During the Retail Tobacco Dealers Association Convention in New Orleans, I had the privilege of speaking with two of the most influential people in the premium cigar world: General Cigar President and Chief Operating Officer, Daniel Núñez, and Executive Vice President, Modesta Fondeur. Joining us for the interview, which took place over breakfast, was Victoria McKee, Manager of Public Relations for General Cigar, who was kind enough to arrange the interview amid a very hectic convention schedule for both Mr. Núñez and Ms. Fondeur.As I wrote in my RTDA 2005 recap, Señor Núñez is a soft-spoken, genteel man whose love of tobacco is written in his smile. As for Ms. Fondeur, she has all the charm of a fairy godmother and the grace of a queen. Over breakfast, Daniel (pronounced “dan-YELL”) and Modesta told me about their background, their approach to blending cigars, and how they’re able to produce such consistently good cigars by the millions.
How and when did you get into the tobacco business?
Daniel Núñez: It was right after I graduated from college. [Mr. Núñez is a graduate of Texas A&M] I was 20 years old and had returned to the Dominican Republic to find work, which was not easy in those days. Fortunately, my scholarship offered an agricultural work program where they would pay me a salary for six months. You could choose rice, tobacco, cocoa and some other crops. So, I chose tobacco only because it was close to home. Within a month I realized that growing tobacco was my calling.
Did you have any tobacco-growing experience as a child?
DN: Not really, except for a little tobacco that my family grew, but not in a great amount.
What about you, Modesta? How did you find your way into the tobacco business?
Modesta Fondeur: When I finished college at Catholic University in Santiago, one of my professors was an economic and legal consultant to General Cigar, so he recommended me to the company. I started the first day they opened tobacco operations in the Free Zone; I was assigned to Administration. Eventually, I moved into Operations and learned how the entire tobacco process worked.
Daniel, how did you end up with General Cigar?
DN: The Dominican Institute of Tobacco had begun working on an experimental project with General Cigar to try growing Connecticut shade wrapper in the Dominican Republic. They were looking for an agronomist who had graduated from an American college who could speak English to work with them. I happened to be the only one [laughs]. This is how I first came to meet Edgar [Cullman] Senior. That was two years after I got out of college in 1974.
What are the three most important factors in making a good cigar?
DN: From my point of view, the tobacco that’s being used, the people (the individual). Those are the two most important things. You say you are looking for three things, but really, it is the quality of the tobacco and the quality of the individual who works with it that really matter.
Why is the wrapper leaf so important?
MF: First, so much of the cigars flavor comes from the wrapper. Secondly, it’s also cosmetic. It is the finishing of the cigar, which is why it is also so important.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the cigar business?
DN: The consumer is now more knowledgeable and much more aware of the details about the product. Secondly, there has been quite a shift in the strength. Not so much the flavor, but the strength. Yesterday we smoked cigars that were 29 years old. These were some of the first Partagas that were made in Jamaica. What was so interesting was, in those days Partagas was considered a strong cigar. Ironically, this cigar was so light compared to what is being produced today.
Speaking of Partagas, I discovered them myself shortly after I started smoking cigars. A man sitting near me in a bar lit up a cigar and the aroma was so wonderful it prompted me to ask him, “What are you smoking?” The man slowly removed his cigar, and while admiring it as he might a beautiful young girl, uttered, “Par-tah-gaahs.”
DN: [Laughs] I remember, the most popular advertisement for Partagas back in Cuba was a slogan that went, “Partagas y nada mas.” This means, “Partagas and nothing else.”
MF: Of course, today nothing is static when it comes to blending. There is a lot more experimentation in developing new seeds, new wrappers, and more complex blends. We are continually trying so many new things now in Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, it’s never boring.
I’m particularly fond of the Partagas Spanish Rosado
DN: [Smiles and looks at Modesta] That’s one of our favorite cigars.
Considering how many tens of thousands of cigars you produce each year, can you speak to the consistency of the quality you’re able to maintain?
MF: I would have to say, the most important things would be our tobacco, and our bunchers and rollers. All the tobacco that we keep in inventory is well-aged and well-fermented, plus the people have to be well-trained. So if you want consistency, the people who make the cigar are just as important as the tobacco itself. Wouldn’t you agree, Daniel?
What happens if a harvest is devastated by a hurricane or other natural disaster?
DN: That’s why we always have four crops in inventory for safety purposes.
Two would be the minimum you need. Another way to look at consistency is, I compare tobacco to horses.
DN: Yes. You can get a thoroughbred from the best bloodlines, but that doesn’t guarantee the horse will be a winner. What it really comes down to is the combination of the breeder and the trainer. So, in our case, we have to train the tobacco. Of course, it starts with making sure you have the right seed. Then once you have it, you must be sure to train it properly. That is actually why we pay so much attention to the tobacco we grow. People like Ernesto [Perez-Carrillo, the maker of La Gloria Cubana Cigars] say to me, “You’re an atypical president of a tobacco corporation, because you spend so much time in the fields.” But from my point of view it’s absolutely impossible to separate the two. So, to have consistency in tobacco you must follow that tobacco. You must make sure you look at it, nurture it. There’s a language that develops between you and the tobacco, if you really want to have consistency.
Then there are the people who make the cigars, you mentioned earlier.
MF: Yes. Can you imagine having almost 5,000 people working for you between Honduras and the Dominican Republic and not having the tobacco ready for them? Say, if the long filler is not ready, the binder is not ready, the wrapper, or maybe it’s almost ready. How do you tell those people that there is no work for them? They’re the ones who are going to make your cigars; theyre essential.
DN: What we’re trying to say is that not only are all these people are depending on us to provide them with work, but they also take pride in their work, and so we must also continue to provide them with consistently good tobacco.
Now that you’re “El Presidente”, how do you actually balance your duties between being an administrator and a tobacco grower?
DN: Well, the political side of it, the administrative part that is; we have great people to do that and I trust them. Tobacco, I never trust [smiles]. So, I just pay more attention to the things that I can’t trust as much.
Why do you say that?
DN: Because no matter what I do, or how much I care, I’ll never learn enough about tobacco to be able to predict what will happen. Just like that thoroughbred horse. Whatever comes up, every day you discover something new about it because every crop is different. But it’s the great people we have working for us that give me the comfort to do what I love. People like Modesta and Victoria, the marketing people and the creative people. They all do their jobs to the best of their ability. So, what more can I ask? They make my job that much easier.
Having been with the company so long, is there anything you’d like to do differently or see change, now that you’re in a position to do so?
DN: I would like to create a more monolithic company, in terms of getting all the departments, marketing, creative, public relations and the production people working shoulder-to-shoulder. I feel this would help tremendously in meeting the challenges we face ahead.
Since you’ve worked mainly in the tobacco-growing nations outside of Cuba, if a cigar smoker were to ask you what the difference is between a Dominican cigar, a Honduran cigar and a Nicaraguan cigar, what would you tell them?
MF: Again, it comes down to the tobacco we use. In Honduras we use many different types of tobacco. In the Dominican, we use a lot of Piloto Cubano and Mexican tobacco. Then there are all the different types of wrappers. Cameroon, Connecticut Shade, Ecuadoran Sumatra, so the taste really is entirely dependent on the blend, not the country. They may form the head of the cigar differently; a rounder head in the Dominican, a flat head in Honduras, or they may put the filler in a certain way.
DN: In the end it all comes down to the tobacco and the soil. For example, in Nicaragua the tobacco is somewhat peppery because most of the soil is volcanic. Now, say you just use Nicaraguan tobacco. Just as in cooking, you’re adding more pepper. Pepper is good when you are cooking, but only in a certain amount. And of course there are different types of peppers. But if you use 100% Nicaraguan tobacco, then you know the cigar will be peppery. It all depends on the blending. Plus, you must think of the consumer. Some people like spicy foods, some like milder foods. The same can be said for cigars.
You have a wrapper that you developed in the Dominican Republic for the Ramon Allones cigars. The only other Dominican-grown wrapper I’m aware of is the one used on the Fuente-Fuente OpusX.
DN: Actually, our Dominican wrapper pre-dates it. We began growing ours in 1974. But I also want to be careful and very clear about this. First of all, there is not yet a Dominican puro, meaning a cigar made of 100% Dominican tobacco, and there has never been one. Secondly, we have over 100,000 lbs. of Dominican wrapper on-hand, but that wrapper is not yet ready. When we feel it is, you will know.
Is there such a thing as a “perfect cigar”?
DN: This is an interesting question because I don’t know if this can ever be. You must remember, it’s the combination of tobacco, which is a natural product, and human beings, so you can never predict if a cigar will ever be perfect; at least in the ideal sense of the word.