tobacco is around $40M. This ensures their ability to maintain consistency of blends year after year.

That evening, we headed to “El Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración”, a monument in the middle of Santiago that is as much a symbol of the city of Santiago as the Empire State Building is to New York. It was constructed by Dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in the 1940's to honor himself, however after his assassination in 1961, the monument was renamed to celebrate the return of Santiago to its people. While this important monument remains a place open to all the people of Santiago, it was closed on this evening to host the ProCigar festival’s White Party.

Great food, drinks, cigars and music filled the space along with the incredible people. Also, in the classic nature of the Dominican people and the passionate people of our industry, a silent auction was held to raise funds for Haiti. ProCigar committed to match dollar for dollar what was raised, and in the end over $20,340 was collected for the people of Haiti in response to the terrible earth quake.

An after party at MOMA followed the event at the Monument hosted by the Quesada sisters. The music was thumping with remixes from Michael Jackson and Abba; Daddy Yankee to Tony Vega. The Camp David crew departed the party just past midnight, with a much fuller bus than what we arrived in. Turns out the word was out… Camp David was the place to be.

Unfortunately we neglected to inform the hotel that we were returning late to continue the party, and the bar was closed when we arrived. Nevertheless, thanks to some quick thinking, we retreated to our rooms, returning with the two glasses on the room’s desk and the small bottle of Brugal that came in our ProCigar welcome bag. And there we sat, overlooking the night sky of Santiago, drinking Brugal and smoking cigars in solitude reflecting on the great experiences so far.

Finally it was Friday already; the final day of the festival. We headed to MATASA, home of Fonseca and the newest Quesada 35th Anniversary. As soon as we entered the intimate facility it was clear something was going on. There was already an audience waiting patiently, and among the working rollers were another 50 or so factory employees wearing MATASA shirts and standing, waiting for the presentation to begin as well as various friends and family of the Quesadas. As always, Dominican music was playing and the smell of tobacco, both raw and being smoked was in the air.

Quesada patriarch Manuel Quesada welcomed the group, flanked on both sides by members of what is now known as the Fifth Generation (or as Manolo refers to them, 'The Young Ones'). Mr. Quesada proudly spoke of the contributions and accomplishments of the 5th Generation, most notably the Quesada 35th Anniversary which launched last year. He then explained the tasting set up in front of us. Three surullos were provided each made entirely of one particular tobacco. A tasting sheet was also provided with an area to analyze the Strength, Flavor, Aroma and Combustion of each tobacco.

The final cigar was the new Quesada Tributo, a brand new cigar created by the 5th Generation using some spectacular tobaccos including a never-before used Ecuadorian-grown hybrid wrapper that combines four different tobacco strains (Habano 2000, Corojo, Sumatra and Havana Vuelta Arriba). “Finding the right wrapper proved to be the biggest challenge” explained Raquel Quesada, the eldest daughter of Manuel Quesada and a major influence in the blending of cigars for the Quesada brand as well as some of the other primary brands of MATASA. As it turns out, this wrapper was only recently applied, and the cigars won't be available until May... but as we would soon find out, we were all family that day, so they wanted us to be the first to taste this new smoke, even in its infancy.

After a quick break, we returned to our seats for a presentation by Patricia Quesada, Manuel’s other daughter. It was at this moment when this presentation changed from just a cigar tasting to a moment that will undoubtedly remain in the hearts of everyone in the room. Patricia explained that throughout the 5th Generation’s childhood there were several people who were incredibly influential in introducing them to tobacco. The smell of tobacco smoke brings them instantly back to memories of their Grandfather (Manuel’s father) Manolin, who would enjoy cigars in the car and insist on the windows remaining up! Hide and seek was played not in a field or a house, but rather among bails of tobacco in the family’s warehouses. It was clear that the passion for tobacco is a part of their DNA.

Patricia then spoke about three other influential people in their lives; her Uncle Alvaro (Manuel’s brother), Alvarito (Alvaro’s son and a member of the 5th Generation), and Julio Fajardo, MATASA’s factory manager and “family-member-at-large” of the Quesada Family. These three gentlemen were tragically killed in a plane crash in 2001; an event that “changed our lives forever”, said Patricia who remained strong throughout her touching speech. Patricia then made sure to introduce their "extended family", the men and women of MATASA who were standing in the back, some working some listening, who, Patricia said, “turn our dreams into reality”. The introduction and recognition was met by a standing ovation of all in attendance. Though the workers didn’t understand the words being spoken, they certainly understood the recognition and appreciation of not only the Quesadas but of the folks in the room who enjoy the final product they make. Often times the “workers” go un-mentioned and under-recognized, especially during trips like these, but for the Quesadas, the humility and intimacy of this family business shines as credit is shared among everyone responsible for the final product.

The Quesada Tributo is a cigar that celebrates the lives and contributions of these four special men who’ve passed. A display tower was unveiled showing the boxes and sizes of the four Tributo cigars, each one bearing the name of one of the fallen Quesadas. As a wild pack of media rushed to take pictures, the stoic room was still fixed on Patricia who continued to explain the story of the Tributo. As her speech neared the end, the lights in the factory went dark, immediately followed by the sound of old Cuban music. Four spot lights were lit on an adjacent factory wall onto a black curtain which was drawn back to reveal 4 incredible portraits on oil of Manolin, Alvaro, Alvarito and Julio; painted by local legend Juan Rodriguez.

Though most in the room never had the privilege of meeting these members of the Quesada family, at that moment everyone knew them. And everyone felt the real feeling of loss and sorrow that the Quesadas have felt for so long. Yet in that same moment of sadness, there was an underlying feeling of excitement. And as Manuel Quesada put it, “In the spirit of moving forward,” one couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with anticipation for what is in store for this "little family business". And if the Quesada Tributo is any indication… there is A LOT in store!

Champagne was passed and a toast was given to celebrate both the old and the new. With open tears running down the faces of everyone in the room, and the haze of this incredible new Quesada Tributo’s smoke in the air, a standing ovation took over which lasted several minutes, bleeding into a frenzy for pictures and autographs as “pre-release samplers” of the four sizes were generously handed out to all in attendance.

The group moved on to lunch at Babetto with the Quesada family joining us, despite the obvious exhaustion; both physically and emotionally; of the whole festival and certainly the early part of the day. After an outstanding meal, we had the afternoon to ourselves to relax, catch up on some sleep and get ready for the finale party at Centro Espanol. The formal affair welcomes all the attendees and manufacturers as well as friends of the industry and dignitaries.

This year's theme for the Finale Party was "Old Santiago". As always the food was excellent, and the music and performances are spectacular. In keeping with annual tradition, a live auction was held; led my Manuel Quesada as auctioneer. Seven lots ranging from a box of cigars, to limited edition bottles of rum went for thousands of dollars- all to raise money for two very important charities; Voluntariado de Ninos con Jesus (to benefit children) and the Sociedad San Vicente de Paul (to benefit the elderly). In the end, $32,700 was raised that evening, bringing the total amount rasied for charity in two days to $53,040- a new record for the always philanthropic Festival.

At the close of the auction as dancing continiued, we decided to wrap it up and head back up to Camp David for one final evening of drinks overlooking the city. There were early flights to get up for! As we chatted and said our goodbyes, exchanging contact information, hugs and handshakes... I thought back to the Tuesday night welcome party earlier in the week. Some thirty or so folks from all over the world, most of whom didn't know one another, now making plans to see each other again and remaining in touch. In such a short amount of time, it's amazing how quickly we all bonded and formed real friendships. It reminded me just how special cigars are. Something so simple as cigars can be so powerful. In just a few days we all experienced how cigars can bring people together. They can be an aide in celebration, or comfort in a time of grief. They can be discussed and analyzed, or they can simply be puffed and enjoyed. But for sure, cigars are a special thing to those of us who really appreciate what they are. And no doubt, after participating in this ProCigar Festival, everyone left with a new passion for and relationship with these precious leaves, rolled together that we call cigars.

See you next year!