Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cuban defied Castro, and wrapped the finest cigars

Cuban defied Castro, and wrapped the finest cigars
April 28, 2010

20-3-1919 - 17-4-2010

ALEJANDRO Robaina, Cuba's most revered tobacco grower, whose leaves wrap
the country's finest Habano cigars, has died, apparently of cancer, at
his home near San Luis. He was 91.

Robaina began working on his family's tobacco fields in western Cuba
when he was aged 10, a year after he smoked his first cigar. He went on
to achieve cult status among cigar smokers worldwide for the silken
leaves that he produced on his 16-hectare plantation, Finca la Pina, in
Cuchillas de Barbacoa. Their quality could be appreciated in
top-of-the-line cigars such as Cohiba Esplendidos and Hoyo de Monterrey
Double Coronas, renowned for their smoothness and richness.
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As his reputation grew, he became a roving ambassador for Cuban cigars,
travelling around the world to represent Cuba's most admired export.
When old age made travel inconvenient, he stayed put and the world came
to him. Cigar lovers by the hundreds beat a path to tour the plantation,
hoping to catch a glimpse of the old man or, perhaps, have him autograph
a box of Vegas Robaina cigars, a brand created in his honour.

Robaina was born in Alquizar to a family that had been growing tobacco
since 1845 in the Vuelta Abajo region, the cigar world's equivalent of
Bordeaux or Burgundy.

He remained an independent grower after Fidel Castro came to power.

''He wanted me to join a co-operative, and I told him no - I would not
do it and that I would remain working with my family,'' he told Cigar
Aficionado magazine in 2006. ''At the end he has understood to the point
that a lot of the land is now in the hands of small farmers.''

In the mid-1990s, when the Cuban government named him the country's best
tobacco grower, Castro himself handed out the award. In 1997, Habanos, a
joint venture between the Cuban government and Britain's Imperial
Tobacco Group, created Vegas Robaina, making him the only Cuban grower
to have a brand of cigars named after him. In Cuban Spanish, a vega is a
tobacco field.

It is a somewhat curious honour, since experts find it hard to detect
the presence of Robaina leaves in the product. ''Not only does it look
rough, it smokes rough, too,'' wrote James Suckling, a writer for Cigar
Aficionado, who visited Robaina many times over the years.

About 3 million Vegas Robainas are produced each year, packaged in a box
whose lid shows Robaina holding a cigar, with his tobacco fields and a
curing barn in the background.

Robaina discreetly sidestepped questions about his namesake product. At
times he seemed mystified by it. But he remained confident about his leaves.

''I have made sure I have passed on my experience to my family so
nothing strange will happen,'' he said. ''Everything will remain the
same. So I can leave any minute. I am happy.''

In later years his tobacco operation was largely run by his grandson,
Hiroshi, who survives him, as do four children, nine other
grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.


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