This article is dedicated to the art of loving cigars through the eyes of a cigar connoisseur. It is the portrait of a strong personality, a man familiar to cigar lovers in Italy and beyond, Nicola Pileggi. In this article we’ll focus on what he does to help invigorate the cigar culture.
Nicola started his cigar journey when he was in Brussels for a stint at the European Commission, in 1984. “A friend offered me a Montecristo A. I asked for advice and got to enjoy many beauties, the value of which I only became aware of after a while: they were Cuban Davidoff and Dunhill exclusive brands, today discontinued.” Well, that’s not a bad start.
The Alto Salento Cigar Club
In 2003 Nicola created the Alto Salento Cigar Club, in the Southern region of Apulia, Italy. A friend gave him a Kellermes glass cabinet and a couple of hundreds of cigars. At the time the club numbered a dozen passionados, including his brother Antonio.
The club organizes high profile activities “that ranged, for instance, from the attendance to the Festival del Habano to a tasting with Regalia Perfecta 1931 in Teddinton, or with Dunhill Don Candido 1952, or Dunhill Don Alfredo and pairings with Dom Perignon P3 (troisieme plenitude) or Don PX 1971 or Chateau d’Yquem.” They just make it happen. It’s a small group of very committed members who invest energy and spend time away from their family because of such great passion. “If you smoke a box of Don Candido and drink 1959 Moet & Chandon Champagne Grand Vintage, and ask for one fourth of the value of the cigar to your friends, you are either crazy or a member of the Alto Salento Cigar Club”.
Today the region Apulia and the Salento are fashionable, but when the club started it was not the case. “We have hosted Orlando Quiroga and Don Alejandro Robaina in 2005”. The club has also organized conferences on the smoking mechanics and conducted a scientific study on the nicotine contained in a cigar, measuring the portion that evaporates, the portion that burns and how much remains in the ashes or in the cabo.
“We have organized tastings of aged and vintage cigars experiencing the collective smoking of people sharing a different spectrum and unique food for thought. When you have genuine connoisseurs leading the conversation, then the novice learns just by listening while smoking the same cigar.”
La Disfida is another international event organized by the Alto Salento Cigar Club. Nicola created the event with the support of Andrea Vincenzi, President of Diadema SpA (Italian importer of Habanos). “My brother Antonio designed a great leaflet which connected us to Alban Cordier, member of the tasting committee of L’Amateur de Cigare” and panelist at Cigar Sense. The event is inspired by the Challenge of Barletta, a tournament fought in the Apulian countryside in 1503, caused by a French knight who made disparaging remarks about the Italians.
Two years ago, the full panel of L’Amateur de Cigare (Alban Cordier, Gabriel Valentin, Pitour Adart, Vahan Mardiossian, coordinated by Nobuhiro Nakamura) was part of La Disfida against the Italian team (Giuseppe Elefante, Angelo Bigi, Antonio Peraino, coordinated by Davide Bettini). The jury was composed by Andrea Vincenzi, Nicola Pileggi and Alban Cordier.
The teams competed against each other on the knowledge of Cuban cigars with a quiz of 30 questions, 3 blind tastings, 1 blind pairing. The teams tied in the pairings, the Italians out-matched in the quiz and the French guessed all 3 cigars right (vitola de galera and vitola de salida). All participants received a limited edition print of the historic report of the Prince of Conversano to the Prince Dentice di Frasso of San Vito dei Normanni. “We and the people watching had a lot of fun, so we decided to organize the event again, with a couple of changes.”
In 2016, La Disfida will take place between April and November, in different Italian locations (Iseo, 15 April; Matelica, tbd; Turin, 11 June, Naples, tbd, Monselice, September, Salento, end October – beginning November).
The jury is made of 3 members, designated by Diadema (Italian importer of Cuban cigars), Alto Salento Cigar Club and CCA.
1. Blind test of 2 cigars, 25/30 minutes. Each blindfolded participant receives one cigar, so there are 2 vitolas for each team. The 2 blindfolded participants are not allowed to help each other, only the captain can help. Participants have to identify, within the given time the module, the vitola de galera and the brand
2. Quiz on Cuban cigars. 30 questions are selected by the jury. Each participant is attributed at random a batch of 15 questions. All questions need to be answered correctly in 10 minutes. It is possible for the participants to help each other during the last 5 minutes. The quiz questions will be based on official publications, such as Min Ron Nee’s Encyclopaedia, official catalogues of Habanos productions, Lexico Tabacalero Cubano (Perdomo), Encyclopedie du Tabac (SEITA),…
3. Blind pairing of a drink with a cigar. The team presents a Cuban cigar (from the 90’s to current production) and a drink (coffe, cognac, fruit juice, coktail, no limits). The jury evaluates the best pairing and repeteability. Only in this case, the team must bring the 3 paired cigars and drinks to the jury.
Official languages will be Italian and English. The quiz’ questions will be in both languages.
The jury decides based on majority votes.
Every location establishes a score for all 3 tests and the two local winning teams will participate to the final challenge in Salento.
The best team will win a trip to Cuba (B&B) including a tour in a cigar factory and in a rum distillery. All finalists will receive cigars, ashtrays and rum bottles.
Epicurean and prodigal philosophy
“I cannot live as a sick person in order to die perfectly healthy. So before I am told I am no longer allowed to smoke for health reasons, I want to smoke as many cigars as I can. For this reason, for some years now, I have no longer been collecting a lot, but smoking and offering cigars to friends,” Nicola declares.
Smoking fine cigars means sharing and feeling accomplished when watching someone smoking a cigar for the first time, or giving every friend the possibility to enjoy the pleasure of an important cigar. The cigar smoker is a propagator of great experiences. Smoking leads to think and requires time. Per Nicola, today the richest is not the one who has a lot of money, but the one who has more time for him/herself, family, friends, and enjoyment: good food, good drinks, good smokes, travel,…
Personal preferences and opinions
“If I don’t have time to smoke, I don’t smoke. Usually I prefer small formats in the morning, and then increase the size.”
“95% of what I smoke is Cuban and my favorites are laguitos, delicados, gran coronas, dalias and lonsdales. I typically don’t smoke young cigars, I age them at least 2-3 years. But it can happen that if I find a cigar good, I smoke all I have, having left aside what I need for events. I only have very few of my top preferred cigars, as they don’t stay long in my humidor. What I always have are Dunhills, Don Alfredo and Don Candido selections. I love lanceros, I wish some cigars such as delicados Partagas Serie Connaisseur N. 1 or El Rey del Mundo Grandes de Espana could be in production again. This would mean that smokers understand that cold smoke and evolution are unique characteristics to be looking for.”
“The remaining 5% of my smokes consists of Toscano’s or in any case cigars made with Italian kentucky. There is a new cigar, the Ambasciator Italico Superiore, which is not bad. I smoke this type of cigars in the open air and when it’s windy…”
Getting closer to his 60th year, Nicola says he started smoking anything. He likes OpusX or Padron 1926 or 1964, but “for the same price in Italy you buy an Esplendidos or a Behike, which I prefer. You know that I am biased, I love Cuban cigars. But if a cigar is good, I can smoke it. Only I can’t stand the nicotine daze, therefore many Nicaraguan cigars are not for me. Also, we don’t have references for non Cuban vintage cigars, maybe we will have some aged ones, but we are uncertain about the results.” (see also Of Cigar Aging…)
“Today multinational blends are trendy, but I am tight to terroirs, for wines, good food and also for puros, either Cuban or not. You can add water to your Barolo or cut a lancero in two, but this this does not mean you are a good wine drinker or cigar smoker.”
The cigar world outlook
“Unfortunately the future of cigar smoking is not bright. Since 2003 the WHO has been imposing limitations that Australia and Japan have already applied. Imagine a varnished box ruined by a photo of a section of a lung affected by cancer. Unfortunately we’ll have to isolate ourselves in ghetto’s, believing that the right to smoke is individual freedom. Respect must be reciprocal. Consumption of premium cigars, and hence their price, will increase, and the places where it is possible to smoke will decrease.”
“The embargo was and is an injustice which penalized Cuban people. The end of it will improve the Cuban living conditions, but for us cigar smokers not all impacts will be positive. Limited editions will be harder to buy.” Nicola believes that production challenges can be overcome through supply chain controls and technology. “Today only 20-25% of land suitable for growing tobacco is exploited, except privately held land (for example Robaina). Therefore if vegueros are well paid for good tobacco, they will continue to provide great crops. Maybe we will manage to return to the short supply/distribution chain, as at the end of the 1800’s.”
The cigar smoker today and the internet
“Things have changed a lot since I began smoking.” One must be discerning, Nicola advises to “visit websites managed by respectable people, like Cigar Sense. Unless the young smoker is well informed about the few serious blogs, the risk of acquiring information from instant experts is big. Vanity is inevitable, but you need to be able to dominate it. As Umberto Eco used to say, a Nobel Prize laureate and an imbecil today have the same right of expression. However, the internet offers plenty of possibilities for those who create culture to reach more people, so we need to limit the damage and exploit the opportunities, like the one you are giving me to allow people to know me through this article. Therefore Twitter, Facebook, blogs are welcome if those who use them are educated”.
Elitist smokers, in turn, are still there, just like in the past. These are those who believe that cigar smoking is a prerogative of a few. “I do not share their mindset. Smoking cigars puts everyone on the same plane: a great palate smoking with you is very satisfactory even if the palate owner has not smoked the full range of cigars.”
How to grow as a cigar smoker
Nicola’s club was among the first to join the Italian national structure supporting the cigar clubs, CCA (Cigar Club Association), and he has been Vice President. Nicola was also “godfather” to a number of clubs in the South of Italy and is now also member of Amicigar. Catadores courses represent one of the key educational activities provided by CCA to its clubs’ members. Nicola has been highly contributing to such classes “they are a unique opportunity to start growing the seed of a genuine cigar smoker… you [Franca] attended them with great results. All the CCA work is possible thanks to the work of volunteers who dedicate their free time to help smokers grow, smokers who are informed, speak the same language and are aware of what they do when smoking a cigar. With the current President, Francesco Minetti, CCA is expanding beyond the Italian borders, with catadores classes in Switzerland and I hope one day I will be holding my lessons in the USA or in France.” The CCA association not only provides advantageous conditions to its members for the purchase of goods or services (Cigar Sense is one of the partners offering discounts to CCA members) but “the great possibility to have advice from senior friends who can give you very useful references, also for when you travel anywhere. It’s not easy to find such a supportive network elsewhere.”
While Catadores courses are available where CCA is present, Habanos Academy courses, are available all over the world, except in the USA.
Tasting a cigar requires great technique. “Smoking a cigar and pairing it are personal, and this has no limit, you do what you like. But if you want to communicate the perceptions, you need a common language and a method.” In such case you are aware of what you are doing, you maximize your enjoyment of your cigar and you grow as a smoker.
Edited in 2018 : La Disfida inspired the Habanos World Challenge Contest and is now the event where Italian country stage event for the world contest.