During the Spring 2010, after 16 years of enjoying and learning about cigars, I booked a flight to Santiago, Dominican Republic. Armed with nothing more than a strong sense of curiosity and a desire to learn about the world of cigar making first-hand, I boarded the plane. I had no real plan, mind you, nor any personal contacts in the Dominican Republic. But I’m a risk taker at heart and a global traveler.
I believe that sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and just follow your gut feeling.
At the time my gut was telling me to go to Santiago, Dominican Republic, in a true “seek and ye shall find” fashion. So that’s exactly what I did. You see, like you, I’m a cigar smoker. I love everything that goes along with the cigar culture and lifestyle. Although I wasn’t sure what I might find in Santiago, I knew the trip would be a once in a lifetime experience. I had to make it worthwhile, and learn as much as I could while I was there.
Once I arrived in Santiago I really didn’t know where to start, but there I was, fresh off the plane, blindly asking anyone from the concierge, the waiters and the old timers playing dominoes about ‘cigarros,’ and ‘puros’ and where to I might go to learn more. The people I spoke to were quite helpful. They all genuinely seemed like they wanted to help me in my quest. After a few days spent poking around my questioning eventually led me to some of the usual suspects in the industry as one might predict. I visited well known factories and other cigar making facilities in the area. All were informative to some degree, but they left me unsatisfied.
I wasn’t learning enough. I wasn’t experiencing enough. I wanted more than just a guided factory tour. At this point I knew I had to to sit down with a master cigar maker, a true maestro, one on one.
I wanted to ask questions about the industry and learn secrets of the trade. But each factory I visited only revealed the most basic, superficial, watered-down tourist experience, I was nearly ready to give up. The trip had provided nothing useful, and I was quickly running out of time.
After walking out of a popular factory one day, I spotted an old man on a scooter. He was smoking a churchill. This astute viejo sensed my disappointment, and asked me what I was looking for. I answered as best as I could. “¿Hay una fabrica… aqui donde puedo… aprender algo mas?” I asked. He stared back at me with a puzzled look on his face. But after a moment, he smiled politely, and told me that I should meet a friend of his, a young man like myself who would be willing to take the time to teach me something. He told me his friend’s name was “Chico”. “Sure it is,” I thought in disbelief. “¿Dónde está Chico?” I asked. At this request, he simply pointed down the road and said “derecho”, and calmly rode his scooter off in the opposite direction. With nothing to lose and time on my trip winding down, I ventured on.
The poorly paved road quickly gave way to a dusty, beaten path. It wasn’t looking very good. I started to think that I had been set up.
I thought the old man probably worked for a gang of thugs. “Great,” I thought. “He points the clueless cigar crazy tourist into the direction of trouble, and in return, the gang gives him some of the spoils.” I was about to give up completely, when out of the hazy sunset there appeared a nondescript stucco building.
Out of the haze I noticed two men standing outside the entrance to the building. One was a tall white man, rather gentleman-like, dressed in what could only be described as golf attire. I assumed the other man was Dominican. They were both just standing there, chatting away and smoking cigars. Neither of them looked like a “Chico” to me, but I pulled the car over anyway. I got out and introduced myself.
I could see them staring at me wondering “who is this guy?”
I told these gentlemen (in my broken Spanish) what I was up to. I told them I wanted to learn about the cigar business. The two men just looked at each other and chuckled. I suddenly became worried that my Spanish might actually be getting worse. But before I could rephrase my words, the tall golfer leaned over to me and said, “Hey man, you speak English, don’t you?” I nodded gratefully. “Do you know who this man standing next to me is?” he asked. I paused for a moment to look at his distinguished companion, and said, “Well, he’s not Chico is he?” At this, both men had a good hearty laugh. “No, this isn’t Chico but Chico is down the road a bit further” the tall man replied. “This is Mr. William Ventura. They both continued to chuckle. “What’s so funny?” I asked. “Well…” he replied, “William here was a master blender for Davidoff for many years. One of three men that ran one of the most successful cigar companies in history.” It was then I suddenly realized I was standing amongst cigar royalty. I was at a loss for words. Thankfully, the tall man continued, “You see, William opened this factory a few years ago. He and I were just saying that today is the first day we ever smoked a cigar in front of this factory. Now you come driving up here out of nowhere, and are looking to get into the business. What are the odds? Somebody must have sent you here.” I said, “Yeah, the old man down the road sent me here.”
El Maestro, William Ventura
Once I mentioned that I had been sent by the old man, William, who had been silent up to this point, put his arm around me.
In Spanish, he calmly said to me,
“No my friend, the old man did not send you here… God sent you here. Now, let’s go inside, and I will tell you everything you want to know about making cigars…”
And the rest, as we say, is history…