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Up in Smoke

cigar woman
All Lit Up: The joys of cigar smoking are no longer exclusively reserved for the male of the species.

The rich aroma of cigar smoke fills the finer bars and restaurants of the valley

By Christina Waters

Just how big is the current cigar boom? Arnie smokes them onscreen; Clinton smokes them on the links; Madonna smokes them on TV; George Hamilton has unveiled his own personal line of cigars and just a few months ago publisher Marvin Shankan relieved himself of a half million dollars in exchange for JFK's humidor. That's how big.

Now, the South Bay takes a back seat to no community in its rush to embrace the new and the trendy. That's why people are lighting up those Romeo y Julieta Churchills on every terrace and courtyard that isn't covered with barbed wire. Many of the area's top clubs are getting into the act. Johnny Z's welcomes cigar aficionados. The Agenda not only encourages the savoring of rich, aged tobaccos, it even has an on-site humidor. The Capital Club is cigar-friendly, and many restaurants, like Paolo's and La Mere Michelle, even sponsor special cigar evenings, multicourse cigar tastings and other excuses to compare stogie sizes in comfort.

Before you grimace at the thought of the pungent odor (some even consider it a stink) of cigars, consider that like all complex cultural artifacts--cognac and opera come to mind--cigar smoking is an acquired taste. And it can be acquired. I can remember the indescribable stench that haunted my father's dead, half-smoked coronas, lounging in the brass ashtray. Why couldn't he just toss them? Because there was still a perfectly good three-inch segment left to re-light, chew and savor, that's why.

Given 20 more years of life experience, I can testify that not only did I forgive my father those odoriferous stogies, but I made it a point to squirrel in a Cuban Montecristo from London whenever possible. The last one I recall sharing recently with two male companions. We sat in the dark and passed that fabulous cigar around like a solid-gold joint.

Still, a worrisome question lingers: Isn't all this cigar hoopla just another big sales pitch? I mean, you don't just buy cigars (at $3-$10 dollars a pop or $20-$75 if you are buying Cubans on the black market). You need special cigar lighters, plus clippers and cutters. You need your own humidor to keep those precious smokes cool and moist. Then you're going to want companion paraphernalia--fine spirits like single-malts, ports and cognacs are nice with fine tobacco.

You're going to begin hanging out at cigar-friendly gathering spots--making a habit of specialty shops like Willow Glen Cigars or Beverages & More's tobacco row. If you're not careful, you'll start playing golf. And of course you'll need a subscription to the smokers' literary companion, Cigar Aficionado, so glutted with glossy advertising it could be used as a door stop. Yes, cigar smoking involves costly accessorizing. But this is America, land of the charismatic sales pitch.

Smoke Screen Stars

Cigars are also about power and prestige. What man--or woman for that matter--wouldn't want to get a contact high from the personal fetish of world leaders like Churchill and Castro? Cigars are expensive--because they're handmade. Remember Carmen and her girlfriends gossiping while they rolled those Havana delicacies in Bizet's opera?

The tobacco only flourishes in certain climes--Cuba, of course, but also Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, whose imports are legal. The leaf that forms the wrapper--the part of the cigar that gives it that long, flavorful draw--must be grown from specialized fields, like those in Connecticut, the Cameroons and Cuba.

The interior tobacco must be fermented, and then aged for several years. There is an obvious analogy here to the romance and process of winemaking. Come to think of it, Marvin Shanken--the guy who bought that $575,000 humidor--is not only the publisher of Cigar Aficionado, he's also the publisher of Wine Spectator. Think there might be a tie-in?

"The current boom is directly attributable to the arrival of Shanken's magazine," says Sacramento lobbyist and longtime San Jose cigar fancier Eugene Lokey. "Shanken loved cigars and decided to give it a try. That was three years ago--the response was phenomenal." According to Lokey, the magazine generated the surge. "Simultaneously the demand for premium cigars grew. People began to identify with the stars depicted as big cigar smokers. Soon the status thing hit."

Donna Brown, who along with husband Robert has owned and operated Town & Country Village's Mission Pipe Shop for the past 18 years, offers a slightly different perspective: "It's just not true that Cigar Aficionado started this trend. ... Let's just say he was sitting on the beach and saw the wave come in. And he rode it." Although Brown, whose husband and son are both cigar smokers, admits that the slick trade magazine has whipped up a lather of enthusiasm, she thinks the phenomenon started way before that. "On the final installment of Cheers, that was three years ago, I think," Brown says, "they all sat around smoking Cuban cigars. In movies and on TV, you see celebrities smoking. So now the public is getting into it. Rush Limbaugh--I'm not a Rush Limbaugh fan--talks about cigars all the time on his show. Afterwards, people come into my store with lists of what he's recommended." She also observes more women "coming in and buying cigars, though it's still a small percentage."

Brown notes that "four years ago there wasn't this demand--but now the whole thing has exploded. I've never seen anything like it." Mission Pipe Shop carries 350 different kinds of cigars, and every single one of them is kept carefully humidified and air-cooled. The most popular line, according to Brown, is made by Arturo Fuente, lion of the Dominican Republic cigar empire.

"They're very, very tasty, and relatively inexpensive at around $3 to $4," says the knowledgeable proprietress, for whom keeping product in stock is a challenge. "I'm constantly on the phone looking for cigars. I call and place orders, and they send what they can." Much of the demand is due to the very nature of the product. After all, Brown reminds me, "It takes four years to make a cigar."

Smoke Ringleaders

It also takes time to make cigar humidors, time and talent like that of John Stewart, whose specialized woodworking business in San Jose created the beautiful bars for Katie Bloom's, Agenda, Mission Ale House and Britannia Arms.

"The humidor business is outstanding," says the man who has installed cigar cabinets in tobacco shops and restaurants. "Cigars have become acceptable, they have class, and with Cigar Aficionado's rating system, a lot of people can get into the details of buying and smoking."

Business is so huge that Stewart and company have stopped crafting bars and turned exclusively to humidor cabinets. "Important factors," he says, "are presentation, proper humidity and materials like Spanish cedar." The largest humidor he's made to date was a 47-foot-long monster for a Cleveland store, but "just last month we released our first humidor designed for counter tops--compact enough for the home collector.

The relaxation and sense of camaraderie that Stewart likes about cigar culture is exactly the point of the Friends of the Leaf Club, over at Saratoga's Blue Rock Shoot. "Actually," explains Mitchell Cutler, who along with his wife, Tracey, owns the new coffee and book cafe on Big Basin Way, "the club is an excuse for people to get out of the house on Thursday evenings and come smoke cigars."

Cutler thinks cigars have replaced cigarettes and liquor as "a more acceptable way of relaxing. It got me to take it easy. People from all sorts of jobs and professions will sit down together and smoke," observes Cutler with obvious approval. "Cigar people seem like they make friends easily."

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of Metro

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