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Written by Puff Staff

Saturday, 22 February 2003

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The common mans view of the happenings at and around the 2002 RTDA in Las Vegas.

  

Why a report on the 2002 RTDA?  Of course, being a cigar hobbyist...we were interested in what goes on there.  Eventually more importantly is the fact we were told we could not attend.  That's right, no room at the inn Mr. T25C...not welcome...stay away.  Naturally we asked for a reason...here is the RTDA's response:

Dear Mr. Shoberg,

We must decline your request to attend the RTDA Las Vegas Convention & Trade Show. I checked out your web site and found it to be extremely well done and I'm sure your member users find it very informative. The membership of the RTDA association are brick and mortar retail stores and our by-laws prohibit the membership of internet retailers. Your web site is designed to promote the internet sale of cigars, which is in basic conflict with our association.

Makes sense right?  Not really, in fact its major BS on a number of fronts.  First, many of their "brick and mortar" members also sell over the internet...welcome to the 20th century boys.  Second, if you check out their membership, it includes Fujipub.com.  Ever visited Fujipub.com?  Think we promote the sale of cigars over the internet?  T25C is a minnow compared to Fujipub's Moby Dick in on-line sales promotion.  Not only was FujiPub a member, but they had a friggin booth at the show!  Oh yeah...guess who created the RTDA website...that's right, FujiPub!

Now you get the jest, not only weren't we welcome, they tried a makeshift BS excuse to keep us away.  Into the game steps the master, Rob Shibata.  No fool, Rob decides he and I need to attend. At a bare minimum, a couple days in Vegas never hurt anyone.  Oddly enough once in Vegas, on the day of the event, we became 3 day employees of a exhibitor.  We work cheap, so we were quick hires! Here we go, open access to the show.

So here's our report.  Different than the norm, and uploaded in few separate chapters, you'll quickly see Rob and I have two different yet complimentary personalities for an event like this.  In fact Rob's comments are in blue, and mine will be in maroon.  Kind of "Sonny and Cher" like...(Rob can be Cher).

Lest I forget...here is a picture of me with the guard that prohibits access to the show.  We got to be great friends, as we greeted each other every time Rob and I entered.  Click to make it larger.

RTDA Report Chapter 1 - We're in Vegas baby!

The Top25Cigar RTDA report will be different than most trade media reports.  The reason is that the RTDA show is the premier trade exhibition for the retail tobacconists and their vendors.  (and we're not welcome!)  Top25Cigar is not part of the cigar trade and therefore has a different perspective.  Otherwise known as, we have no asses to kiss, or advertising dollars to protect.

Top25Cigar was established to reflect the views and opinions of the cigar trade’s customers, the cigar smoking public.  Accordingly our report will cover events and personalities we deem of interest to the every day cigar smoker.  We also plan on sharing which cigar manufacturers were friendly and enjoyable, and of course which ones thought they were to darn special to give us the time of day.

The RTDA, like any large trade show, is an awesome, dynamic  experience.  The show filled most of the Sands Convention center with over 300 exhibitor booths.  The exhibitors lined both sides of the long aisles that ran the length of the exhibition hall, a distance of perhaps 100 yards per aisle.  The booths varied greatly in size from 100 sq. ft. to over 5,000 sq ft.  Aisle after aisle we saw the well known cigar brands and accessories with lesser known or new brands sandwiched in between.  We can't forget there was free booze at some spots...loved the new Montecristo Rum...loved it even more on the third sample.

Over 6500 retail tobacconists crowded the show aisles and exhibitor areas.  Show specials were offered by most vendors; giving the retailers a multitude of promotional opportunities.  The RTDA show is a buying show.  Buyers can negotiate with vendors on the spot to cut their best deal.  Many trade shows are PR shows, not “buying” shows.  A PR show is where companies contact customers who will later be called on by a sales representative.

Cigar manufacturers large and small showed off their newest offerings as well as promoting products already in the market.  An even greater number of cigar accessory vendors showed everything a tobacconist carries from Altoid type breath mints to Zippo lighters.  (Rob, don't forget the hooka pipe booth!)  The experience was almost numbing as we moved from booth to booth scanning the multitude of products displayed.  After walking a few aisles you are overwhelmed by the overload of products and displays.

Our main mission was to meet as many cigar manufacturers as possible.  From them, we hoped to get a macro view of the industry’s direction, some candidates for T25C interviews as well as sample some of the new cigars.

We've set up our report, and you get a feel for the style.  This first segment was a long time coming, Chapter Two should be up quicker.  Don't fret, we'll get to the new cigars.  Hang on for the next chapter, and not to leave you hanging, I'll pop up a picture of one of the most well dressed men we met.  Those industry savvy will recognize the fine gentlemen.  We'll get to the Penthouse Pet's story...oh my!

Rob Shibata and friend. Paul Shoberg and friend.
Click to enlarge photos.


RTDA Report Chapter 2 - David vs. Goliath

As we mentioned in Report I, we want about the experience of the show, as opposed to giving a show travelogue. Here are some general observations to put our experiences in perspective. Plus we're going to give you the common man's approach.  We marched around this show as a couple of "nobodys", because frankly that's what we are.

Size Matters (My wife confirmed as much.)

As industries go, the tobacco industry is still huge despite the gradual decline it has experienced worldwide. The cigar industry though is quite small even though it is part of the gargantuan tobacco industry.

We mention this only because the size of an industry and the companies within that industry has a direct bearing on the way business is conducted. From what we could observe at the RTDA, business was done between companies in two ways. Retailers and the smaller cigar manufacturers and suppliers did business very much on a one on one basis. This traditional cigar distribution channel is based as much on relationships as it is on brands. People doing business with people. By contrast, retailers and large manufacturers conduct business, as you might expect, in a very structured manner. The focus is more on programs, products, and adding value than on the strength of the relationship.  The classic David vs. Goliath...guess which didn't treat the "nobodys" like yesterdays garbage?!?

During our RTDA experience, we gravitated towards meeting and talking with the smaller cigar manufacturers and vendors because of the personal nature of the encounter. Our time can be summed up as two days of making connections with people, not just companies and products.

The Big guys vs the Small guys

In a small or closely held company, the owner is the company. Luis Sanchez is La Tradicion Cubana. Jose Padron is Padron Cigars. When the owner speaks, the company speaks. At the RTDA, a small cigar manufacturer or importer’s booth is just that… small. The owner was usually in the booth at the center of the action. It was not uncommon to be introduced to family members or friends who had been called into action (or conscripted) to help out at the show. The cigar company owners know most their customers by their first names and personally greet or meet everyone in their booth. There is a certain aura to meeting and talking with the owner. This is the Big Boss, the guy that creates the cigar you are smoking. When you talk to the boss, you sense the pride he has in the cigar he created. You sense the interest he has in your evaluation and comments about HIS cigar. The owner is more than the company; he is the product as well. You come away with a connection with the owner, his company and his products. This was far and away the highlight of the show for me.  There was no doubt these people were passionate about their product, and they truly cared what you thought.  Many of the smaller manufacturers not only knew about Top25Cigar, but could literally quote how their cigars had done in our ratings.

The large company booths we visited are big by necessity and very impressive to look at and visit. The large booths are good at what they were designed to do: show a lot of brands to legions of customers and write a lot of orders. I don’t think the large cigar companies have many other options about how to run their booths at a trade show.  (They could at least recognize that we were living breathing carbon based life forms.) These mega booths are run primarily by professional sales and marketing types headed by the VP or director of sales. The VP may or may not notice if a given customer is in their booth and for sure, they can’t know or meet every customer. For that, they depend on the professional sales person to meet and greet existing or potential customers. The rep you meet may or may not be the one who calls on you. The sales reps, no doubt, have a personal relationship with the retailer they service. But talking to the rep is not the same as talking to the owner. They are professionals and are paid to sell a company product, whether they believe in that product or not. The professional reps may be very good at sales and service. But they lack the excitement and passion of a person who creates a product. They are interested in your comments in terms of a sale, not necessarily to improve the cigar you are smoking. And for sure, there won’t be any deals that are not on the price list except for the largest of customers. The result, however, is an experience that is less personal than smoking a cigar nose to nose with the guy who created it. We did see some of the people actually responsible for making the cigars, but they did not appear to have a primary role talking to the customers.

For the reasons above, we experienced less personal encounters at Consolidated Cigar (Altadis), General Cigar (Swedish Match), and Davidoff (SwissAir). These companies sell more cigars than all the rest of the cigar industry put together. They are large companies run by larger companies and as such, appear to conduct their business as most large corporations do, with structure, procedures and centralized decision making. Understandably, meeting and talking with them, inherently, is a less personal experience than talking to the decision makers at, say, Perdomo.

Large companies doing business with other large businesses don’t expect or even want the relationship to be too personal. Small business owners, such as tobacconists, are different. The small business owners often give very personalized service to their own customers. The fact that the smaller cigar manufacturers and vendors can give this same type of personal service to tobacconists is, in our opinion, a competitive advantage.

Another advantage for the smaller manufacturers lies in the fact that they can change and adapt to market conditions more quickly than the large companies. Market research, for example, comes from the small business owner talking to customers and industry friends then making a decision. In a large company, very few have that kind of authority and most don’t want the responsibility in case the new cigar fails. A small business owner is not worried about losing his job. His decisions are all about what is good for his company, not what is politically correct.

In our next installment, we’ll talk about some of the people we met, their respective companies, and our impressions of them.  Yeah, our impressions...get ready for this, as some were the kindest most "cigar passionate" people you will ever meet, others were complete let downs. Here are a few of the names, we'll give our impressions in the next installment.

La Flor Dominicana - Litto Gomez
Davidoff - Avo Uvezian
Padron - Jose and Jorge Padron
La Tradicion Cubana - Luis Sanchez
Perdomo - Nick and Billy Perdomo
Graycliff - Enrico Gazaroli
C.A.O.
Rolando Reyes


RTDA Chapter 3 - The Good, the not bad, and the ugly.

Featured Reviews

La Tradicion Cubana
La Luna
Padron
Graycliff
Tabacalera Perdomo
Bucanero
CTI Tobacco
La Flor Dominicana
OneOff
Altadis

For chapter 3 we hope to shed some light on our personal experiences with the different manufactures we personally spent time with.  I should lead by mentioning that if a manufacturer gave us the time of day, we listened, and they should get credit for that alone.

Buuuuuut, some were a bit more courteous and interested in talking to us than others.  In fact a certain few (names will be withheld to protect the guilty...just kidding, no they won't.) blew us off like yesterday's garbage.

We have added a "thumbs up" and a "thumbs down" next to the manufacturers listed.  The thumb indicates nothing more than how we felt after talking to them, or better said, was this a company we were looking forward to doing business with and smoking their cigars. 

First, the good!

La Tradicion Cubana

This was one I was looking forward to visiting.  T25C had reviewed their cigars in the past, and found the quality outstanding...now who was behind this, and more importantly who in the hell made the decision to put out a 8 1/2 x 80 ring "Great Pyramid"?  One can only assume it was a weightlifter, as most Olympic athletes couldn't dead lift that puppy.  Rob summarizes this visit well, and I couldn't agree more with his comments below.

One of our first stops at the show was the La Tradicion Cubana booth. La Tradicion Cubana started in 1995 in the heart of Little Havana, the part of Miami where Cuban expatriates have aggregated after fleeing Castro’s regime. The company started small with a big goal. Luis Sanchez wanted to manufacture cigars of unprecedented excellence using the traditional Cuban cigar making methods.

Sanchez and his wife were busy preparing their booth since the show was just about to open. We had communicated with them by phone and email, but never met. As we identified ourselves, owner Luis Sanchez called to his wife Lourdes, “Hey it’s the Top 25 Cigar guys!” It was all handshakes and smiles as Luis excitedly showed us his latest creations: A flavored cigar and a new full bodied line named Sabor Cubana. Luis gave us one of each cigar to try.

Demand for flavored cigars must be increasing because many of the established cigar makers were offering them at the show. In all fairness to Luis, we didn’t like any of the flavored cigars we sampled, including his. But clearly, a lot of consumers must be asking for flavored cigars since the mainstream cigar makers are now selling them.

The new full bodied Sabor Cubana cigars, however, were a completely different story. Luis was excited for us to try this “cigar smoker’s cigar”. We sparked one up on the spot. The Sabor Cubana was one of the best new cigars we sampled at the RTDA. The construction was characteristic of La Tradicion Cubana: very good. The cigar was tasty and full-bodied from the first draw. The taste did not become tiresome.

We asked Luis and Lourdes what changes they have seen in the cigar industry since they began in 1995, the “boom” era.

“During the boom, people could sell anything that looked like a cigar regardless of the quality.” Sanchez said flatly. “And, unfortunately, that’s what many consumers received; poor quality, mediocre cigars made by companies without a long term commitment to the cigar business. That is part of why we started, to get back to making a quality cigar.”

“Today the situation is completely different.” He continued. Many of the “boom” companies are gone, good tobacco is available again, and overall quality is much better. The situation today is much better for the industry.”

“But the way cigars are distributed has changed too.” Added his wife, Lourdes. “The Internet has changed the way cigars are sold and different trade shows now allow cigar manufacturers to show their products.” Luis added, “The important thing is that we find ways to get our cigars to the ultimate consumer.”

Today La Tradicion Cubana is still located in Little Havana and the company has grown. The company produces nine shapes in their regular line and four shapes in the new Sabor Cubana line. One thing that hasn’t changed is Luis’ commitment to the quality of the blend and construction of his cigars.

Luis and Lourdes Sanchez are friendly, practical, and intense about their cigars. We were struck at the Sanchez’s humility about themselves, yet the great pride they have in their cigars. A quote from their website sums it up. “The world has learned how to make cigars faster and cutting corners has become a way of life. At La Tradicion we haven’t gone along with them.”

OK, wait a minute...did Rob say Luis was friendly, practical, and intense about cigars?  Let me set this straight.  First of all Lourdes runs the show in the Sanchez family.  Even though Luis is listed as the top banana at La Tradicion Cubana, it's only because Lourdes lets him think he is.  Luis married up...let it go as that.  (P.S.  Luis...I'm winking!)  Luis is a small business owner that has remained true to his roots.  I have added to my list of "Things to do before I die", "Have a beer with Luis Sanchez in Miami, I know it will be memorable."

La Luna Cigars

The La Luna booth was easy to spot. The large, brightly colored La Luna logo was prominently displayed making the booth a stand out despite its diminutive size. La Luna’s successes, difficulties, and rebirth have been well documented in the cigar trade press. During the boom, Gael de Courtivron’s Miami operation employed 70 rollers/bunchers. During the bust he banded and boxed cigars himself with Marta Perez, a master roller and his sole employee at that time. As part of his rebirth, Gael moved his production to Honduras eventually settling on a factory owned by Carlos Torano. From there he released the African Fuerte line. The African Fuerte line was a hit with reviewers and cigar smokers alike developing an almost cult like following.

We found Gael de Courtivron seated in his booth alternately talking on a cell phone and giving instructions to his staff. As we introduced ourselves, Gael’s smile turned to a look of familiarity since we’ve communicated with him previously by email. He starts to talk about his new cigars and the company.

Courtivron is realistic yet optimistic about La Luna’s position in the cigar industry. A few of his comments:

“We are still very small but growing each day. We are trying to make our way in an industry full of Giants. La Luna produces some of the finest premium cigars in an industry driven by enormous advertising budgets. My philosophy has always been: The proof is in the taste. My mission is to produce world-class cigars at reasonable, affordable prices. No nonsense and no fluff, just exceptionally great cigars at a great price.”

“Now all we need is for people to discover our cigars. I firmly believe that 2003 will be a benchmark year for us as we focus on deep market penetration. I am confident that the La Luna Natural Fuertes will finally open up some doors that have been closed to the La Luna brand.”

When you talk to Gael de Courtivron, you can see where La Luna’s “no nonsense, no fluff” philosophy comes from. It comes from Gael himself. He speaks what he thinks and expects you to answer the same. You can see why his company survived the boom and bust while many others did not. I like to call it attitude.  Gael's got it, and it is no nonsense business, with a bit of nonsense fun while your doing that business.  Gael is another fun guy to be around.  I felt right at home talking to him.

His quote from Smokeshop Magazine says it best: “We’ve demonstrated we have what it takes to build this business: tenacity, dedication, and sacrifice.”

We couldn’t have said it better. Gael gave us some pre-production samples of the Natural Fuerte, which is the third cigar in the Fuerte Trilogy line. Sporting a black label, the cigar was handsome, well made, and had rich, full flavor with a little spice. We look forward to doing a Top25Cigar staff review on the Natural Fuerte. Gael has also agreed to a future interview, which should be interesting given his colorful past.

Padron Cigars

I have met the Padron family on several occasions at CA Big Smokes and during a visit to their Miami office. I looked forward to seeing them again.  Rob in this case is the man about town.  I can't make the claim to have met the Padrons before, but I did talk to Jorge on the phone once...does that count?  I did look forward to finally meeting the cigar legends in person. The Padron booth was located next to the Davidoff booth near the center of the show floor. As expected, their booth was a beehive of activity and they showed little concern about being located next to an industry heavy weight.

Padron Cigars was showcasing the newest edition to their line, the 1926 Serie that commemorates Jose Padron’s 75th birthday. The cigars were prominently displayed in the center of their booth behind glass enclosures. Which is likely the closest I'll ever get to buying them.

“If we didn’t keep them behind glass, there wouldn’t be any 1926s left to show customers”, Jorge said with a laugh. With that, Jorge produced two of the coveted cigars for us to sample.  I quickly ran off into a corner of the convention center like a hyena that had just stolen someone else's kill.  Rob knows Jorge...Paul get's free cigar.  This will work for me, but what is that weird feeling creeping in?  Oh yeah, pangs of guilt.  How am I going to be able to do a non-biased review of these products if their giving them to me.  Once I lit the cigar, the guilt quickly was overpowered by the smoke.

“Aren’t you going to smoke them now?” Jorge said with a wink.  He probably got this hint from the fact that I was encasing mine in a locked container tied to the neck of a Rottweiler once owned by Tonya Harding.

“Oh we’ll save them for when we can appreciate them since we’ve already had about six cigars today.” we replied. It should also be noted that by this time our tastes buds we're fairly overwhelmed.  I suggested, and Rob agreed we needed to cleanse the palate with some of that Rum being handed out at another booth.

The Padron brand has led the way for market acceptance of cigars made with Nicaraguan tobacco. Few other brands make an all-Nicaraguan puro. Their regular line is known for its consistent quality and reasonable prices. The Anniversario line is the undisputed king of Nicaraguan super premium cigars and holds it own against super premiums of any other origin.

As time permitted, Jose and Orlando each briefly greeted us, but were mostly busy with customers or industry contacts. As we asked about their business, Jorge told us that despite the smaller overall market, their company was doing well.

“During the boom, we could have doubled our production and sold a lot more cigars…. a lot more cigars.” He said with his trademark grin. “But we would have had to sacrifice quality and consistency. Today, we have loyal customers after the boom because we maintained our quality all the way through. We are expanding our tobacco production so now we’ll be able to make more cigars.” Jorge was referring to the fact that the Padrons only use tobacco from their own farms or dedicated growers. With the second generation of Padrons solidly in place and a strong customer base, Padron Cigars appear to be… ready to roll. (Oh geez Rob, that pun was almost as bad as some of mine!)

Ed note: We smoked the 1926 Serie several weeks after the show. The 1926 was the strongest, most full bodied Padron we have ever smoked. A full notch stronger than the regular Anniversario maduro, yet without harshness. Check out the staff review on Top25Cigar Staff Reviews.

Graycliff Cigars

Our visit to the open, medium sized Graycliff booth was, like it’s mercurial founder, predictably unpredictable. We found Enrico Garzaroli, his family, and staff clad in bright yellow Team Graycliff racing t-shirts as they worked the booth. Avelito, son of cigar master Avelino Lara, was rolling fresh cigars at the booths entrance. As with the Graycliff Hotel, Enrico is the epitome of hospitality and service. Yellow shirts were everywhere so that no one in the booth went unnoticed or unattended. We found the gregarious Graycliff proprietor serving drinks and cigars to industry friends and customers. Among them were Diana Silvius (Silvius brand cigars) and Mike Ditka (Yes, the coach himself). Okay, this is getting cool.  Coach Ditka!  I can razz him about the Bears/Vikings rivalry.  Spoke to quick...he flashed that damn Super Bowl ring that we Viking fans know is only a pipe dream for the home squad.  Diana Silvius?  Ah, you still got your name on some stogies?  It was news to me, I thought those things had gone the way of the dodo.  Diana was a load of laughs and very outgoing.  I enjoyed talking to her enough that I apologize for the prior comment Diana.  I'll try your cigars again.

“Ahh… Top25cigar! Welcome!” Enrico announced as he reached into a satchel behind the counter. He pulled out a couple of torpedoes from the Professionale line for us to sample with some port. “Meet my friends” he boomed as he introduced us to Diana and the Coach. “Are you going racing?” He inquired?

We shrugged our shoulders and replied “Racing?”

As Enrico moved to greet other customers, his daughter Roberta explained. Customers and friends of Graycliff were invited to Las Vegas Int’l Speedway to run a few laps with professional drivers from the Skip Barber Racing School! As we signed up Paolo, Enrico’s son approached us.

“Top25Cigar” he said with a smile as we shook hands. “I have a very special cigar for you to try… it’s our newest cigar called Cristale.”

“What’s the blend? Who is your target audience?” We asked?

“Just smoke it, then tell me what you think” Paolo said with a grin as he turned to greet a customer.

The Cristale is the third line of cigars to come out of Graycliff. The regular line (red band) is smooth and flavorful. The newer Professionale line (blue band) is more full bodied, yet without the harshness that comes with many of today’s new “full bodied” cigars. In Europe, the PGX beat four Havanas and one non-Havana to claim the Cigar of the Year title. The Cristale promises to be the most full bodied Graycliff yet.

We had not finished the cigar Enrico had given us so we decided to try the Cristale later. When we did finally smoke the Cristale, we found it to be an excellent cigar. The cigar was well made and the taste was medium to full bodied, with rich, complex flavors. There was never any hint of bitterness or harshness. As it turned out, the Cristale was the best new cigar we tried at the show. This view was echoed by some of the tobacconists we met over the next two days.  This was another cool thing about the RTDA.  We were able to talk with numerous cigar retailers about their thoughts on the industry, who they appreciated doing business with, and who they didn't.  It's interesting to note that their sentiments often mimicked what we learned and are reporting.  Remember, the RTDA supports the retail dealer, remember we couldn't come as we had ads for internet retailers.  So it was important to for Rob and I to find out that 80% of the retailers we spoke to had web based sales as well.  Hey RTDA...anyone in there?  Know your audience bioys.

As we left the booth, we talked about the unusual way Enrico and Paolo run their cigar business. They continue their quest to produce world class cigars and appear to have had success. Each new line of cigars has become more complex and full-bodied, yet has retained Graycliff’s trademark smoothness and superior construction.

When Graycliff started at the end of the cigar boom, few gave the industry outsider any chance of survival, even armed with cigar master Avelino Lara. But Enrico surprised the industry pundits by selling super premium quality cigars at super premium prices. Everyone else was selling closeouts from brands that went bust.

Even with their successes, the Garzaroli’s don’t seem to take themselves too seriously always looking for ways to mix a little fun in with their business.

If we had to sum it up, we would describe the Graycliff philosophy something like this: Take your work seriously, have some fun, and do it all with a sense of style.

Beneath it all, the Gazaroli’s know that competitors and customers alike take them seriously not because of the racing or the t-shirts, but because of the world class cigars they are producing everyday. Beyond that… it helps to have a little style.

Tabcalera Perdomo

The Perdomo booth was medium sized and formal looking. Beyond the familiar yellow logo posted above each entrance were black wall displays, black carpet, and the Perdomo brothers wearing, what else, black suits. Each panel of the booth showcased Perdomo cigars merchandised in a manner that matched their heavy trade advertising. It worked. Each product was easily identified because we had seen it all before in print ads. Half a dozen small tables were available for discussions with customers or vendors. We asked for Nick, who appeared to be having a business discussion and were introduced to his brother Billy.

“How can I help you?” Billy inquired shaking our hands and motioning for us to be seated. As we introduced ourselves, he leaned back smiling and said, “Hey, I’ve heard of you guys, the cigar ratings right?” With that opening we briefly familiarized Billy with Top25Cigar’s goals and the site features that might be of interest to Perdomos.  Let me interject a touch...not only did Billy know of T25C, but he asked me how my twins were doing, as he knew the site had been on sabbatical while I was recovering from not having slept for a month!

Billy’s response was simple. “That’s exactly what we want to know… what the regular cigar smokers are thinking,” he said emphatically.

Billy immediately asked, “so what do you guys want to see?” as he started giving us a personalized tour of the booth and products. He showed us the new Perdomo Estate Selection line, which is an all Nicaraguan puro, made with seven year old filler and binder. Also new was the La Tradicion Cabinet Series “Vintage 1996”. Festively packaged in red “tubos”, the 1996 features Nicaraguan, Honduran, and Dominican filler and binder covered with the renowned 1996 Ecuadorian wrapper.

Finally he showed us the Perdomo Fresco brand. Remember the “fresh rolled” Perdomo cigars all the retailers have been giving away at rolling events or when you purchase Perdomo products? Apparently the customers like the fresh rolled smokes so much that the Perdomo’s formalized them as a line and created Fresco. Fresco has aged Dominican and Nicaraguan filler and binder with a Criollo 98 wrapper. They are sold as a “Cuban wheel” of 50 cigars with the roller’s name, biography, and production date included.

As our tour concluded, Billy gave us a few samples of new products and introduced us to Nick Jr. who was obviously in high demand. Billy summarized our conversation to his older brother who smiled and remarked, “I wanted to create a new level of intimacy between our rollers and our customers. How many cigar smokers know the name of the person who created their cigar? Or when it was made? Our standards dictate that the cigars we produce are of the highest quality and craftsmanship. But just as important is striving to establish a deeper and more meaningful relationship with our customers.”

“This industry is changing a lot. We are part of that change. We think our products are headed in the direction that cigar smokers want based on the tremendous growth we are experiencing. We are interested in anything that helps us get closer to our customers”.

Nick’s comments pretty much summed up their company. The Perdomos were friendly, courteous, and professional. Most of all, however, they appear to be serious people who take their business seriously. The growth of their business in recent years seems to reflect that consumers and the cigar trade are taking them seriously too. This was one of those "larger" booths.  If you have ever been at a trade show, you know the type.  Usually dwarfs everything around it, and if you have any spirit for the underdog, you go in with a negative feel about what is to come.  Color me surprised.  The Perdomo's were great people, familiar with what we were trying to do at T25C, and as importantly didn't take themselves to serious to give us some time, and even tell us some great jokes.  (Many not repeatable here!)

Bucanero

The Bucanero booth was easy to find with a centralized, high traffic location offsetting its small size. The booth was simple and unpretentious, adorned with nautical trappings (including a sailboat) and several comfortable couches. Bucanero is a relative newcomer to the cigar industry, but is powered by the blending talents of veteran master "Don" Douglas S. Pueringer at Tabacalera Tambor S.A. The result has been an all vintage tobacco brand that commands a small but loyal following.

As we entered the booth, the sales manager John Spoden, Robert Spoden’s son, approached us. We were barely finished with introductions when the head buccaneer himself, Robert (Bob) Spoden introduced himself.

“Cigar ratings eh?” “Who rates them, you guys?” He said with a wry smile and a captain’s sternness. As we explained about Top25Cigar, Bob said, “Well lets see what kind of cigar smokers you are. What do you think of these cigars?” as he handed us each a box pressed maduro churchill. “This is our newest cigar, the Full Sail.” He said like a proud father. Bob Spoden has a reason to be proud. The Bucanero vintage tobacco maduro line has been well accepted. In fact the El Capitan maduro received the highest score in Smoke Magazine’s history!  Along with a darn good rating at that other place as well...what's it's name again...oh yeah, Top25Cigar.com!

We sparked up the Full Sail on the spot and took a few draws. Bob told us the blend was Dominican and Nicaraguan filler, Dominican binder, with a Costa Rican maduro wrapper. But as he talked, Bob was watching us intently as we got into the smokes.

“Tell me what you think,” he asked us directly. “How is the draw? Tell me about the taste.” He inquired.

We alternately answered, “The draw is good. There is good flavor right out of the gate on the first draw, but the taste is not too heavy or harsh.” It was a good cigar. I have to admit to a little anxiety during the moment we waited for his response.

Breaking into a broad smile, he said, “That’s exactly what this cigar is supposed to be”. “Do you like it?” he said almost as an after thought.

“Yes”, we said happily, thankful that we really did like the cigar. Note for anybody looking to buy a gift for Mr. Spoden...eye pacth and parrot on the shoulder for the next show.. I think Bob could pull it off.

“That’s how I sell my cigars, one cigar smoker at a time. I want to make a cigar that a real cigar smoker will enjoy. I’m not interested in making cigars that follow a fad. My core customers are the regular cigar smokers who just want and recognize a good smoke.”

“I’m a realist and my aspirations are not big. I’m a niche player and I want to stay a niche player, so I have to make a choice. First I want to make a good quality cigar that is consistent so you get the same blend and construction every time you light one up. Second, I’ll make a cigar with a particular blend that I hope will appeal to a particular group of cigar smokers. I can’t be everything to everybody; I can’t make that many cigars!” He said with a laugh. Third, we don’t have a big advertising budget, so my marketing plan is simple. I’m depending on tobacconists and cigar smokers who like our cigars to recommend them to each other.

“Smoking a cigar takes time. To a cigar smoker, it is a special time. I want to make a special cigar that a person will think is good enough to smoke during those special moments.”

We left the booth with one impression about Bob Spoden and Bucanero Cigars. He is a man with only one mission, to make cigars that cigar smokers will enjoy. If you ever have the pleasure of meeting him, be prepared. He’ll hand you one of his cigars, look you straight in the eye and ask you to tell him about it.

CTI Tobacco Industries

The medium sized CTI booth was centrally located on the show floor. CTI is not a familiar name to most cigar smokers. That is because CTI itself is not a brand but a vertically integrated company that owns tobacco farms, tobacco processing and blending, as well as cigar manufacturing. CTI produces 15 cigar brands including Flores de los Reyes, Los Reyes Unidos, Pirate’s Gold and the new DRG (Dominican Republic Gold), all four receiving favorable ratings in the consumer cigar press.

The names associated with CTI that are more familiar to the cigar smoking public are those of Emilio Reyes and Rolando Reyes Jr. Emilio oversees tobacco production while Rolando Jr. (Son of Rolando Reyes Sr. of Puro Indios fame) oversees the blending. We talked to Gary Linowes since Emilio and Rolando were quite busy during the time we were in the booth. (However I was able to speak with Rolando by phone after the show.)

Gary introduced us to the new DRG line. This is a limited production, all Dominican puro made from five to seven year old vintage tobaccos! We tried the DRGs while in the booth. This cigar challenges the premise that full-bodied smokes only come from using Nicaraguan tobacco. Full flavored and complex, yet with smoothness that only good quality aged tobacco can give. It will be interesting to see how this cigar is received.

Another item of interest to us was the re-introduction of the Pirate’s Gold brand that has been completely re-blended using vintage filler tobaccos, a Brazilian binder to add some spice, and a sun grown wrapper. Samples were not available at the show, but Rolando Jr. later told me that the new Pirate’s Gold was a more full bodied smoke. The greater taste comes from the blend, not just from using a bigger ring gauge.

Before we left the booth, Emilio Reyes posed with us for a picture and spoke to us briefly. The impression we got is that there will be more integration between the better tobacco growers and cigar producers in the future. After we left CTI, Emilio’s words made sense in an industry that has downsized since the boom years. The increased competition from a smaller market will demand better quality. The tobacco growers and cigar manufacturers with a continued commitment toward quality will gravitate towards each other as the lower quality brands drop out. From what we can see, CTI has already achieved that integration to a large extent.

La Flor Dominicana

The next few overviews that you see will be quite a bit shorter.  You see, mother said "if you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all".  Sorry Mom, but I have to say a few things here.

Ines Lorenzo-Gomez, you remember him, his picture is plastered all over La Flor Dominicana cigars.  I was pretty sure I was going to like meeting this guy.  He always seemed so happy, seemed to be so sociable in all those pictures of social functions you see him in.  Whoops!  Mr. Gomez did not seem happy to speak with us.  Have you ever felt like a gnat in the way that your mere insignificant presence pissed off somebody?  This was the feeling I got from La Flor Dominicana. 

In their defense, this was a trade show, trade shows can be tiring, and near the end of the day we all want to leave, light one up, and have a cold one. This guy must have really wanted to leave, as his long face and insignificant stare, sure made us feel uncomfortable.  Hey Rob...next booth.

OneOff Cigars

You have to check out the picture gallery to truly grasp what these guys were dressed like.  Can you say "pacifist commandos"...see I knew you could.  Ag Molinari, the founder and Chairman of OneOff was right there in the booth, and more than willing to speak with us.  I had to hear this story...I also had to get one of the hand made chocolate cigars these guys were handing out.  Ag is a piece of work, and undoubtedly a marketing genius.  From the "peace sign" band on the cigars, to the extreme luxury placement of the brand, you can see his business plan is well thought out.  But, what about those cigars?

We each tried one, and did the cartoon character head shake when he told us they did not need to be cut.  Uhhh Ag, there's no hole in this end...how do you suppose we smoke this guy? "Just suck on it for awhile and it will loosen up", yeah okay Ag, like we've never used that line on a girlfriend.  (There goes the PG rating).  We eventually had to cut the cigar because as Rob and I both became red in the face, we realized that at this rate cardiac arrest was around the corner...and it was only cigar smoking men around us...no thanks on the mouth to mouth. 

The guys at OneOff sure are fun, there cigars were a bit above average, and their marketing is amazing.  The only problem, is we have all seen this before.  You can market all you want, but if the cigars suck, they suck.  Let's hope the fine folks at OneOff continue to focus on their cigars, and don't lose site of their goals.

Altadis

Oh my, the giant.  You know these guys, owners of Don Diego, H. Upmann, Montecristo, Onyx, Romeo y Julieta and Te-Amo among others.  You wouldn't think a conglomerate like this would even have the time of day for a couple of peons from T25C.  If that is what you thought...you are right.  These guys merely mumbled as they walked around us.

We thought for a minute they were mumbling for us to leave, but then we quickly realized they were zombie like salespeople muttering "Where's your wallet" to everybody they saw.  You can summarize the behemoth Altadis booth by saying if you didn't have an order form and checkbook, they had no, and I mean no interest in talking to you.  In their defense, we did have the chance to talk to their Director of Marketing and Advertising, Janelle Rosenfeld.  You can see her picture in this month's CA.  We simply offered to publish any of their press releases on our press page, and asked how Altadis sent them out.  She asked us for a card, said she would check out the site, and get back to us.  I'm pretty sure I saw her picking her pearly whites with the card, and then using it as a coaster.  Oh well, we didn't expect her to get back to us.

We'll be adding a couple more over the next few days, including C.A.O., La Perla Habana, and General Cigar.




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