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|| News Item: Posted 1999-10-22

The Count on Cigars: How The Count got Hooked on Stogies
By Eric Risberg

Photo by
You probably saw the headlines: "Cigar-smoking fad flames out, leaves industry a smoldering mess." "Stogie craze over, analysts say." Good, I say. Now, maybe prices will fall to what they were before, supplies and quality will increase, and critics will be less vocal, lowering the volume on their cries of prohibition.

I am often asked, "What is it about cigars? When did you first start enjoying them?" Since my college days --- nearly 20 years ago --- I have enjoyed wine. And I compare many cigars from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Cuba to the great wines from the Napa Valley, Bordeaux, and Chile. There are similarities for each in appellations, vintages, methods of storage, and their respective protocol, such as opening a bottle or lighting a cigar.

The first cigars I had were in the late '80s following San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's playoff games and were provided to me by colleague Lenny Ignelzi from San Diego. The cigars were tubed Macanudo Portofinos. They were good beginner's cigars, but as I recall, there was nothing special about them at the time that made me want to regularly smoke cigars.

Photo by
But nine years ago on Thanksgiving Day, I was sitting on the deck of my brother-in-law's home in Angwin, Calif., overlooking the entire Napa Valley late in the day. While I was enjoying a glass of Duckhorn Merlot, my brother-in-law brought out his small wood Davidoff humidor and said, "I think you will enjoy one of these. A friend just brought themback for me from out of the country." At first I balked, but soon I was lighting up a Cuban Cohiba Lancero, which is a long cigar with a small ring gauge or diameter. The combination of the wine, the view, the smoke and taste of the cigar overcame me. At the time I didn't know the difference between a Cohiba from a Cuesta-Rey. I did know that this was an experience that I wanted to enjoy again and learn more about. One of the first things I did learn by coincidence was the mystique of the Cohiba and that the Lancero was the personal favorite of a certain bearded, fatigue-covered dictator.

In a profession that seems to be constantly changing and becoming more demanding and much faster paced, I find myself wanting to slow down and take a moment to pause for a break and reflect. Taking time to enjoy a cigar has given me that opportunity to step outside, to set aside some time, to sometimes be alone and have time for reflection while enjoying a glass of port or cup of espresso.

I don't get to do this every day, but I look forward to the once or sometimes twice a week ritual. And when I'm out of town on photo assignments, a cigar provides the draw (so to speak) for a gathering of colleagues I don't often get to see. The enjoyment of a cigar has allowed many of us to gather, relax, share stories, and establish a common bond. The cigar seems to be an igniter of conversation and a shared good time. As the late Zino Davidoff noted in his book, The Connoisseur's Book of Cigars, "The cigar is an instrument of happiness and carries with it, as time passes, relaxation and peace of mind."

Photo by Craig Lee/SF Examiner

Photo by Craig Lee/SF Examiner
In the next few columns, I'll be talking about some "cigar basics" as well as what to drink with a cigar, what to smoke for the millennium, and how to find a good-priced stogie.

I want to end this column with some encouragement for moderation. Whether it be drinking port, enjoying cognac, or getting on a MUNI bus in San Francisco, you take risks with just about everything. Before you take up cigar smoking, especially if you have any medical problems or are unsure of any risks, you should consult your physician or read many of the varying opinions available on the possible hazards or benefits of cigar smoking so that you can make an informed decision.

Until next time,

(Eric Risberg is an Associated Press staff photographer based in San Francisco.)

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